Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

First, huge thanks to Steve for sending me a copy of his book to read for the Canadian Book Challenge. It's a beautifully produced volume that was a great pleasure to receive, and is one to which I shall be returning when I've lent it to both sons. I recommend it to participants in the second challenge.

This is not so much a book to read as to inhabit. You take up residence with a motley crew of characters and watch as their lives happen around you. And you don't necessarily enjoy what you find: I got distinctly squeamish about Danny's preference for dogfood, and began to hallucinate the smell of Winalot every time I picked the book up.

"Hallucinatory" is apt for a book where the reader seems to be on shifting ice. The explorer Franklin, famous mostly for getting lost, puts in an appearance, though there is not much use in asking for directions, of course. At first I thought I was on firm ground: after all, I may not be Canadian, but I knew about Ekati and Diavik (diamond mines) and about "pipes" (ahead of Danny there), and that on 1 April 1999 part of northern Canada would become Nunavut (I even organised a seminar to mark the event), but the further I got into the book the more I was adrift. I hoped for sightings of Neptune, the dog, or even of the missing caribou herd, thinking that they might offer a toehold. Eventually, although I felt that I was missing a lot that a Canadian reader might recognise, I tried to let the book just happen around me, and to accept that people would come and go. After all, Danny's efforts as a private investigator weren't yielding much wisdom, while Brassclick's northern mole was just plain red herring.

One night an arctic front moved in, having somehow given weather satellites the slip. The bay froze over and Nora began sleeping on her couch in the basement of the Carboniferous Building. The gurgling pipes and the wheezing ducts kept her awake at first, along with the sound of the custodian stoking the furnace from a coal seam. In the darkness she imagined his squat frame outlined by orange fire, and the hissing lumps of coal being compressed to a hard white brilliance.

What isn't in doubt is the quality of the writing. Yellowknife itself and its community of eccentrics are tangible. Nora's exasperation with the "talpid project" and Danny's attempts to learn to be an investigator by watching the detective channel feel immediate, and their confusions, as they try to make sense of an environment that threatens to transform into a mythological landscape, become the reader's. The multiplicity of characters, some of whom appear only fleetingly (I wanted more of Mr and Mrs Cavity), adds to the sense of a real community; even though the novel ends, you feel that Zipp's Yellowknife remains, and that there are more stories to be told. And once you do let go of the idea of a linear plot, it's an enjoyable meander, full of unlikely events which nonetheless feel like the kind of things which happen.

The mythologies are both specific to the north and to First Nations world-stories, and universal, so that I had trouble unpicking them. Where does the Odyssey end and Ol' Slavey begin? Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter, but I like my allusions footnoted and fully referenced, and felt that I would have liked an annotated copy. I suppose I'll have to create my own. I am left, though, with a pleasing bit of serendipity – ever since I read Aritha van Herk's No Fixed Address, I have been left with an indelible impression of Arachne Manteia's knickers scattered across the Canadian North. With Suzi's destruction of the canoeists' cairn, however, I felt that the landscape is once again pristine.

This book was also reviewed by

Gautami at My Own Little Reading Room
Corey Redekop

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know I reviewed this book too (although a much briefer review)