Missing the Ark

Missing the Ark

By Andrea Belcham

Published on April 1, 2007

Missing The Ark
Catherine Kidd

conundrum press
$20
paper
320pp
978-1-894994-21-7

Missing the Ark represents a return to beginnings for the Mile End-based writer and spoken-word artist Catherine Kidd. The first version of the novel, which tells of a young mother’s exploration of her past as a means of understanding her present disquietude, was written by Kidd ten years ago. Since then, it’s journeyed through numerous publishers, had sections excerpted and integrated into Kidd’s highly successful CD-/DVD-storybooks Sea Peach and Bipolar Bear, and seen the demise of a major character and the 150 pages that involved her.

“It’s the same book and it is not the same book,” Kidd explained in a recent interview (conducted via email as Kidd was then touring Africa), “in the same sense as we are all, and are not, the same people we were ten years ago.”

The initial impetus for writing Missing the Ark, which for many years carried the name Bestial Rooms, was the death of Kidd’s father, a Scot with a tendency to lapse into trances and speak in tongues. Writing about protagonist Agnes Underhill’s uncertain relationship with her elusive father was, Kidd said, “viscerally connected to another editorial process of grieving and also ‘rewriting’ some of my perceptions of [him].”

Like his fictional counterpart, Kidd’s father was a prolific punster, letter-writer, and storyteller. Luther Underhill’s idiosyncrasies are his own, however: While Agnes’s mother polishes teeth at lecherous Dr. Spektor’s office, the lapsed minister spends his days shut up in his home workshop, recording and transcribing the words that divinely infuse him. His self-exile both fascinates and frightens the child Agnes, who is keenly aware of the “invisible elephant… parasitic to the family” that oppresses the atmosphere of their Vancouver home. When Agnes is 11, the man who never really seemed to be there in the first place finally leaves his wife and children, and Agnes reacts by withdrawing further into her own world.

Agnes’s simultaneous affiliation with and rejection of her father’s ghost as she enters young adulthood are crucial to Missing the Ark‘s central enquiry – in Kidd’s description, “the question of how relative the truth of a human life is, and how it constantly shifts its shape according to how it is being read by [the] self and others” – yet the weighty tome extends into other equally curious directions as well. The book unfolds in three chronological threads which repeatedly twist together and separate again. There is the story of Agnes’s childhood before and after her father’s departure: bucolic trips to her great-aunt’s farm, romances with inanimate objects, secrets kept from the disapproving eyes of grown-ups. Then there is Agnes’s courtship, in her troubled university years, with the primate-keeper and taxidermist whom she affectionately names “Buffalo man.” Strung alongside these is Agnes-in-the-present: mother to baby Rose, directionless, fatigued and dumpy, again living under her chic mother’s roof.

All threads knot together by the book’s end, but not too tightly. Missing the Ark, after all, celebrates ambiguity. Kidd calls it “a book where memory itself is the unreliable narrator” as she plunges the reader so deeply into Agnes’s perspective that one is easily made complicit in the young mother’s own self-deception. At the same time as she selectively constructs a vision of her lost father, Agnes hungers to know, to truly understand, as much as possible about material reality and its inhabitants. A biology major in university and a poet by inheritance, Agnes assesses the world in a way that blends order with mystery:

Surely love is among those simple life forms which can never become extinct, in an age no matter how cynical, when it operates according to such elementary principles as opening and closing, inside and outside. Love appears to possess the magnetic quality of water, rushing to join larger springs of itself, then moving on more powerfully.

Kidd, a self-admitted iguana-lover and a globetrotter who’s travelled between, or lived in, such far-flung locales as Whitehorse, Singapore, Oslo, and India, empathizes with Agnes’s respect for diversity and the animal kingdom. To prepare for the novel, she researched “biology, zoology, like a Nobel Prize-winning biologist named Karl von Frisch, who suggests that anthropomorphism is not a scientific crime but a human inevitability. It is so important for humans to keep in mind the effect we have on every other living thing around us.”

Agnes’s mother, however, interprets her daughter’s habit of analyzing the natural world as brooding; not even Buffalo man, Agnes laments, sees the world in the same way as she does. Thus Agnes turns to Rose, a felicitous accident who brings meaning to her life. Agnes’s whole purpose in picking apart the magpie nest of her past is to make notes for Rose – “letters” that can save Rose future pains by divulging Agnes’s hard-learned lessons. The book comes full circle when Agnes realizes her father might have had a similar project in mind.

Kidd is careful not to let her protagonist be so preoccupied with philosophy that she can’t see the humour in her lot. Tragi-comic passages dealing with Buffalo man’s ward, Mae West (a rescued chimpanzee with a penchant for strawberries), are particularly delightful, especially at the point when Agnes suddenly finds herself locked in a war with the animal for her taxidermist’s affections:

She’s crept up to the rafters again as she often does, to spy on us from above. Lying on my back in bed I can see her… He talks as we move, holding onto my wrists so I don’t fall forward. Then he closes his eyes. Just as I am about to tell him to open them and look at me, just as I was about to, Mae peed, her aim rushed and unfailing.

To protect against further urinary assaults, Agnes and Buffalo man build a sort of metal cage around their bed – the “ark” of the book’s title. The irony of having to lock themselves up while the animal roams free is not lost on Agnes, who nonetheless comes to relish the security of the shelter as much as her father once coveted his workshop. Her final departure from the ark signifies her readiness to connect with responsibilities, a family, and a past previously shunned.

Appropriately enough, Missing the Ark is a nod to beginnings for conundrum press too. The widely respected indie outfit’s first publication, in 1996, was Kidd’s chapbook everything I know about love I learned from taxidermy. “I’m happy to be publishing with Andy [Brown], in the end,” remarked Kidd, “because it just seemed more contiguous with what my whole artistic process has been, ever since I decided to follow this. It has been linked to independent art.” For his part, Brown calls his former roommate’s book “definitely the most significant novel conundrum has published.”

With Missing the Ark finally completed, Kidd is spending some time in South Africa, performing Bipolar Bear at the Spier Arts Festival and touring a national park to collect video footage of wildlife for future creative works. Given the novel’s lengthy gestation period, one could understand if Kidd’s interest in Agnes’s story had waned. Not so. “Am I still enthusiastic about it?” she mused. “Yes, very. It is now a book I would love to read… It would not have been ready before.” mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

Comments

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

More Interviews

Rawi Hage on Stray Dogs

Rawi Hage on Stray Dogs

Photography is a prominent organizing principle of Rawi Hage’s new collection of short stories, Stray Dogs.

By H Felix Chau Bradley