Angie Abdou, The Canterbury Trail

Colour me surprised that the sword isn't the only thing than which the penis pen is mightier.

If you're on social media, you've almost certainly heard about Angie Abdou's novel The Canterbury Trail: it's on the shortlist for the BC and Yukon category in this year's Canada Reads competition on CBC, as well as the subject of a longish but very funny book trailer that'll explain this review's first line, so if it's news to you, well, maybe you're doing social media wrong!

Caveat: my book club is due to read this novel in April 2013 -- because we're just that organized -- so I'm not going to deal with the ending and risk spoiling it for them. It's possible that The Canterbury Trail can't make sense unless you figure out how the conclusion works, so I'm afraid that this review will be unsatisfying for anyone who's already read the novel, but that's what the comments area is for. Ask me there, and I'll tell you.

Readers have responded very positively to The Canterbury Trail  -- "wicked cool!" -- and it's easy to see why. Right from the beginning, we're introduced to characters of good humour who haul along with themselves, partly invisible to them, assorted signs of crisis. The pot-heads, for one, have complicated lives and suffer from community-based identity angst that's entirely separate from the shorthand everyone uses for them: potheads are people, too, if I can say that while sounding neither glib nor flip, and the same distinction applies for all these superficially stereotyped characters, because none of them are the stereotypes they seem at first to be. (Except maybe Cosmos. What could Abdou possibly have against earth-mother goddess hippies, anyway? I mean, really. Kind of limiting her Kootenays readership, if you ask me....)

The basic set-up is that in the fictional Kootenays town of Coalton, it's the closing down of winter, but there's one final mammoth dump of snow. Unbeknownst to each other, several groups of townsfolk make plans to head up the mountain via the Canterbury Trail to the free-use alpine cabin known as Camelot. The names have been invented and applied by the first character we meet, a retired English teacher who's fallen some distance off the deep end since his wife's death, so there's a Classical Western Civilization context mockingly (though also seriously, but don't tell anyone) overlaying what's otherwise a drug-fueled, sex-keen, powder-mad backcountry expedition. Since the groups are all unaware of each other's plans, they wind up over-stuffing the cabin and getting terribly in each other's way.

Each character voices one or more chapters, and setting aside the excitement of drugs and sex and powder, no one has an easy time of it. The preparation alone almost stops several characters from beginning, some barely survive the climb, and some suffer most at the mountaintop. Everything's complicated: there's no obvious plan either within the novel as a whole, until you get to the very end, or within the personal life that each character reflects in her or his chapters. Most importantly, each life is lived explicitly within a larger community, and in relation to the environment surrounding Coalton. These characters, like all of us, are fragments, are shards, and we keep getting to share their awareness of having been, in assorted ways, broken.

Which one is from Toronto?
I'm not going to deal with the novel's ending, but it shocked me. (The butler? NO! Really? The Lady Edith said WHAT?) I didn't expect it, and at first it seemed like a copout, but the further I get from the book, the more satisfying it becomes. The persistent attention to community and place, which throughout is hard to notice beneath the volubility of the characters and beside the complexity of their lives, means that something like this conclusion just plain makes sense. Seriously admirable stuff, a powerful and rich ending for what many readers are finding to be a fun, fun book.

If you want more than that on the ending, see you in the comments area; if you don't want more than that, read the comments area with caution!

A closing point: I mentioned readers' appreciation above, but academic responses have been harder to account for. For example, I absolutely love both ALECC and its magazine/journal The Goose, but Carolyn Krahn's review in the fall 2012 edition seemed to me off-target even for academic analysis. In remarking that The Canterbury Trail "lacks the multi-dimensional characterization and sophisticated class conflicts that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is widely praised for," for example, Krahn doesn't account for the distinction between a comic novel and a medieval poem, or for the canonical status of Chaucer -- seriously, it counts against Abdou that she isn't Chaucer? -- or for the basic concept of audience variability. On the audience question, Krahn finds these characters "not particularly likeable or even remotely realistic." This begs the question of whether Abdou wanted them to be either likeable or realistic: I'd guess we're not supposed to find any of them uniformly likeable, and I don't see this novel as prizing documentary realism. And many of the novel's readers would disagree with Krahn's assessment of likeability, too, so I'm more than a little puzzled by the absoluteness of her tone. (Full disclosure: I was on Krahn's examining committee for her MA.)

But, you know, academics. We do go on: you've got to figure out where we're coming from, before you decide whether we make much sense. This applies to every book review ever written by an academic, including (especially including?) me.


Bald Guy said…
Geoffrey Chaucer's pretty good, but he's no Angie Abdou, ya know?

Also, search engines don't notice formatting, not even "strikethrough" formatting, so this article is as we speak getting indexed under "mighty penises".

Which is fair enough I guess.
Angie Abdou said…
Ooops. Sorry. Wrong spot. I stumbled across here accidentally when I was googling for "mighty penises."
Angie Abdou said…
Seriously, though, I loved your review and can't wait to talk to your book club, especially about community, place, environment, and the ending. You raise so many interesting points - after reading your review I was all charged up to talk talk talk. Thanks! I agree that I didn't quite manage to turn Cosmos into a real person. I think of all the "types" I understand hers the least. I know people like that, but I don't "get" them. Anways, I can't wait for beers and books in Victoria. I agree that the academic review in the Goose was weird - all that talk about WHY (WHY?!!) I named the cabin Camelot. Um, huh? Academics. What can you do?
richard said…
Academics indeed. Glad you liked it, but if it everything lines up and you do make it here, you need to know that we're not all academics! Three of the ten are at UVic (me, Leach, Hooton), and the rest are spread among assorted non-academic work. Some months it's a book club; some months it's great to have a couple of drinks with the guys.

Definitely it'd be good to talk, though. I had some questions and thoughts that there wasn't room for, so maybe I'll ask those eventually.
Angie Abdou said…
Oh good - I knew David was in book club but I didn't know Matthew was. This will be fun. One thing about the ending - I had that exact finish in my mind right from the beginning of working on the novel. It started as a joke in response to people wanting a sequel to The Bone Cage - I figured if they want a closed ending, I'll give them a closed ending! It's OVER. But the more I wrote - the more it seemed to be the right ending. And the two characters who are less invested in petty identity politics (and the feud over what this place should be and who it belongs to) are the two who survive. The ending also works in terms of following the narrative arc of The Canterbury Tales (and parallels the retraction - in my mind at least). I only had second thoughts once the book hit the shelves and I started running into people around town who were reading it - "this book is so fun!" or "it's hilarious!" I had to fight an overwhelming urge to apologize before they even got there.

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