Saturday, 29 August 2015

Reviews of Books I've Never Read

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

This early depiction of the Manticore by famed renaissance artist, Molvado Retento, bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Davies himself. Note the full beard, mischievous look and a strong set of clackers in its mouth and by gosh if it isn't Mr. Davies' doppleganger, albeit with claws and tusks. As for the penis, well we're not privy to that knowledge but if you drop by the Happy Times Massage Parlour where Mr. Davies was a frequent visitor and show them this picture, I'm sure one or two of the nice ladies who work there would be able to verify whether Mr. Davies' woo-woo or ding-dong or cylinder of celestial dormant beings looked anything like the one pictured above. Suffice to say, if it was good enough for them it was certainly good enough for a Medici.
After my last review of Farley Mowat's People of the Deer, I felt myself on a kind of Canadian mission realizing I haven't been doing my own country justice when it comes to reviewing books I've never read. So now, not only have I latched on to this personally neglected Canadian literary contingent but I've also recognized an oft overlooked correlation between great Canadian literary works and the fact their authors also sport some very impressive, one might even say, monumental beards (Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Alice Munro excluded). We're talking facial hair that would catch the breath of any National Gallery portraitist or envious biker gang members just before they pummel the writer to death in the parking lot of a Tim Horton's. These are beards that appear able to withstand even the iciest winds at the corner of Portage and Main or any bingo hall parking lot in December in Sudbury, and though the beard hairs may be rimed with frost and even forming icicles on, say, partially frozen bodies that have tumbled off of snowmobiles into a snowbank during a liquor store run and forgotten by their drunken friends huffing glue and Cheezies debris between Molson Canadians and Grand Theft Auto segues, beneath, the skin oddly remains as hot and inviting as the sands on any beach in Georgian Bay when the mosquitoes are feasting on human blood and the sun is at its summer zenith. You might sink the Edmund Fitzgerald in the frigid waters of Lake Superior but you'll never sink a beard like Farley Mowat's, Robertson Davies' or Noogie Humphries', the little-known and in my opinion, under-appreciated author of Barn Owls and Babushkas, A Memoir of Growing Up as a Bearded Circus Lady on the Prairies. Mowat's beard, to this day, is more recognizable than all the books he wrote combined or the sealskin pajamas that he liked to greet visiting royalty in (he preferred the sealskin because the strength and thickness of the fabric always hid his spontaneous erections as opposed to his usual kilt that pitched a tent, as they say, with any passing dog, squirrel, wayward narwhals, royalty, or vehicle with four-wheel drive not to mention ice cream trucks driven by toothless men who are stingy with the napkins during the summer months, spit while they speak and think squid rings in waffle cones are a treat) and as for Mr. Davies, well, he took that beard all the way to the academic bank and from there to the bestseller list and from there to a massage parlour just on the outskirts of Etobicoke, next to a fish and chip shop that offered up a great deal on two pieces of cod, fries and a large soda fountain drink with free refills, all for just $11.99. Which is just what Mr. Robertson as a man required, especially one of such a cerebral nature, to replenish his energies after a Bangkok-style massage with a happy ending and complimentary breath mint and Handi-Wipe.

But, back to the matter at hand (not the hand that facilitated Mr. Davies' happy ending but rather his own literary hand that lay pen to paper or quill to parchment or whatever the hell Mr. Davies wrote his exhausting novels on and with), as I aim to illuminate you, the slumbering reader, with some insights into one of Mr. Davies' finest books, The Manticore. What exactly is a manticore you might ask and I've asked myself the same question again and again except on Thursdays when I'm clipping my landlady's cat's toenails (for which I receive a reduced monthly rent), and have no time for manticores, unicorns, flugelhorns, pinafores or the social mores of carnivores drunkenly mating with wild boar in the hopes of producing offspring they can eat well into their retirement years while their local butcher weeps into his tenderloin. But I do have some theories, none of which I can remember right now. Anyway, it's obvious the manticore is a creature half man, half beast with a luxurious beard, circumcised penis and nasty teeth. The beast finds its origins in ancient Persian mythology but then the Egyptians stole the concept and turned the creature into the Sphinx and made him good at crossword puzzles and sniffing out anyone with an Oedipus Complex instead of holing up in a cave and gnashing down on human organ meats. The Greeks also got hold of this human/animal hybrid and turned him into the Minotaur, the only difference being they shaved off his beard, turned it into a goatee, reattached his foreskin and threw in some bull's horns and the hairy buttocks of a short-order cook. Last but not least, the ancient Mycenaeans also adopted him into their mythology but they shrunk him down to size and turned him into a paramecium, thus paving the way for future microscopic discoveries. Science thanks you, o people of Mycenae.

