An Adoration
Nancy Huston
McArthur & Company

by Gwen Nowak

Review published in Books in Canada, June/July 2004.

An Adoration is ostensibly a murder mystery. But in reality Nancy Huston’s latest novel is a mystic manifesto, her theory of everything written as a Mystery/Morality/Miracle Play. In it Huston/Houdini artfully slips the bonds of every convention to create a tableau vivant.

Huston’s opening note describes An Adoration as a “phantasmagoria,” a first alert that you are about to enter a shifting scene of illusions, imaginary fancies, deceptions. Then, in a flourish of paradoxical whimsy, Huston swears that what she has written is “perfectly true.” She promises that her characters “will dazzle you, will take you for a ride.” Then she admits that the characters speak with her voice. And it is through her characters, inanimate as well as animate, that Huston articulates a litany of questions about virtually everything: Where does the truth begin and where does it end? Is there a distinction between reality and illusion? How are we in ‘the here and now’? Does death exist or doesn’t it? And of course the ultimate question of universal concern: Where oh where is love?

Obviously Huston takes seriously the 20th century revelation [remember quantum physics?] that we humans are not just observers in our universe; we are participators. Like the current vogue of mystery theatre events in which the theatre goer participates in the drama itself, Huston gives you her reader a fundamental, even existential, role to play— the role of The Judge. Your task is to conduct a hearing into the life and death of Cosmo, the most famous actor in France at the turn of the last millennium.

Huston disarmingly relativizes her own role by entering into the action as, not surprisingly, The Novelist, a character equally vulnerable to being corrected and berated by other characters. But it becomes clear as the hearing proceeds that Huston is a novelist on a mission, a Very Big Mission. Midway through the proceedings she virtually grabs you The Reader/Judge by the sleeve of your judicial cloak, looks you in the eye and challenges you with a bracing question: How can I convince you of the things I care about most? And it becomes evident that what she cares about most is what is happening in the real world. Huston offers a compressed litany of horrors when she describes the Great Cosmo performing his Explanation of the World to a Little Girl: atomic bombs, napalm, rape of children, child labour - the kind of nightmare world we all wish was an illusion, not historical fact.

For Huston, words are important. Of course you, The Judge, would expect as much from a writer/wordsmith who has been the recipient of prestigious literary awards—in France Le Prix des Lectrices d’ELLE, Le Prix Contrepoint, Le Prix Goncourt Lycéen, in Canada Le Prix des Librairies and The Governor General’s Award in French. Full kudos for a writer born in Canada, living in France and writing in either French or English as the inspiration requires. What you might not anticipate as you enter Huston’s phantasmagoric tableau is that she will give fresh force to her belief in the power of words with a disquisition on the nature of words themselves. This leads to her observations about the essential difference between chit-chat and real conversation which in turn informs her ultimate concern, human relationships. But she presses even further when she presents Cosmo, the murder victim, as word-made-flesh like you-know-who of Christian iconography. She pens a potent image of spoken words sliding limply down the face of a person who can’t/won’t take them in, an image which connected in this Judge’s mind with Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John: “You look for an opportunity to kill me because there is no place in you for my word.” Which generated yet another virtual image—a doctoral student in some university Religion and Literature department feverishly working on a dissertation titled: The Iconic Significance of Semen and Semantics for Huston’s Cosmo-Christ. But I digress from the hearing in progress.

The mise en scène for Huston’s murder mystery is a seemingly ordinary pub in a small town in France. But the name of the pub functions as a palimpsest for the biblical Genesis — it changes sequentially from La Fontaine [the waters of creation] to Le Zodiac [the firmament] to Le Cosmo [Behold the hero Cosmo, dying rising god-man]. Expanding the biblical seven days of creation, Huston’s cosmic action takes place in twelve days, the chapters titled with sonorous biblical pomp: The First Day, The Second Day...The Twelfth Day. Huston’s Thirteenth Day is a brief description of the beginning of a new aeon, reminiscent of the Eighth day of Christian rendering. But within the seemingly ordered sequence of days Huston dexterously kaleidoscopes past and future, then and now, all the while alerting the reader to the illusory nature of linear time. This purposeful artifice presses her mytho-prophetic point: The Time is Now. Get Real.

But of course it’s not that simple. Huston’s phantasmagoric caravan of characters are all caught in the same labyrinthine trap as the Judge, i.e. the human condition as the seemingly unredeemed reign of violence, pathology, alienation, the existential void. She even asks: Is ‘I’ just one more illusion?What hope then for Huston’s characters, mere “quivering fragments of infinity set on the finite arc of time”? Can they be saved or redeemed by Cosmo, that “electrified body-mind” somehow destined by his un-holy family circumstances to present all of their sorry stories on stage?

Elke, the primary witness at the judicial hearing sees Cosmo “offering himself up in holocaust to redeem what he found intolerable about reality - the lack of love, the lack of love, the lack of love.” A barmaid at La Fontaine, Elke claims to know Cosmo best and to love him absolutely. For her, Cosmo is exactly what he claimed to be–Love Incarnate–evidenced by his absolute openness to each person with whom he came in contact, including Elke’s daughter Fiona and son Frank, both still quite young when Cosmo takes up residence “in their mother’s eyes” [Fiona’s version]. The Cosmophile, another witness, recalls admiringly the various performances of Cosmo, a most memorable one being the tragi-comic Cosmo playing the “stupefied God arriving in the midst of his creation for the first time, and running into all these atrocious samples of the species he has sworn to love.” Yet another witness, The Psychiatric Expert, writes Cosmo off as a “stranger to authenticity.... a mirror inside a kaleidoscope...reflecting motley glints of other people’s stories.” To the fiercely alienated son of Elke, Cosmo was nothing more than a “fornicating clown.” You the Reader/Judge must hear all of the conflicting testimony of fact and fabulation about Cosmo. And you are invited to discern some deeper truth behind Huston’s reality-bytes fiction.

An Adoration includes a sharply nuanced reprise of one of Huston’s favourite themes: the nature of motherhood. To Huston, a child’s or a whole culture’s view of Mother is radically reductionist given the more complex reality—mothers like fathers are “ a million other things.” Here Huston confronts with vigour, and some humour, the particularly bedevilled relationship between mothers and sons. Not surprisingly she hooks her analysis to the Mary/Jesus Mother/Son iconography of Judeo-Christian culture. Through Kacim, the son of Muslim immigrants living a marginal existence in France, Huston observes: “All men are sensitive on the subject of their mother’s morality....I mean, why else would Christianity have invented a saviour with a virgin mother? Whoever thought that one up was a genius!”

But enough introduction! The performance is about to begin. Step right up, step right in to An Adoration. Witness for yourself Nancy Huston’s mind-bending heart-rending illusions. Watch spellbound as she turns Reality inside out.