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Family Secrets

The finest of the portraits is undoubtedly that of Germaine Greer, perhaps because she is the one who best understands Plante’s way of relating to her and deliberately pushes his patience to the limit. There is a charmingly climactic moment when the two are running a creative writing center in Tulsa and Plante finds that Greer has removed the high-backed leather chair from his office. At last he reacts to her dominance, claims the chair back, and accuses her of “expansionist politics.” Though he is pleased for having “done what she would do,” the aggressive Greer is no doubt even more satisfied to have forced Plante to lose his temper and confront her, since confrontation is evidently her favored way of relating to people.

Plante’s most recent novel, ABC, marks an intensification of some aspects of his work and a major departure from others. It begins in typical style with the three members of a family responding differently to the excitement of taking a risk. Gerard, Peggy, and their six-year-old son Harry are canoeing across a New England lake when Harry, who is at the stage of asking “why” about everything, becomes curious about an abandoned house. Peggy is against going inside, since she is “sure all kinds of acts have been performed there that I wouldn’t want Harry to know about….” Gerard, another of Plante’s French-Canadian American alter egos, is eager to explore it because, as he tells his wife, “the house makes me think of an act I’d like to perform with you.” When father and son ring a bell hanging from a pine tree outside the house, we hear:

The silence that had followed the ringing of the bell was more profound than before, the silence and the stillness, which he imagined kept by invisible people, aware of him standing there. And he had the acute sense that those people were in the house, also aware of him, and that, like those outside, they were holding back from making themselves visible to him, until, suddenly, one of them would.

This is the core experience in Plante’s narrative, the exciting, terrifying sense of an invisible alien presence. In earlier novels Plante’s alter ego tends to step back, to be satisfied with an awareness of strangeness but not to confront it; now, however, Gerard’s son takes his father’s hand to go into the house, upon which Gerard rather ominously announces: “So I guess we’re both up to the big adventure.” Readers familiar with Plante’s writing will be aware that he is no longer just describing his characters’ adventures but taking a risk himself as an author. Either the spirit world will prove not to exist or it must declare itself.

Inside, the house has been vandalized and its rotting bric-a-brac and broken bottles are unpleasant and unpromising. “I think your adventure, as all adventures, has ended in disappointment,” says Peggy, taking a position akin to that of Daniel’s mother in The Francoeur Family. At this point, as the son sets out to explore another room, Gerard is distracted by a piece of paper which he sees is covered with strange letters or signs. He is fascinated:

The more he studied it the more its incomprehensibility took hold of him, and the more the incomprehensibility took hold of him the more he believed it must have a meaning.

It is at this point that the son falls through the floor of the house, crashes into the cellar, and dies.

While the plotting in Plante’s earlier work is pleasantly meandering, as it follows the unstructured back-and-forth of relationships at once fraught but stable, it will already be evident that ABC is written to a strict plan and has a more didactic tone. With the loss of their son, Gerard and his wife gradually lose interest in each other as he turns inward and she, after brief resistance, escapes his near autism to spend time with a woman friend. The independence yearned for in The Francoeur Family has come, but at the price of tragedy; the attempt to step into the space of otherworldly presences has proved fatal.

Free to ignore his partner and family duties—a “freedom of total helplessness” as he describes it later—Gerard gives all his attention to finding a meaning behind his son’s death, and in particular behind the strange sheet of writing he has brought back from the abandoned house. He soon discovers that the writing is the Sanskrit alphabet written over and over. In his son’s first-grade copybook he finds the English alphabet written over and over. Casually turning to the letter K in a dictionary, Gerard is

still in that slight trance, that of sensing connections all about him that he himself couldn’t connect with, as if they crisscrossed in invisible lines through the very air, bouncing from a ceramic bowl on the coffee table to the shade of a floor lamp to a pillow on the sofa to a framed watercolor of trees against a sunset, creating a pattern too complicated for him even to imagine….

The following winter, in heavy snow, Gerard revisits the abandoned house, not to get over his grief for his son (of which we hear very little) but in search of “something…overwhelming…that the house itself must reveal to him.” Once again the house is full of invisible presences, “their lidless eyes bulging.” This time Plante identifies them as the dead, and the dead, it seems, are there to witness the world’s horrors. Harry’s death wasn’t an accident. The house had been booby-trapped. Gerard’s son now takes on the status of emblematic victim of mindless evil. The dead around him are perhaps “the victims of horrors, horrors committed not only in this house but, more, in houses all over the world.” Moving into a room he hasn’t explored, Gerard finds the letters “ABC” scrawled on the wall. At this point Plante has abandoned the realism within whose frame, in earlier books, intimations of transcendence were contained. From now on the contingent world is all too ready to confirm the mind’s visions, or paranoia. Credibility is strained as the reader is invited to shift into a different mode of storytelling.

Another piece of paper is found with writing in Sanskrit. In the winter night Gerard enters a nearby trailer camp. Echoing his son Harry’s “why” questions of the opening pages, a conversation with a gypsy woman there includes such questions as “Why do people do [evil things]” and “Why are there poor people and rich people?” The woman’s truculent son knows a girl from India who, fetched with haste, is able to tell Gerard that the latest Sanskrit discovery is a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says, “Of sounds, I am the first sound, A.” From this Gerard concludes—it is not clear why—that he must dedicate his life to discovering why the alphabet is arranged as it is, as though such an achievement would lead him to apprehend absolute meaning and hence an explanation of what has happened to his son, and indeed to his own mind.

