Toronto: Cormorant, 2010.
The wonderful Buried in Print suggested this as a read for my dictionary month, and I am so glad she did. (Her review is here.) A finalist for the 2011 Toronto Book Award, this is King’s fifth novel. King has also written eight biographies, and in this book the biographical mode meets dictionary meets fiction.
Etienne Morneau, a reclusive young bank clerk who has found a comfortable home with his landlady after growing up in orphanages, is the fictive autobiographer of this novel. In the last five years of his life, he teaches himself to draw and makes thousands of drawings. After struggling for six months to write a conventional account of his life, amounting to just five pages, he adopts the dictionary as his vehicle for verbal self-expression. It is, he says, an attempt to reclaim some order from the chaos arising from his creative burst. From A to Z, he writes scenes and snippets that add up to a life.
Now, I’ve been reading dictionaries all month, and I have to say that it’s a form that really does lend itself to a clipping pace. One entry after the next, quick bursts of meaning and information, constant structural milestones that keep you going from A to Z. Yes, for fiction, there is some loss of narrative continuity, but with each entry, you start fresh, and when orphanhood is a prominent theme, that freshness, that lack of continuity, is all the more poignant.
The dominance of letters, words, is also striking because Etienne Morneau’s writing is secondary to his drawing. After his landlady finds thousands of drawings in his room after his early and sudden death (heart failure), she contacts a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who declares the dead man a “primitive artist of undoubted genius.” The fictive editor of this autobiographical manuscript does his work 40 years after the drawings are found and celebrated. This belatedness, and the fact that the reader never sees what his art is like, puts us, I think, in a position similar to Etienne’s: outsider looking in. As I read, I wished that this book had been given the T.S. Spivet treatment, with illustrations adorning the margins. But to deprive the reader of access to his visual art, is, after all, part of the impact of the story. As Etienne writes under BOOK, “For better or worse, pictures–not words–allow me to wander freely in the enchanted world of possibilities.” By depriving the reader of any purchase on what Etienne’s art looks like, we are deliberately left outside of his enchanted world, and we struggle along with him under the encumbrance of words.
King manages, even with such a rigid structure, to build suspense, to build up a narrative pace that moves from exposition to revelation. Under ALPHABET, Etienne writes,
I have a penchant for facts. No doubt about that. Once, during the middle of an examination by a physician, I noticed the acronym ‘OCD’ in large red capital letters next to my name.
In large part, this story writes back to the diagnosis in those three letters. He reveals to the reader so much more than is dismissed by the label. He is self-deprecating, honest to a fault, but he is also capable of great warmth. For each letter of the alphabet, Etienne precedes his catalogue of words with a character sketch of the letter:
H is a model of simplicity and integrity. Its fence-like structure prevents it from having any pretence to handsomeness. The crossbar dividing its two verticals must be rendered expressively for it to have any hope of catching the eye. If a letter can be said to be a wallflower, that claim can be made for H. I often think myself its human equivalent.
Luckily, words and pictures allow him much more scope than OCD and wallflower, and his dictionary was a wonderful read.