A review of Eric McCormack’s Cloud (Penguin, 2014).
I won’t lie to you [ED: oh, how could we ever lie to you, you sly devil, you]; the following is a slightly biased review.
How could it not be? Aside from the acclaimed, amazing author Miriam Toews (whose monumental importance in the epic development of “Corey Redekop, young slacker” to “Corey Redekop, middle-aged slacker with a few published novels” is laid out here), Eric McCormack is likely the most vital link in the chain of events that led me here.
Here, career-wise, I mean. Not here, geography-wise. Sheesh, how I got here is a tale of sheer McCormackian dimensions.
It’s McCormack whom I first met during a book tour for his previous novel The Dutch Wife oh so many years ago (2002!). It’s McCormack who sat and talked with me afterwards about books and reviewing and all things literary, even buying me a glass of wine. It’s McCormack who later mailed me a signed copy of his book. And it’s McCormack who agreed to be flattered that, inspired by a recent reading of Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen, I used our meeting as a fictional jumping-off point for the events in my novel Shelf Monkey. I went so far as to incorporate the man himself as a character in the novel, a silent sounding board for the protagonist Thomas, and Eric was nice enough not to sue me for defamation of character.
So, yeah. I feel I owe Eric McCormack a lot.
So, that having being admitted into the public record and notarized for posterity, I say thusly that his first novel in twelve years, Cloud, is just a freakin’ gorgeous piece of work, a novel of personal growth through a life of drastically unusual circumstances. Cloud practically demands I break out the eternally italicized latin descriptors bildungsroman and entwicklungsroman to somehow convey the breadth, depth, and style of McCormack’s combination of idiosyncratic vision and classic, almost Dickensian prose.
It’s not an exaggeration, to my mind (the most important mind in the universe, prove me wrong), to mention Cloud in the same breath as Charles Dickens’ oeuvre. McCormack’s prose rings of Dickens’ serialized style as the narrative tracks the larger-than-life adventures a young man withstands through a life beyond his control. Of course, Dickens’ novels rarely share the inextinguishable undercurrent of existential dread running beneath McCormack’s prose.
Let’s call Cloud the novel Dickens never had the cojones to write himself. BOOM! Take that, old dead white author! Consider yourself Redekoped™!
Our Dickensian protagonist is Harry Steen, a Scottish-born Canadian businessman who stumbles across a strange tome in a Mexican bookstore. The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in the County of Ayrshire is the chronicle of a strange black cloud that once descended upon the Scottish township of Duncairn. As a young schoolteacher Steen spent a short time in Duncairn, there falling in love with a woman who haunts his every move over the course of his life. From this point we descend into the history of Steen, a history laden with tropes familiar to McCormack’s fans: travel to unexpected destinations; characters most memorably odd; sexual encounters most unusual; disturbing experiments; unexplainable occurrences; and exploits best described as unnerving.
Right from the start, McCormack strives to keep the reader off-balance, threading moments of unsettling horror through the narrative, as in this testimonial account of a reaction to the Duncairn cloud:
“The four children of the Mitchell family—two boys and two girls—were staring up at the black cloud. All at once, so their horrified mother told the provost, their eyes burst, making little popping noises that she likened to “soup bubbling on the hob.” A moment after that, each child vomited forth a stream of blood and fell down, quite dead. The provost himself could attest to the emptiness of the eye sockets of the four children where they had been laid out on the floor of the woman’s house.”
Such elements of sudden violence are used sparingly, to great effect. To be sure, none of the violence happens directly to Steen; rather, he’s the reactor to the acts of others such as the questionably unhinged Dr. Dupont and the sexually open violinist Jacob Nelson. Steen functions as a vessel through which to filter all manner of oddities, a man to suffer incidents “that never seemed quite resolved by common sense.” McCormack keeps it all running as only he can, driving Steen’s picaresque exploits forward with a jaunty momentum that only adds to the disquiet of encounters such as his visit to an African clinic:
“The baby, if it could be called a baby, had no head, only shoulders and a neck. From a plateau on top of the neck a little pink tongue protruded through a narrow opening, and two little brown eyes stared up at me alertly.”
For the sake of my sanity, I will not attempt a Google search to match this with an appropriate image. In fact, here’s something to readjust yourself back to normal:
Beyond such grotesqueries (and boy howdy is McCormack good with them), what lingers long after the last page is the sense of Harry Steen as a person, as real and perfectly realized as Dickens’ Pip or John Irving’s T.S. Garp. His life is a true adventure, and while he is rarely the architect of his fate, he is a perfect conduit for an existence of abstract mystery and devastating love.
McCormack also puts a little meta into his work, sneaking in many references to his earlier works, weaving his entire oeuvre into one darkly dreaming world. At one point, he slips distorted versions of his novels on a library shelf:
“The bottom shelves contained a number of obscure books of fiction that looked as though they’d never been read…I skimmed through the pages of some of them and must have stumbled on the worst—even their titles still haunt me. Inspecting the Faults, The Paladine Hotel, The Wysterium, Last Blast of the Cornet, and A Dutch Life. Each of them was as incoherent as dreams.”
Perhaps McCormack himself suffers from Dr. Dupont’s observation on “a dangerous aspect of the writing profession—the inability of writers to separate reality from fiction.” If so, his life must be one fantastic, dark, and dangerous ride. And I want a ticket, sir.