Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Searching for the Thing - A Review of The Sentimentalists

This is a low energy book (some people might call it meditative or dreamy). From the first page we are awash in poetry, in fact a regular tsunami of fine writing. Alas, it sometimes seems that the poets have taken over Can Lit and this book is no exception. We have no idea of what the characters look like but a lot of words are spent on the setting and even more on the interior thoughts of the narrator who is on a quest to understand her family history (or at least I think she is trying to understand her family history. On the other hand, she may be trying to understand her alcoholic father’s history). She describes the search in words such as the following:

The story that I was telling was not my own. That I would never be able to understand it—because even then simplest things appeared to me to be the most complicated puzzles, for which I had only the most inadequate of clues. And that by reading backwards along the line of objects, and the things that I learned piecemeal from my parents, and the rest of the world, I was only being thrown further and further off course and was by now very far from the straight and deep waters for which I had always felt I was somehow bound. And that, each time I thought I was coming closer to the unknown region I desired, I was actually following an altogether different route: a small estuary quite sideways to that true course of things, ending up in a distant and uncomfortable regions I had never dreamed of visiting before.

This was only one of many passages that I had to read several times. Like passengers on a Greyhound bus travelling across the north, we know we are somewhere but we are not sure where.

Constantly tazered by the rhythm of the sentences, I was forever backing up and rereading in order to tease out a meaning
Later the narrator mentions that “things” may have nothing to do with her father. Or her mother. What then are these things about? It is as though it had nothing to do with human beings at all. With keeping things, or not keeping things. With patterns, or with the systems of memory that we construct: the arrangement of object to object, one against another, in our lives. Clear? She feels sad and states one of the reasons is “the great and always ill-fitting imposition of meaning on form.” The narrator is searching and I, the reader, am searching and, at the same time, wishing I had taken philosophy in university instead of history.

To help with the search, a lot of metaphors are added such as the following. "It is strange to stumble upon something which you have believed for so long to have been lost that you don’t even find it missing any more. As though, having repeatedly tripped in the darkness against a final imaginary stair, one day you find it underfoot again as if it had been there all along." The text does not tell us what this “something” that is lost actually is, but I, as reader, was mentally tripped up by tripping over an imaginary stair. How does one, in real life, do that? And do it repeatedly? Not only does one trip over an imaginary stair but it is the final imaginary stair. The last in a line of imaginary stairs? I found the book riddled with these disconnects. They jumped me out of the story and set me puzzling. Often I just read on, half in the story and half out of it.

Part way through, the pace kicks up. The father, whose name is Napoleon, begins to tell his daughter about his stint in Vietnam. We get, for the first time, a goodly amount of dialogue and it helps bring some life into the text. In Vietnam, Napoleon is confused, not in the way Stendal’s protagonist Fabrice is confused because of the inevitable chaos of the battle, but because Napoleon cannot organize his thoughts or even think coherently. Unselfconfident, anxious, timid, unsure of himself, this is one pitiful military man or maybe the blame can be placed on the weed the team routinely fires up. "Napoleon is never certain when he becomes aware of what’s next; of when one moment ceases to be itself and becomes another. Has he been wandering around in circles this whole time, or has he been sitting?" This is a guy who cannot tell if he is standing or sitting and his platoon is not in battle but have been set down somewhere and are waiting around for something to happen. Napoleon does a lot of confused thinking about his confusion. At the same time I am blindsided by the idea that one should know when one moment ceases to be itself and becomes another. I don’t think many people are able to do that.

Eventually as we suspect, the American military turn against the Vietnamese civilians and atrocities are committed. The last section of the book details the subsequent investigation and we return to the narrator who muses on “the things” and what they mean if anything… "it was clear that he (Napoleon) was no longer terribly concerned with the details of the thing, and that, having exhausted the resources with which he planned to uncover the truth, it was as good as if the event had never occurred."

Let’s leave it at that.

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