After reading some truly dire Canadian fiction, I think it’s worth turning my attention to a Canadian author I’ve enjoyed reading. Thomas Wharton is a writer out of Edmonton who I was vaguely aware of during undergrad because he taught creative writing courses at the University of Alberta. I never took a creative writing course, and it was a long time before I got round to pick up one of Wharton’s books. Which is a shame, because based on the two novels of his I’ve read, taking a class with him would have been worth it.
His first novel, Icefields (1995) began as his Master’s thesis. It opens in the late nineteenth century, Jasper, Alberta. A doctor from England crosses a glacier and tumbles into a crevasse, where he sees the skeleton of an angel embedded in the ice. The rest of the book recounts his attempts to come to terms with this odd event, and his developing connection and relationship with the ice fields that have become an inextricable part of himself. The angel is the only fantastical element here, but the effect of the preternatural hanging over and embedded in the natural world remains key to the narrative. Icefields is a slim book, and nothing much happens in it, yet I still found myself drawn back to the story and reading it compulsively–it’s mesmerizing in its careful slowness, and taps into a mythic view of nature that speaks deeply to me yet also seems (perversely) lacking in other Canadian novels. The effect is similar to how I felt when reading Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game; Hage’s plot was frantic and inscrutable, yet the language and atmosphere were so compelling I found myself unable to stop reading anyway.
Salamander (2002) is the opposite in terms of pacing; it’s frantic, even overstuffed; instead of focusing on a small geographical locus the characters travel across the world from Slovakia to Egypt to China and even further. There are pirates. Yet it does share the same sensibility as Icefields in that it’s very focused on one image: that of the printing press, specifically type. I was predisposed to like Salamander because it’s a historical fantasy that tries to reproduce the style of the era it’s set in–the eighteenth century, filled with gothic novels and a fascination with the Arabian Nights. Salamander owes a lot to Horace Walpole and Richard Burton; it’s a work not rooted in a real past but a literary one, one where a mad count can build a constantly-shifting clockwork castle, where automata are common servants, and where the written word is truly magical.
The last point is the most important, because Salamander is a book about books. The main character, Nicholas Flood, is a maker of novelty volumes, at first hired to produce an “infinite book” and then obsessed with it long after his contract has expired. There are painstaking descriptions of the printing process, the materials and skill that go into creating this impossible book which will contain all others, ultimately leading to one mind-bending moment of metafiction that could have failed yet succeeds brilliantly (I won’t spoil it). But beyond all that, Salamander is a great deal of fun, the story rippling outwards in ever crazier ways.
That isn’t to say it’s perfect–the characters are often distant, their actions sometimes inexplicable; Wharton has a penchant for inserting digressions, Don Quixote-like, that don’t have much to do with the story; and the depictions of Qing China feel shallow and disconnected from the huge dumps of sensory detail present earlier in the novel. But the whole thing coheres together when, by all accounts, this should be a shambling mess of a book, and that’s a fine achievement.
I have yet to read The Logogryph, but based on these two works it seems unfair that Wharton is so obscure (even in Canada). Even if Salamander was neglected by the literary community, I think fantasy readers would enjoy it along with anyone who has a passing interest in eighteenth-century history, especially literary culture. Icefields is a bit trickier; it likely alienates non-Canadian readers by its sheer specificity of time and place and emotion, but it can be an affective reading experience if you’re in the right frame of mind.