Friday, August 3, 2007

Barbara Gowdy's "Helpless"

I have alluded, a couple of times I think, to the awesomeness of Barbara Gowdy on this blog, but I based my opinion on only one novel--the audacious, utterly unexpected masterpiece The White Bone. This is a book about elephants. Just elephants. All the characters are elephants, thinking elephantine thoughts. It sounds like the stupidest book in the world, but it is amazing.

So a few weeks back I found her latest novel, Helpless, at the bookstore Rhian works at, and I bought it even though it's about a nine-year-old being kidnapped by a pedophile. I put off reading it for a long while, then started it last night at last, before going to bed.

I didn't sleep much, and I didn't do much today except read the thing. It is freaking marvelous, and Gowdy is now officially one of my favorite living writers. The book is written in a roving third person, and we are privy to the thoughts of the girl, Rachel, who is kidnapped; her mother, Celia; the kidnapper, Ron; and Ron's girlfriend, Nancy. All of them--and I mean all of them--are fully drawn, and the villains, Ron and Nancy, are stunningly sympathetic. Throughout, you are rooting for a happy ending, but you're rooting less for the bad guys to be caught than for the bad guys to think better of being bad. You want them to win, by allowing their better selves to emerge. There is no question of Gowdy supporting their actions, but she embraces their humanness as completely as she does that of Rachel and her mother--more, in fact, because Ron and Nancy are the standout figures here, absolutely convincing, and fascinating to watch. Ron's battle against his sickness is moving and harrowing; even more maddening is Nancy's struggle to beat through the wall of her clumsiness and gullibility. The book is about people who want to do the right thing, when they have already failed to do it and have rendered it almost impossible to do. It is a sad, gripping story.

Those who read my posts know I love crime novels, but this book--a literary outing through and through--is a better crime novel than any crime novel I've read in a long time. With only the faintest semblance of plot, it strikes you with the force of a flat-out, nail-biting white knuckler.

The funny thing is, if this were an American novel (Gowdy is Canadian), it might well become "controversial," presuming as it does that a pedophile is a human being, a kind of presumption that is not looked upon kindly here. I'm reminded a bit of the recent film The Woodsman (not a Canadian production as far as I know, so maybe my theory's shot), a movie in which Kevin Bacon plays a sympathetic pedophile. The movie's good, but it's not as good as this book--what seems like wishful thinking on the film's part is presented in Gowdy's novel as unalienable truth.

Anyway, I had avoided reading Gowdy's other stuff in the wake of The White Bone, for fear that I wouldn't like it quite as much. Helpless has broken the back of that irrational fear.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am going on vacation and leaving my computer behind (cold turkey!) but I had to stop in and say I'll miss your blog most of all.

Lovely post, as usual. Keep on blogging.

Jeff said...

Sounds in some way similar to Perrotta’s "Little Children"...

jrlennon said...

Gowdy is a way better writer though, in my opinion.

And thanks, anonymous!

alexandra said...

Read Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know." It's as good as "Helpless."

bigscarygiraffe said...

Totally unrelated relatable story: My only (close) local bookstore is the dreaded Barnes and Noble. I tried to pick up a copy of The White Bone-- anxious for a solid read (I think I've ODed on Hemingway this summer). The only copy they had was literally layered in dust (which is bizarre because they just remodeled), the upper half of the book had yellowed pages, and the bottom half had bent pages. I asked if they'd give me a discount, they said 10%, time to move back to Ithaca, says I.

Trevor said...

"the villains, Ron and Nancy"

Come on, that can't be a coincidence.

bgowdy said...

Barbara Gowdy here. (I've never blogged before, and this is my second attempt at sending this one, so I apologize if it comes up twice.) What I want to say is that my agent sent my your review, Robert, and the timing couldn't have been better. Earlier in the day I read a horrible review (it was in The Washington Post) which was so dismissive and alienating it had me questioning whether I should continue writing at all. Well, now maybe I'll keep going. Thank you.

jrlennon said...

Hey Barbara, thanks for stopping by! We're glad to have you around.

As for the Post, here's the telltale line--"Flashbacks to troubling incidents in his childhood heighten our apprehension about Rachel's future but shed little light on Ron's motives." Ron's motives, of course, don't matter. Ron is who he is, not who circumstance has made him, at least in my view. He grapples with his very identity, that's what makes him interesting to me. He's not a pedophile, say, because he saw his mom screw the mailman in 1963. It's his nature, and is inalienable.

There is little taste in the literary fiction market these days for novels that contemplate the mystery of personality. People want things to be explained, so that they themselves can be pre-exonerated for anything bad they might someday do. In other words, although I can see how someone else might not love "Helpless," The Post is offering up a pretty lame criticism.

Cheers!

bgowdy said...

Yes, that "motives" line was particularly deflating. Huh? I was supposed to explain his sexual longings?

I agree completely that this is a time where you give hard answers or you're told to shut up. We've lost our tolerance for ambiguity, if we ever had it. The fiction writer, especially, and weirdly, is asked to account for what's going on in real life. This past June I was supposed to launch Helpless in the UK, but then a little girl named Madeleine McCann was abducted in Portugal (she has yet to be found) and suddenly nobody wanted to hear about an abductor who wasn't a monster. The launch was canceled, though I was phoned by some newspapers to comment on the McCann case, as if I were some child-abduction expert. As I told them, the only abduction I know about is the the fabricated one at the heart of my novel.

—T. said...

Last winter I read Hiroshima Joe by Martin Booth, and despite what shortcomings a character is written with, sometimes you can't help but cheer for them. There's probably a better example then poor Joe Sandleman? (something like that) but it's the only protagonist I can think of right now who I was rooting for.

Anonymous said...

It's so sad that the promotion for "Helpless" was curtailed and typical of that knee jerk "if we don't talk about it, our children are safe" nonsense. Western society (by which I mean tabloids and programmes like the one I saw in America called "To Catch A Predator" - who seem to think they speak for everyone) like to see everything in black and white; Castrate paedophiles and know where they are at all times. Maybe if we had more intelligent fiction like this appears to be we could take a more human approach that might have some success.

jrlennon said...

I can't speak for Barbara, but I don't know if fiction--and this book in particular--is well suited to the job of reforming society. Rather, a novelist can only try to represent the truth about being human, and most often, in my view, this is accomplished through exploring consciousness. I like to think that, ultimately, good art can strengthen our empathy, making us more humane somehow, but I dunno...insofar as "Helpless" is an "issue" book, the issue feels subservient to the individual--it's more about Ron, a guy at war with himself, than it is about safety, or crime, or social problems.

A good novelist doesn't necessary have to solve any problems, they just have to bring home the extent to which problems have human beings at the center of them. I think Barbara's book does that very well.

Lotus Reads said...

I'm reading this book at the moment and it has me in its grip...were you disappointed to note that it didn't make the Giller Prize shortlist?

Thank you for a great review!