Whatever Lola wants

Lola By Night

By Byron Rempel

A review of Lola By Night by Norman Ravvin

Published on April 1, 2004

Lola By Night
Norman Ravvin

Paperplates Books
$19.95
paper
169pp
0-9680457-5-8

A shaggy dog story is defined as either a drawn-out tale concerning something seemingly pointless, or a drawn-out anecdote with an absurd punch line.

Arguably, the literary shaggy dog reached its apotheosis in Raymond Carver’s seemingly inconsequential stories, where working-class stiffs drift through life without big bangs at the end. But the key word is seemingly. In fact, Carver’s stories are sculpted masterpieces of understatement, where offhand comments reveal far too much if you care to listen.

For writers, that’s the trick of subtlety: too much of the stuff and people think you don’t know nuttin’. Norman Ravvin has decided to do without the punch line, but otherwise his novel Lola by Night is as shaggy as they come. I’m sure Ravvin intends it that way too, and he does it with few missteps.

Lola by Night begins with Spaniard Lola Benviste abandoning a flourishing pseudonymous writing career, producing soft-core porn for the educated reader. Then when she finds her normally careful father has fallen down an elevator shaft, she decides to go to Vancouver to investigate his death. There she encounters John Miller, a rich kid dabbling in the new economy, and his pitiful henchman, Neil Simpson. That in turn leads her to Manhattan, where she finds Herbert Rossman, an award-winning poet who disappeared during the height of his popularity and seemingly holds the key to the whole mystery.

I’m not giving away the plot when I say that Lola discovers nothing conclusive about her father’s death. Perhaps the most definitive thing she finds out is that she’s running away just like the poet Rossman, something we learn early in the novel.

In fact, the first chapter is the most enticing part of the book. There are Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like flourishes of magic: Lola finds early in her life that what she writes becomes true, and people begin re-enacting her potboiler romances. To take the metaphor further, she finds her life empty when she gives up writing. Finally, when her editor wants to publish an e-book, Lola feels herself disintegrating: “The new world of bits and bytes, she believed, had conjured her end, replacing her with line after line of interconnected lines of data, sweeping out across the Spanish landscape like the fall wind.”

This is all great fun, but for some reason when Lola lands in Vancouver the whole device is dropped and never heard from again. Perhaps practical Canada has crushed romantic Spain. I for one was sorry to see it go. The rest of the story has a dreamlike succession of characters and circumstances, and I wanted to believe that Lola would wake up in the end, that that was why Ravvin called it Lola by Night.

Rossman, the aging and lost poet who almost won a Nobel Prize, becomes the magical character by the end of the book. The story he tells of trying to buy a typewriter at the Yiddish Typewriter Cabal seems transcribed from the beautiful absurdity of dreams.

The reason Rossman takes centre stage is not because of his eccentricities, but because Ravvin takes the time to detail Rossman’s insecurities, his doubts, his feelings. Of Lola’s feelings we know nothing. Her father’s death apparently only affects her in that she has to find the mystery behind it, like an impersonal and cold detective. It’s ironic then when Lola picks up a young boy toy and asks herself, “Where do these feelings come from?” She otherwise displays no feelings throughout her quest.

Ravvin is a talented writer, and his ideas are odd and wonderful, but does shagginess add size and weight to this dog, or is it just fluff? When a writer presents a dreamscape he has to accept the danger. Dreams can tell us things through their slippery power, or they can simply be absurd. The ones that stay with us are the ones that arrive with the shock of recognition. mRb

Byron Rempel is the author of "Truth is Naked," an autobiographical exaggeration with commentary on Mennonites.

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