Author: Marian Engel
Genre: Adult Literary Fiction…I guess?
Publisher: McLelland & Stewart
Publication Date: 1976
Links: Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | iBooks | Goodreads
I’m going to preface this by saying that this is That Book. That Book you’ve probably heard about somewhere. Seen in passing. Read the reviews. And chuckled uncomfortably, thinking there but for the grace and wondering if, one day, you might want to read it to see if it’s really all that bad.
I’m here to tell you yes, yes it is, and no, no you do not. Not unless you want your face to remain stuck like this from first page to last:
This book was A Pretty Big Thing on the Internet a couple of years ago; I’m a little late to the party, but better late than never, I guess. Now, I’m going to try my best to review this as A Book—an award-winning literary novel—and not The Book Where She Fucks a Bear Because WTF Canada, but it’s going to be hard.
Don’t. Don’t go there. Just don’t.
This is actually not the book I was looking for. As a boy, I once read a book about older woman who was transported to a strange land and actually became a bear, in an intimate and powerful experience that made her formidable and unstoppable. I’ve never been able to find even a hint of that book since then, but the synopsis and tone of this one struck enough chords that I wondered if this was it, and in my youthful naïveté I had vastly misunderstood what was going on among the metaphors. I’m still hunting for that book, but in the meantime…I found this.
A novel of self-discovery, in which a practical, somewhat stolid bibliographer—understandably disappointed in and embittered by ordinary men—has sex with a real live actual motherfucking bear.
That’s literally what this is. 122 pages of internal exploration through inner monologue, recollections of younger and wilder days, and ursine penetration, framed extensively by details of the library and grounds of a bequeathed estate in the process of being catalogued for historical and archival purposes.
That’s it. That’s the story. The synopsis. The entire book. You just read it. You now know every detail of what happened. It’s done. Go home, Ethel, it’s over.
To be fair, she doesn’t actually have sex with the bear, if not for lack of trying. The bear performs cunnilingus on her. Repeatedly. The latter third of the book consists primarily of this, in brief yet unflinching terms, while she rhapsodizes over him as her lover, begs him to love her, occasionally self-flagellates, more than occasionally risks yeast infection via application of honey, once eats from a bowl on the floor, and continuously mourns her inability to engorge the bear’s notably indifferent and lovingly described, appropriately bearish phallus.
So see, it wasn’t that hard at all.
But. I mean. He’s a fucking bear, lady. The hell does he want with you?
It almost feels unfair to star rate this when, once I realized this was not the droid I was looking for, I went into it for the sole purposes of a lulz read and not seeking any literary value at all. But I’m giving it three stars for the entertainment value, knocking off two for the sheer badness (I actually had several problems with it as a Serious Novel), the racism, the sexism, the patented White NonsenseTM, the Canada WYD and Why You Do It, and the sheer level of WTFery inflicted on me and that I, by proxy, inflicted on several of my Twitter followers.
And I paid fucking money for this, y’all. I own it in paperback. So I’m gonna fucking review it.
To be honest, this is one of the most bizarre inner narratives I’ve ever read, and as I read I continuously had to stop and double-check the original publication date; it reads less like it was published in 1976 and more like it was published in 1876, as it brings with it that certain stolid pragmatism and clipped focus on particulars and affairs that so characterizes late Victorian era literature—including an almost wink-wink nod-nod feel in which the author assumes the reader understands certain matters of sophistication. Yet despite being a rather straightforward narrative, it’s also surreally disjointed, strange and prosaic, practical to the point of being nonsensical, hopping about aimlessly from one oxymoronically terse yet meandering exploration to another, building slowly with details that have little relevance other than to act as a framing for the eventual repositioning of the bear from cowed, dull-eyed pet to…um…intimate partner. I love a good slow burn and enjoy world-building details, but this wasn’t that.
I’m honestly not sure what it was, other than erratic, unfocused, and seeking to pad this out beyond the length of a short story consisting solely of ursine oral acrobatics.
It’s definitely an academic’s novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but the many oblique literary references can be alienating even to the most well-read. I mean. If the bear cunnilingus and overt bestiality aren’t already alienating. Different folks, different strokes. There’s also a really weird fixation on bodily functions, from the heroine (Lou) seeing fresh snow and immediately hurrying out to pee in it for the sole purpose and delight of “yellowing” snow…to repeated returns to the bear’s shite, her shite, everyone’s shite, the general idea of shite, right down to imagining Lord Byron playing with his “little turdies.”
