It’s not so much the idea as what you do with it. This has been the mantra of countless critics, reviewers, writing profs and editors, and it’s generally true. You can write about something as ordinary as surviving a trip to the supermarket (as, say, Amy Jones does brilliantly in her short story “How to Survive a Summer in the City”) or something as extraordinary as surviving the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (as, say, Dennis Bock does in his novel The Ash Garden); and provided you do so with panache and originality, you can get away with it. The understanding, however, is that if you’re going to use a lot of well-worn ideas, you better find a way to make them new.
Margaret Gibson’s novel Opium Dreams travels unapologetically across some very familiar landscapes. Here is a book that explores memory and the past (sound familiar?), loss, sexual abuse, a parent dying of Alzheimer’s, and the impacts of war on the psyche. Published by McClelland & Stewart in 1997, Opium Dreams very much follows the Atwood-Urquhart-Michaels template popular with M&S at the time (think The Underpainter or Fugitive Pieces): elliptical narratives with no real sense of plot; a structure fragmented in, dare we say, predictably unpredictable ways; and characters who in no sense resemble real people but are instead navel-gazing manifestations of pure emotion.
Okay. Having said all that, there were times in Opium Dreams when Gibson was able to cut through this formulaic pap and write scenes that took my breath away a little. Her protagonist, Maggie Glass, is a writer, a single mom (referring to her son simply as The Kid), and sibling to a brood of women known variably as The Sisters Three. Maggie spends the novel trying to piece together the past of her Alzheimer’s-suffering father, especially his time spent in northern Africa during World War II, and how that relates to her own experience of being molested as a young teen, her subsequent suicide attempt using poison, and her incarceration in a mental institution. What grabbed me was not just Maggie’s ability to adopt the perspective of her father in relaying his narrative, but rather her ability to invert that perspective so that she can actually see herself through her father’s eyes and describe herself in a brilliantly dispassionate third-person point of view. This sort of thing is incredibly difficult to do well, but Gibson handles it with precision and skill.
Alas, that’s about the only positive thing I could get out of this novel. The rest of it is undone by its obsession with high-minded and overly literary fragmentation, not to mention a protagonist strangling on a brand of solipsism that seems unique to the Baby Boomer generation. (No one else has experienced a dying parent like I have experienced it. No one else has endured sexual abuse like I have endured it.) Is it possible to feel as though a novel is too autobiographical without actually knowing very much about the writer’s life? That’s the sense I got from Gibson, that she was working out a lot of issues in her personal life with this book and often lost control of that gushing hose of sentimentality:
What is there left to lose?Any more.Clarice hissing out, A boy … Down-there.My father’s arm, the bolt of the door.A sky turned black.Screams.Mine.Secrets. How many more secrets, how many more tender, mercy-giving strokes of the knife blade until … until … one is emptied?Emptied of everything.
To which I wrote in the margin: Oh, get over yourself! Opium Dreams is a novel that needs to learn that less is often more, that emotional resonance comes best—and paradoxically—from concision and detachment and well-chosen details, not from a relentless mucking around in the self and vague ejaculations about the past. This is no more the case than when you’re writing about feelings and experiences that have been written about so many, many times before. Do it new. Show me how this is different. Tell me why I should care.