Funny, erudite and damning

The Nine Planets
By Edward Riche
Viking Canada, 2005

Marty Devereaux, the protagonist of The Nine Planets – Edward Riche’s first novel since 1997’s Rare Birds – is vice principle at The Red Pines private school, a training ground for the children of the bourgeois elite and the new oil and development rich of St. John’s. Along with his business partner Hank Lundrigan, Marty has moulded The Red Pines into the “premium private school in town,” seemingly overnight.

Like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, Marty claims to have “no feelings one way or the other. For much.” Unlike Monsieur Rick, he appears to be telling the truth. Marty is the perfect businessman in that regard, emotionally detached, utterly lacking the weakness of humanitarian tendencies. He is, as the British might say, a bit of a wanker.

Over the course of the novel, Marty’s callous, unsympathetic manner navigates him through various student difficulties, Hank’s damaging new politically active environmental conscience, his ongoing extracurricular love affair with Miss Zwitzer (the school music teacher), and the family troubles of his brother Rex, sister­in-law Meredith, and their disaffected teenage daughter Cathy.

Unrepentant social satirist that he is, Riche makes the inner workings and political manoeuvrings (sic) of St. John’s a major fixture of his novel. In a telling descriptive passage on the invention of tradition at The Red Pines (surely a poignant statement on our province’s recent trend of obsessive tourism), Riche describes the school’s opening day:

students and parents filed past a display case replete with dented and tarnished trophies, never thinking to ask their provenance. At the inaugural assembly the gymnasium was redolent of liniment Marty had splashed about, fudging an olfactory echo of games that hadn’t yet been played. All the pictures and fixtures, all the ornamentation was of such various or indeterminate age, anachronism on anachronism, that it was impossible to situate the place in time.

In a later passage as Marty is working on a development proposal, for a “chain” of such schools, he realizes “… the power of tradition (is) in its temporal weight. It (is) thus a brake or anchor against the headlong tumble into the unknowns of the future.” But there is a danger, the passage later warns, that “(t)he rope lashed to the rock hove over­board could snake around your leg and pull you with it into the deeps.”

Much of The Nine Planets concerns itself with similar uncertainties and displacements: Marty is a graduate of English literature who stumbled into the school business. Ten years at it, he remains “troubled that his and Hank’s accomplishment might be nothing more than dumb luck(.)”

His niece Cathy (who features largely as a character in the novel) is a teenager, with all the unfocussed rage and confusion of identity that title implies. She considers her uncle a sad, middle-aged loser. He thinks of her in no more flattering terms. Truthfully, the two characters are far more similar than either would care to admit – both struggle blindly in a world that seems to constantly shift beneath them.

At the heart of the novel lies the nine planets motif. Alan Pitts, science teacher at The Red Pines, engages several of his students in the painting of a hall mural of the planets of the solar system. In what amounts to the penultimate passage of the novel, Marty and Pitts argue over whether or not Pluto should remain in the picture (literally speaking). Pitts asserts that Pluto is technically not a planet at all but a “trans-Neptunian object” and wants the students made aware of the falsity of its popular classification. “They’ll see how knowledge advances,” he argues, “how mistakes are made, how the truth changes.” Marty, not one overly concerned with semantics, rejects the proposed correction. Truth, for him, need not be confused with the knowledge imparted in the school system

Riche’s prose – cynical, bellicose – is simply hilarious. There is no doubt he is an extremely gifted comic writer, yet it would be shameful to ignore his powerful descriptive abilities in any analysis.

“The nose was common to all educational institutions,” he tells us in an opening description of The Pines, referencing the “chemical/lemony notes of cleansers and disinfectants, mint-masked urine, gag of chalk dust, the bodily pong of a thousand students.”

In the paragraph immediately following, he grafts an image to the reader’s mind with brutally effective instruments: “A bronze bust of some ancient pol or territorial pedagogue, entry wounds for eyes, surveyed the space.”

It is this sort of descriptive precision that makes Riche’s satire so successful in whittling away at society’s dead wood, putting flame to burn off the grass of last season. The nine planets is everything it should be: Funny, erudite and damning.

Mark Callanan is a poet and reviewer living in Rocky Harbour. His next column appears Sept. 5. He can be reached at callanan__@hotmail.com

Mark Callanan
The Sunday Independent, August 22, 2004