Books discussed in this essay:
The Custodian of Paradise
by Wayne Johnston
Knopf Canada, 2006
528 pp., $35
The Navigator of New York
by Wayne Johnston
Knopf Canada, 2002
486 pp., $22
by Wayne Johnston
Vintage Canada, 1999
288 pp., $21
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
by Wayne Johnston
Vintage Canada, 1998
608 pp., $22
For those unfamiliar with Waynejohnstonland, it perches along the far cliff-edge of our literary continent. Though already one of the more extravagantly charted terrains in Canadian literature, much of it remains, of necessity, terra incognita. By way of introduction, here are twelve key features of its known, sometimes unknowable, and often contradictory topography. All but a few of the excerpts quoted are from Baltimore’s Mansion, a manifesto about place nestled within a family memoir.
1. Waynejohnstonland is vast and sprawling. At the same time, it is also small and intimate. Finally, its size is indeterminate. “How big is ———land??” the son asks his father in Baltimore’s Mansion. Replying first that it is very big indeed, the parent adds, “Almost all of it is empty. No one lives there. No one’s ever seen most of it.”
2. It is hostile to human habitation. Survivors of early attempts at settlement, safely back home in their beds, often woke up screaming in the dead of night. Only assurances from spouses that they no longer lived in Waynejohnstonland allowed them to find peace again. Alert to this, the German translators of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams initially suggested the title “The Territory of Unrelenting Nightmares.” Some of this ambivalence appears related to the weather.
3. In its “dimensions and variousness,” it is more a country than a colony or territory. “What a country we could have been,” the father tells his boy. “What a country we were one time.”
4. Living in Waynejohnstonland inclines thoughts and propels stories toward the mythic. The author himself hails from the Avalon Peninsula. In the fifteenth-century saga Le Morte D’Arthur, King Arthur crosses over to a different Avalon, saying it will “heal me of my grievous wound.” Avalon also conjures the Isle of Apples, “a pagan Garden of Eden.” As well, there is the “archetypal topography” of Ferryland, the town where Wayne Johnston’s ancestors were born and where, three centuries earlier, a Catholic colony overseen by Lord Baltimore failed to take root in the barren rock. Johnston’s blacksmith grandfather was known as “Ferryland’s Hephaestus,” in honour of the Greek god of the forge, and as a child Johnston imagined his grandparents “barge-borne by the hooded Queen and her assistant queens” for their crossing into Avalon — into the afterlife.
5. The topography is likewise totemic, often arrestingly physical and anthropomorphic, a character unto itself. Ferryland has a head, ears, and a gaze; the city nearby is notable for its brow. From page one of The Story of Bobby O’Malley, published in 1985, to the closing pages of The Navigator of New York, published in 2002, settings have almost always been first the small towns and then the one proper city of the land. Book after book animates the capital with the ardour of a tireless love poet. In one novel, it is compared not to a summer’s day, as Shakespeare portrayed the muse of his sonnets, but to constellations of stars, “all with their distinctive patterns of lights,” as Johnston describes the city’s various neighbourhoods.
6. Residents of Waynejohnstonland are similarly besotted. The society’s defining myth is that “the true king [is] always in exile or in rags while some pretender [holds] the throne.” Characters are indeed ragged true royals. They also tend to be misfits and loners, alienated from the mainstream and inclined toward private obsessions. Secrets abound, generally concerning parentage. Romances are brief and unsatisfactory. With their extravagant plot twists and old-fashioned interests in fortune and destiny, Wayne Johnston’s books share more in common with the tales of Daniel Defoe than with those of Douglas Coupland. “It was the stuff of boys’ adventure books,” explains the child in The Navigator of New York.
7. The land requires keepers for its lighthouse. It scarcely matters whether the applicants are fictional creations, like Sheilagh Fielding in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and now The Custodian of Paradise; real people rendered fictional, such as Joey Smallwood in the same books; or even real people rendered non-fictional characters, including the Johnston clan of Baltimore’s Mansion. The requirements are the same: tenacity, belief, and an appetite for lost causes.
8. Once you leave Waynejohnstonland, you stop believing it is real. Johnston writes of his relatives: “Home, when they left it, had ceased to exist.” Not surprisingly, you can’t go back either. The author has been in deep, possibly dispiriting exile for years. He lives in Toronto.
9. Waynejohnstonland is a space of “fancy and conjecture” and of yearning and nostalgia. “The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It isn’t even past.” All of Johnston’s major works, beginning with 1998’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, are set in the pre-present.
10. An obvious point, still worth making: Waynejohnstonland is an island. “An island to someone who has never left it is the world,” the writer asserts. Equally paradoxical is his companion remark: “An island to someone who has never seen it does not exist.” Both comments argue for the importance of psychogeography over any of the objective physical evidence that might be found — or not found — on maps.
