Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thomas Wharton's Salamander
The book tells its own story.

Examine it closely and you will see the ragged edges of the type, its cracks and bumps and gaps, the letters that lie crookedly or ride higher or lower than the others, the ink's variations in depth, consistency, and hue, the motes of dust and droplets of sweat sealed within the warp and woof of the paper, the tiny insect bodies caught as the platen came down and now immortalized as unnecessary commas and full stops.

In these imperfections lies a human tale of typecutters, squinting compositors, proofreaders and black-faced printer's devils, labouring against time and heartache and disorder, against life, to create that thing not found in nature, yet still subject to its changes.

The pages stain, fox, dry out. Paper flakes like rusty metal. Threads work loose, headbands and tailbands fray. Front and back boards sag from spines, flyleaves and buckram corner-pieces peel away. Dust mites, cockroaches, and termites dine on paper and binding paste. Rats and mice make snug nests in the middle of thick chapters. And unseen, through the chemical action of time, the words themselves are drained of their living sap. In every library, readers sit in placid quiet while all around them a forest decays.
After all this time, I finally read Thomas Wharton's [see his "12 or 20" interview here; or his current Edmonton Journal thriller project here] second novel, Salamander (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2001), yesterday, on the airplane back to Ottawa; the book he was touring when I met him, some six years ago, at the ottawa international writers festival. Just what had been preventing me all this time? Salamander is a magnificent story within a story within a story, much like The Canterbury Tales or Neil Gaiman's epic eleven-volume graphic novel The Sandman. Written as a tale told by a young girl to a colonel in a bombed-out bookshop in 1759 Montreal, beginning with the story of a Count who loses his son and wife, even as he gains a daughter. Through grief and the luxuries that giving up on the world affords, the Count withdraws to a castle (and his own obsessions with puzzles and labyrinths) that eventually ceases to officially exist, living on the boundaries of two countries, and yet existing properly within neither. The Count eventually fashions a castle that exists with moving floors, walls and rooms in an incredible display of mechanics that would make this novel wonderful to appear on film (reminding me of Richard Brautigan's shifting scenes in his novel The Hawkline Monster; wanting to see a film version simply to see how such scenes can even be displayed). Become obsessed with his books, the Count invites the legendary English printer, Nicholas Flood, to come to their castle that does not exist, and create an infinite book, without beginning or end. It is once there that we see the absurdity and the brilliance of Count Ostrov's creations (deliberately working a castle that could be self-sustaining, without need for human interaction), and where Flood meets the Count's beautiful daughter, Irena.
He held the paper to the dying spark of a candle and it crackled into sullen flame. She quickly relit the other candles and smiled over the bouquet of light she was handing him. As the paper burned up she saw through the green flames the image stamped upon it, melting and writhing. She asked him if he had chosen the phoenix as his symbol for just such moments.

— Salamander, Flood said.

— What?

— The creature is supposed to be a salamander.

The little dragon that dwells in fire, he explained, without being consumed, was a reassuring thought for people who work with paper. Originally he wanted a chimera, but the engraver he hired had gotten his mythological beasts confused.

— We have them in the castle, she said. The real sort of salamander, I mean. In the underground crypts, among the gears, where it's dark and damp.

— It sounds a lot like London. The sort of climate where printers thrive.

— If that's so, she asked, why did you leave?

He felt his face burn.

— I can't resist a challenge.
Wharton's story weaves through the fantastic (and even the impossible), and certainly invites comparisons with Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings (as well as Borges and Calvino) in some of the reviews quoted in the paperback version. The comparisons are apt, but I would compare it more to the best of British author Neil Gaiman, certainly through his series The Sandman, whether in the structure of story within story within story, or in Flood's commission, to create an impossible book (Gaiman's tale includes an endless library of books only dreamed, and never written). As one character tells Nicholas Flood, after hearing of his project, "In imagining your alam, Mr. Flood, you became a member of the world's oldest reading society, one that has existed for centuries, under countless names, in every part of the world. A society dedicated to the dreaming of fabulous, impossible, imaginary books." Like Gaiman, through his fantastic and dreamlike fantasy tales (it's interesting how Wharton places his science in a period where the supernatural and the sciences were still spoken of in the same hushed tones, seen with an equal sense of wonder), but darker and somehow with more depth, writing a tale of the search for knowledge and the perseverance of the heart (it helps, too, that Wharton is a better writer than Gaiman, who is still a master storyteller, but somehow stronger in the form of the graphic novel). How does a boy from Grand Prairie manage to create such a tale, a story within so many seemingly-endless stories? As one of his characters speaks, "A book is a confession, after all."
He told her that if she wanted to know what London was like, the castle would give her a good idea.

— People are always in motion there. No one stays in one place for long.

— Here the walls and ceilings and floors move, she said, and the people stand still.

He looked into her eyes and at that moment a truth that he should have seen right from the beginning became clear to him. The castle, the automatons, the clockworks, all of this was her father's system and functioned by his rules, but Irena had her
own system, quietly running on it's own inside the Count's. He was not sure why
she had disabled the great clock, but felt a rush of hope that she had done it to bring about this encounter with him. Feeling the colour rising to his face, he turned to his press and saw that Ludwig had wound down at the bar.

— And you, Mr. Flood, she said. How do you feel about the clocks?

He hesitated, and was aware again of what seemed an unearthly stillness.

— I like them at the moment, he said.
The book follows Flood as he collects knowledge, stories and supplies for his impossible book, watching what he loses, even as he gains. Watching everything slip away and away from Flood and the Count and Irena, Wharton's novel can be read as a book about story, and the impermanence of the world, writing his way out of the prairie "tall tale" of Robert Kroetsch into his own magical blend of history, fantasy and myth (they are not so different, after all). Watching everything slip away and listening to the tales the characters tell within tales, Wharton's magnificent novel can be read about the world, and about how stories, through their repeated tellings, remain their own sense of permanence. Empires might wither, and crumble and fall, but if even a single person exists to tell the story of that empire, then it was worth it, after all.

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