Pinboy, by George Bowering, Cormorant Books, 2012 HB 276 pp $29.95
George Bowering’s new book, Pinboy, from Marc Cote’s Cormorant books, is an entertainingly wise account of male adolescence seen through the lens of three relationships with women—two of them girls—that the narrator pursued and was pursued by between the ages of 14 and 16. The book has been described as x-rated Stephen Leacock, but I think it’s better than that. Bowering has long been a Canadian writer that one compares to others at peril, because he’s utterly original, and deceivingly playful—some say, irritatingly playful. He’s Canada’s first parliamentary Poet Laureate, a writer of popular histories that are more complicated than they appear, a GG fiction award winner (for Burning Water) and maybe the most subtle poet Canada has yet produced. Now, as he approaches his late 70s, he’s still finding new ranges to explore, and Pinboy marks a very new range. It is every bit as playful as his other work, but it carries itself with the sweet calmness of a man happy and secure enough to be curious about exactly what made him who he is.
It is not clear to me that Pinboy is fiction or memoir, and I think the ambiguity is deliberate. I’ve long believed the distinction is obsolete anyway, and is upheld by the intellectual naïveté of today’s commercial and conventionally literary novelists—a naivete that involves a kind of self-seducing stupidity about where the writers are getting their materials from, and about what really goes on in the cognitive tool-shed of a human brain. The difference here is that Bowering has never been either naïve or stupid about these matters. In fact, he’s been painfully conscious of them through most of his career, sometimes to the point where it has been an intellectual touchstone he can’t resist tapping on. In most instances this has been quite charming, but when he’s merely been elusively postmodern about it, it can irritate. But Pinboy, playful as it is, has much more serious intentions, and they’re not really formal. This is a book about the construction of sociosexual reality.
The epistemological construct Bowering is working with in Pinboy is the interesting element of postmodernism in literature (as opposed to the far more prominent side of it, which is the business of gluing ornamentation onto the too-sleek facades of modernism and its narrow definition of efficiency and function and claiming complexity). The non fashion-related reality that postmodernism explores is that epistemological certainty no longer exists, and never did except as an ideological illusion. Any writer today who doesn’t recognize this condemns him or herself to genre and the marketplace as a manufacturer of semi-precious conventional commodities that are fading in value due to overproduction. But the alternatives generally haven’t been much more promising. Usually they range from aridity to the fatuously self-referential.
The other problem literary fiction faces—and usually ignores—is that television and movies have enhanced the suspension of disbelief while more or less demolishing the Fictional Agreement. Not sure what I mean? A few years ago, a network television drama series based itself on the premise that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was perpetrated by space aliens. A survey of viewers of the series done midway through its mercifully-short run established that a solid majority believed that Kennedy had indeed been killed by space aliens. The suspension of disbelief, in other words, is pernicious unless it is purposeful and provisional.
Pinboy makes a point of opening for question the verity of its narrative, both in terms of the basic characters and the events. Without making it the primary issue, Bowering points to the unreliability of memory, providing particulars of his own characteristic faults both structurally and during events within the narrative. He also forces you to question the verity of his narrator—who is named “George Bowering” by introducing, briefly, and then dismissing the alter-ego he has frequently used in his earlier fiction, George Delsing. But unlike in his past work, he’s neither particularly arch or playful when he delivers these ambiguities: he simply notes them, and watch out. So you do, and it infuses the story he tells with an additional layer of meaning. Sometimes, as when the narrator is being seduced by a squat but well-constructed teacher at his school, you might find yourself thinking, “whooh, did this happen or is this the author constructing a reality out of his adolescent fantasies?” In any memory theatre, there is what did happen, what you wanted to happen, and what you were afraid might happen: event, expectation, fear, which when you’re an unusually bright 15 year old, engram roughly equal loads of data into the brain for future recall.
Bowering is cognizant of this, but doesn’t make it a major issue. He simply reminds you that it’s there, and goes on with the story, fastidiously sticking to the fine-grained memories he has as a counter-weight. That allows him to, among other things, pursue the most interesting narrative strand in the book, which is that of his narrator’s relationship—or attempted relationship—with Jeanette MacArthur, a young girl from the wrong side of the tracks, literally and otherwise.
The young narrator isn’t sure what it is he wants from—or with, or even for—Jeanette. So he tries to make friends with her, exercises his junior sleuthing skills by spying on her, and he tries to help her. None of it succeeds. She rejects his overtures at friendship, her father catches him spying, (and the second time he does, breaks his arm), and he can’t find or do anything that make Jeanette’s life better because he doesn’t have the resources. Yet he persists, because he senses that it matters, even though he doesn’t know how or why. Without anything in his toolbox and with the intermittent fog brought on by the testosterone coursing through his system, he tries to understand how “other” people live and think—“other” in the sense of more disadvantaged, and less resourceful than himself. The narrative that results is a tone-perfect portrait of how empathy and a moral sense is developed in the young, and how relentless and remarkable its urges are—as powerful and compelling as sexual desire. Bowering doesn’t argue this directly in the book, but his narrative does with startling clarity, without the author having to get up on a pulpit and shout.
But that’s the thing, see? Shouting and pulpits are things Bowering has steered clear of throughout his long career, to the point of sometimes making his work appear more glib and intellectually slight than it is. But here, in the midst of a seemingly unambitious and riotously funny book, he lands himself and his readers in the long grass where the bears and the wolves lurk. And that’s a place where only very good writers can take you.
December 23, 2012, 1143 Words