Friday, May 28, 2010

Reader's Diary #615- Jessica Grant: Come, Thou Tortoise

There's a running gag in Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise, in which Signal Hill, an iconic landmark in St. John's, Newfoundland is referred to as Seagull Hill. It drove me nuts.

In Steve Zipp's Yellowknife, there's a running gag in which Pilot's Monument, an iconic landmark in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, is referred to as Co-Pilot's Monument. I enjoyed this one.


Theories abound.

1. Not meant as a disclosure, as an in "I have something to confess," but it's worth noting that Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise won the National Post Canada Also Reads competition. I was the one defending Yellowknife, which, by power of deduction, you'll note did not win. Could sour grapes be behind the reason I didn't like Grant's gag, but liked Zipp's very similar type gag? I hope not. I think not. But I can't really say for sure. Who knows how bitter my subconscious is. Certainly not me. I avoid that whole rat's nest at all cost, if you want to know the truth.

2. It's just not as funny. It's unlikely that readers unfamiliar with St. John's would get the joke. Doesn't Seagull Hill sound like it could be real? Would they even know something was amiss? On the other hand, a monument devoted to co-pilots, not pilots? Surely this would sound absurd even to readers unfamiliar with Yellowknife. If you're going to do a running gag, it has to be funny. Otherwise, every time you hear it it becomes more and more annoying. And page for page, there are a lot more "in jokes" in Grant's book. The Purity Factory becomes the Piety Factory, Quidi Vidi Lake becomes Quite-A-Bite-Of Lake (sounds silly, but St. John's is home to a real street known as Hill O'Chips, so Quite-A-Bite-Of Lake isn't unbelievable.)

3. Unclear intentions. A la The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time Grant's primary narrator (the tortoise talks too, but more on that later) thinks differently from the average person, including the average reader. Grant has replaced autism with a low IQ and that's as much as we know about why Audrey Flowers is the way she is. Audrey also likes wordplay. So Seagull Hill might be a misunderstanding on Audrey's part. It might also be Audrey simply having fun with the real name. Or it might be Grant's slightly alternate representation of the city. Whereas such ambiguity could be fun, even part of a book's appeal, there's unfortunately too much of it here. Even the dialogue is ambiguous. Grant doesn't use quotation marks and sometimes it's unclear which conversations are actually happening and which are being imagined. Adding to the confusion is the inconsistent approach. Sometimes conversations are worked into simple paragraphs (minus the punctuation) and at other times they're written in script form. I'm all for experimentation with punctuation, but it's got to work. Saramago managed to rid Blindness of all quotation marks and didn't even bother to indent when there was change in speaker. But Saramago had reasons beyond just being different (if you were blind, sometimes voices of strangers could be hard to tell apart) and there was never any doubt that someone was talking.

4. Somewhat related to number 3, the running gags were symptomatic of the book's larger problem: the overabundance of quirk and the lack of anything else. I know quirk is a taste thing and there's a fine line between interesting and overwrought eccentricity. The bizarre characters of Miriam Toews' a complicated kindness nearly ruined that book for me, but at least the plot drew me in. I recently saw a performance of Annie in which Miss Hannigan said everything with a grin on her face, the actress practically adding "am I not just the funniest thing ever?" at the end of every line. Every sentence in Come, Thou Tortoise felt the same way, that Grant was reveling in her own wackiness. It doesn't help that every character seems equally crazy, that the tortoise's voice is too similar to Audrey's. It also doesn't help that last year I read one of Grant's short stories, "Humanesque" and I had questioned its lack of plot and the eccentricity. I'm beginning to think Grant is a one trick pony.

This is the third National Post Canada Also Reads contender that I've read. If you'll recall, I took issue with the event because us panelist were not supplied with all the books, were not given time to read them all, and were not even expected to. So, without any real deadlines, I'm working my way through them, trying to decide whether or not I'd still pick Zipp's Yellowknife as the winner and why. As it stands now, my ranking would be:

1st: Steve Zipp- Yellowknife
2nd: Jocelyne Allen- You and the Pirates
3rd: Jessica Grant- Come, Thou Tortoise


Kate said...

I had not felt compelled to read this book, and your review had reinforced my gut instinct!

But to expand on your theory #2 - I just finished reading Yellowknife yesterday (review should be done in the next day or two), and having never visited Yellowknife (yet!), I just assumed that the Co-Pilot Monument was made-up, not a twist on a real monument. It was funny when I though it was made-up, but even funnier now that I know that there is a real Pilot's Monument.

Wanda said...

With all the unique place names to be found in Newfoundland and Labrador, why bother changing them? Do locals actually refer to Signal Hill that way, like when people refer to Canadian Tire as "Crappy Tire"?

Not sure if I'll read CTT or not. I do like quirk, especially Miriam Toews style but I'm trying to make a dent in the tbr's I already have waiting, Yellowknife new among them.

John Mutford said...

Kate: I look forward to your review.

Wanda: I lived there (St. John's) for 7 years and I'd never encountered anyone who called it that. If you like Toews' quirk and maybe Lisa Moore's Alligator, you'd probably like CTT.

Kate said...

OK - review is done now. (Quick summary - I loved Yellowknife!)

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this book. I liked Grant's daring. She takes risks and is wacky. (But then again, I also really enjoyed The Waterproof Bible which also has its obscure and wacky moments -- No accounting for tastes, I guess.)
Although I have yet to get a copy of Yellowknife -- which I am sure is a great read -- I don't even want to enter into the debate as to which Canadian novel is best. They all have their strengths. What I like about Can-lit is that it is "real" is what it is -- not what will be a guaranteed "Bestseller".

Sandra said...

I have to agree with you now that I've read this book. I was expecting more because of all the good things I'd heard about it. And winning Canada Also Reads pushed me to try it. Can't say why I didn't enjoy it that much, except what you said, just not enough there for me.