When Austin Clarke confounded the oddsmakers and walked away with the 2002 Giller Prize for his novel The Polished Hoe, murmurs spread through some of Canada’s tonier, gated literary communities that the wrong writer had taken the trophy this time out. The Polished Hoe was too long, they complained, its dense style too difficult and structureless, its tone too angry, too overtly political, too black.
Critics who complained about The Polished Hoe may impose similarly shallow judgments on More, Clarke’s latest novel, unaware that, as V.S. Pritchett once noted about William Faulkner, Clarke deliberately writes novels “without a centre and which work outwards from the narrator in all directions at once.” Over his long career, Clarke has used the speech of Caribbean immigrants to hone a seemingly improvisational narrative form that rejects melodrama and political pamphleteering while bringing to life a raucous gallery of dispossessed characters whose life stories are, more often than not, truly tragic. (Or, in the short stories, tragicomic.)
More may stand as one of the crowning achievement’s of Clarke’s career. It may also enrage those readers who wish that the author would, in his autumnal years, just chill out a little and stop challenging liberal Canada’s flattering view of itself as a land of equal opportunity, free of the overt racism of our American neighbours.
More weaves through four memorable days in the life of Idora Morrison, an immigrant from Barbados who finally collapses from the strain of 25 years of personal disappointment, meaningless, low-paying jobs, and the systemic inequalities of Canadian racism. In her basement apartment in Toronto’s shabby Moss Park neighbourhood, as crack addicts and wannabe gangstas parade past her bedroom window, Idora takes to her bed for three days and nights of fasting and atonement, gradually losing herself in a roar of memory, fantasy, dreams, and Biblical visions.
Dragging her reluctantly back into the world outside her window is the disappearance of her almost grown-up son BJ, roaming the mean streets in terrified flight from his recent criminal past after finding shelter in the certainties of militant Islam. Idora has raised the boy on her own ever since she was abandoned by her feckless husband.
Clarke easily shifts from evoking the touching conventionalities Idora superimposes over the life of her wayward grown-up son – “‘Jesus Christ, boy!’ she said in her dream. ‘You look like a lawyer! Or a doctor!’” – to a renunciation of traitorous sexual yearnings for an absent husband unworthy of a good woman’s desires.
Idora’s appalled, prim reaction to many of the fashions and postures of the black Canadian community are acerbic and funny, as when she catches BJ mimicking the gangsta swagger of his friends in the local park: “he prefers to walk, rocking from side to side, as if his testicles are swollen, are enlarged like goadies. Walking like a penguin.” Later, in a searing internal monologue, she lets loose on young women who rechristen themselves with “Black-to-Africa” names. “No more Cynthia – which is such a lovely name. No more Stella – another lovely name…. All the rage, now, is Effefume. Reffefume. Peffefume.”
Equally compelling are Idora’s few friends and acquaintances, including a charismatic Pentecostal pastor and a middle-aged white grad student named Josephine who imposes herself on Idora during a delay on the streetcar. The two unlikely friends eventually develop a chaste but highly homoerotic bond enlivened by shared loneliness, disappointment, and intellectual curiosity.
Josephine provides a necessary and often comic counterpoint to Idora’s narrowly defined world, but Clarke occasionally falters in his depiction of this exotic outsider, especially in a scene in which Idora introduces her new friend to the smells and sights of Toronto’s Kensington Market. It’s hard to believe that an educated, politically radical character like Josephine, who attends classes three blocks from the market, would not be a regular visitor to what has long been one of the city’s hippest “alternative” hotspots, or that she’d be surprised by its diversity.
Clarke more than compensates for the odd wrong note with the novel’s startling closing chapter, a sustained visionary sequence that brings together legions of the city’s dispossessed into a solemn procession of mourning and halting spiritual rebirth. The scene, with its naked depiction of poverty, injustice, and loss, may not earn him any new friends in the literary community, but luckily for readers, Clarke has never been one to mince words.