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Tighter and Tighter

The Haunting of L.
By Howard Norman
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $24)

Howard Norman’s novels are hard to like. Starting in 1987 with The Northern Lights, each novel has featured a taciturn, antisocial male protagonist, as disconnected from his own inner life as he is from the people around him. Norman’s landscapes mirror the emptiness of the characters who inhabit them: this American writer is unique in setting his books in the bleakest regions of Canada, from the expanses of northern Manitoba to turn-of-the century Newfoundland. And his prose is as inhospitable as the terrain. Bumpy in pace and flat in texture, it goes down awkwardly, like something hard to chew.

Norman’s protagonists get themselves into harrowing situations: adultery, theft, murder. But when these situations force them to take the measure of their characters, they invariably come up short. Some eventually recognize their own limitations, but that is as much as Norman offers in the way of epiphany or resolution. To Forster’s famous exhortation “Only connect,” Norman’s characters answer, “How?” In contrast to the exuberant irony of Don DeLillo or Dave Eggers, this detachment, whittled down further by the monochromatic apathy of Norman’s style, seems the very essence of late postmodernism.

Each of Norman’s novels is in its way a bildungsroman, following a character’s emotional development from immaturity to self-awareness. Read together, of course, the novels become also the story of Norman’s development as a writer. His progress has occurred in huge leaps, with each novel deepening in emotional complexity as well as resolving the flaws of the one that preceded it. The Northern Lights is a coming-of-age story more original than most, but—not unusually for a first novel—its impact is hampered by overly emphatic symbolism and inconsistent pacing. The Bird Artist, published in 1994, smoothes out the pacing and lightens up on the symbols, but it suffers from an overly eccentric and implausible main female character. In The Museum Guard, which appeared three years later, Norman broadened his scope, examining what it means to engage with a work of art against the backdrop of the approach of World War II. Though the female protagonist at first appears to be another of Norman’s mannered eccentrics, in the end her behavior has a compelling foundation, and the book is Norman’s subtlest and deepest work so far.

The expectation that mounts after a writer produces a great book is similar to the desire for dessert after a luxurious meal: we shouldn’t need it, but we want it anyway, and so much the better if it is big and rich. And so it is disappointing that Norman’s progress seems to have halted with The Haunting of L. Ironically, the protagonist has greater emotional depth than any of his predecessors; but this time it is the story that does not live up to the character. Each of his books has been notable for the restraint of its central character, but here it is his own imagination that Norman is restraining.

BOTH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS and The Bird Artist are anchored by their characters’ isolation, epitomized by the sentence from Giorgio Bassani that serves as epigraph to the latter book: “Suddenly, with extreme violence, he felt himself seized by the desire to be, rain or no rain, at any price, in the midst of the valleys: alone.” Noah, the teenage protagonist of The Northern Lights, lives with his mother and orphaned cousin in an area so remote that “our house in northern Manitoba made up the entire village of Paduola Lake.” The only transportation in and out is the sporadic mail plane. His mother, Mina, collects fanciful postcards depicting the story of Noah’s ark, which she—and apparently Norman, rather ponderously—sees as a prototype for their family: “This house is ... like an ark, one that’s drifted into a part of the world which, well, it has dangers,” she tells her two charges. The biblical story, of course, is one of companionship amid isolation, but Noah himself (the novel’s protagonist, not the biblical character) experiences it more as isolation amid companionship.

Noah spends summers with his friend Pelly in Quill, where they fish and play checkers with the native Cree people. (Norman’s depiction of the Cree Indians is one of the more effective elements of The Northern Lights, particularly the way he renders their halting speech by inserting commas after nearly every word: “Coffee, I get, now.... See you, later, sometime, eh?”) At night they listen to the radio, new to Quill, which brings news from as far away as Toronto and Halifax. But the novel begins to run aground when, after Pelly’s sudden death, Noah returns to Quill to stay with Pelly’s parents. Norman has not shown us enough of Noah’s relationship with Pelly—we certainly are not privy to many of his thoughts—for us to understand their closeness. And the real reason for Noah’s visit to Quill becomes apparent soon enough: Norman needs him there to discover that his father, Anthony, has become a hermit, living in a disheveled shack in the woods outside the town.

The chapter that brings Noah to the confrontation with his father is uneven and jerky, but the scene that awaits him inside the hut is magnificently drawn. Anthony’s favorite pastime in better days was flipping through the Dictionary of Musical Instruments, and Norman now vividly picks up on this to evoke Anthony’s mental disarray:

[The hut’s] door was propped open with a bassoon stuck in the ground. A hacked-apart cello lay in the threshold.... A clarinet, an oboe, and a few string instruments were in the fireplace, smoke issuing from keyholes, heating the soup. Hung on the wall were a triangle and a trombone. An accordion was fanned out on the floor.

