There is a tendency among today’s more ambitious novelists to ignore or minimize the messy, contradictory inner lives of their characters in favour of highlighting broader sociological, technological, and political themes. In the big contemporary novel – think Don DeLillo or Zadie Smith – sociology almost always trumps psychology.
Such a bias toward the outer life is understandable in the modern techno-polis many of us call home. And yet, the private self endures. It’s therefore refreshing, if nothing else, when a novelist takes as much care as André Alexis does in Asylum – his first adult novel in 10 years – to remind the reader of this ongoing saga of often invisible human striving.
Mark, the novel’s narrator, unapologetically disdains the materialistic, celebrity-obsessed, morally relativistic world of late-1980s Ottawa. Writing in his diary at a Gregorian monastery where he now spends his days churning butter, tending bees, praying, and translating texts from the German, Mark writes of his former life in Ottawa: “I did not often drink, did not often go to movies, did not attend rock concerts or football games. As far as my contemporaries were concerned, my ideas were stale.”
In Ottawa, Mark works in a bookstore, and what little socializing he indulges in is connected with the Fortnightly Club, a group of like-minded intellectuals and civil servants who meet, yes, twice a month, to discuss the great minds of Western art and philosophy.
Mark is so absorbed in classical and pre-modernist ideas and art that he sounds like a character from a late 19th-century European novel, carrying with him the era’s formal diction, mega-vocabulary, and vast store of classical allusions. Mark often employs the impersonal pronoun “one” when writing, refers to pints of beer as “draughts,” his apartment as a “domicile,” and a friend’s lovers as “the women with whom he fornicated.” He uses words like “frottage,” “somnolence,” and “luteciaphile,” and drops the names of such obscure personages as Peter of Ghent, Averroes, Pollaiuolo, and Brunelleschi as if only an uncultured prole would not recognize the references. There are also long passages, some close to a full page, in untranslated French.
The novel’s plot, such as it is, arises from the heroic efforts of Franklin, a high-ranking civil servant in the employ of a member of Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, to bring the Fortnightly Club’s intellectual philsophy to gloomy, bureaucratic Canada in the form of a new federal prison whose classical architecture will morally regenerate its captives by embodying “the idea of order, the force of law, the way to community.”
The problem is that Alexis seems to want us to take all of this highbrow musing at face value. It’s one thing to pit these refined sensibilities against the modern world and its infinite capacity for coarseness and distraction, but quite another to tip the scales so obviously in favour of the former. Alexis never allows the crass modern world to create a genuine dialectical tension between his characters’ ideals and humanity’s very limited ability to live up to those ideals.
In fact, the modern world barely makes an appearance in Asylum. Television, economics, pop culture, technology, and even politics receive only sneering mentions, and Mark’s descriptions of the Ottawa cityscape, though occasionally moving, would not be out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel.
It could be argued that the characters’ refined inner lives and mannerisms and the novel’s aversion to the external realities of daily life are imposed by Mark the narrator, but that’s little help to the reader bogged down in yet another paraphrasing of a conversation about Thomas Aquinas or trying to understand what it means when one character has “an unexpected vision of [his friend] Edward dressed as Federico da Montelfeltro in della Francesca’s portrait.”
Another problem is that the central plot – the building of the prison – is interrupted for long stretches by the lives of characters peripheral to the action, and by Mark’s repetitive and refined philosophical speculations on the fortunes of his friends.
That’s too bad, because Alexis achieves some fine comic effects when he does broaden his vision. A wonderful scene featuring Brian Mulroney and a disgraced cabinet member and the intrusion into the story of a pair of shady “land consultants” offer hints of what could have been, as does a riveting subplot about a character’s unsettling religious conversion following an act of brutal violence.
As it stands, readers of Asylum too often have to make do with a diet of ideas without actions.