Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis by Aaron Peck

In the first novel by Vancouver writer and editor Aaron Peck, The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2008), we see the pre-story of the disappearance of archivist Bernard Willis. Does it matter where Willis eventually went? Written in fragments, this is a manuscript “found” by the two editors of the final project in the abandoned home of Willis himself, with instructions for whoever found it to simply take, working through the texts of Willis himself for publication, who worked to live in a perpetual state of “bewilderment.”

Is this a structure that sounds familiar? Don Quixote being a novel found and translated by a party not the narrator of the book, from Arabic, some of which is translated later, or never at all. Vancouver writer Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997), which is a novel structured as a film script, introduction, etcetera, of a film that is made but never actually finished, included layers and levels of structure between author and story, adding fictional writer, director, actors and the like. Do you recall Robert Kroetsch’s own Rita Kleinhart in his poetry collection The Hornbooks of Rita K (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001), writing the small fragments by the disappeared Rita that were found, post-disappearance, by her own archivist, and possible lover, Raymond? How does a book get constructed?
WE WERE SITTING IN A DOUGHNUT SHOP in Mission Street. The sun was almost setting and the light had a pinkish hue reflected in off-white buildings. I dunked my glazed doughnut in coffee, and Larry listened. I was unsure what he was thinking while I talked about Flaubert. The two most obvious examples, I continued, are The Temptation of St. Anthony and “A Simple Heart.” The Temptation (what Foucault called “the first book to contain a library”) tracks the history of ideas, a theme he’d take up again in Bouvard and Pécuchet, through a series of visions ranging from the Gnostics all the way to modern science, culminating with the Devil taking St. Anthony to the moon, while “A Simple Heart” narrates, with remarkable sympathy and love, the story of a maidservant who, on her deathbed, mistakes the holy ghost for her dead parrot.
Peck’s novel is a book that works through fragments in such a way that the shape is made only in the reader’s head, working through the author’s own bewilderments, philosophies, stories and even digressions.

EXCITING AS ACCUSATION MAY BE, there is scant evidence to prove that in 1839 Louis Daguerre burnt down the Paris dioramas in order to fund his new curiosity, the daguerreotype. And exciting as speculation may be, whatever the reasons, we are after all tracing a series of effects without known cause; Daguerre’s energies had shifted long before that spectacular and fiery display. Distinct from current usage, the word diorama, as Toby Kamps notes, “derived from the Greek dia (through) and horama (to see) [and] was coined by French stage designer and pioneering photographer L.J.M. Daguerra and patented by him in 1822 to describe a new, theatrical form of visual art.” A series of naturalistic watercolours hung from theatre ceilings at various angles and depth, each image illuminated at times, with the back of the paper scratched off, effecting a three-dimensional impression, along with other such devices as the stereoscope and the cyclorama. Between the panoramas of the eighteenth century and the cinemas of the twentieth, dioramas were popular spectacles.
An impressive novel, first or otherwise, Peck has constructed a collage-work where characters flow in and out of focus, including Willis himself, with the editors not at all, but for their hand in the introduction and epilogue, and in working the order of the individual texts. But if the order is constructed by these fictional editors, are we missing something, deliberate or accidentally, in Willis’ “intent”? Is the ending, perhaps, entirely beside the point? In beautiful language, Peck makes a book worthy of the word, which so few of them are anymore, as the last section, “A Profane Halo: An Editor’s Epilogue” writes:
The story of Bernard Willis puzzles us. Motivation for his disappearance is scant, left to interpretation. Through an unknown circumstance, which we can only describe as bewilderment itself, Bernard Willis disappeared while at Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts. A glaring light blinds us, and Bernard is gone, like a conjurer’s assistant in a magic act: the veil is removed and—poof!—Bernard vanishes. By sheer luck or by providence, my companion and I found this manuscript. We have spent the past four years pain-stakingly ordering it, and preparing it for publication. We can only guess what kind of response it will receive.

But, dear reader, we have been accused of distortion, incoherence, aggrandizement, embellishment, forgery, greed, ineptitude and even worse. It breaks our hearts. Our efforts are little understood, and our reputation at risk. To allay our sorrow, and in honour of Bernard, we drink whisky on a Dundas Street rooftop. To Bernard, we toast, raising our tumblers to the sky. But even here as summer sun heats the tiles,
there is no way of assuring you that our preparation of the manuscript of Bernard Willis—that fumbling whirling dervish of the archive—is not a sham. Soon it will be too hot to sit here. Large oak trees’ leaves rustle in the wind. To the east, downtown is hardly visible through the smog, but we’re near a chocolate factory. Trust us, dear reader, the sound of the leaves is mesmerizing. In autumn those leaves will fall spinning in oblate circles. Nearby raccoons will scrap, wailing inhumanly, tearing off each other’s tails.

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