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Alligator

by Lisa Moore

The transition from writing short fiction (especially good short fiction) to writing novel-length fiction is one fraught with peril. With her first novel, Alligator, Giller-nominated St. John’s writer Lisa Moore faces that challenge not quite head on, creating in the process a compelling and rewarding full-length work with the strengths of both forms, and the liabilities of neither.

Alligator is an audacious first novel that sets out to capture the interwoven lives of a large and varied cross-section of contemporary St. John’s. Madeleine, an aging filmmaker at work on an epic about religion in Newfoundland in the 19th century, draws Isobel, a struggling actress, back to her island roots to play the lead role. Isobel, meanwhile, falls in with Valentin, a violent Russian drug dealer looking for a way out of St. John’s.

Valentin starts to harrass and extort money from Frank, a hot dog vendor with the best location in the city. Frank, who is still mourning his mother’s recent death, falls in love with Colleen, a disturbed (and engaging) 17-year-old girl whose father died years before and who is performing community service hours following a night of envirovandalism.

Relationships cut across class and family lines, weaving their stories into the dense tapestry of a society mired in existential crisis. Characters long for connection and fulfillment, trying (and usually failing) to right themselves, to have some small impact upon the world. Art is made, buildings are burned, lives are saved and changed, but there is a desperate yearning here that cannot be sated. None of the characters emerge from the novel unscathed.

There are no stock figures or place-holders in Alligator. Even the most minor figures – including John Harvey, a local homeless man who hangs out in the mall food court, and Mr. Duffy, the owner of the equipment damaged by Colleen in her bid to save the endangered pine marten – come with significant and revealing backstories. Too revealing, in some cases – early in the book it is occasionally difficult (perhaps deliberately so) to determine who will emerge as key or focal characters. This uncertainty contributes to the scope of the novel, to its sense of inclusiveness and range.

With Alligator, Moore adopts a cubist approach to the novel form. The narrative structure is fractured into a series of short, crystalline chapters, each told from a different perspective. Storylines emerge and retreat, points of view shift, and the reader is forced to pay careful attention as the novel emerges – fractiously – from these shards of story. Rather than sacrificing depth in favour of formal play, the novel is surprisingly emotional, rich with human feeling and insight.

Moore’s language – as those familiar with the stories in Open and Degrees of Nakedness will by now expect – is tough and terse, simultaneously minimalistic and naturalistic. Moore has a keen ear for both dialogue and a well-turned phrase, and the writing is suffused with a reckless joy that is at odds with the constricted nature of the stories being told. Careful attention to the nuances of individual voices and consciousnesses provides the book with immediacy and depth.

Alligator is not the easiest novel to read: it is challenging formally and emotionally. But it is also immensely rewarding.