52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

ROBERTSON DAVIES

The story of Fifth Business is, in the most literal sense possible, a snowball effect. In the first chapter, the narrator, Dunstable Ramsay, recalls the moment as a kid when he dodged a snowball chucked at him—with a cruel, game humor not uncommon in kids—by his friend/rival Percy Boyd Staunton, which ended up striking Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of a Baptist reverend. In the classic style of chaos theory, the whole novel, which is to say the whole of Ramsay’s life, stems very cleanly from this moment. This is how the novel was advertised to me—by one of my high school freshman year English teachers, the enigmatic Mr. Donegan, almost a decade before now when I have at last gotten around to reading it—and this is how I advertise it to you, with just the tease and as few spoilers as possible. I deeply enjoyed this read, as I was particularly affected by the social-cum-economic inequality between Ramsay and Staunton, and how it plays out ironically in light of their effect on the lives of Mary and her child, Paul. Staunton suppresses his memory of the incident and takes no responsibility for its consequences, and becomes an affluent huckster of sweets and a notable political figure in his native Ontario. Ramsay takes up the burden of devoting himself to the Dempster family and, as a direct result, pursues a modest living as a scholar of religious saints—that after losing a limb in World War One. Such is usually (not always, but usually) the case in life: the inertial go-getters disregard those whom they harm along the way, while those with a conscience only consider it moral that their accidents subsume and chemically change them. The narrative is an intellectual feast, abounding with provocative discourse on religion and faith, miracles and magic, historicism and fiction, as well as with irony and diversion. For instance: Ramsay promises not to go into too much detail on the two World Wars, when in execution, he spends a great portion of the novel discussing them and the ripples thereafter (he freakin’ got a leg blown off in the first one, after all). Robertson Davies’ weakness with female characters must be mentioned and do prevent this from being an outright masterpiece. The archetypes are familiar and tiresome: Staunton’s wife Leola is a wealth-chasing trophy; Diana Marfleet is a British nurse who exists mainly to fulfill Ramsay’s (read: Davies’) sexual fantasies after his service in the war; Ramsay’s mother is a disciplinarian shrew; and Mary Dempster is a simple mind made to suffer for her sexual proclivities. Only Liesl—the German-Swiss companion of the adult magician Paul Dempster, who calls Ramsay out for his instabilities late in the narrative—is granted any agency, and even then, the prose’s depiction of her as ugly and tragically masculine is needless. Fifth Business is the first volume in Davies’ Deptford trilogy; I hope to read the other two, and I hope the women of those tomes are more authentic.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

familyhistory-bettysmith-sittinginarmchair

Representative excerpt: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely, and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.” (p. 1)

I cite the opening line because it is a howler. That line is a smug author spending way too much time trying to find the perfect word to describe Brooklyn. Not to mention, she brings up Williamsburg as an exception and then forgets about it and goes back to Brooklyn at large. And the struggle to twist “Prairie” and “Shenandoah” into adjectives is painful. Starting a five-hundred-page novel by vacantly stating the time and place is bad enough; dragging it out like this just to fill space is unspeakable. Memo to authors: hooks are important, put the work into them. “Brooklyn was serene.” Isn’t that already much better? As it is, the first hundred pages or so of this “classic” are very reflective of its first paragraph. The characters are coming-of-age chicken stock: precocious protagonist, scrappy kid brother, well-meaning ne’er-do-well father, loving mother toughened by life, an extended family of one-notes, all together in a healthy swell of poverty porn. We get broken-record, winded descriptions of recipes and wardrobes, and an uninteresting extended flashback. If this is supposed to be Betty Smith’s autobiography and thus not fiction, then it is not infused with enough energy to make it seem a unique, original vision. Fortunately, after the needless flashback, the novel improves. There are some fascinating insights into vaccination, Tammany Hall politics, holiday traditions, World War One, and more—granted, Smith’s blunt efforts at sociology can lean towards the heavy-handed—and there’s a death in the family that hits rough. Through her alter ego Frances Nolan, Smith also offers us a passionate yet humble Künstlerroman—a subplot shedding light on her development as an artist, which has several points that are quite profound for a YA book, such as the relationship between fiction and untruth. But for all in the novel that resonated with me, the clanging failures of the opening chapters only served to draw my attention towards the scenes that rang false. Lowlights in the back half include a shameless promo for modern maternity wards, a too-easy deus ex machina out of the poverty (recall Fassbinder saying that fiction is not the appropriate place for revolution), and a schematic, clichéd back-to-the-beginning cycle-closer for an ending. Most readers hunting for gems are not going to dig as deep as I did through the manure. If the beginning and ending of your novel is not up to par, then the effort you put into the middle is simply not going to be worth it. Your tree will choke before it has the chance to blossom.

Grade: C+

What’s Next: Another escape-themed novel based on real life: Anna Seghers’ Transit, about WWII refugees in Marseille; shortly thereafter, Fifth Business.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Six: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith