Affectionate Scrutiny

Matters of Hart

By Tess Fragoulis

Published on April 1, 2006

Matters Of Hart
Marianne Ackerman

McArthur & Company
$24.95
paper
230pp
1-55278-535-1

Who hasn’t fantasized about dropping out of life for a while and assuming a new identity, or eavesdropping at your own funeral to hear what your family and friends really think of you? It is perhaps an extreme way to start over, leaving your old self behind in a heap. And it is especially the kind of thing that happens in novels, where form affords “boundless freedom” as Milan Kundera once said. Marianne Ackerman takes full advantage of this freedom in her second novel, Matters of Hart, experimenting with narrative voice and taking liberties with action, character, and coincidence–though one might equally call it fate or serendipity.

Set in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, the novel tells the story of Hart Granger through the voices of five important women in his life, and through his journal. Middle-aged, divorced, privileged, ironic and arrogant, Hart is already suffering an identity crisis when an older half-brother, given up for adoption, appears at his 50th birthday party, shedding light on his family’s history and disrupting the way things have always been. Hart escapes to L.A. to write a screenplay, and on September 11th – that day of massive change for the world – has an accident which convinces his family he has died. This gives him the opportunity to literally step into someone else’s shoes and embark on a journey that fundamentally alters who he is and how he perceives his life, his past, his role in the world and in his family.

This might seem like a hopeful and affirming turn for Hart, proving that you can indeed teach a stubborn old dog new tricks. But after Matters of Hart was published last November, Ackerman quickly discovered a great gender divide in terms of how Hart’s story was received.

“There’s a very strong pattern emerging with the book,” she says, still surprised at an outcome she never foresaw. “Men love it and women don’t. They’d rather follow up on any of the other five women – make it their story.”

The problem lies in whether or not readers like Hart, whether they are happy to spend time with a man like him, and believe that he has the potential to change. A lot of women readers, myself included, have not been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ackerman, on the other hand, has no hesitation in jumping to her leading man’s defence.

“I think he’s amazing,” she says. “I’m very interested in him, obviously. I spent a lot of time with him. He’s like the modern man, in his fifties, a bit mixed up. He’s searching -that’s what I like about him. He takes that leap.”

Hart’s leap takes him from Montreal to Los Angeles, where a chance encounter with a German tourist sets the stage for the accident that changes his life. While in the hospital he takes on the identity of another man who dies in his room. Ironically, by doing so he inherits the man’s younger brother René, a Cree painter living in Vancouver who has been waiting for his missing older brother to show up. He gets Hart instead, and a complicated relationship develops between the two men, which deepens when the talented and enigmatic René gets sick.

Whether you are willing to believe that Hart would stay and play nurse to René, or reduce himself to panhandling on the streets to buy groceries for the two of them, depends once again on how you feel about men like Hart. Would he really stick around long enough to be affected by someone else’s pain when he doesn’t seem to be able to deal with or express his own to his family or in his screenplay? Ackerman, who strongly identifies with her main character-she based the emotional component of Hart’s relationship with René on a friendship she developed with a young Inuit man in Montreal–explains the attachment.

“Why does Hart stay with René? Well, he certainly never intends to. He’s initially quite appalled with the situation. But René is a very charismatic person, he is a very beautiful and strange individual. And I think that Hart is bottled up and in need of some life experience other than expense accounts and money making. Hart also projects himself onto situations; he’s looking for what he needs and he finds it in needy people. And then the illness starts. It’s a very spiritual thing for Hart, and it’s so unlike him, but don’t forget, he’s also writing a screenplay.”

In essence Hart’s experience with René not only gives him a story to tell, it changes his perspective, his priorities, and his intention towards his family and his philosopher ex-wife, Sandrine. After a seven-month absence he heads back to Montreal to make amends.

“The whole thing with René puts him in a kind of mood for love,” says Ackerman. “He’s had this thing happen to him and he realizes, ‘I could’ve made things so different in my life. I could have made it with Sandrine.’ They almost made it. If they hadn’t been so neurotic, so stressed, so egotistical, it could have worked out.”

In a book full of meaningful coincidences, Hart’s return to Montreal and from the dead is, of course, perfectly timed. Some might see this re-entry as too convenient or predictable, but it was a conscious choice for Ackerman.

“For me, a work of fiction is always at some level an artefact. I can’t resist an element of cleverness. I like it, I admire it, I work for it. You wouldn’t want something outrageous to happen, but I love it when amazingly magical things happen.”

Hart’s return is indeed clever and well-orchestrated, more theatrical than outrageous, with a tinge of the Shakespearean to it – the grand party where are identities revealed and characters rise from the dead at the climactic moment. With her theatre background (she founded and ran Montreal’s Theatre 1774 for nine years), it is understandable that Ackerman couldn’t resist. And in her hands this meaningful coincidence seems quite plausible.

But is it equally plausible that Hart has changed, or are female readers begrudging him based on notions they bring with them to the novel? Is he a victim of his own generational reputation, which, like it or not, precedes him?

“50-year-old white males – well I guess you could say they had their shot. But I think they need to be looked at by a female peer, if not with outright compassion, at least with a kind of affectionate scrutiny. Is there hope for the 50-year-old white male? I think so.”

By the end of our discussion I am almost convinced, and feel slightly guilty for my reluctance to suspend disbelief, to change my perspective on Hart as he slowly but surely transforms throughout the course of the novel, to soften as he does. Perhaps men like Hart can change, at least in fiction, with the help of women like Ackerman scrutinizing them affectionately and rewriting their script. mRb

Tess Fragoulis is a Montreal writer whose novel, Ariadne's Dream, was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award.

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