Sep 5, 2007

The Architects Are Here - book review

The Architects Are Here
by Michael Winter
Viking Canada, 384 pages, $34.00

Many authors are praised for having a ‘distinctive’ voice, but what, exactly, does the phrase actually mean? If it means a voice that is singular, unique, and immediately identifiable, then most authors, no matter the level of talent, are hardly ‘distinctive;’ a reader, without foreknowledge, would be hard-pressed to offer more than an educated guess as to the author of any one particular book.

There are exceptions, of course; no one would mistake a Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel for the work of anyone other than the maestro. And while Michael Winter may be a comparable neophyte, with the publication of his latest novel The Architects Are Here, he is well on his way to having one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian literature.

Winter, along with contemporaries Wayne Johnston and Kenneth J. Harvey, is among the new wave of Atlantic Province authors who fuse modern-day sensibilities with profound respect for the heritage of their forebears. The result, especially in the cases of the above three, is works of supreme originality and shattering insight, all the while leavened with doses of bracing Canadian wit.

The Architects Are Here is a similar animal, at once familiar and innovative, a dissection of lives born in-between the Newfoundland of old and the new. It is a portrayal of lives in flux during “the last days before people began sending a hologram of themselves to conferences, before we strapped on sensory devices and experienced other places without leaving our bedrooms, before the West sent robots to war instead of real American soldiers.”

The narrator Gabe, a novelist, writer for The Auto Trader, and previous Winter subject in This All Happened, has fallen in love with Nell Tarkington, a woman with strange ties to people in his past. Nell once had an affair with his best friend David’s father, and when she disappears after an argument, Gabe and David travel a meandering path from Toronto back to Newfoundland for answers to numerous questions.

The plot itself is the most familiar aspect of Winter’s tale, mixing elements of E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News with the basic elements of a Hollywood road movie (think Sideways by way of Goin’ Down the Road in reverse). The glory of Winter is his writing style, a sharp-edged yet brittle prose that cannot be adequately summarized in a few quick quotations.

Like a poem, Winter’s words must wash over the reader in its entirety, letting his asides and quick-cut thought edits bounce around in the readers’ mind, quietly revealing character through humour warm yet grim. Sentences such as, “Arthur was complicating grief-retirement with turning middle-aged and the resentment a man has of ploughing his carnal will into one woman for twenty years,” are wonderful in and of themselves, but it is Winter’s absolute command of voice which proves that his sublime previous novel The Big Why (a contender for the great 21st century Canadian novel) was no fluke.

Already in his short professional life, Winter has burst through the pack through his startling personal mix of lyrical cadence, imagination, and warmth. The Architects Are Here is proof positive that Michael Winter is something special.

Originally published in expurgated form in The Winnipeg Free Press, September 2, 2007..

1 comment:

John Mutford said...

Knock off two points from my Newfoundland cred- I still haven't read anything by Michael Winter. (Another four for Kenneth J. Harvey and Donna Morrissey!) But, you've convinced me that it's high time. Perhaps it was your glowing review, but then that single sentence you quoted probably would have sufficed.

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