By RUSSELL SMITH
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 22, 2019
Word started to spread in literary circles earlier this spring about a startling literary debut, a first novel called Mooncalves by Victoria Hetherington, published by a very small press in Vancouver.
Such presses have no money for publicity, so the only way for a novel such as that to create some word of mouth is to be really, really good. Here is evidence, for the skeptical, that it sometimes does happen.
Mooncalves is feverish, a set of visions, sometimes about people having visions, that jumps manically from period to period, including a couple from recent history, one in the near future in which sophisticated artificially intelligent robot companions can replay scenes from anywhere in history like video banks, and then another in a future that is racked by environmental havoc. The plot, as much as it can be understood, concerns the convergence of several women and girls around a violent and controlling cult leader called Joseph, who has set up a commune in rural Quebec. It is told in non-chronological sections narrated in present and past tense, and in the first, second and third person, and sometimes as transcript of meetings. To divine exactly who is talking at any moment, and about what period, requires a concentration that may make the experience frustrating for the impatient.
To make things even more confusing, the narrators are highly similar. The women - there are three generations of them - tend to have the same problems and speak in the same voice, a voice that is emotional to the point of febrility, sad to the point of despair, imaginative to the point of hallucination. The experience of being inside these melancholic, frightened and furious psyches for the length of a book is intense and draining, especially since the violence and abuse are unsparingly described.
But what a voice it is! One reads this book for its verbal imagination, for its relentless fascination with striking tiny physical details amid psychic turmoil. After witnessing a sexual assault, a narrator notices a trio of raccoons in a dumpster: "they sifted coffee grounds and bright yellow noodles through their paws." It's not just the squalour of the scene that's apposite, nor just that the startling colour of the noodles adds a horror-movie grotesquerie, it's the verb sift that's so precise, so creepily measured.
The grotesque is indeed pervasive - particularly recurring in connection with eating, but also with sex. Men's bodies are nearly always repulsive - their hair is greasy, they smell - and yet gross and callous men have an overwhelming magical power over women, a kind of hypnosis that makes women damage and debase themselves. The cult leader is intelligent and has powerful ideas. His jaded and jangled citydwelling recruits fear that their lives spent pursuing pleasure and dwindling money are meaningless, and that the ugliness of the world is compounded by its technology, and Joseph preys on these fears, promising them an all-natural world of farm labour, vegetables and isolation. Those who stay behind in the city and on their devices will be crushed by the Merge, a terrible computerdominant apocalypse (Joseph has visions) that will turn them into mindless drones.
Joseph is not entirely wrong - in some segments, a technological convergence not unlike Kurzweil's "singularity" does appear to have occurred, but it is possibly more freeing than oppressive, and then environmental cataclysms - a rash of bird deaths, a plague of ladybugs, some kind of rape-causing virus - makes all that progress meaningless.
Despite Joseph's intelligence, he is not once described as handsome, and it would be hard to imagine anyone being seduced by him were it not for the overwhelming feeling that everyone here is acting in a state of near-panic, on the verge of visions themselves, and that it would take the slightest nudge to push them into full-blown religious mania. Joseph is the single-mindedness their impoverished and nauseated environments lack.
To get a sense of this psychic intensity, let me quote a passage that represents this book better than any summary can: "Back in the living room I ordered pizza and stared at the wall until it arrived, then sank deep in the couch to eat it, burning the roof of my mouth, growing sluggish with thick dough, and sweet tomato sauce and liquefying meat and salt. Growing full and then overfull, the ache now refocused in my corporeal self, my chest and belly, I felt the rush, the comforthigh, that always chased the shame: I had gained half a pound that week, and was making myself fatter still. Overfull and ashamed, I remembered that in tenth grade I had loved a boy so much I knew I'd have to switch schools before something horrible and life-ruining burst out of me, swarming form my chest like bone-house wasps."
This is gorgeous writing. Again there are those lush details: the liquefying meat, the chest exploding with "bone-house" wasps - not just any wasps, but those that feed on spiders and build protective nests out of dead ants. Even the wasps are insane.
Hetherington is obviously a huge talent, her canvas is wide and ambitious, her sensibility fascinating, and this could have been one of the most searing books of the year, but her talent was not well-served by this small press and an obvious lack of experienced editing. Some plot points - including the most crucial one - are simply not explained. I honestly do not know what happens on the climactic night of violence outside the cult retreat. (Why is a rebellious character called Neil suddenly docile and in Joseph's thrall on returning to the farm?) The female characters' voices are too similar. And there are far too many typos and inconsistencies. (There would be no road in Quebec called "rue de la Lac," for example, lac being masculine, and even if you do have a reason for writing "table of contents" in French, it would be best to check how that phrase is usually written in French.) If a table of characters is needed to explain who is talking in what chapter, and that table includes chapter numbers, would it not have been helpful to number the chapters in the text?
This kind of forgetful gap is a common problem in first drafts and it quite easy to fix.
I find it hard to imagine that a novel this innovative and this stylistically sophisticated would have been turned down by a larger press. I wonder if a fear of the country's ever-moreimpenetrable big presses is gaining ground among young literary writers. Is the gap between the MFA grad and the commercially ambitious writer growing ever wider?
At any rate, this is a stunning debut and I will devour any next thing that Hetherington writes.
Mooncalves BY VICTORIA HETHERINGTON NOW OR NEVER PUBLISHING, 248 PAGES