Friday, January 18, 2013
The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler
The Incomparable Atuk is the story of an Inuit (the book says Eskimo, but it's from the 1960s - I feel like Eskimo is not a thing we should still be saying...?) who is brought to Toronto as a poet/curiousity, and quickly adapts to the cutthroat world of the Toronto art scene so that soon he is playing the very folks who tried to play him. The narrative style is very blunt, with no extraneous description whatsoever, and moves rapidly through a large cast of characters, most of whom I'm sure are based on real people of that time (and place).
The novel pulls no punches, bordering on being a South Park-style "equal opportunity offender" in its skewering of both the unscrupulous capitalists intent on benefitting from Atuk's presumed naivete and exotic appeal, and the good-hearted liberals equally committed to "saving" Atuk from being exploited. It's refreshing to see a character from a traditionally marginalized group shown as fully capable of being as cold-hearted and manipulative as his white counterparts, because it forces the reader to examine our own assumptions about people from other cultures and specifically indigenous people, who we often subconsciously categorize as naive or less developed than ourselves (ourselves in this instance being white people).
I also really enjoyed the commentary on the pressure to constantly monetize and market one's skill set. This comes out well in the dinner party near the end of the book, in which Richler expertly captures the irony of being paid to talk about the over-commercialization of the arts.
This book is very Canadian and above all, very Toronto. It could not be set anywhere else. Even though it was set fifty years ago, the whole "scene" is captured very well - the dinner party in particular, and the final couple chapters, definitely highlight Canada's cultural ambiguity, the love-hate relationship with the US, the madness of nationalism, and in particular Toronto's place in it. Toronto kind of wants to be the New York of Canada, I think, and in terms of being a cultural hub and a centre for government, education and culture, it comes close. But the combination of insecurity and arrogance is too big for a place that is, let's face it, a lot smaller (in many ways) than NYC. Richler captures so perfectly the pettiness of Toronto, the utter douchebaggery that can sometimes characterize it.
There was a lot about the book that rubbed me the wrong way, though. The female characters are kind of appalling, and a throwaway gag about Atuk's relatives apparently gang-raping a woman is shocking in its nonchalance. And as much as it is a reasonable and unusually well-developed critique of racism, there are moments of unabashed racism in it. In fact, I'm not convinced that we are not supposed to come to the conclusion that the Inuit people are just savages - white folks are just worse. Which...is that racist? I don't know.
The style was also not my favourite thing. I like descriptive novels, and this was not that. In fact, I could see this working quite well as a play or a movie. I also like some heart, and this book has no heart. It does not love its characters, and it does not dwell on positive relationships. It was hard for me, as an incurably emotional person, to get through without having somewhere to invest my emotions.
So, while I recognize this was a good book, it is not really the book for me. I give it three CN Towers out of five.