by CATHERINE LOCKERBIE
A Canadian novel about the life and loves of a woman who studies war.
War is such a useful metaphor, and such a wearily overused one. Its language is co-opted for conflicts in which no physical danger is ever likely to arise, and, routinely and traditionally, for the travails of love. To set a novel about relationships specifically in this arena, then, is to court cliché: the minefield of the emotions, lovers as combatants — that old, exhausted vocabulary. Paralleling an inner battleground with an outer one is a high-risk strategy. Catherine Bush, however, is clearly a high-risk author, intellectually unafraid. In her second novel, ”The Rules of Engagement,” she traverses war zones — psychological, sexual, real — with a cleareyed, cerebral sophistication. Clichés are not part of this territory.
Her protagonist and narrator, the exotically named Arcadia, also operates in the area of risk. Her name and her allotted profession could be the stuff of cocky satire: Arcadia Hearne, war researcher. The author, though, is serious, deadly serious. She lets the irony breathe, does not hammer it or ham it up. A woman named for a rustic, innocent paradise spends her days investigating the many modes of slaughter and dislocation the modern world can devise. Better still: she has been given this name by her father, a nuclear scientist dealing in the stuff of mass destruction. Her sister is called Lux.
Bush’s prose favors philosophical questioning over bloody engagement, and this too is Arcadia’s preferred modus operandi. Armed with her degree in war studies (not peace or defense but war, a bald fact that pleases her), Arcadia probes conflict and its ethical dilemmas from a decent distance. She is not a war junkie, not addicted to the glamour of sniper fire, of the shells cascading onto Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn. She examines the methodology and morality of intervention in Bosnia, never having been near Srebrenica. She notes the new imbalance in the casualties of war, the massive slaughter of civilians in Rwanda, never having been a spectator (a ”witness,” as a war correspondent friend insists) to those atrocities.
Above all, Arcadia sees how war in the modern age is becoming increasingly complex, intimate, personalized. No longer involving monolithic military opponents, war now breeds and grows through new, shifting rules of engagement. If civilians are more implicated than ever, so too are the news media and humanitarian agencies, which bring and cause their own interventions. We have moved far from the traditional battleground, from ranks of toy soldiers fighting it out in neat rows of winners and losers.
Bush probes these matters in only occasionally undigested chunks of information, of questioning. This is a novel, after all, not a treatise. Arcadia is not in its pages merely to wonder about how we avoid or embrace passivity in an age of global, instant information about every available conflict. She is also a sexual being, a troubled being.
War management may be dropped into Arcadia’s conversation at the dinner table, even in bed. It becomes part of a pattern of seduction: not arousal because of violence but arousal because of intellectual as well as erotic engagement. With her lover, Amir Barmour, Arcadia lolls in a postcoital discussion of whether aggression can in fact be said to be the cause of war. It sounds risibly pedantic, yet Bush makes it almost believable. ”My own body burned,” Arcadia reflects, ”achy with exhaustion, stretched taut from sex — my brain singing a bright, electric tune, which he also aroused in me.”
Passion and arousal are at the heart of this cool book. Arcadia has a secret. She has run away — fled across the Atlantic — to London from Toronto. She speaks repeatedly of finding safety. There is loss and fear in her. Bush teases the reader with what Arcadia’s secret might be and takes plenty of time to reveal it.
Bush’s prose, mostly plain and restrained, lurches into the sensuous when describing sex or cities. She writes a love letter to England, its fields smelling of ”fog and peat,” and to London with its spreading trees and sudden bursts of pastoral beauty. Later, she will lavish equal love on Toronto, caressing its street names, the sounds of the streetcars, the melting heat of its summers. Her heroine sees London’s canals and Toronto’s ravines as hidden places of possibility, invisible borderlands where the strange or the deadly may happen out of sight of the mundane world.
When Arcadia’s revelation comes, it is skillfully deployed. Pieces fall softly into place. From early in the novel, we know that 10 years earlier there was a duel — anachronistic, formal, courtly even — over Arcadia. Two men, men she loved, sought to kill each other. One was badly wounded. Arcadia watched it happen, then fled her land, her family, her lovers. The aftermath of the duel is unknown to her.
Thus the need for explanation and expiation. Thus her sudden decision to return to Toronto, to try ”to decide what were appropriate or necessary acts of intervention.” Again, the elements of her vocabulary deliberately, carefully collide; interior and exterior conflicts run in tandem. Again, the risk is high. The temptations for an author are strong; the handling must be gossamer-fine. (One thinks of Bush’s fellow Toronto resident Michael Ondaatje and his recent novel, ”Anil’s Ghost,” in which a troubled, solitary female protagonist enters a war zone with a potent mix of professional detachment and personal desire.)
Bush therefore spins connections, crisscrossing her philosophical construct. Set in counterpoint to Arcadia’s deconstructions of the practice of modern war are the experiences of actual victims: Amir, who has fled Iran, and a Somali refugee named Basra (recalling the Iraqi city, a name altered in Western consciousness by the gulf war). Their losses, their dislocations, their slipping across borders, their altered identities, their real and pressing requirement for safety all act as a counterbalance to Arcadia’s own exile and desires. These people and their needs become a moral testing ground. Through them, she will find an expiation of sorts, though not where she expects.
Catherine Bush is in writerly love with the ways in which events oddly shadow and merge with one another. At the beginning of the novel, her narrator describes the rooms in the Center for Contemporary War Studies, noting how from within this ”carapace” all manner of border crossing may take place, how the physical shell hides ”the telecommunication lines and fiber optic cable and complex binary codes that store our information and connect us to each other, to colleagues, and to conflicts around the globe.” This too is the texture and infrastructure of the book, though the connections between Arcadia and Basra are at times a little strained, the cable pulled too tight, fraying at the ends.
Arcadia’s own trauma proceeds from a type of hyperaestheticism. Her Canadian lovers, notably Evan, belong to a foppish and self-consciously intellectual sophomoric world, populated with volumes of Wordsworth and Shelley, with poetic cosmology. (Bush does not judge this ardent posing, though the reader may experience a mild gritting of the teeth.) Hence the highly theatrical ritual of the duel.
Basra’s trauma proceeds from actual war, actual famine, actual danger — and its alleviation requires action, not meditation. She needs to be more than an overly significant name, a cipher for Arcadia’s angst, a means of showing once more that violence to a person, to a psyche, can take many forms. Again and again, the maw of violence, of harm, gapes open. Arcadia and Amir run from a gas explosion, a road rage incident — from ordinary, unanticipated danger in the streets of London. Bush notes that glycerine may be used in sweetener or in dynamite. Arcadia’s father will have strange internal violence visited upon him, having spent a lifetime using the products of the arms race, of potential Armageddon, for the putative greater good.
The novel’s codes are complex indeed. Though the territory of conflict is traversed with wide-awake, cliché-subverting intelligence, these connections do occasionally clunk; the parallels occasionally prove excessively neat. Bush could do with a little loosening up, a little humor even — it nudges in occasionally, then is slapped away in favor of sterner morality. The exhilarating merit here is in the author’s willingness to think, not merely to tell a story with a spot of seductive description along the way.
When questioned about why she does what she does, Arcadia says: ”There are things I want to know. . . . Things I believe it’s important to attempt to explain. I’d rather think about these things than not.” So too, clearly, with Catherine Bush. The words of war have many uses.
Catherine Lockerbie is literary editor of The Scotsman.
Copyright – The New York Times
Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay."
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“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”
- Randall Jarrell