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Satire stumbles on boring heroine

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2014 (1218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Allan Stratton is a versatile Canadian novelist and young people's author who started his career as a playwright. The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish follows his Leacock Medal for Humour-nominated novel, The Phoenix Lottery.

His new novel, like The Phoenix Lottery, is a skewering of society, especially its religious structures, official pomposity and hypocrisy, with its emphasis on money and the eternal grasping to get it at any cost.

Little escapes Stratton's machine-gun-peppering approach to the world, and although one can be swept up into his propulsive prose and intricate plotting, there isn't much to take away from the story.

Set in the early part of the Depression, the novel romps through the adventures of Mary McTavish, a put-upon girl from southern Ontario with a reprobate father and a dead mother -- a saintly figure whose spirit "visits" Mary. Tormented by Miss Bentwhistle, the borderline-evil headmistress of the school she attends, Mary finds solace in her mother's guidance, though she entertains thoughts of suicide.

While at the town hospital, she performs a miracle under what she believes to be her mother's guidance -- bringing back to life little Timmy, supposedly electrocuted at a revivalist meeting when he touched a metal cross hit by lightning.

The sensation leads a reporter, Doyle, from the Hearst press empire, to cover the story. Mary ends up in Hollywood, where both fictional and historical characters crowd the scene, each with a motivation to exploit, hurt, or save her. Which leaves the reader where?

Mary herself is an immediate problem. Hardly a Candide cast out roughly into the world, or even an Alice down the Wonderland rabbit-hole of pseudo-religious/high society/Hollywood madness, Mary is a boring, simplistic goof. Sweet enough and trusting in her own way, even her final big decision to turn her back on the evil she perceives in the big phoney world seems high-schoolish and vain.

Her innate goodness is admirable, but she never comes to an insight about the world the way Voltaire's Candide does. Her mother's voice disappears, but is that standard "closure" moment enough? Even Stratton's prose here is vague and stilted.

Despite the vividness of everyone around them, both Alice and Candide remain the central focus of their adventures.

Not so with Mary. Stratton is clearly more interested in the comic potential of the fakers, schemers, bigwigs and even the murderer surrounding Mary. For the most part, she isn't even in the story when all the crazy stuff is going on.

Further, if Stratton believes he is writing satire, what's the point? Do we need an exposé on the early '30s with William Randolph Hearst and J. Edgar Hoover, for example, as characters? How about the bogus (and later quite crazy) preachers (religion is always a con with Stratton), fumbling Communist agitators, or a fake Baroness who impresses gullible Americans?

The book on the whole is too farcical and cartoonish for satire, and not brutal enough, despite the serial killer. Satire is even-handed; it aims at the reader as well as at the situation it presents. Stratton's tone is smug; he chortles, and invites us to chortle, at these crazy or evil folks since, of course, they could never be us -- or at least him.

Nor is he satisfied, despite his ingenious plotting, with raising a chuckle. He pushes for the big laugh, but his easy satire often morphs into fussy sentiment. Wisecracks abound, for example -- "(he) wanted to change the world, but he feared all he'd ever change were his socks" -- but not much wit.

Where are the Marx Brothers when you need them?


Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.


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Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:42 AM CDT: Adjusts formatting.

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