Though Noah is able to elicit only shrieks and howls from the broken instruments, his attempt to play them at all is the first step toward overcoming the distance that he imposes between himself and others, and learning to communicate. He joins his mother and cousin in Toronto, and reaches out to a Cree family he meets. The last scene of the novel, in which Noah has an unsatisfying encounter with a man he used to listen to on the radio, represents the final failure of the radio to substitute for human contact.

THE LEAP THAT Norman made during the seven years that separated his first novel from his second is evident already in the first paragraph of The Bird Artist, which presents one of the most startling narrative voices of the last decade:

My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.

Those lines, delivered with the dispassion that defines Fabian, are so stupefyingly declarative that they verge on the parodic. Of course we would not have heard of Fabian: he is a fictional character. But this sentence asks us to place ourselves within the universe of Fabian’s book: the tiny community of Witless Bay, about which the word “insular” would seem to imply too much breathing room. The Bird Artist, as the first paragraph encapsulates, is about Fabian’s drive to define himself, both as an individual and as a part of this community.

As a child Fabian discovered his talent for drawing birds from nature; he begins to sell drawings to bird magazines, saving money for his escape from Witless Bay. Meanwhile he draws, does odd jobs, and sleeps with his childhood friend Margaret Handle. Unbeknownst to Fabian, his parents have decided to arrange his marriage to a cousin in Nova Scotia—their own way of getting him out of Newfoundland. But when his father leaves on a hunting trip to earn money for the wedding, his mother moves in with Botho August. Fabian cannot tolerate his father’s humiliation, and he shoots Botho.

Fabian’s preternatural restraint—at times it seems close to autism— dominates the book. If The Northern Lights is the story of Noah’s learning to talk, The Bird Artist is the story of Fabian’s learning to feel. Before his mother takes up with Botho August, nothing has the power to move him. Even afterward—he narrates these events from twelve years hence—the flatness of his language shocks. Toward the middle of the novel, trying to explain his mother’s actions, Fabian remarks to himself: “I had often wondered if I had missed what she had intended as most intimate in her observations, opinions, advice, even in her very occasional teasing. I have come to the conclusion, with bracing regret, that I had.” The strange formulation “bracing regret” seems to repudiate any emotion it might suggest.

But it is with regard to Margaret—with whom, by arrangement, he spends only Tuesday and Thursday nights—that Fabian evinces the most startling combination of “enticement” and distance. Margaret is, naturally, infuriated by his acquiescence in the arranged marriage; though the marriage is annulled on the spot with Fabian’s arrest for Botho’s murder, she will not forgive him. Back in Witless Bay awaiting trial, Fabian’s thoughts return to a time several years before when Margaret had attempted to seduce him in an ice-fishing shack and he demurred. “I do not know why that day, of all days, kept plaguing me, kept repeating itself in my thoughts. Maybe because it was such a clear example of how I shrank from any given moment of enticement. There had only been a yes or no, right there.” Yet even when they eventually reconcile—looking at the sky, Margaret comments that “stars know just the proper distance to keep from each other”—Fabian still shrinks back at the crucial moment: “I thought this: For all my painting of rapturous shore birds, long-necked herons, ibis in dusky light, I did not have the means to describe how passionate I felt toward Margaret just then, without having yet touched her. Her very skin seemed to hold twilight, delay it, and I retreated to the edge of the blanket.” Fabian has learned the technique of drawing birds, but his art has not taught him how to live.

Fabian’s trial is a sham: his father, who has fled, has told Fabian to blame the murder on him, and he does so without much remorse. But in the eyes of the villagers he is still guilty. “I was legally acquitted. Yet a village has an intuition of its own, plus which everyone knows that the truth is larger than the law.” His neighbors whisper “Slieveen,” a local word meaning “deceitful person,” when he passes. It is the minister, whom he despises, who offers him a chance for redemption: he must paint a mural on the church’s walls, in which he depicts his crime: “Birds are not enough.”

But the book ends on a disquieting note. Fabian says that twelve years have passed; he and Margaret have had a child, and he continues to sell his bird drawings. And yet: “Just yesterday Isabel Kinsella hissed, ‘Slieveen!’ near the orchard. Yet I have to say this was a rare occurrence. Isabel was just out for a walk, I imagine, lost in thought, when she saw me and was overcome.” The placement of “overcome” as the last word of this novel about restraint is unnerving. Reading The Bird Artist, one must constantly reassess the gap between the drama of the acts Fabian relates and the coldness of his tone. Is this a failure of experiencing emotion or of relating emotion? Norman makes it impossible to be certain which it is—or if, in the end, there is much difference.

