Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Is Kathleen Winter's "Annabel" a Canadian novel?

I’m not sure if any other readers of Annabel have grown frustrated with the discussions televised in the second and third days of Canada Reads, around two weeks ago. Judges could simply not get over the issue of the pregnancy featuring in the novel. I don’t care if what I am saying here is a spoiler, because even if the episode of the pregnancy was meant to remain a secret, the judges have done a great job at making it known to the entire world. So now, we can talk about it without fear of disappointing other readers.

“To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?”
(Swinburne, Hermaphroditus)

When I was about thirty or so pages into Annabel I made a note on my bookmark to check if there were any allusions in the novel to Plato’s myth of the androgyne. With a hermaphrodite as the protagonist, the novel had presented itself as a likely contender to the reference.

So when I came upon the ‘pregnancy moment’ I knew I’d found what I’d been waiting for.
Wayne, the character in question, the novel’s protagonist, is discovered to have impregnated himself (unknowingly) due to a natural – says the author – disposition of hermaphrodite bodies to perform sexual functions of both male and female organs.
Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, says this:
“The two parts of man (the Androgyne), each desiring his other half, came together and throwing their arms around one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one; they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect because they did not like to do anything apart.”
Wayne is found to be in a state of constant self-embracement. He behaves equally as a man and as a woman. He has the feelings of both, the physical attributes of both, the desires of both. Even the way he satisfies himself sexually, his idea of orgasm, is ambiguous. What’s more, he reaches a stage where the tension of his singularity is so great he takes no care of his external appearance – something that other characters notice. I found this to be Plato’s Symposium almost to the letter.
As a consequence, I was not at all concerned with the medical possibility of the act of pregnancy in a hermaphrodite body. There was no way I was going to trivialise the beauty of this book by checking out if such self-impregnations were possible. Well, the judges in Canada Reads thought it was worth their salt to play the role of fact-checkers. And what a show they made when they discovered ‘the medical truth.’

Canada Reads, Day 3
Source: CBC
Now, when it’s well known that Annabel is not the winning book, I can reflect on something that became apparent to me as soon as the debates were over. This time, I can say it with confidence: the judges were right to think that Annabel was not a Canadian book. That’s because the scope of the novel and its narrative force go well beyond the geographical limitations of a given country. I am not a Canadian, but I don’t think Annabel was written with Canada in mind. I may seem wrong, since so many places (even the imaginary ones) are so Canadian in nature, but the book certainly doesn’t present itself that way. Catherine Winter has aimed a lot farther and a lot deeper. And in order to arrive at this destination, she employed, at so many levels, this universal myth of the double, the doppelganger, the Janus Bifrons, the facts of coincidentia oppositorum, the internal conflict that transgresses issues of gender, sex, race or any other issues capable of generating binary oppositions. In other words, Annabel is not Canadian because it is too hermaphrodite, too unstable, too risky to pin to a single space or a single idea.
Annabel is a book freed of the strictures of geography, and yet a book in which geography features prominently, blending in with the characters, growing to overwhelm the human.

Unhinged characters

All people in Annabel are soft. They are not people of flesh and bone. They are people of words. So that even the harshest of them, the most brutal or unfair, is laid on the page with a light touch, similar to that of watercolour. There’s really something about the way these characters settle on the page that creates, in my mind, the whole mood of the narrative: a mood in which life is not fought-for but negotiated, and where sentiments are turned on the proper side the way you turn a pillow on the cool side on a hot summer day when your bed is soaked in perspiration.
These people are never complete. They have unresolved issues that loom large after they’ve had their narrative turn, or when they’ve disappeared from sight: like Treadway on his last tracking season, after which he comes resolved to avenge his son; or like Thomasina, who returns to her errand life in search for the best places on Earth; or like Jacinta, who drifts into madness, where all things oscillate between dream and reality. Because of this indecisiveness, no characterisation is ever complete. In almost every chapter there’s a new reason to rest on these characters’ physical appearances, or to delve into their anything-but-static psyches, as if we were seeing them for the first time.
Silky people, their actions - blobs of aquatint. That’s how I like to think about them. They never just speak. They speak while performing little domestic actions or paying tribute to little domestic memories, as if life on Earth were the only source of action. Jacinta and Thomasina talk to each other “as they spread jam on toast thinly, the way they both liked it.” Of her life in the city prior to the marriage, Jacinta remembers with striking accuracy “the pigeons who lived in the O of Browning’s department store.” That’s how the lives of these characters unfold: with exactitude; with the dot on the ‘i’ and the cross on the ‘t’; with details squeezed out of the diachronic nightmare of life.
While reading Annabel, one very often gets this feeling that one is midwifing a world into being. Somehow like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, perhaps: a world that doesn’t explode into life, but develops slowly, through little additions, through little events that take place in an almost natural course of events. This is a world that’s constantly assessed but never invented.

Larger than life

But the novel, a text of in-betweens and dualities, is not only given to these engagements with the little world of domesticity. The other side of things is one that envelops the narrative in a gigantic, mythical veil; in a trans-human blanket.
When the unprecedented fact of a hermaphrodite child occurs to Jacinta, she asks Thomasina (the only other person who knows the secret):
‘’Will other people love it?’
‘That baby is all right the way it is. There’s enough room in this world.’
This is how Thomasina saw it, and it was what Jacinta needed to hear.”
Here, the world is weighed and found capacious. But it is not made into a capacious thing. It is merely assumed to be so. Because, as via the Platonic myth, the world, in its mythical (Labradorian?) age, used to be large enough to contain the third sex: the androgyne.
The world is large enough for all the people who inhabit the world of fictional Croydon Harbour to become palpable. People of flesh and bone, laid on the page with gentle touches, but who perceive geography on a verge between the grandiose and the sublime.
“They didn’t call this place the big land for nothing. It was big in a way that people who came in either respected and followed or disdained at their peril. You could live like a king in Labrador if you knew how to be subservient to the land, and if you did not know how, you would die like a fool, and many had done.”
This is the logic that affects Treadway directly, and the other characters in oblique but not unrelated ways.


I could go on forever quoting this book. Catherine Winter provides metaphors so evocative they stay with the reader for long, long time. This is, by and large, a book of atmosphere. Its weight and appeal rest in the weight and appeal of its luxuriant descriptions. In this atmosphere, the characters live as if in a warm, comfortable amniotic liquid, refusing to be born: refusing, in other words, to be part of this world, in which us, the readers, reside. 

The colourful city of St John's, the opposite of fictional Croydon Harbour,
a place Kathleen Winter knows by heart.
Source: www.stjohns.ca
Like Macondo (I just can’t help treading this bridge!), the world of Annabel is a self-sufficient world, a world that could live without our reading it. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone saying that reading through this novel feels like violating the heavy secrets that make the atmosphere of the novel so dense.
But once you’ve started reading, secrets or no secrets, there’s no way you can stop, unless you find a goddamn good excuse. More importantly, this is not a book to skim through. There are surprises at every corner, beautiful things at every turn of the story. You can’t take a vacation without being burdened by the thought that you have missed a lot by not reading every sentence.

Labradorian winter
Source: www.perceptivetravel.com
This is the kind of reading after which you need a rest. Its imagery and metaphors come in such poetic avalanches, you need to remind yourself of how prosaic the real world actually is.