Friday, January 02, 2004

Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2003.

There are few pleasures in the world greater than sitting quietly in the dark, and listening to Bach. Whether it’s in the pureness of the Two and Three Part Inventions, the stately elegance of the Goldbergs, or the brilliance of the fugues, I get lost.

It’s the fugues that really get me. An instrument, or hand or foot at a keyboard, plays a theme. Then there’s an answer. Then another voice comes in with subject and answer, again. He changes them, a bit. Maybe we don’t get to hear all of them. Maybe he has three or four different expositions of the subject and answer going on at the same time. He weaves in other melodic and harmonic ideas that add to, but never distract from, the subject and answer. Then, finally, the subject and answer again, intensified, fraught with all we’ve been shown. That a fairly simple idea could have that much to say! That it could mean that much! I never fail to be astonished.

I finished, this evening, a book that is a fugue. A book that begins with a call to attend Ross & Iliana’s wedding, that than moves on to the story of the accident that leaves Iliana paralysed. A second section that begins with the preparations for the wedding, and then deals with the after-effects of the accident. A third section: the actual marriage, & its problems—Ross’s Buddhism, their new life, Iliana’s affair, their rapprochement. The end. Having read it, you are able to trace the subject, love, and its answer of being worth it. While reading it, held spellbound by the variations—the contrasted love of parents for children, of brothers for sisters, of neighbours for each other; the food, and descriptions thereof, that make the mouth salivate for enjoyment; the terrible complexities inherent in communications, in expectations—yet always listening for the return of the theme, and it’s answer.
Caroline Adderson is not indulging in some post-modern trick in revealing only sections to us at a time; she is sharing with us a verbal fugue. She tells her story, in what is obvious at the end, the only way that the story can be told well. Each moment reaches simultaneously backward and forward; her fugue seeks to exist long after the last note dies down.

It is not a perfect book. Iliana is never as fully real to me as I wish she was, and there’s far too much of Ross. The balance feels ever so slightly off kilter. Vancouver is idealized, and never gets described when it should be; for all that the city tries to be a character in the novel, it is, in the end, only a place that could be interchanged for any other slightly trendy city.

Yet, despite these (and a few other, minor problems), this book is deeply wonderful. Adderson writes smoothly, realistically, and with no end of love for her people and their plights. The book's characters are alive, and there were for me far fewer moments when I was reading a story than there were moments when I wanted to smack people around, get them to think straight, to talk straight, to act straight. For me, that’s always the first sign of a good book. The second is like unto the first: I was sad when it ended. I’ll have to reread it before returning it to the library. It’s one that will need to be added to my shelves.

It’s a book that you should go read.