In a secondhand bookstore Gerard comes across a book entitled Histoire de l’Ecriture. While he is there a girl buys all the store’s copies of the Bhagavad Gita and insists on giving one to Gerard. Sometime later, in Boston’s Central Burying Ground, Gerard watches an Asian woman visiting the grave of a certain Susan Whipple, daughter of Ben and Catherine Whipple, who died in 1800 aged eighteen. He sees her again in the public library where she tells the librarian: “I would like to find out about the alphabet.” Surprisingly named Catherine Whipple, the Chinese woman, raised in South America and living in London, has recently lost her daughter, Susan, to a drug overdose, following which her husband committed suicide. She has come to Boston to visit this grave of her namesake. Susan had been studying philology at Cambridge in England and shortly before dying had asked her mother if she knew why the alphabet was arranged as it was. Catherine had declared such things “unknowable.” But now she too, in response to grief, is determined to learn more. She too is constantly aware of the presence of the dead. She too looks for deep connections in everything she sees. “Those who wondered about meaning,” thinks Gerard, “needed the sympathy of others who also wondered.”

The narrative takes on the structure of those fables (Grimm’s Bremen Town Musicians, for example) where one animal that has set out on a journey meets another with the same goal, then another and another, until we have a group of adventurers, each of a different species, but united by the same quest. Gerard and Catherine travel to England to get the help of a Cambridge professor who introduces them to David Sasson, a Sephardic Jew of Spanish origin and Greek nationality whose Armenian wife has been arbitrarily murdered by terrorists and who, like Gerard and Catherine, has responded to bereavement by becoming obsessed with the history of the alphabet.

Having gleaned all they can from Cambridge academe, the three proceed to the British Museum where a learned Indian schoolchild gives guidance in the reading of pictograms, then to David’s home in Athens where, the oppressive dead ever in attendance, the car in which his wife was shot mysteriously appears and disappears. On a Greek island they find another sufferer, Aminat, a Chechen woman who has lived through every kind of atrocity and degradation. In particular she has seen her daughter raped and murdered.

All Plante’s fiction, we might say, moves in the tension between two kinds of knowledge: the information ordinarily generated by our perception of differences between things, people, places; and the hypothetical knowledge that would come with seeing the connection between all things and hence the transcendent world beyond them: a mystical experience. Wounded by grief, the four characters of ABC will be satisfied only by the second kind of knowledge, which they imagine will be revealed when they understand the “meaning” behind the arrangement of the building blocks of human thought: the letters of the alphabet.

Gerard, Catherine, and David still exhibit a certain resistance to this project. They are aware of the folly of their quest. They are resentful of the dead for putting them up to this wild goose chase. “Shouldn’t we be howling with laughter for making pretentious fools of ourselves?” says Gerard at one point, possibly voicing Plante’s own concern.

Aminat, however, is beyond embarrassment and pushes their quest to the limit. Familiar, like the others, with Histoire de l’Ecriture (the book pops up everywhere), she is convinced that the ultimate secret lies in the ruined city of ancient Ungarit, a northern Syrian civilization whose alphabet, again beginning with “ABC,” predates all others and was, Aminat believes, a direct precursor of the Chechen alphabet. Describing the group’s trip to Ungarit, Plante deploys the style that serves him so well when evoking the landscape of New England. A simple vocabulary is given rhythmic solemnity by breaking up the syntax into short segments of more or less equal length, introducing frequent subordinates, repetitions, and occasionally unusual word orders. Here the multicultural foursome have taken refuge from blistering heat in a tomb:

As if to rouse Gerard and Catherine and David and Aminat, a wind entered into the tomb, and in the wind, with many reverberating echoes, voices seemed to call, to call and to cry. The dead were calling, the dead were crying out. Aminat, straining against the weight of her body, was the first to get up and climb the deeply worn steps out of the tomb, then David followed, then Catherine and Gerard. Outside, the wind bound all the dead together in a great, undulant cloud of dust, the windblown dust of the dead.

The wind wailed across the desolation, beyond the ruins, where now was scrub and a few loose stones from walls that had ceased to stand, it seemed, against the wind.

In the distance, beyond a chain-link fence, was the sea, its surf rising and falling, but there was no access to the sea, as the shore was a military zone, where soldiers trained for war.

Impelled by the dead to arrive at some revelation, the group begins to tear up stones from the ruined site, looking for inscriptions and knowing they will find none. After this supreme disappointment Aminat kills herself and the others “grieved, as none of them had grieved before…for someone whose suffering was world suffering….”

In an interview given in 1994 Plante remarks on the fact that though he is not a believing Catholic he still has a Catholic mindset; he still yearns for revelation. Describing his reaction to icons in a Greek Orthodox church and their use in his novel Annunciation (1994), he says:

I began to think about devotion in [terms of] images…. I wanted to take an art historian who is a nonbeliever, whose appreciation of art is basically historical—she sees things within the context of its age and aesthetic—and I wanted to take her and in the end have her kneel in front of a picture, a holy picture, and pray to it.

Reading ABC, it’s evident that Plante wants to use his narrative to bring the reader to his knees, much as Daniel’s elder brother Albert in The Francoeur Family forces his siblings and parents to pray together. Alas, the cumbersome mechanics of the novel, its interminable coincidences and wooden dialogues, all so far from the wonderfully sure touch of Plante’s best writing, create exactly the reaction of the unbeliever obliged to sit through a sincere but wearisome sermon. At no point are our emotions stirred.

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