A Bibliography of Imaginary Books
By Thomas Wharton
236 pages, $27.95
Thomas Wharton's new book, The Logogryph, is an eclectic little charmer that makes the collector in the reader go weak from the moment it is glimpsed on the shelves. The small body is bravely wrapped in a brown paper wrapper destined to be thumbed, torn and discarded by the as-yet-unmet reader, and bears an image of two open hands, side-by-side, appearing to hold open an invisible text. The stories within are brief, clever fetishes that describe literary hauntings by the scattered pages of a magical text that appear periodically in other books. "A few insomniac bibliophiles say that the book is a catalogue of unfilled desires, a vast novel of the dreams and hopes and longings of humanity, a record of everything that has never happened."
My favourite story is an excerpt from a novel by an author from Atlantis, The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis. In the novel, an Atlantean goes searching for the mythical lost continents of Europe and North America, and discovers a strange object that may be a book. This section is most notable for the humorous switching of "real" and "imaginary" books. "I understood that these markings formed a text, such as we Atlanteans might have traced in the water with squid ink. . . . However, the reader could not swim through the text, or come at it from different directions, as he could with an Atlantean text."
Every writer starts by making real a book in her imagination, but Wharton takes that magical something-from-nothing urge further by expressing a desire for books that cannot even be written, although I would have liked to see him take a go at it a few times and try to show a few more samples from the books he describes. "Imagine a novel devoid of any vestige of figurative language . . . [where]only those aspects of earthly existence measured by science are recorded." In some pieces, Wharton describes the relationship between the reader and the text as so intimate, but so one-sided, that it is frustrating: "A reader becomes impatient with a novel and shakes it, bangs it on a chair."
"It will live in your imagination" becomes a threat as well as a promise. The reader, thought to be in charge of her own mind, has only so much power over what the book does to her.
In other fragments, Wharton lists things you might find in a rarely opened drawer, as if this endearing detritus represents something of consciousness which always remains unreadable. The "as-yet-uninflated party balloons . . . pink eraser crumbs . . . [and]cherries fuzzed with mould" all signal some abandoned moment.
Still other pieces offer sage advice on how to read well. One should certainly wash one's hands before and after handling a precious book, and "the reader should, after reading, say a few prayers to ward off the ghosts that have collected, like vapours on a winter evening, about the room."
In truth, I found the last quarter of The Logogryph less charged and inventive than the first three-quarters, and I am not convinced that there is much development from the beginning to the end of the book, or any real plan that puts the stories out in the order they appear. I wondered at times if some of these pieces were actually discarded bits from Salamander, the Edmonton novelist's wonderful previous book, and perhaps were not quite yet ready to breathe on their own.
But these are small complaints from someone made hungry for more. Wharton is one of the few Canadian practitioners of experimental fiction in the vein of Borges and Calvino, and although he has yet to match his mentors, he displays a talent that may well be honed to genius. The pieces in The Logogryph do exemplify the prescription once made by Walter Benjamin, that a story should be a chaste thing that flowers in the imagination.
It is wonderful to read a different kind of book, a Canadian book influenced by a different literary lineage, and also a fun and funny book. In recent days, I have wondered if a happy book can be Canadian literature, or if in Canada we know we are reading literature only when it makes us cry (yes, guilty, I know).
I do not exempt my own writing from that issue. Thomas Wharton is the exceptional exception, an adventurous and talented writer of unusually happy and clever books. Dear Reader, go now and find The Logogryph.
Natalee Caple is the author of Mackerel Sky, and the current Markin-Flanagan writer-in- residence at the University of Calgary.
Readers can find the first chapter of The Logogryph today on our website, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/bookclub.