Friday, October 4, 2013
Book Review :Freedom to Depart by Robert Kroetsch
Reviewed by Russell Morton Brown
ALTHOUGH Robert Kroetsch is primarily a western writer, he is intrigued by the North. It was the setting for his first novel, But We Are Exiles, and now, in his fourth book, he attempts to encounter fully the significance of this half-real, half-hallucinated northern landscape, this unknowable region where the world is reduced to its basic elements and beyond that to a final void. In Gone Indian Jeremy Sadness, an American graduate student, arrives in Edmonton (one of those gateways to the North) in search of a future in the Canadian West, drawn by the Canadian North. He comes seeking the wilderness and in quest of a new identity (he is fascinated by Archie Belaney, that civilized Englishman who transformed himself into "the truest Indian of them all", Grey Owl), but he is ultimately in flight to something much more frightening: " I am looking for nothing. The primal darkness. The purest light. For the first word. For the voice that spoke the first word. The inventor of zero." Gone Indian is the concluding work in Kroetsch's Out West trilogy, which has now moved from the depression thirties (The Words of My Roaring) through the forties (TheStudhorseMan) intothe seventies. Each of the novels in the trilogy deals with the passing of an era, a moment of crisis which forms one more chapter in the history of the Apocalypse : each examines the particular myths by which its society defines itself, wittily interweaving other mythic structures drawn from the larger western tradition, and—-in Gone Indian — blending in Indian myth as well to form a complexly layered whole beneath a deceptively simple surface. The title changes that this final book of the trilogy went through suggests the several ways the novel works. The original title, Funeral Games (Kroetsch says he abandoned it as "too Graeco-Roman"), invokes Book V of the Aeneid, where the funeral games for Anchises celebrated by Aeneas and his men serve as a kind of societal passage rite marking the death of the old Trojan order and the turning toward the yet to be created Roman world. Within the novel the Notikeewin winter games serve a similar function: by diverting Jeremy from his job interview at the University of Alberta they divorce him from the competitive urban culture he has left in the northeast, and thereby prepare him for his final plunge into the North. Kroetsch's second working title,Falling, emphasizes the personal aspect of the novel: Jeremy's perception of his life as perpetual falling/ failing, and his final realization that falling toward death is an inevitable part of life and that falling is the payment for flying. Finally the title Gone Indian (with the intentional ambi- guity of "Gone") catches a number of the dominant themes in the book: the North American fascination with and search for the Edenic, pastoral world ; the novel's ironic play with urban man's romanticization of the Indian and the lost culture he represents; and finally its very serious play with the Indian trickster myth, especially the figure of the sleeping giant who is represented by the wounded, unconscious Roger Dorck. Dorck, whose presence is felt throughout the book (in the opening chapter Jeremy mistakenly acquires his baggage at the airport), represents not only the phallic potency that Jeremy lacks, but also the creative unconscious that Jeremy would release. These various levels of the novel work together to say something about the soci- ety that Kroetsch visualizes as coming to an end in the seventies: the competitive, technological, highly rationalistic order which has rendered Jeremy impotent. Carnival — the ritualized breakdown of order — frees Jeremy from the work ethic but thrusts him into a new world of con- tests and competitions. Jeremy enters a snow-shoe race and wins; in Dorck's absence he is made to judge the three finalists in the Winter Queen beauty contest. However Jeremy's racing victory brings him only another disaster; he learns more from watching an Indian choose not to win a dog-team race, seeing there the absurd arbitrariness of a world in which "the difference of six feet, after those fifty miles, made one man a loser" and observing the "magnificent indiffer- ence" of the dogs to their loss. Jeremy relates this perception to the final trans- formation of Grey Owl: "The hunter who would not, finally, hunt. The killer refusing to kill." The senselessness of competition becomes similarly apparent when Jeremy discovers the beauty contest is unjudgeable ("I have never in my life seen three people who looked so exactly like each other as those three girls." ), and that he, trained by the academic world to judge ("[I] wanted to write in the mar- gins of those lives: Awk. Frag. Emph. Cap. Fig.") is the man least suited to the role for he is himself in flight from judg- m e n t — from the debilitating judgment of his dissertation advisor (Mark Mad- ham, who is also the narrator of the novel), from the castrating judgment of his wife, and from his own ceaseless, self- deprecatory evaluations. The beauty con- test intentionally evokes the judgment of Paris, that rigged decision that began the destruction of an entire civilization, but Jeremy revises the archetype by refusing to accept the alternatives as defined, thereby freeing himself from the demands for performance that had rendered him physically and spiritually impotent. In the novel's conclusion the sleeping Dorck rises at last, signalling Jeremy's own freedom and his recovered vitality. But it is an ambiguous, partly ironic, freedom that Jeremy attains—the freedom to depart into that Northern void at last, to embrace the inviting silence, perhaps to find a new life, perhaps to perish there. Gone Indian is a fine book, providing a fascinating conclusion to Kroetsch's vision of the development of the Canadian West as emblematic of twentieth century social change. It is a book which should be read at least twice to penetrate beneath its surface, but that is a compliment to Kroetsch as story teller.