As I have said before, many novels have the equivalent of a Freudian slip. In this work it comes on page 139, where the Edinburgh bookseller and central character, Gilbert Johnson, is reminiscing about his time among the Scottish literati (a scene which itself is a homage to a similar moment in Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine). “And yet, and yet, some take it all far too seriously. Writing and all that. A lot of the books he handled were simply curate’s eggs, with something to commend but faults aplenty”. There is much to admire here, but there are also significant problems. I very much admire Robert Alan Jamieson’s A Day At The Office – in fact, I think it a neglected classic – and although Da Happie Laand was slightly raggedy, it was admirably ambitious and intriguing.
macCloud Falls is a novel of multiple McGuffins. Johnson is recovering from cancer treatment and has decided to travel to British Columbia to research the life of a person who may or may not be an ancestor, James Lyle. Lyle was prominent in the push for First Nations rights, and an ethnographer who helped Franz Boas; much of the “Indian” mythology, dances, songs, medicinal practices and histories were preserved by him. In this respect he is a rather more laudable version of how most Scots emigrants behaved towards the indigenous people of Canada.
On the way there, he meets a woman on the plane who is also recovering from cancer. The novel opens with her arriving in Cloud Falls, having had a premonition that something might not be all right with Johnson. As she sifts through his motel room, she reads the manuscripts of his writing: as much as doing the research, Johnson was hoping to become the writer he had always wanted to be. The drafts she reads are versions of their encounters and blossoming friendship, but, as she realises, there are significant divergences from the truth. At the end of the first section, Johnson is returned, having had some kind of epiphany in the forests connected with a sacred place, a hut, and the place where his putative grandfather and his native wife may have lived.
In terms of what there is to admire, there is a great deal of scrutiny and clarity about the relations between colonisers and colonised, between incomer and local. There is a riddling sense about identity at play throughout. The woman is often mistaken for Sigourney Weaver, and is sometimes called Dimitra, sometimes Veronika, and in Johnson’s writings appears as Martina. Gilbert himself shapeshifts between Gil and Bert and at times is just the enigmatic The Scotchman. The problem, however, is that everyone seems to have these layered and multiple identities: once you realise what is going on, it lacks bite. There is fascinating material about toponymy – how the colonisers impose names on places, changing their meaning, as with the elision between MacLeod Falls and Cloud Falls, and the over-writing of traditional names. When our female protagonist reads Gil’s book proposal, including a thorough chronology, she thinks “it was impressive research, but it was far too much to take in”. Well, quite. The parallels between the First Nations Canadians and the Gàidhealtachd are interesting and important and, to a degree, rather insistently finger-wagged at the reader; the Scots; “invention” of Canada becomes a tiresome refrain.
At the outset – especially when the line “I’ll see you in my dreams” occurs, in a down-at-heel motel, with a glamorous woman in search of a man she suspects may be going to kill himself – I had hopes that this would be a kind of Canuck Twin Peaks. But the novel lacks jeopardy. Nobody opposes the quest except the quester. The final section before the coda brings in a wholly different McGuffin – a rare first edition – which is barely seeded in the earlier sections. It allows for some very fine nature writing, but seems otiose.
There are far too many repetitions: one wonders to what extent the manuscript was edited by the publishers. For example, the sunburnt Johnson is “lobster-red” on page 202, is told “you still look like a lobster” on page 204, is compared to the crustacean alien Zoidberg from Futurama on page 206 and is teased as “lobster man” on page 209. We are repeatedly told that the female heroine has pink-rimmed glasses (although the significance of this is somewhat ambiguous), and references to Buchan’s great novel about transcendence and mortality in the Canadian wilderness – Sick Heart River – are liberally peppered throughout the text. I am not of the school that thinks “less is more” is the first commandment of writing, except when I think that less would have been more.
In a novel which seems anxious that the reader “gets the message” there is a moment of sublime grace. On finding a grave, Johnson realises there is an epitaph in the indigenous language. It is a beautiful wisp of mystery in a book otherwise determined to spell things out.
*macCloud Falls, by Robert Alan Jamieson, Luath, £14.99