Steven Price, Into That Darkness

Aptly titled, this novel: Into That Darkness is precisely where Steven Price takes us with his debut novel, about a devastating earthquake that hits the Pacific Northwest. The novel is set entirely in Victoria, though there are vague and conflicting media references about what's happened in Vancouver and Seattle after the quake (which is claimed at different points to range between 8.1 and 9.0, and lord help us if it's accurate about what an 8.1 will do to us), so in some ways it's nice just to be nominated, as it were, but this really is literary disaster porn.

Finely described injuries, the recreation of horrible smells, humans gone feral: this novel has it all, in the relatively small space of under 300 pages. I'm okay with a little disaster porn, I should say, viz. my comments on Cormac McCarthy's excruciating The Road, but Price's is a painful novel. I didn't dream well while reading it, and he's to be commended for bringing that home into my head. I may punch him in consequence, I hope playfully, if he ends up attending our upcoming book club meeting, but it's a good sign that he's done so.

Mind you, the disaster isn't the only reminder of The Road here, and I'm a little unsure how I feel about that. Most obvious at the level of page layout is simply that Price, like McCarthy, decided to eschew the lowly quotation mark, so dialogue blends into exposition and the rest of the prose. (Oddly, the blog stats claim that my long-ago post on McCarthy is one of Google's favourite places to send people interested in McCarthy's punctuation, but I'm certainly no expert.) Price, I assume like McCarthy, gets rid of punctuation marks out of sympathy for how stripped-down society becomes after a disaster. I guess it's appropriate, but I'm not sure where the boundaries are between homage and imitation.

And the young boy / parent dyad is common to McCarthy, too, though I like Price's move - perhaps a tad too CanCon multiculti - to have a nonwhite boy walking with an unrelated elderly white man. It raises some additional questions and resonances of race and age, generation and community, that McCarthy's novel ignores, again to Price's credit.

There are some great lines in the book, thoughtful and concise, such as Arthur Lear's quietly passed-over epiphany soon after the quake has hit: "He understood that very little of what he had outlived mattered" (p.35). Price's form is intriguing, too, in that the third-person narrative that mostly follows Lear (and occasionally gets inside his head) is regularly interrupted by italicized passages of interior monologue by the main wandering characters; these energize the deliberately spare main narrative by enlivening these laconic, stunned characters apparently suffering from shock.

I've only finished Into That Darkness just tonight, so I need to think a little more about it, but right now I'm surprised I didn't like the novel more. I appreciate the artistry, and the evocation of catastrophe in the place where I live, but I was never swept up in it the way I expected to be, given the kinds of positive thoughts I was having as I was going through it.

Given this book club's feelings about Clara Callan, it's perhaps unwise to bring it up as a comparison piece. And given the wild success of Price's spouse, novelist Esi Edugyan, to whom Into This Darkness is dedicated, what I said four years ago about Richard Wright's award-winner might seem unnecessarily biting against Price. I don't mean it that way, because I enjoyed this novel far, far more than I did Clara Callan, and some major literary prizes are won by terrific novels. But I did feel like Into That Darkness is such a readerly novel, showing so many of the traditional cues for High-Quality Literary Canadian Fiction, especially by a poet, that I found myself getting what I expected from it. That shouldn't sound like a complaint, should it? It does, I know it does, but I'm not entirely sure why it should. Hrrm.

Really a good novel, this, so maybe I've just read too much (what?!? Blasphemy!) to really find the pleasure in it that others seem to. I'm not the only one with misgivings of one kind or another, but professional reviewers out there are close to unanimous that it's a very special novel, and I'm completely confident that they read even more than I do. (And by the way, Thomas Allen, keep your links alive! Most of the newspaper reviews on your Into That Darkness pages are dead....)

And for the record, one R.J. Wiersema found the novel worth rhapsodizing about in the National Post, so what the hell do I know:
"Into That Darkness is many things: a novel of survival, a collection of post-apocalyptic quests, an account of loss in its myriad forms, and of hope at its most vital and true. It’s a fundamentally human work that draws deep into the soul and the spirit. It is also that rarest of books, a literary novel with the narrative momentum of genre or commercial writing. It is, above all, compelling and real, a novel that will satisfy at every level."


Anonymous said…
I am in accordance with the reviewer with respect to expecting something more. I too enjoyed this well-written story. Yet the ending seems to peter out.

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