Friday, October 10, 2014

Hearing Voices: Tom Marshall's Changelings (1991)

In the first few pages of Tom Marshall's novel, Changelings (Macmillan, 1991), we are confronted with voices. The first one we hear is that of Laird Allen Carter, a man in jail for a rape he cannot remember committing. Soon he's joined by other voices – male and female – with different names, describing memories of events involving sexual seduction, violation, incest and child abuse. These recollections build in intensity until we realize that all of these people share the same past. We soon grasp that these voices belong to two people: Laird Carter and his twin sister, Elaine. In one elliptical stroke, Marshall has plunged us into the world of multiple personalities and possession.

Of course, the subject of spiritual possession, or multiple personalities, isn't new to fiction. Edgar Allen Poe gave us a poetic nightmare about the ghost of Lenore, and Stephen King in The Shining tantalized us with the idea of not being the person we think we are, of being possessed by someone evil. But Changelings isn't about frightening the reader: it's about piecing together fractured narratives. The story takes place in 1960 as Laird tries to seek help. He finds it in a prison psychologist named Herb Delancy, a "do-gooder" who wants to believe that "there is a definite science of the workings of the mind." Herb gets more than he bargained for when he meets the many personalities within the body of Laird – including a brutal psychopath named Al, a womanizer known as Lyle, a spiritual twin sister for Lyle called Alana, and the voice of reason who comes in the form of Lou. All of these personalities are unformed, and even split off from each other. The task for Herb is to integrate them so that he can find out who the real Laird is. Running parallel to this story is that of Elaine, also plagued by voices that almost lead her to murder her children. She finds solace in the world of spiritualism, as a medium who makes the voices serve her own needs. One day, Alice Delancy – the wife of the psychologist – stumbles into her life and Elaine is forced to examine how those voices possessed her. Alice is haunted by the memory of her first love, who was killed in the Korean War. When Elaine is able to bring back the spirit of this lost love, it sets loose as obsession in Alice that pulls Elaine into the longings of this passionate, unfulfilled woman.

In his earlier novels, Adele at the End of the Day (1987) and Voices on the Brink (1988), Marshall (who passed away in 1993) showed a restless and probing intelligence, as if fiction for him served the purpose of a divining rod that sought the unfathomable sources of dramatic conflict. (Marshall was also a poet who did his thesis on A.M. Klein and published four linked collections of philosophical, meditative verse called The Elements: Poems 1960–1975 in 1980.) Marshall's poetic lyricism is what allows him to let loose the personalities in Laird and Elaine, where they seem to be speaking for themselves and independent of the author's voice. The novel submerges us, pulling us with the force of an undertow, into their hidden dramas and often leaving us wanting more. I certainly wanted to know more about Herb, who is in many ways the centre of the book. But it's a small disappointment that we never truly get to examine the contours of his psyche because his character is given no weight. (It's a shame that Marshall couldn't have done what Robert Lindner did in The Fifty-Minute Hour where, in one case study, the analyst gets pulled into the alternate universe of his patient that sets loose his own unconscious world.) Fortunately, it is Alice's despair over the death of her former lover that gives the book the soul that's missing in Herb. She suggests heroines like Gretta Conroy in James Joyce's short story, "The Dead," a woman who becomes possessed by the memory of a young suitor who died for her.

What makes Changelings such a strangely moving experience, even with its flaws, is that it transcends the more conventional understanding of spiritual possession, where the subject always appears to be out of the ordinary and otherworldly. With the assuredness of a poet, Marshall puts this subject into the context of our daily world. He examines how the traumas of childhood create voices in us that initially saves our lives. But he's also saying that if those voices continue to survive into adulthood, they can kill us.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.    

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