Now Playing at Canterbury

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Vance Bourjaily says that the writing of Now Playing at Canterbury took the better part of twelve years, and the richly interwoven series of characters, subplots, motifs, and themes in the novel testify to his statement. He often echoes the techniques of both Chaucer and James Joyce in attempting to present the macrocosm in microcosm. While the title points to Chaucer, the first important writer in the English language, Bourjaily is one of the few modern writers besides Thomas Pynchon to really learn from the modern genius of the same language, James Joyce.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, only two of the pilgrims’ stories are totally autobiographical. The stories, which express wide differences of tone and attitudes toward life, are mainly told in traditional medieval genres which Chaucer has adapted and clothed in magic garments. In contrast, all of Bourjaily’s characters tell autobiographical tales; the only totally fictional story is that of the opera libretto. Like Chaucer, Bourjaily includes an animal fable (Sidney’s), but it, too, contains autobiographical meaning. Since the time is set in the latter half of the twentieth century and God is supposed to be dead, the nearest Bourjaily comes to a saint’s legend or sermon is Mike’s tale of the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War; his wife, Mona, is the only martyr present. Since love in Bourjaily’s world cannot be considered as an extension of Divine love, it has to be analyzed on the human level only. The closest any of Bourjaily’s “pilgrims” ever comes to the philosophy and theology always hovering in the background of Chaucer’s tales is in Maury’s discussions of the god, Fats. In place of a theological or moralistic background, Bourjaily substitutes a consistent attitude to life: “life, after all, is only one of those solemn comic strips we all love secretly, except that instead of a handsome doctor or soldier or meddling old woman to make sure it comes out all right we have natural irony, to make sure it comes out oddly.” The consistency of this attitude is maintained in both the frame story and in the tales told by the characters, thus producing a much more limited range of attitudes to life than that evident in Chaucer.

Chaucer’s use of the frame device, which brings people of diverse classes and background together for a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas à Beckett, is loosely followed for the structure of this novel. For Bourjaily, however, the martyr’s cathedral is replaced by the performing arts center of a Midwestern State University and the pilgrims become those involved in its premier performance. There are other, smaller pilgrimages contained within this frame: two processions to the local bar; two to the Riding’s old school-house; and two to the local jail.

In contrast to Chaucer, Bourjaily develops the frame into a major story of its own. While Chaucer uses his Prologue and introductions merely to identify characters and bind the tales together, with only brief interactions among the pilgrims, Bourjaily does the opposite: his frame story and characters are more important than the main storyline. After Chapter Seventeen, the omniscient author is interrupted only twice by other narrators: Maggie Short, who relates the story of the cast party, and Fennellon, who gives an account of Mona’s death. During the complication, crisis, and climax (opening night), where the “miracle” is achieved, no other character interrupts. In both the frame story and in the final anticlimactic stories of Maggie and Fennellon, as well as in the final words of the novel, the idea of life as a pilgrimage with an oddly ironic end is the major theme.

To some degree, the thematic emphasis on this view of life partially excuses the major flaws of the novel: the excessive use of novelty and gadgetry, such as the comic strip blurb version of Sato’s life; the italicized inserts of the background of Sidney Bennett and Dick Auerbach into Skeats’s story of his war experiences and odyssey to New York; and the Joycean play on language evident in Maury’s segments. The Bennett-Auerbach and Skeats stories both lose impact from the interruptions. Although Maury’s Joycean style of language seems appropriate to his vision of life, it obscures crucial insights into his experiences, which can only be ferreted out by a serious reader, and only after the account of the cast party. Sato’s tale, told in comic strip blurbs, is meant to illustrate his and Debbie’s love of games, but the device grows old very quickly. It is at its best during the Green Hornet-like sequence of his naïveté during his first job in San Francisco, in which he...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, October, 1976, p. 111.

Christian Century. XLIII, December 8, 1976, p. 1104.

National Observer. XV, September 18, 1976. p. 23.

New York Times Book Review. September 12, 1976, p. 3.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, September 13, 1976, p. 81.

Saturday Review. III, September 18, 1976, p. 26.

Time. CVIII, September 13, 1976, p. 75.