Sunday, September 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #150- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (up to the beginning of Part 2)

Kurt Vonnegurt's Slaughter House Five, as those of you who've actually read it know, was essentially (albeit a strange one) an essay on the tapestry of time. Cohen's Elizabeth and After, while definitely more on the normal side, is no less a "time as an interconnected construct" piece. Some might find Vonnegurt's eclectic and eccentric style a bit more original than Cohen's, but I propose that the latter is at least as masterfully crafted.

The books or poems I enjoy most are those which can be enjoyed on two levels; the superficial and the deep. Al Purdy's narrative poems in Rooms For Rent are good examples. The storyline of each poem can be enjoyed as is; they're funny and interesting. Yet, often underneath them there are observations of humanity we've maybe not considered before. Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams is another great example. Many people enjoy it just for the tension between Smallwood and Fielding. Yet if you look at Smallwood as a symbol of Newfoundland and Fielding as a symbol of independence, the book takes on a whole new meaning.

Elizabeth and After, I'm expecting, will be another great example. While the story of Carl McKelvey is compelling enough, the underlying point about time and more specifically how the past lives in the present, is the real weight of the book (and why, I suspect, it won the GG). I said in my first post that the book is not bogged down by flashbacks. I hope I didn't leave the impression that there are none, because in fact, the book is peppered with them. However, Cohen presents them very casually and as reflections of the characters, never having us lose sight of the main storyline. Set in a somewhat small town, where a handful of names predominate everyone, interconnectedness is the key to unraveling the point of the novel. It is a misleadingly simple read.

A favourite part so far is the end of part one, in which the story suddenly switches to the present tense. It happens so quick that it might easily be missed, but again the theme of time comes to the fore. All roads lead to here.

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