My experience of reading “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund was different from how I read most novels. I read the entire book aloud to my boyfriend while we were on a recent road trip around New England. He prefers to drive and I enjoy the benefits of being the passenger who gets to choose the music and snack idly while looking out the window. But I also enjoy the experience of reading aloud for the way it makes reading a more communal experience. I always find the humour buried in the prose of so-called “literary fiction” is heightened when read aloud like watching a comedy film in a movie theatre rather than sitting on your own. This is a novel about quite bleak subjects. Narrator Linda reflects on two striking cases from her teenage years. Firstly, her teacher Mr Grierson was put on trial and accused of having sexual relations with a student. Secondly, a four-year old boy named Paul she babysat died under suspicious circumstances. Linda obsessively mulls over the details of these cases and her involvement surrounding them, but her sardonic perspective took on a funny edge while I read her narrative aloud. So, while some people’s responses have criticised Linda as being too unlikeable, I often found her really engaging and fascinating.

It’s also been remarked by some reviewers how Fridlund’s writing bears similarities to that of the great writer Marilynne Robinson. There’s a certain way in which she writes detailed observations in her scenes through one character's perspective that captures everything from the natural environment to other characters’ physicality. In doing so, she gets at the complex psychology of the people involved without ever actually going into their consciousness. But, you feel like you understand them completely and understand the dynamics of the situation because you are so thoroughly rooted in the narrator’s unflinching gaze. This is especially true in this novel when Linda recalls the final days leading to Paul’s death and the actions and dialogue of his parents. There’s also a strong distinction Linda draws between the way she recalls things and the way they are presented in trials.

This creates a complex picture prompting questions about what is really true. It also asks things like: What’s our subjective experience vs what we imagine to have happened? What is morally right vs what is legally right? What happens when freedom of belief impinges upon the safety and livelihood of other people? Linda seems determined to settle answers for these questions, but poignantly considers how “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened… Though they end the same way, these are not the same story. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?” She’s so thoroughly entrenched in her own understanding of the past that it’s as if the subjective and objective are fused into one.

In some particulars of these two cases she was the only witness to certain events and was the only one to interact with the people involved. But, of course, her point of view is inflected with her own prejudices and emotions so the reader is left wondering how that has coloured her view of the past. Linda was an outcast through much of her childhood as she was the child of the only remaining members of a religious intentional community that petered out by the time she became a teenager. Her determination to attach herself to Paul’s mother Patra and create a secret bond with Mr Grierson feels quite poignant considering how much she loathed her counter-culture parents and all they embodied. This can’t be discounted when considering Linda’s recollections, yet she seems to be insisting her memory is the only real truth.

Some will no doubt find “History of Wolves” frustrating for its relentless plodding through detail like a court case trying to reconstruct an event. Yet, I think there is a lot of pleasure to be had too from Linda’s sly stance and advantageous position as an outsider. I found it to be an engaging and quietly philosophical novel which gives an interesting take on a so-called “difficult” character. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Fridlund

I’ve read and admired short fiction by Robert Olen Butler in the past so I was highly intrigued to read his new novel “Perfume River”. The story is centres around brothers Robert and Jimmy who have been separated for almost fifty years. When they were both young men they were pressured by their domineering pro-war father William to fight. Robert enlisted for a non-combat position to avoid causing any bloodshed himself, but he inevitably became entangled in conflict. Jimmy chose to move to Canada and pursue an open relationship within a commune. Ideological divisions have torn this family apart, but when elderly William is seriously injured in 2015 the family comes together again to lay old grievances to rest. This is an elegiac, thoughtful novel which shows the long-term deleterious effects war has upon families, the complex intensity of lifelong relationships and the real meaning of masculinity.

Hovering at the edges of this family drama is a homeless man named Bob. Robert occasionally buys him meals. He seems to suffer from a kind of schizophrenia and frequently has trouble separating his present reality from past emotionally damaging encounters he had with his aggressive father Calvin. Butler inhabits his skewed perspective of the world so powerfully – especially in the way Bob has an awareness of how he’s perceived by other people and their assumptions about him. Since Bob shares a name with the protagonist Robert there is a strange mirror effect which occurs between these men of different ages who have ended up in very different places in their lives. The tensions which play out in their psyches eventually reach a crisis point in a dramatic confrontation.

Robert’s wife Darla who teaches art theory engaged in antiwar protests during the Vietnam war arguing with her father that it’s naïve to think the country will become a “puppet state for the Chinese.” She met Robert during her demonstrations and she has since gone on to meditate on the meaning of military aggression and the pride men feel about engaging in acts of warfare. There are a lot of touching scenes where the couple’s close contact is described: “They are so very familiar with each other. And that familiarity has become the presiding expression of their intimacy.” Butler gets so well the special kind of energy and space created within a long-term relationship and how this expresses itself physically with contact taking on a curious kind of timidity. Their familiarity is such that communication is mostly non-verbal and there are multiple unspoken understandings between them. This is in contrast to Robert’s brother Jimmy and his partner Linda who have an open relationship because they believe “Love on this earth is not a singularity. It is a profusion.” The author explores the positive and negative aspects of these different approaches to long term relationships and meaningfully shows how no arrangement is ideal.

"Charlton Heston. Bob's old man loved this guy. Moses the gunslinger."

"Charlton Heston. Bob's old man loved this guy. Moses the gunslinger."

The close lifelong partnership Darla shares with Robert is haunted by the hidden truth about what he encountered in Vietnam – both a tragic incident that occurred and the woman he fell in love with. It’s movingly described how Robert tries to keep these memories to himself: “Robert blinds hard against the memory. He will not let certain things in.” Butler really has a special talent for writing about the way memories wash over people. Thoughts/feelings about the past meld into their present day lives in such a seamless organic way it really represents the way the present can be veiled by the past. This is metaphorically represented by the heavily scented river Robert encountered in Vietnam and how sensory experience triggers emotions in the mind taking an individual out of the present moment.

At the heart of this novel are questions about what forms our identities and to what degree we’re pledged to our family, friends or country. This long passage poignantly summarizes this debate: “your interests and tastes, ideas and values, personalities and character – the things that truly make up who you are – shift and change and disconnect. Indeed, it’s harder for friends to part: you came together at all only because those things were once compatible. With your kin, that compatibility may never even have existed. The same is true of a country. You didn’t choose your parents. You didn’t choose your land of birth. If you and they have nothing in common, if they have nothing to do with who you are now, if you are always, irrevocably at odds with each other, is it betrayal simply to leave family and country behind? No. Fuck no.” The consequences of this rallying statement about asserting the right to form your own identity apart from your roots is played out in Jimmy’s actions. But the novel contrasts how making such a radical decision involves compromises which are different from the ones made by Robert who chose to remain in his country and keep in close contact with their family.

“Perfume River” is such a beautifully written novel and movingly shows that there are no easy answers to these larger questions – particularly when it comes to acts of war between nations and between family members.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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