The farce is with him

The Nine Planets
By Edward Riche
Viking Canada, 302 pages, $34

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

REVIEWED BY PATRICK KAVANAGH

Marty Devereaux is co-founder and vice-principal of a successful private high school in St. John’s. He is a home­owning, Saab-driving, fortyish bachelor. His chic girlfriend makes few demands on him. By all rights he ought to feel pretty smug about his situation. But Marty is miserable.

In his youth, Marty was a good runner, but now, in his middle years, his life has hit the wall. He worries about his failing health, weight gain, drinking, pill-popping and sagging vigour. A measure of his ennui is his failure to find, in a video store offering thousands of titles, a single movie he might enjoy watching.

He complains non-stop, about the shortcomings of family, friends and lovers. He treats colleagues with open contempt. He criticizes what he regards as the self-serving myths of Newfoundland history. A cornucopia of dyspepsia, he disapproves of the whole of the modern world. He sneers at the visual arts, architecture, educational-fads, literary theory, the, environmental movement, fashion and pop culture: “Music videos were nothing but hooligans and rude stooges pointing and shoving, their coteries of whores in lordosis, asses quaking like paint shakers.”

Edward Riche’s first book, Rare Birds, was an entertaining but easy-going farce. Clearly he has dodged the Curse of the Second Novel, because The Nine Planets is far better crafted and more savagely funny. Every page in this volume spits bile, yet from such unpromising material Riche has forged a satisfying story sustained by sheer narrative energy, keen observation, cutting dialogue and, in the end, glimmers of hope.”

His confident prose is clear, precise and consistent in tone. Riche never loses sight of his purpose. The resulting momentum reflects his experience in writing for the screen (among his credits is the film adaptation of Rare Birds). Planets, in fact, reads like a screenplay: The pages turn and the camera pans, scenes fade in and out, and the big set-piece conversations are framed and staged. This “film” even includes a soundtrack, featuring Patti Smith and Nina Simone.

The story takes place in 1999, between April, with the horrifying massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, and Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead.

After a falling-out with his best friend and business partner, Marty determines to go solo with his own bold entrepreneurial plan. He aims to launch an ambitious new chain of “globalized” private schools. Soon, however, his naiveté brings failure and humiliation.
At the same time, he has become bored with his long-time lover, the school’s music teacher, and lets her drift away. He becomes infatuated with a married woman and pursues an affair with her that quickly proves a mistake. He observes that “nothing caused more suffering than love.”

Marty understands that he is a corrupt, man, but he doesn’t much care. He is well aware that his school is engaged in the cynical commodification of learning; education is a “service product” that must be “marketed.” What’s more, his business has succeeded largely on the basis of fakery, by exploiting the school’s false and snobbish “brand.” Marty’s administrative decisions are rooted not in lofty pedagogical principles but in the need to keep the precious facade intact, parents fooled and insurance premiums low.

Insomniac, drinking heavily, exhausted, Marty simply wants a new life. He considers leaving Newfoundland to start afresh, but is paralyzed by indecision. When classes resume in the autumn and the calendar approaches the Day of the Dead, his problems multiply: “Trouble clustered. It was entropic and opportunistic. You never heard tell of someone with one simple manageable problem. Strife sensed your weakness and shot into your cells like a retrovirus, putting a hitch in your helixes, making them breed predicament.

The novel’s other voice is Cathy Ford-Devereaux Marty’s, 16-year­old niece. Anti-social and lonely, she trudges the streets and alleys of St. John’s, night and day for no reason other than to kill the deadening hours. Like her uncle, who recognizes her “nihilistic lethargy,” she is out of sorts with everyone and everything-but especially with herself. “At the centre of out ten-billion-year-old galaxy was a black hole. Cathy wasn’t surprised. It felt like that.

Riche’s tone is muscular and aggressive, but his method is satirical, rather than didactic. He does not so much moralize as chuckle. So charming is his manner that the glib and outrageous opinions his characters utter are unnervingly persuasive. A pair of ruthless real-estate developers seduce Marty into one of their schemes, but once he screws up and is no longer useful to their plans, they dump him with such breathtaking brutality that one can only applaud their sheer élan.

The action takes place in Newfoundland’s capital but its types and their conundrums could easily be found in any North American city For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the province, Riche seamlessly inserts background info as needed. All the while he winks slyly to his “home” audience and drops deadpan jokes – by way of fancies like “Shaheen Crescent” or “Valdmanis Collegiate” – which are references to actual scalawags, notorious carpetbaggers from the Smallwood era.

This is a vital, physical text. The prose is alive with sensuality, often of the repulsive or disturbing sort. Cathy’s feet have “protrusions like rakes, tines, and broken ladders.” When Marty finally beds his new mistress, she proves adept at taking his hips in her hands and pushing him inside as if performing seppuku.” On the street, a used condom that gets, stuck to the bottom of Marty’s shoe pretty well sums up his entire predicament.

The governing metaphor, in fact, is the heavens above. Often, as with Cathy’ black holes, celestial images serve only to deepen the note of sadness. On an outing with two people whose marriage is in trouble “Marty watched Jackie and Ted, like all finished couples keeping their distance but unable to break free of each other’s gravitational field. They would forever tumble, twinned, through space.” When a colleague shows off mural of the solar system that his students are painting, he pointedly reminds Marty that “God is not up there.” Symbolizing many of Riche’s damaged people is the school’s antique orrery, broken and consigned to the dusty basement.

In the end however, the firmament brings hope, a hint at least that lonliness need not prevail – that it is possible to feel love, maybe even to express it. Despite her spiritual torpor, Cathy has awakened to the stars, what’s more by way of a book. She happens upon a copy of Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi, wherein he formulated the laws of planetary motion, and although she doesn’t understand a word of it, she is transfixed by the splendour of his vision and by the magic and mystery the pages evoke in her.

In a similar way, many will be transfixed by the splendour of Riche’s vision. He draws the reader from the earthbound concerns of social criticism and, by way of a moving meditation on human solitude, to the far galaxies. One can only imagine what he will attempt in his third novel.

Patrick Kavanagh lives in Ottawa. His 1997 novel, Gaff Topsails, is to be reissued this year.