‘Mirror on the Floor’ by George Bowering

Mirror coverReviewed by Victor Enns

Puff and blow, puff and blow. Damn. Spill some of the Jameson, three fingers poured over just the right amount of ice, stumbling on the steps to the writing studio. Problem, the Grolsch in the other hand. 

Plumps! Seat of pants to seat of chair with an Anvil Press 2014 reissue of George Bowering’s first novel propped between the keyboard and screen. Problem, the wrist splints for carpal metacarpal arthritis.

What, or rather why the hell am I reviewing a first novel by someone whose bio blurb credits him with over 100 publications and being distinguished, rather than extinguished like a cigarette, before he was 47 as with Jack Kerouac. More cigarettes in this novel than Mad Men. Kerouac the flipside, the beats sneering at Madison Avenue, living in a world they made up as they went along, no anxiety about their influences in hot or cool jazz, or keeping Wolf’s stream of consciousness in another country.

It’s 1967. Canada’s Centennial, Expo 1967. Brother went. Bobby Gimby, playing our second century into existence on television. Bowering was in Vancouver, the west coast so far away from the rest of the Canada other than a passing reference in the book’s scant 160 pages the rest of the country might as well have been another.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lord of the Flies, Trout Fishing in America were also published in 1967. Canada was still struggling to find a voice, with Margaret Atwood’s poetry leading the way, novels retrograde. Mirror on the Floor on no one’s list of important books in 1967.

Reading literature from 1969-1972, beginning with leg in traction on the fifth floor of the Misercordia Hospital before hip pinned and three months of recovery; Portrait of an Artist, Waves, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, On the Road, Trout Fishing left around the house, traces of older brother.

Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, was published in 1967, now having sold 50 million copies. Nabokov was writing Ada (published in 1969) having hit the mother lode with Lolita in 1955. Kerouac was pretty much done, and the book of his this novel reminds me most of is The Subterraneans, written in 1953 but published in1957, and also John Clellon Holmes’ Go.

Ah, he said, I have a rubric from an earlier review, Pinboy, a more recent outing (2012) and a chronological prequel of sorts to Mirror on the Floor. Most telling difference between the two is their length, with Pinboy at 250 pages, too long, while the 160 pages in the Mirror get the job done.

Suitability of the form to the content

In its rerelease Mirror on the Floor is marketed as evocative of an age and of a Canadian city. Remnants of the Beat Generation may have reached Vancouver in the mid-sixties, a decade late, as everything coming from the United States usually is, and has the flavour of the East Van streets pretentious grad students might seek out as a relief from their studies, such as they might be, and their summer jobs. This traditional first-person novel works just fine to carry the local colour etc. etc., though contemporary filmmakers would probably ring up for CGI as it is the background only, something it shares with Pinboy. Once you get past the cigarette smoke you get to the Mirror on the Floor, a much better book than its title and cover.

Story/Plot/Narrative Strategies

Mirror = Narcissus, especially as it’s on the floor = lake. This seems a little bit of superfluous psychology also from the 1960s, but likely a McGuffin as the Freudian psychology this novel turns on is an unsuccessfully resolved Electra complex as protagonist Bob Small’s mysterious girlfriend, Andrea, the Daddy’s girl, makes the Vancouver Sun headline “BEATNIK GIRL SLAYS MOTHER.”

It is a damn fine story, well told, and interesting to read as long as you can ignore the ’60s wallpaper.

Surprise and refreshment (renewal or advancement of the form)

In Canada, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook was published in 1959, now often credited as this country’s first modernist novel. Leonard Cohen ‘s The Favourite Game was published in the US and England in 1963. Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, now often credited as Canada’s first postmodern novel, was published in 1967.

Mirror on the Wall reflects the American influences on west coast writing, which included the Black Mountain School’s influence on coastal poetry. Bowering’s long poem Baseball was published by Coach House in the same year, and his first selected by M & S in 1971.  He was also one of the many founders of the experimental Tish magazine in Vancouver.

Auto(biographical)fiction is now much talked about, but it wasn’t even fresh in 1967, though the label may be new in this century. What would have been considered novel when the book was first published would have been the use of language, its grit, and the successful representation and retelling of the Elecktra story. This mythology, unsurprisingly, holds up much better than the language or the story of two bored Vancouver grad students in the mid 1960s.

Character development

Bob Small, George Delsing, Andrea. George Bowering. All good, and one of the strengths of the book.

Use of Language (style, metaphors etc.)

“Delsing and I were grinding through the summer, picking away each day as it hung before us. “
Enough said.

Dialogue

“Well that’s the whole trouble, because you want a me to fit in your imagination, and I just have to tell you I don’t. Period.”

“Andrea, I don’t care what you’ve done –”
“I haven’t done anything!”…

“I’ve heard people talk like that in novels, that’s all.” I said, then suddenly thought it was all real and people do talk like that, and I was living in a world like she said.

Most rewarding theoretical approach

Sunday morning. Strong black coffee, a white mug. He needs to remind himself of the choices as proposed in his daughter’s English paper. Historical and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.

The winners are 1) psychoanalytic, 2) historical and biographical criticism.  Sitting in the bars chatting up ancient mariners and dock-workers and calling your fellow grad student “comrade” not enough for a rewarding Marxist reading,

Most irritating aspect of the book

Bowering’s use of italics in the text.

Recommended secondary text

George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992. I like especially “Feet, Not Eyes” which begins “How I got close the prairie” (p. 42) dated 1968.

Conclusion

Recommended.


Anvil | 160 pages | $18.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927380956

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