I came to this novel in much the same way that I came to Michael Winter’s The Architects Are Here: both Winter and Catherine Bush read at an event at the University of Toronto a few months back, and their performances compelled me to pick up some of their stuff. Bush read incredibly well that night from a work in progress: I found myself mesmerized by the ease of her language, the effortless cadence of her sentences and by her descriptive prowess. A few weeks later, I ordered her 2000 novel The Rules of Engagement so I could check out the full extent of her chops.
The book is set in the late 1990s and is a lamentation on the nature of war and personal conflict. Arcadia Hearne, originally from Toronto, is a theorist working for a London-based organization called the Centre for Contemporary War Studies. She is deeply immersed, at least at a theoretical level, in the geopolitical conflicts plaguing the world during that decade – Bosnia, Rwanda, etc. But the real story is the confrontations that brew in both her past and her present. She gets embroiled in a scheme by her current lover, Amir, to help immigrants escape to England and Canada from war-torn countries. One woman that Amir helps, named Basra, becomes an obsession for Arcadia as she tries to find out what happened to her once she successfully sneaked into Toronto. Arcadia travels back to her home city in search of Basra, and this, predictably, causes her to confront her own past and the reasons she had exiled herself to England in the first place: two other former lovers that she had had as a young woman 10 years earlier, Neil and Evan, had fought a duel over her, with the former getting shot. The two separate stories converge and intertwine in elusive but thematically related ways.
I suppose it was that elusiveness that ultimately turned me off The Rules of Engagement, even after it finally found its legs about 80 pages in. Whereas the passage that Bush had read from her work in progress at the U of T was succinct and compelling, the bulk of The Rules of Engagement is written in an overwrought and self-consciously literary style. Her flurries of purple prose were probably aimed to mask the relative improbability of the novel’s two narrative threads and the contrived manner in which she braids them thematically. This is a novel that’s all about atmosphere: so much of its success hinges on the reader buying into Arcadia as a complex woman with a troubled past, a past so awful that it’s hard to face directly. And yet when we finally arrive at what that past entails – two young, silly men looking to resolve a love triangle with guns – the reader is left asking: Sorry, what was the big deal?
As with any novel that’s trying too hard to be “literary”, the real victims (other than its readers) are the characters and what happens to their dialogue. Verisimilitude goes out the window in favour of scoring easily identifiable thematic points. Take this snippet for example, coming shortly after Arcadia and Neil have made love:
“What’s important,” Neil said, as we lay folded side by side in the bed, “is the nature of the encounter between two people – the attempt to truly recognize the other, which means that you approach any encounter in the spirit of openness in order to see what will happen, which includes being open to the possibility of risk or danger.”
I mean, who talks like this after sex? Who talks like this at all? Look up from that bed, readers, and you’ll see the thematic club with which Bush is beating you over the ears.
I think what Bush has on her hands here is not a novel at all but two separate short stories – one about a woman worried about an immigrant she helped sneak into Canada illegally, and one about a woman who had two guys fight a duel over her – and then a whole lot of padding. That padding includes incessantly purple ruminations on the nature of war as well as some pretty yawn-worthy descriptions of the geography of Toronto. This is a novel that just quite isn’t one.
But please, let me know when she publishes the book that she read from at the U of T. Because I will definitely be the first in line to buy it.