Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not Wanted on the Voyage

Repurposing Biblical stories into complex and well imagined works of fiction is, I think, much harder than its sister-genre of retelling fairy tales. Harder because there are probably a lot more people who know the Bible story you're working with, and the backlash-potential is huge. But harder also because Bible stories are more about the moral than the story itself, so the characters exist simply to carry the reader (or listener) toward the moral. When scholars talk about the characters of the various Bible stories, they describe their lives through family trees, not personal details. This means that when someone, such as Timothy Findley, sets out to re-imagine a Bible story, they must remain true-ish to a story that has almost no details. Nonetheless, Not Wanted on the Voyage is a novel that speaks back to its source-material in every sentence.

And somehow, Findley does that while using a cat as his narrator. Mottyl belongs to Mrs. Noyes, wife of Dr. Noyes, who is more Biblically known as Noah. Biblical stories may not give the reteller much, but they do give them a story arc, which Findlay stays more or less true to: the is a novel about Noah, who builds the arc and then sails it for 40 days and 40 nights in the rain. Findlay cover the basic story elements - the animals going on two-by-two, Noah's family and their new role as populators of the Earth, etc. - but it's all the extra detail and background, and the world he creates that makes this book unforgettable.

Using a cat's perspective is kind of genius in this way, because a cat really can be omniscient (or close to it). Mottyl also has a life outside of the family compound, and is free to come and go as she pleases. She is also the confidant of Mrs. Noyes (it's amazing what people will tell their pets), so all the family gossip she misses is relayed to the reader that way.

Throughout the book, Findley kind of responds to pieces of the Genesis story, quoting short passages at the beginnings of chapters and then agreeing or disagreeing, based on the way his story unfolds. "Not wanted on the voyage" was a baggage label, used by the arc's human passengers (Dr. and Mrs. Noyes, their sons and their sons' wives) to indicate which articles they would like to still have after the flood. But it might just as well have been a label for all the people and animals not included on the arc's manifest. Mottyl was not wanted on the voyage (by Dr. Noyes, of course) but she slips in anyway, as cats are wont to do, so the story continues after the rain has picked up the ship.

Dr. Noyes is a tyrant - a fact that Findley reveals to the reader more and more plainly as the story progresses. He is also incredibly old, almost as old as Yaweh, and a drunk (possibly reasons for his brutishness, but not enough to excuse him of his actions). He abuses his wife (when he manages, she is quite a formidable woman) and his daughters in law. He murders his wife's singing sheep in a fit of rage and fire. He rapes his daughter in law with a foreign object in a scene I could hardly stand to read (if I'd held the book any farther away from my face, I would have dropped it). In short, Findley is not particularly kind to Noah (not that this iteration of the man deserves much kindness).

One of the most interesting details that Findley brings to the table, though, is why the flood happened at all. In a slight twist on the "real reason," Yaweh comes to visit (literally, visit) Noah and admits that he's horribly depressed. The people, he says, are not treating him well. To cheer him up, Noah shows him a magic trick: He places a penny under a bottle and fills the bottle with water; because of refraction the penny seems to have disappeared. Yaweh is delighted; all his problems can be solved with water because water makes things disappear.

It's small scenes such as this that make Not Wanted on the Voyage more than a retelling or recreation of a Bible story. Findley's attention to motives and consequences make the characters more than archetypes or simple names on the page. And even though you know the story line and how the tale will end, Findley's novel makes you doubt what you remember and forces you to re-experience the story through his, and Mottyl's, eyes.

Not Wanted on the Voyage
by Timothy Findley
First published in 1984 (cover image shown from Penguin Modern Classics edition)

3 comments:

  1. It is FindLEY, not FindLAY. Please spell the name of the author correctly the next time you review a book.

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  2. And Mottyl is not the book's narrator - (unless she has taken on the pompous habit of referring to herself in third person). Within the novel's aqua-apocalypse context, the identity of the unnamed narrator is one of the many provocative questions raised in the story.

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