Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

Our book club is approaching its seven-year anniversary, with just the sorts of tearful expectations that you'd expect from ten guys who drink beer monthly while working gamely to find something to say about a book only a few of them seriously appreciated. You'd be right to see this as an occasion deserving every bit of your attention, because awesomeness, but actually I mention it only to stress the rarity of what happened last night.


Average member of a men-only book club
Every single one of us gave us the ol' Charlie Sisters thumbs up to Patrick deWitt's nouveau Western The Sisters Brothers. Heck of a book, Brownie, so it wouldn't have surprised any of us to hear that most of us liked it, but all ten members liking the same book? First time ever, among 63 books, and we've read some seriously good stuff over the years.

I loved The Sisters Brothers, I did, and you will too, so stop reading this inane blog and pick up a copy, yet somehow I found myself unable to stop complaining about the novel. In my defense, someone wouldn't leave me alone about it, but still: I had complaints, even if I'm still not sure that I trust them, so rather than rave about the book the way so many reviewers have so sensibly done, I'm going to try to explain them.

Forewarned, as they say, is four-armed.

Caveat: I should confess that I read this book in sustained bursts over three consecutive days, including while walking between my home and my work. Immersiveness always suggests that a book's really worth your time, but it's not a state of mind invariably conducive to careful thinking.

The easiest way for me to describe it is to say that the whole time I was reading The Sisters Brothers, one corner of my brain was busily developing just a terribly, terribly amateurish -- but still at least marginally acceptable -- MA thesis on the novel's symbolism. I'm an academic, so you may think this comes naturally to me, but honestly, this never happens. I get distracted by details, find myself seduced by one gem or another, can't stop keeping an eye on my overall sense of how I feel about the book, but I never automatically imagine in this clarity the kind of interpretive framework that wouldn't leave me alone this time around.

So when someone last night said that the novel was really only about the characters, rather than the events or the setting or anything else, I only barely managed to avoid going full academic and harangue the entire bar about allegory, post-colonialism, and the literature of resource extraction.

Thus saving myself, to be sure, at least a few punches in the teeth.

(Spoilers start here. Sorry, but I'm going to work first through bits of the conclusion to make my point, and hit a few other details after that.)

At the very end of the novel, the Sisters brothers return home after many years away, changed men, to see their mother once again. The more calculating and more consistently violent older brother, Charlie, has lost his gun hand, and as a result the younger, Eli, has become something of a leader.

When they first left home, they did so with Charlie having killed their father for assaulting their mother too severely one last time. When they come back, the scarecrow in the garden is wearing their father's clothes; Eli goes over to check the pockets, and empties them (even though they contain only a couple of burned matches). Yep, they've now both violated their father, even if Eli's violation is only a symbolic one.

When Charlie killed their father, he was immediately solicitous of their mother, driving her to town to get her arm set and leaving the babe Eli to get a horrifying sunburn. When the brothers return home, Eli is solicitous of their mother (whose arm never did set properly), asking permission to enter the house and giving her time to get presentable; he leaves Charlie outside to look after himself. Just in case you missed the parallel: "I don't know if I should leave him outside like that" (p322).

It's a return to their life at home, before they left to work as hit men for the Commodore: a return to innocence (Charlie in his mother's bedroom = nursery, Eli in the bath = womb). It's a nostalgic return to pastoral innocence, more broadly, not just something related to this family, and I made the rookie book club mistake of a classical allusion ("Virgil? What the fuck with VIRGIL? Geddafuckouttahere!"), but now that I think of it, Horace was really the right reference point. ("Horace? What the ... etc?") They're going to help look after their garden, tend and harvest what the earth brings forth.

And the crying man is a Greek chorus, lamenting the destruction of the land and the decadence of the culture.

And the pathetic kid who keeps getting hit in the head is The Fate Of Our Children.

And the dead beavers are -- no, not Canada -- The Fate Of Nature In A Resource Extraction Economy, and also a stand-in for those First Nations populations who were exploited and/or extinguished in the name of gold (or furs, or oil, or whatever).


