‘The O’Briens’ by Peter Behrens

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Is there such a thing as the general reader? Having never written for one, and suspecting that there are three species (thinking reader, mindless reader, and non-reader) I’ve wondered from time to time if the general reader is a book abandoner.

When I was young, I purposely read textbooks several grades ahead. Why? So I could read them, of course! Not because I could learn from them in the usual sense— I barely understood a word— but they were books, and I respected them as books. I picked them up, apprehended them as objects, and read every word inside as if it had relevance and meaning to someone who was blissfully at sea.

From elementary school I moved to Junior High and Russian nineteenth century novelists. The Brothers Karamazov in grade seven! This admission could only be considered bragging to people who don’t believe that there are readers who read beyond their means because they aspire to write the books they are reading, books that are better than they are able to know.

Although the times were different then, with much less of the stuff about, I’ve never read a YA novel unless it was assigned. And why would I? The best books— not the best panderers— were there for the reading. In the libraries and in the stores. In Mr. Bemrose’s English class at Harold Peterson, the class coloured title pages (Oh, sad day for English… a major part of our mark was the colour scheme for those title pages) for Hills End while I was trying my best not to stare out the window at the military tenements, watching naked toddlers running out of doors and wives hanging clothes from lines. At the last minute I scribbled a caution sign with the block letters HILLS END on it. I got a 1/5.

Books beyond my ken bored me. I was terribly bored! Those books were boring, but I never stopped reading them because they were boring. I read them because I had them in my hand. I had made a decision. They were mine. I was theirs. We would read each other. They were a kind of training.

When I hear an acquaintance tell me of their easy conquerability, I don’t tell them about a twelve-year-old reading Dostoevsky. I tell them instead about my younger self pre-Peter Behrens, a self that had its share of crises of faith that up to that point had culminated with the figure of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. I quote a line of Mandelstam, just to prove I’m serious, and then I inform them about Nadezhda Mandelstam’s mammoth Hope Against Hope, a biography that has all the fun of a concrete pillow: it puts you to sleep and hurts at the same time. I then say that reading that tome got so bad I had to limit myself to 50 pages a day. This sounds like a vast sum to them, but to me it is an admission of defeat, for I hit 50 after several bathroom breaks, rehydration safaris, ceiling stucco investigations, and inventing a hundred thousand alternatives to what I was doing. I then admit that, purely out of spite, I got Nadezhda’s follow up volume, Hope Abandoned, an even worse book because there was less of Osip in it. I tell them I read it too.

The lesson: don’t give up hope!

Peter Behrens’ book The O’Briens seemed a small enough task to review, being a Canadian historical novel involving both world wars and centred around a self-made patriarch called Joe. (Woe is Joe.) I had no idea that such an innocuous device (a Canadian historical novel! Involving the wars! I’ve read that book over and over!) would test my unbroken string of completed books to the very limit. Nadezhda was a translator by trade, and I think if she got a hold of Behrens’ book, she could have improved it.

To dispense with plot: a fierce young boy of Irish stock (Joe) gets out of poverty by befriending a troubled priest. The priest takes care of the boy and his family, eventually making sure that all of the boy’s siblings escape the rural fates they’d otherwise be condemned to. This scatters the children, giving Behrens the latitude to seed his narrative in different directions. That doesn’t happen; Behrens mostly sticks to Joe as a character. Although Behrens does write from the point of view of Joe’s wife, brothers, and children (but not his sisters; they get shipped off to a convent and die of influenza. Goodbye!) it’s hard not to conclude that Behrens has only one way to write: the Faux Lyrical. Everyone sounds the same, because everyone speaks and thinks lyrical blah blah.

Faux Lyrical is not to be confused with Baroque Lyrical, otherwise known in reviewer parlance as “poetic.” These latter practitioners (Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels to name the most prominent) are prose impressionists. They do not care to state a thing, hoping only to capture the essence of a thing. The essences they seek the most are of nothingness and absence. For them, straightforwardness is for losers. I read Baroque Lyrical books with the resignation of the mythical general reader: as recommended books, I begin them because everyone else purportedly has. I feel part of the sweep and tide! But I finish them because books have only me to blame for my own laziness. They are indeed terrible, but no book messes with The Streak.