So, why did Mr. Davies decide to title his novel after such a monstrous brute? Well, for that answer we would have to ask Mr. Davies himself but he's dead so, no luck on that end. Nevertheless, scholars seem to agree that the manticore stands in as a metaphor for the subconscious mind of the main character of the novel, Dougie Stimple, born into a rich family that owns pretty much everything in the town of Deptford, an imaginary place Davies invented and was so in love with that he decided to write a trilogy about it. Davies did the very same thing with Cornish game hens, becoming so enraptured with the delectable little birds he devoted another series of books, known as the Cornish trilogy, to these flightless morsels of meat. It seems that once Mr. Davies set his mind to something there was no stopping him until he wrote three or more books and exhausted the subject thoroughly. I believe that if you were to exhume Mr. Davies' corpse you would easily find bits of Cornish game hen lodged in his teeth.
The Cornish game hen in all its glory. It's no wonder Mr. Davies was so infatuated with these winsome and weenie delectable chickens. See how adorably they sit in the palm of one's hand, as if sitting alertly in an educational institution, attentive and eager to pay attention to the teacher, even if headless and thus with no brain capacity for learning. It only shows their tenacity to get ahead in this world where other forms of poultry tower over them.
But back to The Manticore. The book is the second in the trilogy and traces the psychologically uneasy path Dougie Stimple takes after learning that his billionaire father, the father that he revered, as a child himself killed the wife of the town's minister with an overcooked meatball. It seems that Dougie's father, Percy, was having a friendly snowball fight with some of the poorer neighbourhood children but after being pummeled relentlessly, he decided to hide a day-old overcooked meatball inside a snowball to get revenge on those uncouth and ragamuffin boot-lickers who would sell their own grandmother for a can of pork and beans, pogo stick or deck of nudie cards down at Frank's Variety Store. Well, lo and behold, the meatball snowball misses its mark and instead of striking some impoverished kid like Boots Gulinksy or Fenwick Chavez, the deadly ball of ice and meat meets up with the minister's pregnant wife and she meets her maker after it strikes her in the temple but her baby is born right there on the snowy pavement, premature but alive and from there destiny is set like bowling pins adherent to the manipulations of a scientifically precise and and yet otherworldly machinery.

Like father like son but in this case the father, Percy, lets this early childhood murder wash off of him like water off a duck's back or a mermaid's tuchas, such is the way his conscience works but his son is not so lucky and perhaps, genetically, the guilt finds its way downstream, along the seminal highway and buries itself deep within Dougie's bloodstream. This is not the only guilt he lives with as his billions of inherited dollars lays out for him an endless stream of hookers, rare Pope Benedict Ratzinger XVI commemorative mousetraps and deli meat platters with imported head cheese whose lusciously jellied interiors are hand-crafted by ex-Nazis eking out a living in Quonset huts on the banks of the Mississippi. His fervor for Nazi-crafted head cheese and Pope memorabilia and the ease with which he can attain these things causes him to question his special place in society, surrounding himself with such exotic culinary and artistic treasures while all around him the villagers of Deptford suffer horribly and are forced to eat bologna, have sex with empty tennis ball containers filled with packing peanuts and moldy foam rubber and ruminate over the unraveling doily collection they picked up for a song at the senior citizen's drop-in centre.

