Arts & Life
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This article was published 12/2/2010 (3907 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Nicholas Ruddock
Random House, 371 pages, $30
WHAT is it with doctors turned brilliant writers?
From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Anton Chekhov, there has been a curious knack. In Canada (and alive) we have Vincent Lam, winner of the 2006 Giller Prize for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, and now Nicholas Ruddock, who has created a playful, literary mystery that will satisfy crime buffs as well as the literati.
But where Lam's fiction was based on his experiences at medical school, Ruddock has not indicated this is so. The Parabolist is his first novel, though his short stories have long been celebrated in literary publications such as The Dalhousie Review, Grain, sub-Terrain and the Journey Prize Anthology.
The Parabolist is set in a 1970s Toronto where poetry rules. Candy makers and shelter workers pluck couplets from memory as naturally as they would select a carton of eggs or milk.
The story begins with young med student, Jasper Glass, escaping his lover's husband by slathering himself in Crisco and squeezing naked through a milk box.
We find out later that this escape is less spectacular than an earlier one, which involved his standing naked on a ledge until several floors below a crowd gathered, thinking he must be a jumper. With options limited he threw himself into his role -- crying out "No ... death be my release from this bitter world!" -- as well as the waiting net.
The lifeblood of this novel is poetry. We meet police detectives, prostitutes, poets and medical students and, specifically, medical students who are also poets. One or two of them are "parabolists."
The term is defined by the poetry instructor as one who "arranges words and ideas in such a way that energy input burns. Then it explodes in the gut and the chest, where the feelings are deepest, where you can hardly breathe."
We are also offered this definition (not quite as you'll find in Webster's):
"Parabolist: noun (1) one who speaks in parables. (2) a member of a splinter group of disaffected young poets in Mexico City c. 1975. (3) a practitioner of the art of concentrating multiple sources of energy into a single focus, illuminating or, if left unchecked, destroying everything in its path."
And what is the parable, the promised cautionary tale? Perhaps is it that no good deed goes unpunished.
Early in the story, the poetry instructor and the Crisco-covered medical student rescue a young woman by killing a rapist. As detectives reluctantly investigate, we become deeply involved in the lives of these characters, and others.
It is interesting that in anatomy class -- and through the course of this story -- a cadaver is carefully dissected. Conversely, as the cadaver is undone, this story becomes more complex, rich, layered.
According to Greek myth, a group of people in North Africa subsisted almost entirely on the lotus, a plant with narcotic properties. They were known as "the Lotus Eaters."
How appropriate that our young medical students close their poetry class each week with a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous poem of the same name: "Courage! He said, and pointed toward the land.// This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In The Parabolist, the lotus plant is poetry, and it pulls each character into a tapestry of scientific theory, metaphor, life and love. It also asks the reader's consideration.
At a party, an unexpected guest with dark intent hears a poem called Trespasser. In the bloody aftermath, three dead, the detective asks, "Does poetry have that kind of power?
The Parabolist bellows from bell towers, yes. Indeed, yes.
Anita Daher is a Winnipeg author and word surgeon.
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