Saturday, September 28, 2013

Book Review by Jelena Jovic


once described him- self as having "lived my life alternating between various parts of the frontier or wilderness and various universities." It is a statement he must be weary of by now, for it hasbeen dutifully recorded onthe jacket of each of his three novels as though it somehow contained the secret of the man.But it does, in fact, provide an interesting perspective on his novels. Each of them could be called "regional" in their use of setting (the first takes place on the Mackenzie River, the next two in rural Alberta), but in the hands of the university-trained writer these settings are transmuted into something which goes far beyond regionalism. For while the journey in The Studhorse Man is from Edmonton to a small town called Coulee Hill, the novel's events take place on a mythic, rather than a realistic, plane. This mythicizing Kroetsch accom- plishes particularly through his use of names. Demeter Proudfoot is the book's narrator-author, a name which joins the Greek goddess of marriage to an English equivalent of the name Oedipus, while the hero whose wanderings he chronicles is called Hazard Lepage; as he leads his stallion Poseidon about in search of a perfect mare, Hazard encounters women with such delightful names as P. Cock- burn, the widow Lank, and Hole (with her husband Stiff). The effect of this technique is suggested in one of the nar- rator's reflections: I have more than once remembered that the pleasure in listening to a hockey game, as I do each Saturday night during the long winter, resides not only in the air of suppressed and yet impending violence, but also in the rain upon our senses of those sudden and glorious names. Style reinforces the mythic quality, for the novel utilizes the precise, sparse lan- guage of the fable. It eschews the use of descriptive detail for verisimilitude, and the description it does employ is most frequently the symbolic detail of the dream : Hazard also implied . . . that the ultimate horror came at having, while standing on the back of the galloping horse, to leap through a ring of fire. The flaming circle blazed before his eyes like a hole in the darkness, waiting to swallow him down. He could neither leap at the bright circle nor jump from the back of the mare. The mice were a shrill hum at Tad's bare feet. I n fact, Kroetsch conceives of his principal role as that of myth-maker (and feels that as such he is working in the tradition of other western Canadian novelists such as F. P. Grove and Mar- garet Laurence). For example, each of his novels provides the reader with its own reworking of the Oedipus arche- type. In But We Are Exiles, young Peter Guy must try to reconcile his accidental (but desired) killing of the man who has stolen his girl friend and whose very name, Hornyak, suggests the threatening aspect of male sexuality. In The Words of My Roaring the novel's protagonist, John Judas Backstrom, is locked in poli- tical struggle with an older man, Doc Murdoch, a man who has been like a father to him. Here too the battle be- comes a sexual one, a struggle which revolves around Murdoch's daughter. In The Studhorse Man this archetypal conflict is given new form. It is the novel's fictional author, Demeter, who believes himself to be a rival to the very character whose adventures he is chron- icling. Hazard, here, is the powerful male force, leading about the stud Posei- don, a phallic symbol on a leash ("You four-legged cock," he sometimes ad- dresses the animal ). The youthful Deme- ter stays close to home, and to Martha, the woman to whom Hazard will eventu- ally return. But in this novel even the phallic male has difficulties, for Hazard's quest for a mare to breed, and thus preserve the Lepage line of horses, is unsuccessful. "Whoever thought," muses Hazard at one point, "that screwing would go out of style?" And here, much more than in the other two novels, the two male figures are revealed as the duality which exists within man. Hazard and Demeter merge: Hazard takes the alias "Proudfoot"; upon occasions h e assumes poses which are characteristic of Demeter;and he may be—in fact probably is— a creation of the narrator's imagination, a projection of Demeter's divided self. The Oedipus myth is nottheonlyim- portant archetype working in these novels however — nor is it really the central one. Theplot of each takes its particular form from its own controlling myth. As itsepigraphsuggests,ButWeAreExiles is shaped by the story of Narcissus. (Seen in these terms, Hornyak becomes, in some sense, a reflection of Guy's o w n personality.)TheWordsofMyRoaring works with the seasonal-rebirth myth of Pluto a n d Persephone, a n d its struggle ultimately becomes that of the forces of death against those of life. InTheStudhorseMan,Kroetschhas employed a n archetype which must surely be difficult for any post-Joycean writer to attempt, that of the journey of Odysseus. Butsince Kroetsch is a writer of comic vision (themistake of hisfirst novel, he feels, wasits attempt to create a tragic world), he takes his hero on a delightfully insane mock-odyssey which is all this author's own.Demeter becomes a Telemachus who wishes to have Martha, a parodie Penelope who keeps a hotel, forhisown.Thefaithful Euryclea and the patient hound Argus are re- placed by the aching and aged house- keeper M rs. Laporte and her setter — and n o w , rather than being recognized by a scar, Hazard finds himself seduced by the woman, and scarred as anout- come. Poseidon, the god that kept Odysseus moving, is here Hazard's horse, hence his own turbulent phallic energy. And in the novel's parody of the Odyssey's reunion scene, Hazard's phallus becomes, for Martha, like Odysseus' bedpost —the centre of the universe and its source of stability: There was no tree of knowledge to equal that one in her will to know, no ladder and no hill. Axis mundi, the wise men tell us, and on it the world turns. But it is an Odyssey in which Odysseus dies in the end, and in which Hazard's very striving for fertility becomes inverted by modern civilization into sterility: I must intrude here a little scientific j a r - gon . . . [says Demeter to explain the use towhichPoseidonwasputafterHazard's death]. PMUisanabbreviation thatenables one to avoid saying Pregnant Mares' Urine. From t h e urine of pregnant mares (to be more precise, from urine collected during the fifth to the ninth month ofthe eleventh-month pregnancy), scientists a r e able to extract the female hormone known as oestrogen. With oestrogen, in turn, they have learned to prevent the further multi-plication of m a n upon the face of the earth. With its ingenuity, its skilful mani- pulation of the twin foci of Hazard and Demeter, a n d its spirit of comic madness, all handled with great technical ability and careful craftsmanship, The Stud- horse Man is a significant achievement.

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