This is where the novel really takes off, although with the bumpy and tentative steps of a reluctant
and perhaps constipated astronaut taking their first steps on the moon. Dougie, after graduating from university, feels a black hole in his soul, a head cheese-less void if you will and though slated to take over his father's business (something to do with wombats, double-sided tape and a revolutionary new mop head that never needs squeezing), he instead jets off to Switzerland to have his head examined by none other than famed psychoanalyst, Dr. Dieter von Bronhaufschlossen, the two of them going to work on Dougie's cranium like a couple of hyenas on some tourists locked out of their car at an animal safari park.

If Freud would have had a field day with Dougie's deep-seated noggin problems then Dr. Dieter von Bronhaufschlossen is pitching a no-hitter with his probing questions and revealing insights into Dougie's well-ingrained fears and anxieties. These problems are just a couple of worm heads away from the surface and Dougie feels the pain all too severely, even with the Swedish massages and naked fondue parties that he revels in to forget his past.

But as we know, you can't escape your past or maybe your past clings to you like lichen on fungus filaments, which could be a metaphor for the human soul or simply mean you should shower more often. It's really this idea that is the hinge point for the rest of the narrative and Dougie's innermost thoughts are sent swinging like a squeaky screen porch door that's almost as irritating as the mosquitoes that find their way through the mesh or your stepmother's incessant aimless humming as she catalogues her twist tie collection. Witness this bit of psychoanalytic dialogue from the novel if you need further proof.

Dr. Bronhaufschlossen: Tell me about your first sexual encounter, Herr Dougie?
Dougie: Well, it involved tuberculosis, a well-bred singing Jewish girl, the murder of my father and a Boy Scout's uniform.
Dr. B: I had no idea your father was murdered.
D: Yes, he was killed by a dogmatic and cow-like swordsman after arguing over a blind concubine whose genealogy included an enchanted glass of water.
Dr. B: An automatic sword-slinging cow? Wow, your father was a brave man and I'm to infer, ugly as sin too as he had to hire a blind concubine. Tell me more about this enchanted glass water?
D: Well, I knew long ago my father was a romantic even though he was Canadian and only mated once a year during maple tree syrup tapping season but he advertised his pedigree like an Oxford graduate repressing his wispy, maidenly ways even though he had the lips of a volcano and jaws of destruction that could wreck any joke like a Scandinavian lubber fiend troll.
Dr. B: Interesting. I would suggest that due to this upbringing your anima now has a sour gloss that masquerades as a projection of your father's regret over the snowball-meatball incident and his erotic dreams that involved buggering poor-spirited snowmen in the Alps but you're still avoiding my enchanted glass question. Obviously this problem is more deep-seated than a geologist hunkered down on the Canadian Shield and like him we must take a rock hammer and chip away at this igneous rock of memory.
D: Are you suggesting, Doctor, that we take a rock hammer to my head?
Dr. B: Precisely, Herr Dougie. Now please take off your pants and hang them on that suit rack. We wouldn't want to get them all dusty.
The Swiss in those years were known for their complicated and highly-evolved suit racks such as the one pictured above, the Mit Anzug Güselchübel XL-3000 and it's more than likely this is the one Dr. Bronhaufschlossen had in his office. In fact many a Swiss psychoanalyst favoured this particular model because besides functioning as a suit rack, it also doubled as a physical test for determining the degree of neurosis in a particular patient when they were asked to hang their pants in the proper part of the device and their subsequent displays of frustration and neurotic behavior could be duly noted by the attending physician.

Charlatan or not, Dougie Stimple commits himself to Dr. Dieter von Bronhaufschlossen's intense psychoanalysis and years pass in Switzerland (the Swiss run on dog years because of their love for St. Bernards so everything ages more quickly, thus the whole Swiss time mechanisms inside watches which is why we're always running late, even for our own funerals), and as Dougie and the doctor peel away more layers revealing the depths of Dougie's subconscious it becomes obvious to everyone except maybe the author, that the manticore is not just a metaphor for Dougie Stimple's mind but that his body might actually contain manticore DNA and Dr. Bronhaufschlossen is quick to jump on this amazing opportunity, desperately in need of money after losing his shirt due to some heavy bets he had recently made in a Swiss milk maid milking competition. Greta Gruenheister came in third even after Dr. Bronhaufschlossen had been tipped off she and her cow, Heidi, were a sure thing in the fifth milk pail filling race and he was into his bookie for a cool 20 G's plus the vig.

