The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Sandra Beck by John Lavery

Reviewed by J. A. Weingarten

John Lavery
Sandra Beck
. Anansi 2010                                                                      261 pp.

Compellingly torn between its play and its poignancy, John Lavery’s Sandra Beck details the life of the enigmatic Sandra: the amputee pianist on crutches, the mother of Josée, and the wife of inspecteur-chef Paul-Francois. Though she may be the titular character, Sandra seldom writes her own story. Instead, she lingers on the periphery of other characters’ narratives, specifically those of Josée and Paul-Francois (also known as PF). Her elusiveness makes Sandra Beck feel like a mystery novel, because both readers and Lavery’s characters strive (and fail) to shed light on this narrative shadow. Sandra, however, is only one of Lavery’s labyrinths; the author also chronicles the coming-of-age confusion of Josée and the duplicitous confessions of Paul-Francois. These various streams coalesce to create a rare accomplishment: an intricate and beautifully executed text. Sandra Beck heralds an author with masterful control over both his writing and reader.

Josée’s first-person narrative is Lavery’s strongest section, if only because of her charming adolescence. Her blunt, casual wit is particularly endearing: “I heard my mother’s footsteps on the frozen beach outside my room. The hallway, I mean. My girl’s-gills filled up with happiness, a happiness indistinguishable from my mother herself. […] She stood above me, my happiness, radiating cold” (3). This ominously “cold” “happiness” begins this young girl’s story, in which she tries to piece together her world. But her efforts seem continually hampered: her babysitter sometimes appears “irritatingly mysterious” (4), her salacious Uncle Danilo always looks “distorted” (9), and Josée herself often feels “reduc[ed] […] to a pronoun” (16). Lavery playfully illuminates little, and so mostly everything remains obscured. Josée’s disturbing affair with Uncle Danilo, for example, is as ambiguous as her hatred for her father and her equally inexplicable love for the emotionally distant Sandra. Her narrative is thus a lovely mess, a heap of fragments that never coheres, which might explain why one hears an Eliotic anxiety in phrases such as “Do I dare flush? Do I?” (40) or “I must not move. Not yet, not yet. She was coming, she was. I must not move!” (70). These anxieties are the foundations of Josée’s story.

PF seems equally helpless in Lavery’s chaotic creation. He is a policeman, a restorer of order, and yet his narrative is disorderly. Often, he is reduced to hypotheses and playacting: he considers what he might say in situations, speaks to an imagined listener in his backseat, or converses with the objects lying around his car. He is also sometimes “not thinking” (102) and at other times over-thinking: he hypothesizes Sandra’s many affairs (if they ever occurred, that is) and alters or expands on his own (sometimes self-admittedly fictional) stories. In that regard, PF is very much a performer. And his performances are numerous. Most obviously, he is the host of a television talk show. Other acts are subtler. For instance, the narrative hazily hints at his fettered bisexuality (or homosexuality?). Such repression might garner PF sympathy from readers, but other behaviours do not; for example, his potential infidelity and his possessiveness. PF’s rebarbative obsessions dilute the reader’s sympathies, even though Lavery’s character is painfully alone. At one point, PF feels so removed from Sandra that he reaches into the bathtub drain and pulls “out with his fingers a sample of the black sludge that contain[s] a slimy wad of Sandra Beck’s hair” and tastes it (246). This moment of pathos is atypical of Lavery’s comic text. The quick shifts into such passages signal, perhaps, the author’s own deceit, because Sandra Beck is pleasantly fluctuant in tone and style.

In part, such narrative play defines the brilliance of Lavery’s book. The author shifts seamlessly from third-person to first-person, from one eye to another. He also bends language, concocts subtle parallelisms and symbolism, and sustains the narrative’s mellifluence seemingly without effort. Sandra Beck, in turn, sounds quite poetic:

I slid the key into Danilo’s door. The delighted lock yielded with a muted, oily t’t’ck. The door swung open, obsequious, silent.
The washroom, there, on the left, a puff of scented, ceramic dampness in my mouth. (39)

This passage exemplifies the texture of Lavery’s book. The entire novel reads, sounds, and feels like this excerpt, and none of its features is exceptional: the onomatopoeia, the radiant imagery, and what one might call Lavery’s lyric style. But all of the above is only a glimpse into his complex world. It would be worth discovering the novel in its entirety.
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About the Author


At press time: J. A. Weingarten is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University. He is also the recipient of a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship. His thesis,  Postwar Canadian Modernism and Historiographic Poetry, 1962-1986, explores trends in later Canadian modernist writing. His recent publications include an article on the poetry of Al Purdy and George Bowering in Open Letter (Fall 2010), as well as reviews in English Studies in Canada and Canadian Literature.

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