The settings for John Buell's first three novels, The Pyx, Four Days, and The Shrewsdale Exit are vaguely identifiable as Montreal in the first two and northern New York state in the third. But these places are kept unspecified with such deliberate care that readers cannot help noticing the artful dodging. In Buell's grim and violent novels characters move about in spaces so familiar to themselves that a reader who wants a sure fix on the North-American map is unprovided for. He can recognize, of course, the urban, the suburban, the smalltown, and so on, but these are more conditions than places, and he begins to suspect that he is being nudged toward conclusions that have to do with "the human condition," or some other such major abstraction. Above all, he is never allowed to imagine that political boundaries, regional cultures, or local traditions make any difference in what really matters. (p. 77)
It is momentarily surprising, then, to find that his fourth novel, Playground, is peppered with so many specified and exact Canadian locations as to invite the curious to confirm their accuracy with roadmap and atlas. His hero does not merely travel from a city to the great woods as might Joe Grant of The Shrewsdale Exit. Spence Morrison [travels a route very carefully delineated by Buell]…. This selection of detail from the first few pages of the novel … seems to exhibit Buell making up for prior deficiencies, perhaps with hyperbolic irony.
But the change is only apparent. It is Buell's character, Spence Morrison, a prosperous, suburban, middle-aged executive—hooked on efficiency, planning, route markings, brandnames, clock-readings and the like—whose mind demands the assuring specificity of time and place, and though this Morrison, the technology-ridden modern man, operates out of Montreal, he is of a type to be found, one supposes, in any modern metropolis. His story is a story because of the proximity to a wilderness large enough to be lost in, and once that happens all this needless clamor for putting novels in Toronto or Toledo is revealed for the shallow matter it is. The Canadian North could be a fiefdom of Paraguay for all it will help Spence Morrison. We eventually get even the irony that Canadian bills are more valuable as ignitable kindling than as currency to [this] poor fellow whose plane goes down in uninhabited terrain; and for all his maps, charts, and mental doodads, Morrison comes to feel that when he is lost he isn't "even at a real place."… (pp. 77-8)
Buell's main character, Morrison—to all intents and purposes the only one in the novel, whose consciousness is...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)