Faux Lyrical, on the other hand, is worse than Baroque Lyrical. Worse because Baroque Lyrical can always teach me something. BL is on the DL: it has its share of poetry and keeps me on my toes, for I both need to find the poetry (it’s there in the oases) and I also need to maintain a sense of humour while labouring in the salt mines of humourlessness. I need to be able to laugh at Ondaatjean strain and Michealsigonian poignancy. I don’t want to miss the unintentional jokes, because they’re there. The message for me as a poet-reader is to be very careful with my own “poetic.”

Faux Lyrical can’t teach me a single thing, nor can it teach the three varieties of reader anything. Mindless readers are hopeless cases, for they don’t think and can’t be taught to think. Non-readers won’t read FL either, for they don’t read and reap a great benefit thereby. It’s the thinking reader that’s the worst off, for such a reader tries to profit from Behrens honestly through characterization, historical data, and, especially, from style.

The book I’m unfondly reminded of is Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. Macleod’s prose if oft described as “stately” and “elegant.” There’s craftsmanship in his short story collections, but his only novel is the ur-text of Faux Lyricism. To go back to that book would give me the headache of Nadezhda’s concrete pillow or a toothache destined for Alexander MacDonald’s drill.  (MacDonald is the main character from No Great Mischief. He’s a dentist.) I read the book while my wife drove down the 401, on our way to Nova Scotia from Barrie. I remember wondering how a good short story writer could go so wrong with a novel (not so uncommon in Canada).

I came upon MacLeod’s sentence about the very highway we were using. Behold, Macleod was channelling the 401’s essence! (The 401 in real life is a highway that avoids civilization as much as it can, a highway of service centres that keep you upon it without ever entering an actual place.) This thought was by MacDonald and it went something like this: “The 401 was straight and true, and if you were true to it, it would be true to you.” This sentence represented the thought of a dentist, I admit it’s reconstructed (non-readers shall be condemned to go and check, should there be any challenges) but I realized at that moment that No Great Mischief championed a strain of writing in Canada that had as its chief virtue a hushed amazement at the sanctimony of itself, the plodding boredom of capturing essences. Macleod took his title from Wolfe’s infamous “who cares” reference to impending Scottish casualties, and he was trying to capture the Cape Breton essence with his Cape Bretoner characters. He wrote with all the stylistic imagination of the inventor of linoleum— stately only to inhabitants of dirt floor Highlander huts.

Faux Lyrical tries to be beautiful. It aspires to the lush economy of lyric, and in doing so it only achieves the polish of great-grandma’s silver. Here’s a Behrens paragraph taken at random from the first 100 pages (ominously, it took me more than a day to get that far):

I am an orphan, Iseult thought to herself. An orphan led westward, windward, by a young man whose wrists and hands are brown and glossy smooth as the branches of a manzanita tree.

Iseult, Joe’s future wife, can’t really call herself an orphan, for she’s a grown woman by now. Furthermore, it’s not reflective of her character, for she proves to be a fairly resilient person throughout the novel. (To call oneself an adult orphan when one’s remaining parent dies is melodramatic, and Iseult has enough real pain to have the veracity of drama.) Moreover, there’s the grand gesticulating (endemic in Faux Lyrical novels) of “windward, westward,” a phrase that’s even more damning when one considers the alliteration (w’s) and repetition (ward). To repeat about Behrens’ additional repetition, to call oneself an orphan again is compounding the overblown. The most telling detail is the lyrical mush of wrists like a “manzanita tree.” It’s true that such a tree exists in California, the setting of this part of the novel, but it’s the fallback position of the faux lyricist: when in doubt, use a magic-sounding word.

Faux Lyricism is also heavily dependent upon vagueness, or what I call Higher Vagueness. Higher Vagueness is deployed in the absence of specifics. The novelist provides a character’s motivations or purpose with abstract words that, in their sheer frequency, become a traffic jam of absence. Or nothingness. Or both:

What sort of passion might spill in this house? The houses she’d known had all spoken her family’s dark language. Venice, California, was awfully far from everyone and everything, but did that matter? She had enough income to live modestly. She was prepared to be lonely for a while. In a bare little house of her own she might find clarity and calm, she might find her own purpose.

