Clark Blaise Mark Abley - Essay

Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The main characters in Lusts, including [Richard Durgin, widower of poet Rachel Isaacs,] a Chinese-American professor who is writing Isaacs' biography and an American-Indian librarian who marries Durgin on his way downhill, are all unable to belong. Blaise, who attended 25 schools across North America before Grade 9, has turned his highly personal sense of displacement into a graphic metaphor for the experience of modern life in North America.

The novel does have irritating faults. Blaise is careless about chronology and he occasionally lets lively material run on too long. By contrast, he treats a few important characters, notably Jack Toomey, Isaacs' lover in her final year, far too sketchily. But those flaws pale beside Blaise's unobtrusive mastery of form, his eye for memorable detail and his acute, impressionistic sense of the passing of the years…. Furthermore, Blaise is rarely content merely to provide impressions; he often goes on to interpret and analyse them as well.

Blaise's attitude to the United States is angry and loving at the same time. Proud that his country contains so much to inspire artists, he is also ashamed that it so readily chokes their talent and mangles their lives. Isaacs bears a strong resemblance to Sylvia Plath, the brilliant young American poet who committed suicide in 1963. One of the catalysts of Isaacs' suicide is her horrified discovery of Hogan's Heroes, a TV show that made Nazi POW camps the subject of light comedy. Despite the strong influence she can exert over others, Isaacs' own identity is frail enough that, to her, the modern world seems a perpetual shock. She could not cope with the United States. But with a lightness of touch that pays tribute to his own disquieting skill, Blaise leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the woman or the country is to blame.

Mark Abley, "A Sense of Displacement," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1983 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 96, No. 33, August 15, 1983, p. 43.