11. A corollary point, somewhat less evident: there are smaller islands surrounding this larger isle, rocky crags of still-greater remoteness and inhospitality. Here is a description in Baltimore’s Mansion: “beyond the island the headlands of another island, partially obscured by mist.” Read as a meditation on literary places, John-ston’s memoir asserts the primacy of personal geographies, complete with their own myths, in the slow, steady mapping of a writer’s preoccupations. While this theme might not have been obvious when Baltimore’s Mansion first appeared, poised between the exuberantly public The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and the still-exuberant, if somewhat ragged and bogged down, The Navigator of New York, Johnston’s seventh and most expressive novel, The Custodian of Paradise, makes this inward turn apparent.
12. Waynejohnstonland resembles a certain real island — a former British colony, now a Canadian province, off the Atlantic coast — from which the author hails. While tempting to indulge, similarities to Newfoundland are ultimately misleading. If anything, the landscape of Waynejohnstonland looks more and more like a garden with each successive book.
The Custodian of Paradise opens with a retreat from a large island to a small one. It is the final days of World War II and Sheilagh Fielding, the journalist who nearly elbowed Joey Smallwood off centre stage in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, is determined to quit St. John’s. She isn’t seeking to flee Newfoundland. Quite the opposite: her ambition is to enter even more deeply into its lonely soul. Pestering an official from the registry office, she explains her needs: “I meant an island on which there had once been a settlement but whose population was now zero, not one that had never been settled.”
Such a place is soon found — Loreburn, off the southern coast — and Fielding stuffs two trunks with most of her worldly possessions, as well as thirty bottles of Scotch. To others, she declares the exercise a literary one: she intends to write a book. “I’ve decided it will just be about one island,” she claims. But to herself she admits the truth. “Letters of a sort were what I planned to write on Loreburn.” Letters, however, that are likely to be burnt shortly after they are composed, and certainly never sent. “How bereft I was of all that was so precious to other people,” she says. She is forty-one, and a mental and physical wreck. Suicide by Scotch seems possible.
Mr. and Mrs. Trunk, as the cases are dubbed, also contain Fielding’s journals of many years and the notebooks kept by her son, David, forwarded to her not long before by David’s twin sister, Sarah. “I stared hard at the trunks,” their owner reports during the crossing, “terrified that the rope or winch would break or the trunks would come loose from the hooks and their contents spill irretrievably into the water.” The loss of David’s writings would be devastating. Baroque circumstances, whose unfolding fuels the plot of The Custodian of Paradise, resulted in Fielding having never met her daughter and having seen her son only once. His death overseas has triggered this crisis.
“From this distance,” she notes out on the water, “it resembled a massive rock with a dark green mantle of grass dotted white with gulls.” But on sighting the actual settlement, her thoughts turn animistic. “Loreburn,” she says, “looked to be in a permanent state of mourning, each family withdrawn to endless solitude behind those boarded windows. The houses were like faces whose eyes and ears had been patched and whose mouths had been taped shut.” Another failed colony, it would appear, its dreams likewise unrequited.
Long before the nature of Loreburn is revealed, however, it is apparent that The Custodian of Paradise is charting distinctive terrain. There are few characters and scarcely any incidents. There is also little sense of history unfolding, despite the backdrop of the war. Instead, there are the voluminous letters and documents that Sheilagh reads and writes, often describing events decades in the past, and there is the dream-time of a woman sequestered on an island surrounded by the roaring ocean and reeling birds. Nor is there any raucous boy’s-adventure cast to the setting. The atmosphere, rather, is one of quiet allegory.
Mostly, too, there is Sheilagh Fielding herself. Never before has Johnston so given a book over to a single character. Happily, Fielding remains outsized and outlandish, and her emotional vulnerability both propels and occasionally unsettles the narrative. Her fearsome wit, a cross between Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, has also survived intact. “Behold, the lilies of the Feild,” she chides the boys of Bishop Feild School as a teenager. “They do not reap. Neither do they sow. Their fathers do that for them.” Or this jibe, delivered in the voice of a human-refuse collector, in one of the “Forgeries” columns that establish her notoriety before her twenty-first birthday: “Not everyone can make it to the top. It wouldn’t be the top if they did. The top would be the same as the bottom and then no one could make it to the top. Or the bottom. Or the middle.”
Joe Smallwood is back as well, though not with the same purpose. “I have seen that scarecrow of a boy,” Fielding’s father bellows at her. “That worthless wretch. Skin and bones. A crow’s nose. Skulking about like a thief.” Aside from appearing in a couple of scenes, Smallwood has little to do except be blamed for having impregnated Sheilagh. That he is not the true father represents a small joke on those who complained about the liberties taken with facts in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams; instead of a real person cast as a journalist covering a maritime disaster (the voyages of the SS Newfoundland and the Bellaventure) that actually occurred when he was a boy, we now have a real person falsely accused of fathering fictional babies (the twins, David and Sarah). More seriously, that Joe Smallwood, the character, would be encouraged, so to speak, to consider having sex with Sheilagh Fielding marks a mischievous rephrasing of a favoured Johnston theme — the need for people to crawl out from what the author once described as “the avalanche of history” with their individuality intact. Board a ship that sailed before your time or be rumoured to father babies born only in fiction: both are assertions that, in a book at least, future premier Joey Smallwood can do whatever he wishes to do — or rather, whatever his creator wishes for him to do.
