The Bull Calf Review on When Fenelon Falls
In 1966 Leonard Cohen published Beautiful Losers, a book about two orphans in Montreal, one of whom desires to be "the Superman who was never Clark Kent" (122). In 1988 Linda Hutcheon argued that Cohen's novel is an early example of postmodernism in Canada. The protagonist who displaces his own desire for an origin myth onto a desire for superhuman powers thus accompanies the seminal story of Canadian postmodernism. In Dorothy Ellen Palmer's first novel, When Fenelon Falls, Jordan May March, an adopted young girl whose disability marks her like Odysseus's or Harry Potter's scars mark them, imagines her own potential origin myths while her big brother, known simply as BB, narrates the summer of 1969 in the now familiar postmodern style, as Hutcheon defined it.
In her focus on the particular insecurities of an adolescent Jordan, however, Palmer strays from superficial escapist fantasies that might otherwise accompany a discussion of superheroes and adopted children; some of her best writing deconstructs the gendered potential for stability in the myths of superheroes: "When he is orphaned, Batman can become the Masked Avenger, but a girl can only be the Masked Pretender" (193). As Jordan attempts to explain her anger with her adopted parents (and the world) to their biological son, her BB, she reveals herself as an excellent and a postmodern reader. She easily deconstructs her brother's favourite cartoon hero, Underdog. Underdog, Jordan explains, obsessively privileges the purebred –- the dog with certified papers –- over the evil orphan. As the etymology of his name implies, Simon Bar Sinister, Underdog's nemesis, is "one who hears" (Simon) the "sign" (Bar) of himself as a "bastard" (Sinister) (218). Like Simon Bar Sinister, Jordan cannot escape the perpetual reminders of her illegitimate place in the March family; from popular children's cartoons to her aunts’ dismissal of Jordan as only an "Almost" March, to the orphaned bear (Yogi) that Jordan tries to save, Jordan's whole world reflects and reminds her of her displacement. Jordan's myth of origin has an additional postmodern character; try as she might, Jordan cannot attach herself to any one definite reading of her heritage. Possible names of family members who never become real overtake Jordan's story. "In conclusion," she writes in a speech, "there is no conclusion. The yarn unravels forever, into infinity and beyond: 128 GGGGG-grandparents, 256 GGGGGG-grandparents […] etcetera" (178).
Even if Palmer's willingness to participate in the tradition of Canadian postmodern fiction is admirable, the postmodern conventions of the novel are its main weakness. BB narrates most of the book, and does so with insistent (and bad) puns that fall flat in their attempts to imitate postmodern playfulness. Furthermore, the narrator obsessively addresses the reader in the beginning and the end of the novel, but while Palmer seems sincere when she makes statements like "this story has endless tale ends. Of course your [the reader's] answer is one of them" (309), her emphasis on breaking open conventions and on the participation of the reader in the creation of the text are so familiar, so conventional even, that they sound like platitudes.
Palmer's strength is in Jordan's diary imaginings of her own conception: her mother's rape during hurricane Hazel. These visceral entries ground the ever-multiplying potential of Jordan's heritage in the vulnerable female body. Although Jordan constructs diverse identities for her mother and father (including Louisa May Alcott and J.F.K.), her stories remain the same: she was conceived during hurricane Hazel and her mother loves her very much. In these passages, Palmer sheds her playbook of superficial postmodernist moves and writes compellingly about an adolescent girl's fascination with her parents' sexual appetites as her own begin to awaken.
In one such entry, Jordan describes her mother and her boyfriend Walter hiding in the horse stables at the CNE during the hurricane. Jordan's mother is knocked unconscious during the storm and weeks later discovers that she is pregnant. Unable to conceive of Walter raping her, Jordan's mother imagines that a horse is responsible, and is declared insane. Nonetheless, in a figurative description of the traumas of rape and childbirth, she is proud of the foal she will soon produce: "City people don't understand animals. I'll show them when I foal this summer. […] I'm going to lead mine right through the Princes' Gates. I'm going to show my baby off at the Horse Palace of the Exhibition where she'll take the blue ribbon and the gold medal hands down. That is, if she doesn't cut me apart with her hooves being born" (94). In these diary entries, Palmer's prose resembles Lynn Crosbie's bodily descriptions of sexual abuse and desire in works like Paul's Case and Dorothy L'Amour. Here, the postmodern characteristics of Palmer's writing are secondary to, but still present in and important to the formulation of, Jordan's bodily and feminine imagining of the hurricane of her origin. Palmer can add little to a discussion of postmodernism now decades old, but in the powerful moments of Jordan's diary she may just find the beginnings of her own origin myth as a novelist of female trauma.
Reviewed by Kait Pinder.