M.P. Trowbridge - Issue 109

Nightmare in the Country of Dreams

Elisabeth Harvor: Let Me Be The One, Harper Collins; $24.00 (Hard Cover), 176 pp.

In her recent collection, Let Me Be The One, Elisabeth Harvor concludes the second story, "How Will I Know You," with a dream sequence. The protagonist finds herself "driving at a great clip through sunlight mountains on a crowded bus with no driver." Then the setting changes and she is in a car with a driver who seems comatose. This man drives very well until she wakens him, at which time he begins "to weave drunkenly." Finally, she dreams she is in a tower with her three children. She opens her bedroom window to see that there is "a telephone hooked outside in the bright sunlight, on the outside brick wall of her neighbour's fifth-floor corner apartment." It was "a phone that only a fireman could use. A fireman or an angel." Strangely, this is the perfect touch. "But how convenient," the protagonist tells herself, "still lulled as she was by the impenetrable logic of the country of dreams."

This is modern tragedy, dealing not with heroes or other persons of social significance, but with ordinary people. The protagonists have all, in one way or another, lost control of their lives; and they rush headlong into almost certain danger. Unable to reach for assistance, they are isolated and alone. Lulled by the familiarity of the world around them, they reassure themselves that all is well in their convenient "country of dreams."

As the 20th century draws to a close, we speak and write our thoughts into telephone wires linked to almost anywhere in the world. We are fascinated by the ease with which we can communicate. But in the private places, in the places of the heart and in the delicate communication of relationship, we are experiencing breakdown. Living in a world that pretends to communicate, we experience the alienation of discovering we cannot. That is the disconcerting message of this book.

All of these stories are about women, and all are about the difficulty of relating even within the closest relationships — with daughters, sons, lovers, husbands, ex-husbands, sisters, brothers or friends. However, if her protagonists have difficulty communicating, Elisabeth Harvor does not. Stripping away the masks of daily living, she allows us a glimpse into the lives of her characters; and we find ourselves in situations we clearly recognize. They are not in the least comfortable or happy places, but they are places we know — dismaying places, places we have been before.

Harvor finds those almost classic moments of tragedy — times when her characters are most vulnerable, times when we feel for them both pity and fear. We meet each protagonist confronting such a moment: standing before a class of hostile teenagers; careening along in a "toxic ruin" of a car with a questionable driver; anguishing in the throes of a messy divorce; agonizing over a decision to leave nursing; fearing sudden death or loss of a child; peeking voyeuristically into the unhappy lives of others; grieving for "the family that was;" and recalling the painful recollections of an incestuous childhood.

Through the seemingly comfortable distance of fiction, she allows us to examine each woman. And surprise! What we find is someone very like ourselves. I have personally stood at the checkout counter in Kris Gradzik's stead, feeling "scruffy and vague" while some cashier taps her foot, "rolling her eyes while waiting and smirking ... giving my face and hair and old sweater and lipstick-less lips a condescending once-over." And I am sure that I am not alone. Harvor depicts these small but chilling snatches of failure, conveying the dread of inadequacy that must in some way threaten us all.

That feeling of dread is particularly well conveyed in "Invisible Target". The account of Linda Bishop's brief foray into nursing is truly frightening in its accuracy, touching upon the misery inherent in the labyrinth of professional life. I have been there too, I have experienced the constant terror "that I'd make a mistake dispensing the pills and giving injections." In fact, the Registered Nurses Union of Nova Scotia has recently voiced a similar concern, on behalf of overworked nurses during this time of downsizing. Most of us know what it is like to find ourselves in the wrong situation; we know the importance of distinguishing between "courage and endurance." Harvor lets us explore the difference.

In "How Will I Know You," we experience comedy touched with fear, as we accompany Marianne on a trip into the countryside, where she is seeking the assistance of a herbalist for a bout of persistent insomnia. When she bolts and runs, leaving the herbalist to wait in his "toxic ruin" of a car for a woman who will never return, amusement and sympathy can be our only response. On occasion, we have all gotten in over our heads; and despite certain embarrassment, there comes a time to cut and run.

