Jane (Vance) Rule Barbara Amiel - Essay

Barbara Amiel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contemporary life is the subject matter … of Contract With the World, Jane Rule's new novel and her best writing to date. These characters, unlike the rather strident figures in her earlier work, have some real blood and spirit—if somewhat unlikely lives. There is Carlotta, the intense portrait painter whose high-C sensitivity leads her to forget eating. Carlotta has an affair with the husband of Alma, the voluptuous earth mother (and would-be writer) who discovers her bisexuality in the arms of Roxanne, the androgynous sound artist who beds Carlotta who is the friend of Pierre who commits suicide after his lover Allen gets caught in a raid involving underage boys. What Rule could have done with some humor in these situations is delicious to contemplate. But humor is a quality missing from her book…. All these people are in relentless torment. They are Artists facing some sort of existential crisis often tied up in their sexual identity.

Which makes one long for a contemporary Cervantes. Don Quixote, after all, was the story of a knight who went batty after overloading on the pop literature of his time, which was all about knights going off to rescue maidens from dragons. Cervantes' book was a takeoff, in part, on that cliché, with a mad Don Quixote out battling windmills. A current version would surely give us a brave artist battling the Canada Council for a grant to straighten out her sexual identity. By now these clichés of contemporary life that form the basis of Rule's novel—artists, homosexuals and women battling the world—need to be presented with the extraordinary freshness of Mavis Gallant and some new insight to make readers, who for the most part don't share such experiences, feel anything about them. It's not that Rule's embattled artists and sexually ambidextrous characters don't exist, but they are so much on the fringe of contemporary experience that one can't help wondering why they have become such a focal preoccupation of current literature. (pp. 56, 58)

Barbara Amiel, "Relentless Torment of Urban Souls," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1980 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 93, No. 39, September 29, 1980, pp. 56, 58.∗