Ghosts in the Wilderness
Andrew Pyper’s thrilliing debut adds a pinch of the supernatural to canada’s heady literary stew
By Catherine Lockerbie, The Scotsman Saturday, 6 May 2000
It must be something in the water, or in the wilderness. The great empty spaces of Canada seem strangely crowded with world-class writers: Michael Ondaatje (interviewed on these pages last week), the late Robertson Davies, Alastair MacLeod, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Carol Shields, Anne Michaels. (Note, and ponder, the proportion of women). They write prose and poetry of poised accomplishment: carefully weighted words reaching toward quiet revelation. There is nothing histrionic in these writers, though there may be contained harshness the sense, however indirectly, of small humans making their way through northern vastnesses. Margaret Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian literature, Survival, proposed that the experience of the wilderness, the hostile extremes of the elements, has profoundly influenced the writing of the land.
Cut to Montreal or Toronto: not much sense of northern vastness there, however much the spring snow submerges the city streets and cascades in skull-shattering blocks of ice from the skyscrapers. These are dynamic, modern cities bursting at the sassy seams with literary activity – a vibrant Francophone culture in Montreal, an astonishing concentration of anglophone authors in Toronto. Much of this activity derives from, but simultaneously spins away form, the wise and weighty presence of the great sages. There is a compressed history at work here. Five decades ago, Canadian writing barely registered in world consciousness. Two decades ago, world consciousness embraced it with awe, recognising a quite extraordinary generation of authors. In this first decade of the millennium that generation is at the height of its powers, and has cleared a path for the next generation. Young writers are scrambling over sundry barricades in ever-increasing hordes: breaking free.
(Scots, of course – and many of the finest Canadian writers are of Scottish descent, including Margaret Atwood, Alastair Macleod and Alice Munro, descendant of James Hogg – will profoundly reconise aspects of this cultural awakening, this assertion of identity, this finding voice and confidence.)
Andrew Pyper, 32 years old, has a huge new bestseller on his hands with his debut novel Lost Girls, just published in Britain (Macmillan, £12) and which swept all before it last year in Canada. There has been much excitement, big international publishing deals, film rights being auctioned (movie directors looking for more horror in the woods, post-Blair Witch Project, says Pyper, wryly). Part enigmatically atmospheric ghost story, part hard-edged thriller, Lost Girls usefully cracks a number of moulds. Its dysfunctional hero is a cocaine-snorting lawyer, to whom morality is as malleable as a pile of white powder, a member of a spectacularly cynical law firm defending in a disturbing murder case. A teacher is accused of killing two girl students at a lake seemingly haunted by the ghost of a distraught mother whose daughters had been taken away, herself murdered. The book which has been described, in a phrase which delights Pyper, as “the secret love child of Alice Munro and Stephen King”. It has seduced and puzzled the Canadian critics, slipping away from the sage-like norm, offering spikier, more unsettling pleasures.
Andrew Pyper himself, instantly open, enthusiastic and friendly and looking a decade younger than his years, is a highly intelligent observer of and participant in the Canadian literary scene. He trained as a lawyer; the vitriol in the book is personal. He shakes his head at the memory of the naked ambition, the ethical insouciance of his former colleagues, of whom the hideously slick and manipulative lawyers in the novel are a composite. “I’d rather have been a waiter than stuck with the law,” he says over endlessly replenished cups of coffee on the edge of Toronto’s bustlingly exotic Chinatown. Now he’s a journalist, writer-in-residence, bestselling novelist, part and parcel of the dynamic new writing wave.
“Lost Girls is unlike the normal Canadian tradition,” he says, “in its suspense plotting, its sprinkling of the supernatural. We’ve come to think of Canadian novels as quiet, introverted, light on event, full of subtle but fine observation. Their political point of view tends to be quite earnest. Moral confusion is not a Canadian hallmark.”
Nor is literary confusion. “The critical response to Lost Girls has been to struggle to figure out how to approach it,” says Pyper. “It has a hero you cannot like, and it is unclear who is the bad guy. Some have evaluated it on how effective its mystery twist is. Is it a genre novel, or is it literary? I don’t think the question would be posed in the same way in other countries – with, for example, the work of Ian McEwen in Britain. Here, any evidence of the supernatural means the book gets thrown into the genre bin.”