The fantasized lover in "Love Begins With Pity" and Jessie's few scattered and half-hearted attempts to put her fantasy into action are poignantly real. Who among us has not engaged in fantasy of this sort — filling an unhappy space of life with the excitement of improbable love? And who among us cannot attest to the loneliness and isolation derived from such fantasy?

The relationships between parents and children is distressing in its accuracy. In "There Goes The Groom," a teenager's voice, "sullen and wary," coldly permits his mother's entrance to his room; and in the brief exchange that follows, he accuses her of being "a total failure as a human being."

And the list goes on: the failure implicit in that "iceberg lettuce in a forgotten brown paper bag... of such ancient vintage that it was leaking a fetid caramel-coloured sauce." Perhaps the author actually used my refrigerator for her research! Failure is a part of living, and Elisabeth Harvor finds those little universal failures. She strips away the pretense and takes us on a series of stark, often muddled, inward journeys.

We feel pity for the protagonists. Something in the lives of these women is bound to speak personally to each of us. But the emotion Harvor elicits goes well beyond pity. She elicits fear. Fear that the isolation and loneliness of ordinary people (people so much like ourselves) may actually be our reality.

There are brief glimpses of optimism. "A Mad Maze Made By God" is a happy, or at least a comforting, story. Despite her fears, Barbara's second marriage is going relatively well. Her new husband, Bruce, offers a different approach to child rearing; and although Barbara experiences a great deal of private anguish when Bruce packs her son off to a wilderness camp, the outcome is a happy one. This married couple is working things out. Possibly there is room for hope?

Not so. Harvor does not stray from her tragic vision for long. Almost as if she is afraid of dispensing even this small degree of comfort, she gives us a long rambling last paragraph, telling us what Barbara is thinking as she lies in bed after the camping incident has been successfully resolved. And Barbara's thoughts, which of course reflect Harvor's thoughts, turn abruptly, as if in a last-minute attempt to negate any optimism the readers may have been allowed. After all, we are told, this marriage is still very new. Barbara is "sharing a house with two people she didn't even know one year ago." People may marry again, we are told, not because it is "a mark of fine emotional health, but only... because they continued to be in need of karmic correction."

Barbara's jumble of thoughts, as she drifts into dream-land at her new husband's side, says it all: "Of course some people never even needed to marry, have children: they already had hearts and souls, you could see it in their eyes. Knowing that life was a tragedy, they were prepared to be kind." Here lies the very essence of Harvor's message. This is tragedy, modern day North American tragedy, tragedy involving middle-class women living in an admittedly comfortable society, yet living in pain while distanced from the traditional tragic horrors of famine, pestilence or war. In this sense, this uniquely North American sense, their lives are tragic — and any suggestion to the contrary is quickly snatched away.

The last story, "Through The Fields Of Tall Grasses," concludes with a characteristic denial of optimism. The story is told in fragments, many years later, to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Dulude. The protagonist's childhood memories about an incestuous relationship between herself and her brother are distressing until we reach the last episode. There, we actually have a funny account of Caitlin getting stuck in a dress that is too small for her. A panic ensues; and just in time, her brother (the same brother haunting her nightmares of incest) cuts her free from the dress. Days later, Caitlin is forgiven by auntie Faith for the ruined dress. She is released from the dress and from her tragic childhood, set free by a pair of scissors and by an amusing childhood memory.

An optimistic ending? It might have been, except the author steps in again, and we are told that auntie Faith's smile was "only an announcement of how much she'd feared worse: pregnancy, rape, a child's body ripped open." And so Harvor concludes her final story, and her book, snatching the last possible chance for comedy away. Tragedy is everywhere. Harvor elicits pity and fear, and nowhere does she allow either to abate. "Knowing that life was a tragedy," could she have written it any other way?