Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, The White Bone, opens at a fateful moment, when a family fails to recognize “glaring omens” of impending catastrophe because it is preoccupied in arguing over the proper name for an adopted daughter. The daughter’s childhood nickname is Mud, and she is an elephant.
A Canadian writer whose strange and eccentric work has been compared to that of Diane Arbus and Kazuo Ishiguro, Gowdy conjures up the physical, mental, and moral lives of Loxodonta africana africana, the largest land mammal, the African elephant, with gritty specificity, relying on the raw data of leading elephant behavior specialists as well as on her experience of Africa. She does not hesitate to envision the personalities, dreams, memories, language, slang, songs, hymns, yearnings, fears, frustrations, sorrows, and sexuality of these animals, fully imagining, as she told an interviewer, “what it would be like to be that big and gentle, to be that imperiled, and to have that prodigious memory.” Inhabiting such an animal—so fully that the entire novel is told from the perspective of elephants—may seem a surprising authorial choice, but, given the unexpectedness of Gowdy’s previous work, it shouldn’t.
In her fiction, Gowdy has been drawn to the grotesque. The eight stories in We So Seldom Look on Love (1992) focus lovingly on deformities of all kinds: a fat retarded child who performs a self-lobotomy by drilling a hole through her head (“Body and Soul”); a child with two tiny legs growing out of her stomach who grows up to realize how crucial her difference is just as they are being amputated (“Sylvie”); a woman who masturbates in front of a silent neighbor (“Ninety-three Million Miles Away”); a man whose two heads, one sacred, one profane, drive each other to murder (“The Two-Headed Man”); and, in the title story, the fatal infatuation of a medical student with a female necrophiliac. Her previous novel, Mister Sandman (1996), followed the adventures of the Canarys, a family in which the mother is a pathological liar and a lesbian and the father is a closeted homosexual; their extraordinary grandchild, whom they have passed off as their own, is a mute savant with preternatural hearing and mimicking abilities.
But Gowdy hasn’t been raiding the freak show for mere effect; her odd and exaggerated characters provide an almost metaphysical map of the nature of human identity, isolating and highlighting the kinds of mental and emotional handicaps that characterize childhood, adolescence, the ill, the aged, sexual life, family life. Nonetheless, these early tales, while often hilarious, can occasionally be jarring, as if the writer were operating some kind of ungainly, unfamiliar machinery. But in The White Bone, Gowdy has not only worked out the kinks in the system, she has found an almost perfect affinity between a subject that, once again, verges on the grotesque and her larger concerns, boldly expanding her compass to include tribes and other species, and asking: How does it feel to be a giant …