This supernatural elements are handled here with the lightest of touches – Carrie it is not. The murdered girls seem to appear before Barth, the strung-out lawyer subsisting on his brain-juddering doses of cocaine – it will transpire that the unpleasantly ambitious city slicker Barth has deeper connections with the case, and the lake, and the locale than is first evident. We learn more of the murdered lady of the lake, passing into local legend as a ghost mournfully seeking lost girls to replace the daughters wrenched from her.
Pyper pays specific tribute to The Turn of The Screw. “This is essentially a story of disappearance – people, young women, do disappear, there are motiveless crimes, crimes I cannot understand. We need to seek in the furthest reaches of our imagination to understand, into the area where evil intercedes. I wanted to involve ghosts as a moral presence in the novel, to keep questioning whether they are real or not. In Turn of the Screw, does the governess really see ghosts or is it her psychosis? I wanted that to be as finely sharpened a blade as I could make it.”
The apparent hauntings serve further purposes. We learn that the Lady, who would bathe naked in the woods, escaped from the mental hospital where the God-fearing community incarcerated her, that same community decided on a more final solution to this unsettling madwoman and pursued her as a lynch mob, out onto the cracking ice…”Canadians love to present themselves as morally superior to Americans,” says Pyper. “Ontario is forever referring to the Presbyterian Protestant foundation. I wanted to engage with that too, focus on our founding fathers doing something wrong.”
Although it subverts certain cherished notions, and is altogether sharper, pacier, arguably more commercial (and in many parts, funnier) than the august model of the slow, exquisitely observed, action-free great Canadian novel, Lost Girls is still demonstrably part of that tradition. It opens with a resonant and beautifully written scene, a childhood summer memory of a lake, a canoe and a girl falling in – the lake, a great stretch of alluring, dangerous water, as vital a presence in this book as in Margaret Atwood’s classic, Surfacing. Indeed, as Barth ventures further away from the wisecracking certainties of the city, into untamed territory, it could be argued that the book slots neatly into Atwood’s Survival thesis: that even young city writers like Pyper feel the pull of the menacing north on their characters.
“It is a potentially terrifying stretch of wilderness,” says Pyper, “and Barth is environmentally nervous from the start. In one sense, it is our version of the Gothic. We don’t have ruined castles to locate a sense of the malevolent in, so we locate it in nature instead.”
The wilderness seeps in, the lake lays claim to lives, the woods are dark and deep – but Pyper insists he belongs to a generation of writers who owe as much to John Grisham as to Carol Shields, or indeed who are inventing entirely new forms. He reels off the names of some of his peers, not yet published in Britain (where readers and publishers alike are in something of a time-lag, just catching up with the first post-war wave of Canadian writers while the second wave is already thundering in) – Russell Smith writes Evelyn Waugh-ish comic novels set in Toronto, Lyn Crosbie is experimentalist and controversial. Derek McCormack is “micro-minamalist gay.”
Pyper speaks of the sheer excitement of Toronto, a “literary magnet” where these new genres jostle where every spring and autumn there are launches and book parties every night of the week (Montreal acts as a similar focus for Francophone writers – a radically separate subject). The Harbourfront festival is the long-established leading literary event; Pyper talks too of Word on The Street, a huge event more like a rock festival. “There’s a palpable sense of energy and adventure,” he says. “We feel we don’t have to justify Canadian writing any more, we can get down to experimenting with all manner of different styles. When I was at university, Canadian writing mean Atwood, Munro and Ondaatje, and only them. We’re still in their shadow – those are long shadows – but there’s a new confidence, there is no sense of stylistic constraint. We’re really in the surging wake created by those leaders – it is extraordinary that for the first time in the country’s entire history we have nine or ten writers of indisputable international quality.”
That activity is self-perpetuating, a benign and busy cycle of literary growth. “The level of attention on young writers now is unprecedented,” says Pyper, an outstanding beneficiary of that attention. “It used to be, that if all went well, novel number five would win a small award and after decades of diligent writing you might win a lifetime prize.” Now young writers are leapfrogging to the top. “The idea of Canadian fiction is being exploded and diversified,” says Pyper, happily. “It needed to happen – the canon did feel a little claustrophobic. We want to make a space within Canada where anything goes. We want to get away from the notion of literature as bitter medicine. It doesn’t have to be edifying: it can be delightful, strange, sexy, limitless.” Out in the wilderness, somewhere, the wind whispers assent.