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Discovering Diane Schoemperlen, a review article by Margaret Black.

 

Diane Schoemperlen, a Canadian writer of extraordinary talent, finally made it across the border in 1996 with a novel called In the Language of Love. Using the hundred items in the Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test as chapter heads ("Table," "Dark," Music," Sickness," etc.), Schoemperlen tells a fragmented, achronological tale of a young woman, Joanna, growing up, finding her metier, falling in and out of love, marrying, having a baby. Recognized immediately as a structural tour de force, the novel nonetheless presents a familiar, realistic woman's story not unlike those of Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. The scattered puzzle pieces of time fall quickly into place, the trajectory of Joanna's life is easily comprehensible, and by mid-book each new chapter term leads not to new "plot" information but to Joanna's ever more nuanced comprehension of her life and relationships.

It's the writing, of course, that makes the book stand out. Schoemperlen's details and conceits are brilliant, quirky, funny, insightful:

"'Now you'll have to face the music," Esther always said after learning about yet another of Joanna's transgressions. . . . There would be, [Joanna] imagined, a different kind of music for each category of sin. Country-and-western laments for crimes of the heart, unrequited love for thy neighbour's wife, horse, or four-by-four. The sultry smoky piano blues for crimes of passion, marital infidelity, and all other consummated lusts. Rabid rock-and-roll for rebelliousness, vandalism, drug use, and petty theft. Cool watery jazz for crimes of detachment, lack of compassion, errors of omission. Classical music for lofty intellectual crimes, failure of integrity, betrayal of ideology, plagiarism, and pettiness. Opera would be reserved for the most heinous crimes: terrorism, international drug trafficking, child abduction and abuse, rape, and murder."

This novel also has the best depiction ever of life with a troublesome newborn:

"The baby is crying. The baby is hungry, The baby is eating. The baby is full. The baby is crying. The baby has gas. The baby is crying. The baby is hungry. The baby is eating. The baby is full. The baby is crying. The baby has a dirty diaper. The baby is crying. The mommy is crying. The baby is hungry again."

Schoemperlen's next American publication, Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures, escapes traditional storytelling altogether. Only by assertion and the lack of another category can most of these pieces, with their bizarrely intriguing engraved illustrations, be called fiction. Instead, they are imaginative, witty, surrealistic meditations on subjects and narrative forms. "How Deep is the River?" transforms familiar grade school mathematical word problems:

"Train A and Train B are traveling toward the same bridge from opposite directions. The bridge spans a wide deep river in which three young women drowned two years ago in the spring. Train A is 77 miles west of the bridge, traveling due east at a speed of 86 miles per house. Train B is 62 miles east of the bridge, traveling due west at a speed of 74 miles per hours . . . ."

"How to Write a Serious Novel About Love" opens with the following:

"Begin with a man and a woman. Many famous novels begin with this familiar combination. Although it may at first strike you as rather trite, in fact, once you get going, you will find that it presents a vast array of possibilities."

In no time flat, the narrator is recommending that we "make John dream about turnips, dandelions, an alligator, an accordion, a windmill, and the Shroud of Turin."Soon she has her novice authors "Go to the place where John's heart is like a piece of celery."

The author's personal application of her own advice, a mordant little piece called "Body Language," has a lover realizing, body part by body part, that he and his love will be much happier in their relationship "as long as nobody speaks the words aloud." He will "concentrate instead upon the language of her ankles, elbows, that small round bone protruding at the wrist . . . for now, he need listen only to her body, near him, humming. . . ."

In "Rules of Thumb: An Alphabet of Imperatives," under "T" she recommends:

"Turn against all those who have ever contradicted you in public, failed to laugh at your witty repartee, questioned your right to suggest they should seek professional help, criticized your spouse (your child, your grasp of experimental theater). Bear a grudge against these people forever."

Then in 2001 Schoemperlen's most recent novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found, was published in this country (with a paperback out Summer 2002). The book begins with a truly marvelous premise. One Monday morning in April, as the narrator — a middle-aged agnostic Protestant Canadian woman writer — is going to water the fig tree in her living room, the Virgin Mary suddenly appears carrying a battered black handbag and pulling a wheeled suitcase.

"-Fear not, she said.

I was too stunned to be scared. I put the watering can down on the coffee table and stared at her.

-It's me, Mary, she said. Mother of God. I must have looked blank.

She went on smiling. -You know. Mary. Lamb of the Redeemer, Queen of Heaven, Pilgrim of Peace, Daughter of Zion. Ark of the Covenant . . .

-Hello, I said."

In no time the two women have put together a simple lunch over which they make small talk:

"First we talked about food, nutrition, how complicated it was these days, always striving for more fiber, less fat, how frustrating it was when every week there was something else they had decided was bad for you, usually something you loved. We laughed about how we were always making, and then breaking, resolutions to eat more salad, less salt, more fruit, less sugar, and no more potato chips, doughnuts, or French fries ever again."

Mary insists on doing the dishes.

