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In appreciation of Thomas Wharton

July 16, 2009 |  3:20 pm

Icefields

For PoMo month, Colleen Mondor wanted to look at a couple of un-scary novelists who are playing in the postmodern pool. After Scarlett Thomas, she turned her attention to Canadian author Thomas Wharton. He runs the creative writing department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada; his debut novel "Icefields" was named Best First Novel in the Canadian and Carribean division of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and "The Logogryph" was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

I came to Thomas Wharton’s exotically crafted and determinedly original "The Logogryph" with few expectations. I knew it was about books, a trunk full of old books to be exact, and I knew it was presented as a series of intertwined short stories. What I found was a book like no other -- and I mean that in the most serious and complimentary way possible. However you respond to "The Logogryph," you will agree that what Wharton has accomplished is the very definition of literary invention. These are stories layered in ways too numerous to envision, but more important, it is a novel that comes together in the end with a head-shaking final chapter that is almost happily ever after -- as long as your definition of happy includes all the roads not taken and all the books a lifetime could encompass.

In the beginning, there is the Weaver family and the unnamed young narrator who stumbles into their garden in Jasper, Alberta. The boy becomes fascinated with the doctor, his wife and their son and daughter. By turns idolizing and adoring them, he imagines a life in their house, married to daughter Holly, following the exploits of son Alec. Then there is a tragedy, and the Weavers fall to pieces. By the end of the first story, the boy has been given a collection of old books. He sees them as the legacy of Alec Weaver and gratefully begins to read.

Then things start to come apart ... after the jump.

In the stories that follow, Wharton veers in numerous directions. There are occasional lists -- of items from a curiosity cabinet, both pedestrian and sublime -- a partially completed index, a trip through Mexico’s colonial past collecting oral histories, an appreciation of Atlantean literature starting with Rupert Brooke’s seminal contribution (written over a long and successful career, quite contrary to the facts of his actual pre-Gallipoli death) and a visit to an Alexandria-worthy library that is doomed by age to remain unread. Each time the narrative has been left behind for a delightful melange of fragments and stories, the narrator returns and the story of the Weavers deepens, exploring how they first came to Jasper or the last meeting. All of this is tied in some way to that trunk of books and the Weavers, and yet still the ending is a surprise -- almost a gift for readers. It is one thing to characterize a life lived in books and yet another to actually read one, but Wharton does this trick quite effectively, drifting in and out of truth and fiction, myth and realism in a way that W.G. Sebald would appreciate.

"The Logogryph" is actually a return to Jasper for the author, who first visited there in his first book, "Icefields." Written in a more straightforward manner, it is not exactly a traditional plot-driven novel. To be honest, I don’t think Wharton's mind works in a linear way. His exploration (both literal and metaphorical) of landscape includes the near-death experience of the book’s main character (on a collecting trip to verify the existence of a possibly imaginary mountain) and the stories of many supporting characters, all of whom have come to Jasper and the icefields in search of some definition of its existence -- or perhaps to prove their own. His novel "Salamander" is about the creation of an infinite book.

Clearly, Wharton is a man obsessed with reaching past boundaries, and in this way he has much in common with author Scarlett Thomas. Both of them have a curiosity that knows no bounds and a talent to write about all that they cannot ignore.

-- Colleen Mondor

Photo: Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press

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