Stephen Scobie

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[One] feature of Rooke's fiction has been the way the ordinary lives of ordinary people coexist with the most extravagant and bizarre events and are presented in exuberantly experimental forms….

Rooke's form is his content: that the wildness, the exuberance, the grotesqueness, and the sudden tonal shifts from fantasy to the catching and placing of realistic detail in the context of humdrum existence, are all as relevant thematically as they are dazzling technically. One key to such an approach is Rooke's insistence on voice….

Whooping and hollering, cajoling or complaining, Rooke's characters meet the world at an interface of language; their perception is their rhetoric.

One of Rooke's central themes, then, is the way people become trapped in their rhetoric. Perception as speech and speech as perception form a vicious circle of solipsism…. [In] Death Suite, we find Mama Tuddi, the TV faith-healer-cum-Double-Ola-salesperson, caught inside a miasma of fundamentalist sales talk that cannot be pierced even by the realities of death or the challenge of a rival rhetoric. (p. 8)

In The Magician in Love, the rhetoric takes slightly different forms. The story is a fable, and the voice is not so much a character's as it is the author's, relating the story in a style that keeps realism at arm's length while never quite abandoning it, and maintains a tone of witty, slightly puzzled detachment. The Magician's love for his mistress, Beabontha, is based upon a rhetoric of illusion—fruit appears on the branches of the dead trees, rivals who shake hands are left holding flowers—and when it collapses it destroys not only the characters but the whole social fabric surrounding them. Yet what else is there, in fiction, except illusion?… And illusion itself, to complete once more the solipsistic circle, "is perception in reverse."

Rooke's art is one of performance, of impersonation, and the virtuoso brilliance of his writing … is again thematically essential, not merely entertaining and decorative, in two ways. First, he must depend upon the inventiveness and energy of the writing in order to enter into each of these "fully realized world[s] of appetite and speech"; his characters are themselves virtuosos of illusion and self-deception, and he must match their technique in order to portray them. But second, by playing the role of impersonator, or ventriloquist, for so many different voices, Rooke draws attention to his own "performing self" (in Richard Poirier's phrase), the author distinct from his creations. (pp. 8-9)

Consider a sentence like this, from Death Suite: "My Dream Girl, he say to friends, she like this: and he slice his hands through the air like what he really want is a Coca-Cola bottle." The observation is exact, as is the colloquial tone of speech; the gesture is convincing, but so is the author's irony, the unstated comment on the confusion of ideals. (p. 9)

Stephen Scobie, "The Inner Voice," in Books in Canada, Vol. 10, No. 9, November, 1981, pp. 8-10.

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