/rant over/

Genuinely, I loved The Sisters Brothers: it reminded me more of Cormac McCarthy than I wish it did, and I'm of the view that people were smarter in 1851 than we want them to be (ie, we're not any smarter, at bottom, but there's not a lot of brain on view among the non-genius characters in this novel), but I enjoyed it hugely. Like I said, our book club hadn't unanimously approve of a book until this one, its 63rd title. The Sisters Brothers deserves all the praise it has received. I mean that.

Hell, it's hardly Patrick deWitt's fault that I couldn't help but see transparently symbolic structures all over the place, is it? Unless he put them there on purpose, to troll people like me....


Someone said…
It's a risky business, bugging an academic, especially in an area of his own expertise. I suppose it would feel like being a stereotypical Western soldier in Vietnam, confident of my own righteousness to tread wherever I pleased, and shoot just anybody I didn't happen to appreciate—and yet aware that every step of the way was potentially a land mine, booby trap, or those pointed sticks made out of bamboo.

After all—it's their country, not mine.

But yeah, book club was a momentous experience for sure, not just because of the unanimity, but the following weird disjunction.

What makes this story so great, I think, is the people—the narrator, his brother, their victims and bystanders. Real people pass each other in the real world and this is just how it goes. (Or not quite like this, I hope) Story? Not the point here. The events in the plot were more of a contrivance, a device through which the characters could do their personality-things. Or at least, so I thought when I arrived at the bar.

But then friend Richard here blew up at my claim, and alluded to Virgil, or Homer, or possibly Ovid? and I thought I was in for it. Oh dear, I missed the purpose of the plot. Clearly the plot is the main point. Or maybe symbolism? Nope, classical allusion, here it comes, the plot's the main thing, what was I thinking, I'm about to be disgraced, I'm gonna have to punch a bystander in the face to regain the respect of the other—

And…nope. Instead, Richard, to rebut my claim that the characters were the most important part of the book… pointed out that everything else except the characters was too obvious and transparent to be enjoyable.

Now I've been married for just over twelve years now, so my grasp on the idea of "agreeing with each other" might have slipped a little. But…kind of, don't we?

Weird experience, as I say.
Like a tour of duty, almost.
richard said…

My point got lost in translation, or, perhaps more likely, in today's efforts to compress a vast, bloated post into merely a bloated one, and that point is this.

The characters are fine, they are, but everything else in the book is just a hair too obvious and transparent to be as amazing as I feel like they could've been. It's a seriously enjoyable book, but I kept feeling like I wasn't having to wait long enough for payoffs: delayed ...... gratification, you know?

Did I blow up? Really?
Fraze said…
Had to say blew up. Metaphorically you were a land mine or possibly a booby trap.
Anonymous said…
After completing this book for my Grade 11 English it doesn't surprise me that you reached the unanimous decision of everyone in your group liking the book. Prior to reading a book you usually have an idea of whether or not the book you're about to read is something that will be an engaging and interesting story and I have to say myself that I was completely shocked.
One of the things I found about this book in comparison to others I have read is generally there is a theme storyline or basic plot that you would be able to predict. However with this book there isn't really anything else like it which is partly why its such an interesting story - it`s completely original! Between my classmate and I, both of us I believe, were in agreement that this book was a good read. Not surprisingly to me that your book group also reached the same consensus. As you have pointed out there are many pieces of symbolism that are displayed specifically toward the end of this novel. Despite the end of the novel talking about their current life back home, it reveals things about their past life, prior to the Commodore and what lead them to join him in the first place (killing of their father).
Despite the fact that none of this book actually takes place in Canada there are seemingly more things that reveal its Canadian side. Originally, I felt this book was hardly Canadian at all, but as I am seeing now, there are subtle pieces of symbolism showing how this book is Canadian. One of the parts of the novel I feel makes a reference to Canada, is the beavers coming out of the toxic water. Although, this all takes place in California, the beaver is thought to be a typical Canadian animal - after all it is the national animal of Canada! As you said before it surprised you that everyone in your group all agreed that this was a good book, but I wouldn't surprise me if many other people (Canadians especially) wouldn't also come to the same conclusion that we all have.

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