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Last Word: Alexi Zentner on the summer of Shakespeare

Writing a novel inspired by the Bard entails a complicated literary inheritance, writes Alexi Zentner 

Alexi Zentner

Alexi Zentner

Every tragedy has a fool, and every fool has a tragedy. My tragedy is that my new novel riffs on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which some people take to mean that The Lobster Kings is me throwing down the gauntlet and saying, “How do you like this, Will?”

That kind of challenge would have been silly. Rather, I set out to engage in conversation with King Lear. I like to say that all literature is in conversation with all of the literature that came before it. Rather than just parroting Shakespeare, I was hoping to advance the discussion.

For me, Shakespeare – and King Lear in particular – is inextricably bound up with the semester I spent studying abroad in London. My Shakespeare professor, who was going blind, couldn’t stand the idea of living without Shakespeare at his fingertips, so he’d committed to memorizing the complete works. When we read the last few pages of King Lear aloud, he took the part of the king for himself; as Lear recognized that his actions had caused the death of his beloved daughter, Cordelia – the one daughter who had remained true to him – my professor could barely stop himself from crying. For him, this play, written 400 years earlier, was still alive and vibrant.

King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare’s best plays, but perhaps because of the demands of performing the title role, it is staged less often than many of Shakespeare’s other works. This year, however, it’s enjoying something of a renaissance, in part thanks to a major new production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. According to The Toronto Star, “This is the Year of Lear.” (It’s also the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.)

None of this was on my mind as I began to write my novel. The truth is that, while I turned to Lear early in the process of writing The Lobster Kings, I didn’t start with Shakespeare. What I really began with was the harshness of living – and making a living – on the ocean, how a small community reacts to the pervasive threat of the drug trade, and, most importantly, what it means to be a daughter when your family demands a son. I’ve got two girls and I’m a feminist. I want to raise the kind of daughters who turn into strong women. Women who would say, as Cordelia does in The Lobster Kings: “I don’t care how things have been, this is the way it is going to be.”

As the novel has gone out into the world, one question I’ve been asked frequently is why I chose to write from a female perspective. The honest answer is, why not? It never occurred to me not to write from her perspective. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is the ability to write outside of oneself, and just because I’m a man does not mean that my default voice had to be a man’s. Why can’t my attempt at the great Canadian novel, whatever that means, feature a woman’s voice?

But to tell the story of my Cordelia required a substantial departure from King Lear. Because the play is concerned with landscape and the question of inheritance – and because my professor’s love for it had left an indelible imprint on me at the time I was first learning to love literature – Lear seemed like a natural jumping-off point. But to retell Lear means to retell Lear, and I wasn’t as interested in the question of what it means to give a kingdom away as I was in the question of what it means to be the person trying to inherit a kingdom, particularly one poised on a precipice.

The Lobster Kings is set on a fictional island off the East Coast, but the problems it deals with are real: a changing economy, an influx of tourists, and, perhaps most sinister of all, the threat of the meth trade. It’s a community under the same inexorable pressure that afflicts all our communities: that of progress. Much of the progress we see is good, of course. While social change and justice always move too slowly, at least they move. But in many smaller communities, like the ones that substantially resemble my fictional Loosewood Island, economic pressures have resulted in the insidious rot that accompanies a serious drug trade. Methamphetamine and drug abuse, which have resonance in my own family history, are things that can tear down a kingdom more swiftly than any family rift.

Ultimately, however, the image I’m always left with when I think about King Lear, is that of my professor trying not to cry at Lear’s realization that his decisions had cost the life of his daughter. Because that’s what I hope I took from the play. Neither the plot nor the characters, but rather the understanding that we must make choices, and that those choices – even when they are the right ones – can haunt us.
Alexi Zentner’s debut, Touch, was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. His sophomore novel, The Lobster Kings, was published by Knopf Canada in May.

This story appeared in the July/August print edition.