It turns out that what Mary requires is a week's vacation, a few days of quiet time before throwing herself into the hectic activities of May, her busiest month in the Church calendar. She has only one stipulation: the narrator must tell no one who she is (which leads to a marvelous discussion of the Catholic doctrine of "mental reservation," or "how to keep a secret without actually lying"). Nor can she write about the visit, unless she expressly announces that "this is a work of fiction" on the copyright page. Mary describes in horrifying detail why this demand is for the narrator's own protection. "I knew that I was already in over my head," the narrator thinks as she accepts. "She was already here. She had already talked to me, eaten with me, used my bathroom." I hardly need add that on the book's copyright page Schoemperlen has announced that "This is a work of fiction."

The eccentric charm of the opening chapters, especially the week of insanely indirect warning signs that Mary has sent to prepare the narrator for her arrival, continues sporadically throughout the book, especially during a trip to the mall, where both women use the ATM (yes, Mary has a bankcard). But early in the novel the narrator tells Mary, who's just complimented her on an exquisite casserole, that although she loves to cook, she fails utterly at baking. Alas, the author apparently shares this trait with her narrator, for her splendidly imaginative novel gradually sags into a leaden lump as she explores the story of Mary, the nature of history, the meaning of truth, and so forth. Since Schoemperlen has a masterful command of humor when she wants, as well as irony, it's truly hard to understand why she chose not to maintain the slightly amused, everyday, matter-of-fact tone with which she opens the story.

At least two other aspects of the novel cause problems. One is the dreary recital of self-torture and sought-for martyrdom that are part and parcel of the various Mary stories that the author chooses to tell. How super-asceticism or gruesome death pleases God and leads to meaningful conversions is simply beyond my ability to appreciate, but more to the point I can't believe that the tales would pass by Schoemperlen's narrator without open comment or quiet distaste. Perhaps it is just such reactions as mine that made Schoemperlen, a bit of a contrarian, emphasize this material rather than more appealing interventions. Whatever the reason, the tone gets heavy, the humor fails, and this reader loses interest.

The narrator also uses the occasion of Mary's stories to reflect on history and time, faith and doubt, good and evil, and the nature of truth. She mediates on a number of interesting binaries. Is the opposite of knowledge ignorance, for example, or is it mystery? Is the opposite of fact fiction? Are opposites even pertinent? Since one attribute of Mary is to combine polar opposites (virgin, mother), the narrator is eventually able to go from either/or to both/and. During the course of her reflections, the narrator, like many nonscientists, seizes upon chaos theory and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for her own metaphoric purposes, a trendy move of questionable validity. Nevertheless, whether the narrator's philosophical, physical, and metaphysical speculations appear profound will probably vary with the reader. The real fault here actually lies in the fact that almost everything human drains away from the novel, despite all the need and desire that abound in Mary's stories. Human interactions disappear so completely that when Mary asked the narrator to tell her own story, we get a completely generalized assessment of an entirely nonspecific life about a character we can't care about very much because, among other things, she doesn't care about any particular individuals herself.

That said, however, a couple of the reflective sections are compelling. Mary arrives wearing a skirt covered with milagros, little silver figures — heads, eyes, breasts, lungs, hearts, but also animals, plants, houses, trucks, cars, buses — pinned to her clothing to represent a petitioner's prayer — cure for mental illness, learning disability, losing sight of the light at the end of the tunnel, inadequate breast milk, inability to quit smoking, loneliness — or thanks for the prayer granted. As she and the narrator remove the little "miracles" in order to wash the skirt, they have a truly engaging exchange about the multitude of human hopes and desires.

After Mary leaves, the narrator begins researching her guest, since her background has provided almost no information at all about the Virgin. Along with books, the narrator finds a multitude of websites, including one devoted to all the names of Mary (6,000+) and one for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Exploring the latter, the narrator comes to "a page called 'My prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe.' Here I was invited to light a candle and send my own prayer of petition or thanksgiving. There was a blank rectangle into which I was to type my prayer. Then I could click on the 'Send the Prayer' bar and off it would go: to heaven, I presume, via Mexico and cyberspace." Against her better judgment, the narrator clicks on a section "SEE THE LIGHTED CANDLES AND PRAYERS" and begins to read the prayers, only to find she cannot stop. Because her ironic tone has returned, her gradual transformation under the vastness and heartfelt quality of petition is very moving. As the narrator says, "I knew too much. I did not know nearly enough. I could not stop reading. I wanted to know more. I wanted to forget what I already knew. I wanted to know whose prayers were answered and whose were not. But there was no way of knowing how these stories would end."

Schoemperlen has another cardinal virtue. She gives credit and thanks where it's due. Our Lady of the Lost and Found clearly found inspiration in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, in which the central figure also experiences a vision of the Virgin Mary and later sees a statue covered with milagros. In an epigraph Schoemperlen quotes this scene and a later one, when Atwood's character paints her Virgin. In her portrait Mary is "wearing a winter coat over her blue robe, and has a purse slung over her shoulder. She's carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries. Several things have fallen from the bags: an egg, an onion, an apple. She looks tired." Schoemperlen has published five other collections of stories in Canada. We can only hope that her future works will always appear in this country as well.


Margaret Black is a freelance writer and editor who reviews books for an alternative weekly newspaper in upstate New York. See her work in Offcourse Issue #12.

 
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