Friday, July 20, 2012

Off the Shelf: Don Hannah's The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1998)

When first reading playwright Don Hannah's terrific debut novel, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Random House, 1998), I was immediately reminded of a scene from Michael Tolkin's provocative film, The Rapture (1991), where a born again Christian tells a convert who is having her doubts about her faith that all she has to do is let God forgive her. But the convert then answers back, "Yes, but who forgives God?" In his movie, Tolkin's point is that if we look for signs of God's perfection in the world, and in ourselves, and we find instead something less noble and unholy, how do we reconcile ourselves with God? In The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a group of individuals try to seek out the sacred but are continually forced to confront the profane.

The story takes place in Membartouche, a fictional small town in New Brunswick which seems quaint, but in reality it is teeming with frustrated individuals who feel at the short end of life's very fickle stick. Sandy Whyte, a repressed homosexual, is a pillar of the local church who has suffered humiliation and tries to take refuge in Bach and the religious hymns of his childhood. But his obsession with beauty takes an ugly turn when he kidnaps and holds hostage a young boy whom he worships. Gloria is Sandy's cleaning lady, a woman once ridiculed for having laid eyes on the Virgin Mary as a child, who has a family reunion dinner in honour of her gay brother Raymond, a man dying of AIDS, which stirs up her family's concealed hostilities. Annette is a pregnant teenager who desires an abortion, but when she accidently informs Margaret, a fundamentalist Christian at a right-to-life hotline, Margaret makes it her mission to convince Annette to keep her child. But we quickly come to realize that Margaret's efforts aren't based so much on her religious beliefs, or any altruistic motives, they come instead from a desire in her to transcend her own memories of the horrible sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl.

Don Hannah, who comes from Shediac, New Brunswick, in the Canadian Maritimes, with delicate skill and a contemplative subtlety intertwines their stories while giving us a vivid picture of how the overt social life of a close-knit community can also conceal hidden motives and darker appetites. His strengths as a playwright (The Wedding Script, The Cave Painter) are evident in the way he sets the inner dimensions of these characters swirling between the lines of the story. And even if you can sometimes predict what might come next, you are never sure of which aspect of the character will emerge. Hannah also provides apt juxtapositions, ones that provide startling insights, like having Raymond's dementia run parallel to Sandy's prisoner's dehydrated delusions; or in contrasting Sandy and his captive's distinctly different visions of their fathers. Hannah continually shows that he isn't afraid of tackling the farthest reaches of desperate longing, with all the incipient yearnings stirred in the process of craving more. And, to his credit, Hannah doesn't spare his characters – or the reader – either by providing life-lesson homilies that could dampen the power of the dramatic content.

author Don Hannah
The novel has its flaws. Occasionally Hannah spends too much time setting up each character so that we'll immediately recognize the nature of their torment. (His intuitive perceptions are so acute that he may not see that we've already perceived what he is explicitly telling us.) But the boldness in the work comes through when he illustrates with a poetic intricacy the manner in which sacred values can come into sharp conflict with our notions of sin. Religious songs and prayers get scattered throughout the book in the same way pop songs were sprinkled throughout Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven – representing aspirations that the characters know they can't live up to. With an ample daring, Hannah also puts the human body, with its primary functions, right at the centre of the story. Whether it's the humiliation of Gloria's weight, Raymond's emaciation, or (as Norman O. Brown once perceptively brought to light in his remarkable Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History) how our inner anxieties get expressed through our relationship to excrement and urination, Hannah suggests that we must confront the body before we can comprehend the spirit.

There's a growing sense all through the book of people seeking salvation but having to go through the baptism of Hell to reach it. Margaret can only deal with her father's memory, for instance, once she cleanses herself of it in a stream. Gloria comes to terms with the Virgin Mary only after she accepts that her brother is dying. (There's a lovely, affecting passage in the novel when she tells him the story as she cradles him Christ-like in her arms.) Annette's boyfriend Chaleur goes through his own horror before he can finally reach between the worlds to the dead father he always longed for. All through the story people are doing desperate things to maintain an idea that they can always be forgiven and saved.

The Wise and Foolish Virgins poses fundamental questions about forgiveness, where we try and find resolution once we vanquish the ghosts who haunt us. Hannah writes with a probing courage about people who have misshapen and tortured lives, and he writes about them with this spiky humour that's combined with a compassionate understanding of their failings. You could say the novel is about coming out of an arrested state of innocence, where we come to finally embrace a fragile and ambiguous relationship to a world that feels seemingly alien. Armed with Hannah's restless intelligence and keen insight, The Wise and Foolish Virgins reaches its own state of grace.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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