Fabian’s discomfiting, frustrating, penetrating voice is an immense achievement by Norman. But the strict filter of Fabian is a particular problem when it comes to the character of Margaret. She is as passionate as he is restrained, but it is impossible fully to perceive her through the squint of Fabian’s lens. Her actions, presented without preparation or explanation—such as when she abruptly takes out a gun and shoots the photograph of Fabian’s fiancé—seem melodramatic rather than deeply felt. And her habit of drinking a bottle or two of whiskey each night appears more affected than alcoholic, though it must be the latter. Since Fabian does not understand her motivations, we are unable to understand them, either. The failure of Margaret as a character points to the limitations of Fabian’s voice.

NORMAN FOUND a useful corrective for this in The Museum Guard. Imogen Linny at first appears to be another of Norman’s eccentric women: her speech, like Margaret’s, is simultaneously coy and direct; she, too, has red hair; and she toys with DeFoe, the narrator, as Margaret does with Fabian, alternately offering herself to him and withdrawing. But while DeFoe is nearly as limited as Fabian, Norman transcends his limitations. In the second half of the book, during which Imogen undergoes a transformation that is beyond DeFoe’s power to grasp, she and he have almost no contact at all; we experience her only through more articulate characters.

Again Norman begins straightaway with a crime: “The painting I stole for Imogen Linny, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrived to the Glace Museum, here in Halifax, on September 5, 1938.” DeFoe and his uncle Edward are both museum guards, but while Edward indulges happily in drink and in women, DeFoe, like Fabian, takes everything at a remove. He is unable to respond to the art that surrounds him: looking at a painting of the museum itself, his only observation is that the scale is off. In his first encounter with Imogen, he reprimands her, like a good guard, for getting too close to a painting; she responds, “Too close for your comfort, maybe. But not for mine. I was quite comfortable.”

Imogen’s mother, now dead, was a Dutch Jew, and she believes that “people harbor deep memories of places they’ve never actually been to—but where their mother lived. Memories you inherit in the womb.” When the museum mounts an exhibit of contemporary Dutch paintings, Imogen grows obsessed with Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam. The radio broadcaster Ovid Lamartine is the catalyst for her metamorphosis; listening to his nightly news reports on the state of Europe and the rise of Hitler, she comes to believe that she is the Jewess pictured. Her soul has become estranged from itself, as she puts it, and the only way she can reconcile it is by going to Amsterdam—”right into the monster’s jaw,” one character says—to reunite with the painter, who she believes is her husband.

DeFoe is as disengaged from the world as Imogen is engaged with the painting; he deals with his troubles by ironing, a skill his uncle’s girlfriend taught him as a boy on the day that his parents died in an accident. He wants to overcome his own estrangement, but he does not know how. Contemplating the painting, he realizes how little he knows about Imogen, in contrast with how deeply the artist understood his subject; and he reaches out to touch it, a mute and impotent gesture. He loves Imogen enough to steal the painting for her, as she asks, but then he sends it to his uncle’s former girlfriend, thanking her for her “kindness on the day my parents died”—when she taught him, albeit inadvertently, that problems are better suppressed than confronted. At the end of the book, he reaches out again to touch a painting—this one of Imogen herself—and is reprimanded by the new guard: “Don’t get too close, please.” The reminder could come from his own subconscious.

But Imogen’s literal identification with the artwork is also unhealthy, physically and spiritually. She loses her identity, speaking, dressing, and behaving as if she were the woman in the painting; and she endangers her life by traveling to Holland on the brink of World War II. The curator of the museum, Mr. Connaught, accompanies her, and through his impassioned letters home to his girlfriend, Imogen’s tutor, we learn what happens to her there. The painter is at first infuriated by the sight of “this impostor,” but then decides he prefers the semblance of his wife to not having her at all. He uses Imogen as a model, but refrains from any intimacy with her: “I paint this woman’s clothes on her body, but there my imagination ends,” he tells Mr. Connaught. When the paintings are complete, he commits suicide.

Is Imogen’s assimilation of the Jewess’s identity a “mockery” that brings about the death of an innocent man, or is her action “ennobling,” as she believes? Imogen’s mother was Jewish and she is the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery in Halifax, but she is spiritually disconnected from the religion. Some critics have protested that it is hard to believe that any Jew would deliberately travel to Europe at such a time. But are not the journeys of children and grandchildren of survivors to the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe an expression of a desire to change places? We are not meant to take Imogen too literally; she suggests the dangers inherent, in Norman’s world, in over-involvement, with art or with people.

