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Garbo Laughs

by Elizabeth Hay

Garbo Laughs draws us right into old Ottawa South and onto the Gold family’s front porch. It is fitted out, like a ship, with every necessity of summer life – hammocks, workbench, outdoor faucet, library books. Harriet and Lew Gold are there with their kids, Jane and Kenny. A friend drops by. They talk, affectionately, wittily, knowingly, about old movies.

Read for pleasure, Elizabeth Hay’s second novel is entertaining on many levels, simple and complex. Read for purposes of critique, it is maddeningly slippery. Hay begins with an epigraph by movie critic Pauline Kael: “We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us.” But it would be a mistake to view Garbo Laughs as a cautionary tale about watching too many movies – Kael loved film, after all – or about the erosion of Canadian culture by American media. And surely it is our obsessions that make us interesting. They certainly make Hay’s characters so.

Harriet Gold is obsessed with old movies. Nervous, thin-skinned, and inexplicably sad, she often finds the real world excruciating. Film is her distraction, her anaesthetic. Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, and Audrey Hepburn dominate her waking hours – which, as she is an insomniac, is a lot of time. Movies are also a lingua franca with which she communicates with her kids, her friend Dinah, and the world.

Highly selective, she favours the classics and won’t let her kids watch what other kids watch – no Hulk for them, and television doesn’t even come into it. This puts them totally out of step with their peers, yet it binds together mother, son, and daughter.

Only Lew is left out, baffled and somewhat concerned. He is a heritage architect whose work takes him to many countries; his wife rarely goes further than the corner store. Anguishing over Buster Keaton shoved aside by a mugging Charlie Chaplin, she hardly notices that her husband and her best friend are falling in love.

This is Hay’s sixth book, following on from Small Changes, which was nominated for both the Governor General’s and Trillium awards, and A Student of Weather, nominated for the Giller Prize. Her writing is sophisticated and intelligent, fresh and endlessly inventive. An elderly neighbour lies on his back in his garden, “looking up the skirts of the world when it was young.” Two goldfinches fly headlong into a window, “the dumb blondes of the bird world.” Hay takes risks with narrative form, using a qualified omniscience, cutting like Hitchcock from Harriet to Lew and to Dinah, Kenny, and one neighbour or another.

The shifts of consciousness don’t jolt, for the unifying focus remains very much Harriet’s – quirky, edgy. The dialogue is absolutely convincing, the characterization sure-handed. The Golds are so solid and nuanced you can almost touch them. You can smell Kenny’s hair.

Two external forces push the plot along: the simultaneous arrival of Harriet’s monstrous Aunt Leah (in the company of her stepson, Jack) and the Great Ice Storm of 1998. Yet both aunt and storm turn out to be somewhat less fearsome than they are cracked up to be. Harriet is clearly a match for her bullying, egocentric aunt, and she dodges Jack’s predatory advances.

Despite the terrible shattering of ice-laden trees, “the sound of the loss of shade,” the storm actually draws the community closer together. Then a tree flattens an elderly neighbour, but after the initial shock, his loss is absorbed with surprising detachment. The real grief is felt when his sons fill dumpsters with the remains of their father’s life, including the filing cabinets containing his unfinished book. Curiously, the loss of a life is less tragic than the loss of the text of that life.

Garbo Laughs is about neighbourhood, romance, obsession, death, and the movies – but surely it is also about writing. Just about everyone in it, in fact, is working on a book. Harriet, though she is at the moment writing nothing but unmailed letters to Pauline Kael, has published a novel.

Writing, like a good movie, crystallizes meaning, sharpening and translating life, giving form to the shapelessness of the real. But for a writer, is there a danger that life can become secondary to the recording of it, reduced to raw material for the text, all grist for the mill? If writers downed tools and went off to work in Central America, would they be better for it and the world a better place? If Harriet got out more and watched less, would she have held onto her health?

Maybe. But Garbo Laughs doesn’t make the reader want to rush out to Mountain Equipment Co-op to gear up for the outdoors. This rich, lovely novel makes us think about the ambivalences and contradictions of relationships and the patience of love, and see in a new way the shape of a fern frond. It also makes us want to reread Jane Austen and to find out whether the video store has a copy of Rear Window or Singing in the Rain.