Alligator by Lisa MooreI picked up Lisa Moore’s Alligator as part of a spontaneous decision to read all of the 2005 Giller Prize nominees (as it stands, I’ve only read two so far: Alligator, and the winner, David Bergen’s The Time In Between). As a graphic designer, I had been drawn to the book long before Giller nomination time, my attention first captured by its vivid green cover shot (an alligator head peeking from algae-saturated waters), and then charmed by the more subtle design elements: the whimsical white and pale blue text, and the dotted interior to the white border. I used to think nothing could be more striking than a full-bleed photo. I stand corrected.

To explain my impressions of Alligator, I have to begin by citing my inintial apprehension about this book, owed pretty much entirely to the jacket synopsis.

The synopsis:

Lisa Moore’s stirring first novel moves with the confident swiftness of a gator in attack mode: Meet Colleen, a seventeen-year-old would-be eco-terrorist, who barrels down the rocky road of adolescence while her mother, Beverly, is cloaked in grief after the death of her husband. Beverly’s sister, Madeleine, is a driven, aging filmmaker who obsesses over completing her magnum opus before she dies. Frank, a benevolent young man without a family, believes that his success will come from his hot-dog stand – a business he’s desperate to protect from sociopathic Russian sailor Valentin. Meanwhile, Iosbel, a weak, self-absorbed actress, has fallen under the spell of the sailor, who threatens everyone he encounters. All of Moore’s brilliantly rendered characters orbit through contemporary St. John’s, Newfoundland, where they jostle each other in uneasy arabesques of desire, greed, lust, and ambition. Alligator is a remarkable book, a story that examines the ruthlessly reptilian and the painfully human sides of all of us.

To be clear, whoever wrote this had their facts straight. This is, indeed, the skeleton and framework of the story. However, both the tone of the synopsis and the compression of so much zany detail into such a lean precis gives — or, at least, gave me — the wrong impression of this novel entirely. To read this synopsis, one might (reasonably) expect the text to be a wild romp; an over-the-top tale jam-packed with quirky characters and contrived, fantastical happenings.

To be fair, I would probably give that book a try, too.

However, this book? Is not that book.

Instead, this little piece of marketing belies that at its core Alligator is a truly simple story about extremely familiar people. Both the narrative style and the pacing of Alligator dwell deeply on the minute intricacies of almost ultra-normal human experience and relationship: the small moments and cumulative realizations that comprise what is (at times disparagingly) referred to as an “ordinary” life.

The amalgum of pat descriptions that comprises the synopsis not only misrepresents the quiet complexity of the narrative, but also the transcendent humanity of the seemingly caricatured characters. I would describe them thusly (probably to the horror of Anansi’s marketing department):

Meet Colleen, an impulsive teenager grasping for something to care about, denied the traditional mode of teenage rebellion by the untimely death of her beloved stepfather. Her mother, Beverly, vaguely but lovingly parents her through a vast fog of grief, contradictory emotions, and weariness. Beverly’s sister Madeleine never stopped loving her ex-husband, but compulsively, consciously drove him away to erode herself against her singular obsession with filmmaking. Frank is a young man who seeks not successw, but merely to live a simple, stable life, struggling for nothing more than control, a need born from a strikingly common and devastating childhood of loss. His palpatable vulnerability makes him a natural target for sociopathic Russian sailor Valentin, whose stark childhood in a country turned sideways has left him cruel, hard and hungry: trying to take by force something that that turns out to be not only intangible, but ultimately unattainable. Isobel is an actress who is ready to stop drifting through life, if she can disentangle herself from the destruction she has allowed to entrap her through years of passively allowing her life to be something that happens to her.

Although the tone and style varies between characters (each character’s narrative voice being subtly but fundamentally different), the simple, rythmic pacing of the narrative gives equal weight and detail to both small, universal moments and to those huge, story-defining events that carry the plot forward and throw Moore’s characters into actualization.

In this way, the style — a mix of rythym, extremely conscious naturalism, repetition, contradiction, and breathless strings of loosely-joined clauses rushing towards dozens of tiny epiphanies — transcends the content, and the book becomes a very soft, quiet, and thoughtful exploration of simply being. Which isn’t to say that the plot doesn’t have direction, or a climax, or consequences for the characters… but, rather, that this isn’t where Alligator‘s greatest achievement lies. The quirks of the characters and the twists of the narrative are what makes the book an interesting read. The way in which Moore gets to the core, fleeting, contradictory nature of her characters and reveals that despite all else, this story (every story) is about people struggling to find their place in the world, to live their lives and to simply survive: that is what makes Alligator more than just an interesting story. That she allows larger than life themes like desperation, desire, tragedy and redemption unfold in such a soft-sold, understated way is what separates this book from both its quirkier-than-thou postmodern peers and its ponderous, depth-plundering ancestors.

Interestingly enough (and I’m sure this is no coincidence), the book’s turn from drama to minutae is intrinsic to the resounding conclusion of the story. While the larger-than-life characters burn up and destroy themselves, it is the characters content to lead quiet, simple existences who survive and flourish beyond the narrative. In the final chapters, the character Isobel escapes turmoil and settles into a life that does not need to end with her own destruction. She teaches an acting class, and gives the following advice:

Watch a person get on a bus or peel the paper lining away from a muffin. See how lost and present they are. Emulate this. That is acting: the alchemy of absence and presence. Embody the character, agree there is no character; there’s only a series of linked gestures, fudged acts, reprieves.

 From the archives, written April 24th, 2006.

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