IN THE HAUNTING OF L., Norman’s language has loosened up quite a bit. Hardly any trace of Fabian Vas remains. Yet the protagonist, once again, is a man with profound limitations. Peter Duvett is a darkroom assistant with the habit of mentally supplying captions to every scene: “For instance, if I left my raincoat inside on a rainy day, I would immediately think, Man Who Forgot Raincoat Standing on Street.” After the death of his mother, he has come to Churchill, Manitoba to assist the photographer Vienna Linn; after the local missionary converts and baptizes Eskimos, he takes their portraits as evidence of the church’s good works. On their wedding night, Peter becomes involved with Vienna’s wife, Kala Murie, an expert on the work of Georgiana Houghton. In a book called The Unclad Spirit, Houghton described the phenomenon of “spirit photographs,” in which an “uninvited guest,” a friend or relative long dead, manifests himself or herself. “Alas, even if the photograph is burned, its ashes scattered to the wind, still, the memory of actually seeing the uninvited guest often long persists and can drive a person quite or near to madness.” Houghton calls this a “haunting”: “wherein a mental image never leaves the person alone with peace-of-mind.”

Kala and Vienna are on the run from a sinister type named Radin Heur, who has been paying Vienna large sums to stage “accidents”—primarily train wrecks— and photograph them. Vienna owes him a great deal of money after bungling one of these “accidents” and failing to get the desired photos. He is enraged to discover Kala’s adultery, and arranges for her to be on a plane whose crash he has already planned. Kala is badly hurt in the crash, but three Eskimos are killed, and Vienna has the idea of faking a spirit photograph: he puts in “souls” above the bodies of the two Eskimos who had been baptized, betting that Radin Heur—a “radical spiritualist”—will pay a fortune for the photograph if they can convince him that it is authentic.

This subplot would be sickening in any context, and no doubt Norman fully intends it to be so, but at this particular moment its gratuitous violence reads like a cross between J.G. Ballard and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Consider this passage, from a letter by Vienna in which he ingratiates himself with his employer by reminding him of successes past:

The explosives had been so expertly set, there was hardly any evidence of an explosion, really. I think, yes, it was the nineteenth or twentieth car shattered apart, snapping from its predecessor, the front cars continuing on for a moment, as if a blow struck a body had not yet registered in the brain. Then came the sound of the locomotive braking. The screech of iron wheels on track echoed like a giant bird of prey. The bridge scaffolding collapsed, a train car tumbled into the gorge, followed at intervals by sheep, some of whose legs were pointing upward, all made for a rare photograph indeed, I know you agree. I did not have to feign excitement, because the sight was far more astonishing than I had imagined it to be, and I imagined it would be quite astonishing…As for newspapers, Mr. Heur, which naturally use such terms as acts of terrorism when referring to political sabotage, said term cannot possibly embrace the complexities of how, between patron and artist, an end justifies a means.

But Vienna proves unable to completely “embrace the complexities.” Tortured with guilt, he begins making his own spirit photographs, in which the faces of the dead Eskimos appear in the portraits of policemen he has been commissioned to do.

The Haunting of L. is the most superficially successful of Norman’s books. Norman’s trademark flatness, fading throughout The Museum Guard, is now almost imperceptible. Peter is the most likable of any of Norman’s heroes; in fact, he is the only one who is not unequivocally an antihero. And he is the only one who achieves artistic satisfaction: though Vienna calls him a man “of limited imagination” and says that he has “a talent for captions, if nothing else,” in the end Peter will grow frustrated with the omissions inherent in his crisp summations and will tell the full story, albeit one in which he depicts his own limitations.

At moments Norman seems to think that he is writing a suspense novel, when in fact there are few mysteries here; and the long flashback stuck in the middle, in which Peter tells of the rivalry between his aunt and his mother and the subsequent suicide of the latter, falls like a stone. For whatever reason, The Haunting of L. is a more mainstream novel than any of its predecessors, and lacks their sharp edges. But the real problem is that, after probing the soul so deeply in his previous book, it is Norman himself who seems to be suppressed here. A level of complexity is missing. An evil man coerces others into committing horrible crimes for the sake of “art.” After doing this enough, Vienna feels guilty. Though Norman tries to force a connection between the guilt and the haunting and the uninvited guests and the pictures of train wrecks, nothing catches. He has drawn a box around these parts, but they do not fill it.

Stefan Zweig, a writer as obsessed with restraint as Howard Norman, wrote that “the stricter the limits a man sets for himself, the more clearly he approaches the eternal.” In his best work, this is what Norman has achieved: one marvels at The Museum Guard even while tearing one’s hair in frustration at its withheld emotion. But limits can quickly become limitations. Norman has satisfied the technicalities of writing a novel, but he seems not to have accepted the form’s larger demands, which are infinite. The novel in the end is the least hermetic genre; it asks for more than bird drawings or photo captions do. Transcending limits can be very impressive, but the greatest writers are never uncircumscribed by the world.

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.