The good doctor, never to look a gift horse or manticore in the mouth, plays cupid with Dougie and another one of his patients, Vilma Schlugen who he's treating for her compulsion to cover her face in anchovy paste whenever a cuckoo clock strikes seven, and soon Dougie and Vilma are making even the Matterhorn tremble with their vigorous and vicarious lovemaking on Dr. Bronhaufschlossen's Mit Anzug Güselchübel XL-3000 suit rack. "Hang your pants on that," Dougie says to him in Chapter 6, Vilma naked, sated and sprawled over the device and Dougie, standing on a desk and dripping semen all over Dr. B's antique meerschaum pipe collection.

But Dr. Bronhaufschlossen couldn't have cared less if Dougie had spewed his tainted tadpole juice all over Dr. B's diploma or his cherished Himmel Strasbourg macrame art pieces because all Dr. B. could see was dollar signs flashing before his eyes along with little manticore babies running around in the first ever manticore theme park and people from all over the world lined up to see them. At a price. The fact was manticore babies meant serious coin.

Fate is a strange thing in that it strikes both those who are enjoying their infinity pools built into the sides of cliff faces that also feature Roman ruins and roller derby rinks as well as those in Sally Ann clothes finding an almost full Big Mac in the trash along with a half full Coke and some slivers of Black Forest cake still stuck to its paper plate near a park bench beneath a spreading majestic oak tree to enjoy the meal on while fighting off three-headed chipmunks. As such, fate plays a certain role in this novel as the child of the minister's wife who gives birth after being hit by a meatball-filled snowball by Dougie's father, Percy, grows up to be a hired killer for a top secret government agency and on the side, between killing despotic heads of states of various countries, corporations and dollar store franchises, seeks revenge on his mother's unfortunate and accidental murder. His name is Chip Glunk but his code name is Agent XL-7 or Bob for short.

This is where the novel really takes a turn and is a testament to Mr. Davies' abilities as both a philosophical novelist and popular wordsmith simultaneously. With Agent XL-7 now hunting down Dougie in the Swiss alps and Dr. Bronhaufschlossen finalizing his plans for his manticore petting zoo and theme park, the book becomes a kind of Eiger Sanction for the literary set complete with manticore mutants and power-hungry psychoanalysts. Vilma Schlugen becomes pregnant with Dougie's mutated DNA offspring and soon is giving birth to a litter of manticore babies (manticores are apparently born in litters of anywhere from six to ten and a group of manticores are known as a George Foreman Grill for reasons that I'm unable to track down).
Manticore babies at play while mom keeps a careful eye out for any sudden intruders that would hunt them out for their colourful and svelte pelts.
I won't reveal to you how this strange plot twist plays out but suffice to say this novel goes from soup to nuts with little left to the imagination except perhaps what is really cooking in that crock pot that Dougie calls a brain. In the end I leave you with this description that the author writes as an afterword to his book.

"Manticore is derived from the Latin and ancient Greek, 'man' in Latin meaning 'pertaining to the male of the human species' and 'core' having its roots in the language of something I can't remember and alluding to the maze where the minotaur became lost and eventually lay down and died due to the lack of human internal organs to eat. Put them together and you have a man who seeks to eat himself or others, a form of cannibalism that Freud equates with our most primal impulses and the releasing of the id or as they say up in Cache Creek, BC, popping the lid on a container of fat, juicy dew worms when the trout are really hankering for horseflies."

What does this mean? Well, it's open to interpretation but if Mr. Davies were alive today to explain himself I still think we'd be none the wiser, whether to the mysteries of the manticore in myth and metaphor, the workings of the subconscious mind or how to use a Swiss suit rack without severing your fingers.