Our murderous Century
Century by Ray Smith. Biblioasis, 165 pp. ISBN 978-1-897231-51-7
I approach this novel – and yes, I’m calling it a novel, for reasons that I will eventually make muddled – with certain reservations, suspicious as I am of the desire for alternative structures, etc., fostered by the manifest failures of post-secondary education. That our universities take students who love books and turn out Masters of Arts who appear to hate reading is not to their credit; that the jaded reader, like the aficionado of hardcore pornography, is only aroused when the going gets strange does not in the least diminish the value of a straightforward story. Neither, to be fair, does this mean that Ulysses is pretentious horse shit. Suffice to say that many road apples litter the dead-end streets of theory. It pays to watch your step.
So now that’s out of the way.
Century successfully navigates that tricky territory between the conventional and the inaccessible, demanding the reader’s full attention, and rewarding it, while retaining enough mystery to sustain, I expect, many readings. You continually detect movement in your peripheral vision, things you can’t quite spot, no matter how quickly you turn your head. When, halfway through a novel, you find yourself thinking that, man, you just gotta re-read this thing at least once, well, that’s a damn good book.
How to approach it? Century, in essence, explores familiar territory in an unfamiliar way. Yes, this is a Canadian novel: a multigenerational saga that follows the repeated tragedies of a single family, whose women keep kicking the bucket against the sweeping backdrop of history. Of a century, in fact. Oh, it’s not quite canonical Canlit; it lacks a prairie landscape, wendigoes, and snow – but these are mere quibbles. The story, if you like, is conventional.
The storytelling is anything but. The timeline moves back, rather than forward, so the story is necessarily discontinuous, more so because Smith obscures the relationships between the characters. Names are not often mentioned; it is easy to miss who is whose parent, who is whose doomed daughter. Smith follows the family tree back through the generations without leaving a map. Each chapter is a jump cut; one does not lead back to the next, and consequently, one feels that they are separate stories.
But they aren’t. Patterns of behaviour and the concerns of the characters repeat themselves back through the generations. The sins of the parents are visited on their children; the same personal failures play themselves out again and again, to the point that you want to re-read the book just to see how the last chapter may play out in the first, in ways that perhaps you initially failed to recognize. This is, then, a single, unified narrative, not a collection of stories; it simply refuses to play itself out in the way we expect.
Henry James said that the only obligation of a novel was to be interesting. This one is fascinating.
And the writing. The writing is oh-so-artful, diction and syntax changing as we cast backwards in time; Smith does not allow himself to be trapped within the dictates of any particular style. This is a writer with a well-oiled gearbox, and he shifts gears smoothly without ever mistiming the clutch.
Also, it’s short. Writers of sweeping historical novels, take note: thine asses have been handed thee, upon a platter.
Read it. Now.