Featured Book Review: Doing the Heart Good by Neil Bissoondath
By Judith Fitzgerald Feb 15, 2008, 10:31 GMT
Quebécer Neil Bissoondath's sixth work of fiction, Doing the Heart Good, invites readers into the insular world of retired Montréal English professor Alistair Mackenzie. Ineffectual and unassuming, Mac, the colourless Canadian septuagenarian whose heart has some good done upon it in a home-movie kind of way, stars as an all-too-stereotypical voice-over in a rather lacklustre saga supported by a predictable cast of de rigueur oddballs and requisite icons wallowing in the limelight in equal measure. The ploddingly competent yet nonetheless occasionally eloquent prose spans the impoverished present and a richer ill-defined Elsewhere Time (mostly via that amorphous theatre of the mind one constructs in the caverns of memory featuring signal events, telling moments, and symbolic turning-points). Here, they emerge as little more than the memento mori of one moribund man among the minions of contemporary existence.
As much devoted to its finer counterpart, A Tale of Two Cities, as Mac's recollections of his heroic role in WWII, the innocuous widower finds himself thrust into daughter Agnes's world by vague political happenstance he explains thusly: " . . . Stars appeared. I went to bed. They burned my home."
So everything changes. Agnes, son-in-law Jacques (or Jack, as far as the narrator's tellingly concerned) and Francois, Mac's young grandson, play adequately well against a backdrop littered with characters populating the allegory's cast from the past. There's the stolid professor wrongfully dismissed for sexual impropriety. There's Ruth-Ann, the protagonist's sister and tad-too-obvious inverse. (Believe it or not, the woman falls for a cartwheeling jugglemaestro and the pair runs off to go cruising with the circus.) Plus, au naturel, there's Dan Mullen. Readers might well find themselves conjuring up a vision of the author elegantly scrunched over his keyboard polishing off such a bumptious character, the tale's "real" writer who befriends the phlegmaticist and — you guessed it — teaches him a thing or two about the cold hard facts of fiction. It almost goes without saying the knaggy curmudgeon does indeed reveal his good-hearted aw-shucksical sensitive side; Mullen "may be uncouth, but he certainly gets to the heart of things," especially when he gets pumped up:
"Writing, Mac? It's my version of a solo rush down the ice and whipping the puck into the goal. It's power, it's grace, it's that eye-blink of beauty. In front of the typewriter, my friend, I'm the Rocket. Shove aside the ugliness, Mac. Get to the beauty. And if you ever tell anybody what I just said, I'll disown you."
Several of the novel's evocative and thrilling passages bog down in the cumulative murkinesses of the allusive undertow. Gurglings of, say, The Great Gatsby and Under the Volcano all too often slosh clumsily against Graham Greene's The Quiet American or Mordecai Richler's The Acrobat; in so doing, readers are made privy to the pallor of things to come. Professor Mackenzie, the perennial gloom-and-doomist, whinges that "within two years undergraduate idealism" had impressed him as naive and puerile: "The bright eyes that I saw struck me as being backlit through the ears . . . One
grows suspicious of idealists. Time teaches that they cause as much havoc in this world as cynics."
Perhaps a comparison of Bissoondath's current with The Stone Angel best telegraphs both the psychological narrative terrain and the former's inability to expertly negotiate same. Whereas Margaret Laurence creates a character worthy of compassion and respect with brittle Hagar Shipley, Mackenzie all too frequently devolves into little more than a mean-spirited and provincial caricature who finds emotional and cultural value anywhere but north of the border. Laurence illuminates; Bissoondath calibrates; therein lies the failure at the centre of this melodramarama.
Doing the Heart Good pushes the right buttons and pulls the right strings. Agnes is "a modern woman" who wouldn't dare admit "each morning she reads her horoscope in the newspaper." Sister Ruth-Ann, latterly a feisty chain-smoking dame enduring the ravages of Alzheimer's, has "composed a life out of what might be justifiably viewed as one little trick after another," not at all unlike what Bissoondath himself manages with this rather maudlin and deeply disappointing underachievement from an uncharacteristically gifted author who has, in his earlier fiction, proven himself to be capable of doing so much more than the heart good.
Canadian poet and literary critic Judith Fitzgerald's critically acclaimed Adagios Quartet's BOOK III: Electra's Benison has just been named one of The Globe and Mail's TOP 100 BOOKS (2007). The Almaguin Highlands resident is currently completing Leonard Cohen, Master of Song (Dundurn Press, Fall 2008).