Martin Greenberg and Paula Fox‘s essay in the New York Review of Books on Howard Norman’s 2010 novel, What Is Left the Daughter, was nice to see, though I don’t know if it’ll do much to make a sale. More to the point, the piece seems to skirt much of what makes Norman an interesting writer. What Greenberg and Fox largely admire in the novel is its hardscrabble, workaday milieu—the residents of a coastal town in Newfoundland going about their business until some bad news involving love and murder intrudes. As they put it, “Norman blends the ordinary with the ordinary … throughout the novel so that the ordinary, deepening, acquires more than ordinary weight.”
This makes sense if you define “ordinary,” as Greenberg and Fox seem to, as relating to working-class folk and their simple ways. In discussing this “ordinary” aspect of the novel, the authors are riffing on a passage in which the narrator, Wyatt, takes a job fishing junk out of Halifax’s port. As they point out, a lot of funny things end up in the water, and the job has a funny name (“detritus gaffer”). But, as is often the case in this novel (and 1994′s The Bird Artist, this novel’s close cousin), a grimness and gallows humor usually accompanies such scenes. Wyatt writes about something else he found in the water, an object Greenberg and Fox neglect to mention:
[W]e’ve had one suicide, too, floating face-down near the mouth of the harbor. Fishing line had twisted his fishing pole around his leg like a splint. That sight was hard to take… We held the poor fellow against the hull of our boat with gaffing hooks, used the walkie-talkie, and waited there until the harbor police took over. We knew it was a suicide because the next morning an article in the Mail said he—his name was Russell Leminster—had left a note to that effect. “Who knows,” Evie said, “what goes through someone’s mind, eh? Maybe he felt a sense of order was important, so he went fishing first. Then came the next thing.”
What Norman is routinely drawing your attention to within this ordinariness is strangeness, usually of a mordant sort. In Daughter, that’s built into Wyatt’s character, who tells us on page four that, “My own mother, Katherine, and my father, Joseph, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax on the same evening.” It’s in a newspaper headline on the event (“LOCAL BOY ORPHANED BY BRIDGES”) and in the fact that his mother died with a collection of 58 radios. It’s in his cousin Tilda’s interest not only in becoming a “professional mourner” but in her compulsion to memorize obituaries and compose her own fictional ones. When violence explodes out of a setting like this, it feels strange as well—fated, almost magical. As the murder central to the novel occurs, Wyatt recalls that “things then seemed to happen in a dream—I mean, in the way a dream can tamper with all common sense, make you feel you’re both participating in something and watching at some remove.”
The Bird Artist, which shares Daughter‘s setting and a central character who’s an earnest, heartsick young man, might be a better example of the storm-clouded mood Norman is capable of conjuring. Though we know that novel’s central murder on page one, its drama comes from its intense, willful characters and the unusual work of its residents; the narrator and source of the book’s title is skilled at drawing and painting birds, and undergoes intense training via correspondence from an impossible-to-please teacher. The drama is also part of the novel’s language itself, rich not just with unusual professions and names but details about classical music and lists of birds (puffins, auks, cormorants, water pipits, three-toed woodpeckers, diver ducks, harlequins, grey jays, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and on and on.)
Strange, but not comical. And not melodramatic either, though Norman’s plots involving love and murder could easily accommodate the latter. Norman’s precision with language helps him avoid that concern, as does his precision with time. He routinely gives precise dates for signature events in both novels: “So there I was, a spectacle for every Haligonian to pity, victim of a SORDID LOVE TRIANGLE, orphaned all of a single hour, on August 27, 1941, between six and seven o’clock…” At first it seems gimmicky, an attempt to apply a patina of history-book authenticity to the narrative. But in both novels, dates are anchors, reminders that there is indeed a real world these characters occupy, however detached their minds and actions might drift from it.
Norman has a beautiful nonfiction piece in the new Conjunctions—an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir—that’s also anchored in a particular date: “Radio From the Cities” takes place on December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was killed. Norman was in the Northwest Territories, recording folktales told by the locals, and that night he grieved with members of a local Beatles cover band called Nanook the Gook. As in his novels, the setting here is drab and a bit forbidding—it’s snowing hard that night—but Norman can bring a mystical feel to a fact-based story too. A radio host’s weather report, we learn, “included recriminations”—notices on who in town might have offended a spirit named Sedna, who brought on the ill weather. The excerpt ends with a folktale that captures the mood of the place better than any bit of reportage would, but the mood emerges in the cold facts of the story too. When the radio brings the news about Lennon, Norman writes, “I imagined then this radio message physically manifesting itself as a net and floating out in the air into eternity.” Tuning into shortwave stations, he notes that “the death of John Lennon was being talked about in so many languages it was mind-boggling. It was a murder translated everywhere.” An ordinary moment, but, in his hands, not.