Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ibid: A Life (A Novel in Footnotes, by Mark Dunn)

This book has two gimmicks, which might be enough to suggest that it will be crap. Surprisingly, it isn't: it manages to be a tender and revealing account of a fellow's life.

The first gimmick is that the central character, Jonathan Blashette, has three legs:

This physical feature is played down - there is a bit of trouble getting him shoes:
Jonathan Blashette writes in his Early Memories of an argument between his mother and a local cobbler over the cost of making three shoes, Emmaline contending that she should only have to pay half again more than what she would have paid for a pair. The cobbler, however, deemed the request a "special order" and tacked on a surcharge. Jonathan continues:

Mother threatened to take her business elsewhere, only to discover that all the cobblers in town were related by blood and had something of a rudimentary price-setting system in place; one which put her at a decided negotiatory disdvantage. In the end, Mother and the shoemaker reached a compromise. She bought me a pair of handsome boy's lace shoes and the cobbler threw in, at only a nominal additional charge, an orphaned remnant from the previous year's Thanksgiving pageant - a shiny black-buckled Pilgrim's shoe which didn't match the others by any stretch of the imagination but nonetheless had a certain historically evocative charm about it.
The one major thing that happened to him thanks to his third leg is that in September 1900, he caught the eye of Thaddeus Grund, proprietor of a Travelling Circus and Wild West Show and joined up. Not for long, however: by October 1900, he had tried to escape and after a legal fight to get him out of his contract, he was home again by the end of the year. Thereafter, he led a fairly normal life to the point that he was called up for service in World War One. This gave him the inspiration for what to do with his life:
I want to come back from this war. And all in one piece if that isn't asking for too much. (Unlike these other fellows, I could lose a leg and not be put out too much.) See, I want to start a business. You will laugh. This is the rankest-smelling place on the face of the earth. The stench of death gags you. The waft of mustard gas ... makes you want to wretch. Unwashed humanity. B.O. with a capital B. The ladies have their perfumes and their rose water and their Mum-cream. I'm going to make something for the fellows. A deodorizer for the male underarm. That would be a good start, right?
And so he does. The other gimmick about this book is that the publisher has ostensibly destroyed the only copy of the manuscript (by allowing his three year old son to push it into a bath full of water). All that remains are the footnotes to the biography - it is through these that Jonathan's story is told. It works, perhaps even better than a traditional narrative might have, where the author is coralled into telling a story through connected sequences. By just having footnotes, the author can shine lights into the important element of a fellow's life. Luckily, Jonanthan Blanchette was enough of a public figure and had sufficient other public figures around him that there were plenty of accounts of the key areas of his life. Plus, he kept up a journal.

Thanks to these sources, we gain a pretty good picture of who Jonathan was as well as how he perceived himself and his relations with the world. The one minor criticism is that, as the footnotes are supposedly derived from a number of sources, we might have expected more variation in the voice. Throughout, the same sort of wryly comical tone is maintained; thankfully, it was an enjoyable voice.


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