Saturday, March 29, 2008

Helen Humphreys

The Frozen Thames, M&S 2007

Climate Change threatens us in many ways, but the signs are nowhere as visible, dramatic, or disturbing as the melting of our major ice packs. And while I have read reports suggesting that the arctic ice pack has actually grown this year to the surprise of many, there are more alarming reports of ice breaking off from Antarctica's Wilkin's Ice Shelf that move us closer to ecological tipping points. Helen Humphreys notes in the back of her elegant new book/novel that we may in fact forget our experience of ice and what it teaches us. That's hard to imagine as a Canadian this year, but point taken, yes. Not only ice, but climate, river, nature...all of this...and our idea of what it means to have expectations etc. But that's another story. Ice is at the core of this story.

The Frozen Thames is a conceptual novel. It takes as its topic the river itself, in particular the 40 times in recorded history that it has frozen over. Most of those events happened in the mini-ice age, when birds fell out of trees and people died in the thousands of the plague, and then the cold, and so on. There were frost fairs during this time. Such a fair, and such a time, are a setting Virginia Woolf chose for a key moment in Orlando and one of the finest passages in the novel. Humphreys, a fellow Woolf admirer, puts that moment to good use here, but I won't spoil that for readers.

Briefly, we think of the conceptual novel as a project that moves away from the centrality of character and plot, conventional fictional tools and structures, opting instead for tabulation, refiguration, collage, collection, fragmentation--any number of structural devices. We think of Marie Claire Blais, we think of Carole Maso, Lydia Davis, Mary Burger, Renee Gladman and recently Vanessa Place (more on her and Blais to come...). While her project is conceptual it can be described so only in the structure. Her commitment to linearity and a speaking subject, place the project to the right of the postmodern...not quite the genre-bending marvel her publisher M&S describes, but a wonder, and to my mind, wholly successful. One should remember that both Woolf and Gertrude Stein wrote "experimental novels." The category is wide. Perhaps like Woolf, it is Humphreys' commitment to the speaking subject that makes her work in general, and this book in particular, so readable. It's difficult not to feel for the characters we find throughout time; holding birds in the palm of their hands, skating on the bones of animals, being caught in the middle of a freeze, then a sudden thaw, waiting for a king to pass, or fleeing from a suffocating death of confinement due to exposure to the plague.

This is Humphreys' fifth work of fiction (she has several books of poetry as well) including Afterimage, The Lost Garden and Wild Dogs, which won a Lambda. Her first book, Leaving Earth is a gem, and a Hound favorite. As with all of her work, the deeply human asserts itself, but not in the simplistic way that this reader has been straining at the bit in the face of. There is something liberating in creating a conceptual frame for a work, but there is something compelling when someone does this without losing a sense of body...the conduit of subjectivity. It's problematic perhaps to think of one prose style as somehow representing a thousand years or so of English cultural life...but that isn't what Humphreys is doing here. What she does appear to do is have a lot of fun with the project. The prose is clear, sparsely poetic and vibrant. There is something heartening in this tour through history, a reminder of how frail not only the self is, but the whole human cultural enterprise.

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