The only thing to find here is bankrupt exposition with a few familiar tricks (alliteration with “everyone and everything” and embedded repetition to boot, the c’s of “clarity and calm” and the overblown “dark language.”) Faux Lyricism’s narrative is a subtle as the score for slasher flicks: something Terribly Meaningful is sure to happen when the Higher Vagueness violin strings start to screech.

There’s so much stupid thought record replete with dumb rhetoricals and vapid cliché that one yearns for the relative mercy of Baroque Lyricism. I’ll quote one last representative Behrens paragraph:

The fact was that she had been following some instinct she barely understood. Her mother would have called it a whim. It was more than that, but it wasn’t a carefully thought-out plan. They walked in silence for a while and he seemed lost in thought. Was he mulling over her response?

I admit, this passage has even less lyricism in it than the last (here we aren’t given a single image.) But that’s the point: eventually, Faux Lyricism can’t help but declare itself as Bad Writing because that’s exactly what it is, and bad writing cannot be sustainedly bad when it is trying to be better than it is. Eventually the prose becomes a concrete pillow.

Faux Lyricism can’t exist without its overwrought symbols. Though not nearly as funny as Baroque Lyricism, the Faux symbols provide genuine laughs. Especially with regards to the matter of sex: always tricky for any writer, boinking is particularly silly when channelled in Faux. Whereas Ondaatje can refer to a woman’s “dark cave” or a man’s penis as “sleeping like a seahorse” and induce requisite snickers, the Faux can be counted on to make any serious reader hee-haw with passages like this:

“I think of your body,” he said. “Your scent. There’s nothing more powerful to me.”

Her shyness was becoming a kind of excitement as she unbuttoned the waistband of her narrow grey skirt.

“You’re the flower,” he said. “Your body’s the flower. That’s how it seems to me.”

Ah, two emotionally constipated Canadian shaggers, gettin’ it on with flower imagery as the backdrop! Behrens makes a lot of passenger trains in this book, doing so because the protagonist begins his career as a builder of railroads, but also because almost every time Joe and Iseult do it, there’s a train a-movin’ somewhere. Choo choo. Chugga chugga…

To be fair, Behrens is able to write better when incited to do so by dramatic events. The First World War causes Behrens to use characters other than the wooden Joe and his wife. Joe’s brother Grattan serves in the war, is damaged by it, and the prose documenting his slide, fascinatingly, abandons Faux Lyricism altogether and ventriloquizes Baroque Lyricism. Here’s direct quotation (the ellipses are Behrens own):

…the most sullen mamazelle last night in Paris lush sweet thing my god the right girl tastes like a berry, Joe, bursts in your mouth, we must have done the jig four or five times…

…sisters, worked in the officers’ estaminet tea and fried potatoes papa is an officier belgique it cost 2 francs well-spent did you ever make two at one time Joe I’m feeling old this morning believe me…

…has a lovely white belly and a black bush and doesn’t speak a word the whole way through…

…had another girl on the train, gave her one fr., she screamed bloody murder… did you ever notice, Joe, that a cunt is awfully like a wound? You can buy a girl at Amiens for a cup of chocolate, some of them are all right, I used to think they ought to be pretty, though to tell you the truth just about anything will do.

Trade “dark cave” for “wound” and there you have it! With a dash of train! Behrens is cheating here, as many Canadian novelists have done before him. When in doubt, use a cataclysm to give a dud armament some boom.

Sooner or later the Faux needs to compensate for crudity with pearls of exquisite wisdom gleaned from the halls of Harlequin. The following gems occur in just a few consecutive pages (good things come in threes):

Being in love made silences intimate and magical.

Love had awakened a terrible sense of incompleteness.

So this is what people called love. Literally it caused a weakness in the knees.

It’s weakness I’ll close with. I finished the book with a terrible sense of incompleteness that comes with the conversion of a thinking reader into a mindless one. I read the book just to keep The Streak alive. I couldn’t laugh past the halfway point because I was reading prose so earnestly cynical it could only be read to be believed. When I realized that there was an earnestly cynical book in existence I understood that there was a paradoxical reason for a thinking reader to read Behrens. The thinking reader might turn into a mindless one, but in the end they’d switch back. The O’Briens is Finnegans Wake in the Porridge Universe. It comes out the other end. And you’re better.

Anansi | 432 pages |  $32.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-0887842290

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Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.