As if to press this idea home, The Custodian of Paradise raises its flag of individuality in the proverbial genesis of archetypes. Literally: Loreburn is the Garden of Eden, with Sheilagh Fielding cast against type as Eve, managing without — for the present — an Adam for company. Few other parallels with the Biblical tale survive. But what Loreburn, home to wild weather and feral dogs, lacks in tropical fruit and reptiles, it makes up for with restorative calm. Here, finally, Fielding finds a way to bring order to, if not overcome, her grief. “There is nothing in the world but water, a patch of it the size of a pond on which it seems we make no progress,” she reflects. Her victory over those bottles of scotch, for instance, which stay unopened, may be small, but it is a triumph nonetheless.
Enter Adam. In the book’s climax, Fielding’s provider, a protector-figure she has known for decades, but only through letters, joins her on the island. Their union occurs in a ruined church — he is a former priest — and is preceded by a no less haunting letter that outlines a personal creation myth for the relationship. The passage, which lends the novel its title, is worth citing in full. The speaker is “Your Provider,” and his delegate is the man he employed to intervene directly in her affairs:
“Neither my delegate nor I could ever think of paradise as a tropical place as described in the Bible or by Milton, especially paradise in the wake of Adam and Eve. No, it was always winter there. My delegate pictured it as an island on which God lived alone in a great house to which he ‘hoped’ his children would return some day, even as he knew that, because of his own irrevocable edict, they never would. ‘The paradox of paradise,’ my delegate called this. He imagined God at twilight, looking out the topmost window of his house upon an unblemished tract of snow, soon to light the candle that he placed in the window every night as a guide in case the two he sent away for good came back.”
God, the Provider explains, lives for eternity on this wintry isle, awaiting the return of his “fraternal twins.” The Protector dubs God the “hermit of paradise” and, in anger, the “charlatan,” given how his fall from grace was fixed from the start. Mostly, though, he is the “custodian of paradise,” and in the kind of moment of aesthetic precision granted those authors willing to risk all, including readers, to pursue an idea to its limit, Wayne Johnston achieves a breathtaking compression of image and allusion. “We are all three of us…custodians,” the Provider declares, “withdrawn from the world to preserve, to keep inviolate, something that would otherwise be lost.”
“Many writers,” the American author Annie Dillard wrote, “do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” Dillard gets the location right, and her descriptions of the loneliness that accompanies prolonged solitude are apt. But she is wrong about the subject of those sittings. Writers are rarely recalling the real from inside their rooms. Instead, they are perpetually recharting their own imaginative terrains. They are, in effect, creating parallel continents and countries, cities and towns, and they do so with obstinacy and vigour. These inner geographies float free of, but are also often irreducibly intertwined with, the places where we are born, live, and die.
Always, too, writers behave as the Old Testament God does toward His creations. It is impossible to avoid the implications of Johnston’s organizing metaphor. The creative act, especially in narrative form, is uncannily akin to the story of Eden. Writers do fix tales in order that their beloved characters get expelled from one garden or another, and then keep vigil for those characters long afterward. Predictably, the novel is obsessed with the geography of books, and especially with interior landscapes — the ones all humans inhabit, no matter where they actually reside. Is the Garden of Eden not the original literary setting? As an allegorical space, it stands in for our self-awareness as a species, our utopian yearnings, our eternal falls from grace, our compulsive flights from paradise.
That space, intimate and dreamlike, is both the opening and final terrain of The Custodian of Paradise. It would be a mistake to view the novel as a sequel to, or even a mirror image of, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Nor is it safe to assume that the “something” that requires preservation in this latest Wayne Johnston fiction, the thing that might otherwise be lost, is the pre-Confederation Newfoundland portrayed so ardently in his previous books. The Custodian of Paradise is a declaration of independence from the tyrannies of external topographies, of public history, and of plot. As such, it is not so much the most ambitious mapping to date of Waynejohnstonland as the first proper excavation of its landscape. In choosing to dig up his own site, to unearth settlements and gardens lodged within the archaeo-logical record, Johnston is going about the business of the major novelist in mid-career: custodianship of his own properties. Asserting that a spit of rock in the Atlantic Ocean is a snowbound Eden is not so strange if your spadework has revealed the layers underneath. Chip away at connections, sift through stories and metaphors, especially of the sort you have been digging away at for years, and conclusions become inevitable, as do perfect truths and perfect paradoxes.
Literary tours of James Joyce’s Dublin or William Faulkner’s Mississippi aside, it is worth remembering that readers of novels cannot declare with confidence that they are visiting any place other than an author’s head. Perhaps, in the end, places really exist only in the imagination. The playfulness of Baltimore’s Mansion flagged Wayne Johnston as an artist unwilling to be affixed so readily to a map of literary Canada — or, for that matter, of literary Newfoundland. His imagination declines to be bound by that kind of geography. He isn’t even certain an island exists if no one has seen it. “Knowing I would lose sight of Newfoundland eventually,” he writes of his own leave-taking as a young adult, “I did not stand at the rail. Instead I sat facing away from it for as long as I was able to resist the urge to look. And when finally I did look, it was gone.”•
Charles Foran teaches the contemporary Irish novel at the University of Toronto. His new book, Planet Lolita, comes out in May.