Y’all, I’m not 100% sure Marian Engel wasn’t just trolling Canada.
But this actually brings me to the racism in the book (there’s a connection to the poo problem, just wait for it); naturally considering that it’s set in the northern reaches of Canada, we’re going to see mentions of First Nations people, called Indians by the good white Canadians and French-Canadians, a habit they share in common with Americans. Nearly every mention of the “Indians” comes rife with stereotype as a form of ignorantly good-natured denigration, a kind of “ha-ha we show we accept you by mocking you” elbow-nudge, which really doesn’t sit well with me even when I try to ignore it as a product of a less-informed time that didn’t have the social framework, language, or data points to understand why this was not okay. But what really bothered me was the character of Lucy: a 100-year-old, toothless First Nations woman who is…pretty much exactly what you’d expect. *sighs* The Esoteric Crone from the Tribe of the Other. She talks to the bear in some kind of mystical gibberish, and is painted as having some sort of connection with the bear that no one else understands. She seems ageless, immortal. She cares for the bear when no one else is around. At the end of the book and on Lou’s departure, the bear is once again delivered into Lucy’s hands as Lucy, off-page, lies dying, in so much heavy-handed symbolism I’m just not even going to bother. But when Lou first meets Lucy, Lucy passes on this little chestnut of wisdom in the expected broken, grinning, “comically” crude speech:
Lucy’s face crinkled with some inconceivable merriment. She did not look one hundred years old, only eternal. “Shit with the bear,” she said. “He like you, then. Morning, you shit, he shit. Bear lives by smell. He like you.”
The ancient wisdom of the nation’s Elders, folks.
Shite with the bear.
And before you ask, yes, Lou does it.
She shites with the bear.
Not that it does much to endear her to him, at least not the way she wants. Yes, they have their little summer of love, unhygienic tonguing and all (I mean he shoves grubs and maggots into his mouth and then sticks that tongue inside her, and don’t get me started on her licking his gums and teeth and fur). But throughout the book she’s unsuccessful in actually mating with the bear despite her desperate pleas, and I’m kind of (completely) relieved by this even if it leads to a rather bizarrely negotiated and utterly sexist, terribly handled sexual tryst with Homer, a married man paid to help her out during her assignment at the estate, who treats her as though she owes him sex or else she’s a snob or…I don’t know, I can’t get his rationale for why he felt sex was owed, inevitable, and obligatory; nor could I grasp his hostility when she refuses him, other than typical “oh look my entire personality is rape culture” characterization. For christ’s sake, he practically says—in so many words—that he assumed since she likes to drink now and then she must like to fuck now and then, too, so if she’s not DTF she’s been leading him on…especially since she’s never offered him a drink in return? Okay? I mean I guess this logic makes sense in Gross Entitled Rapey Prick Land, where if the mead be not equally shared, a debt must be paid from either the upper or nether purse, and so the gods decree.
But that means I definitely don’t understand Lou’s later determined advance that ends in a quick, unsatisfying, borderline transactional fuck that apparently made the bear jealous. It’s misogynistic as hell but not surprising from Homer, considering he described a previous female owner of the estate as an “imitation man” because she was strong enough to survive on her own and wore trousers, and speaks of his own wife in some rather grossly unflattering, sneering terms.
Right. I was going to get to the misogyny later, but there you have it. Though Lou’s got plenty of internalized misogyny, too, rather succinctly expressed in her complaints about Homer’s wife’s voice and the comment “Fish wives give us all a bad name.”
But back to the bear’s erectile dysfunction.
So Lou’s going increasingly off the rails. Increasingly. And there’s one night where the bear actually gets hard. I don’t know why it happens this one time after all the failures, it’s likely some random thing, but at this point she’s assigning so much meaning and depth to their “relationship” that she even spends time beating herself up over how her repeated attempts to mount him changed the atmosphere between them and nothing will ever be the same. So this moment of brief turgidity is, of course, significant and laden with emotion.
Lady, he’s a motherfucking bear.
And then when he does get hard, she – after painting it as a thing of great portent and power and meaning in the intimacy between them – gets on all fours and presents herself…and is somehow particularly startled when he borderline mauls her, ripping her back open.
Lady, he’s a motherfucking bear.
I actually shouted at the book. “What the fuck did you think was going to happen? IT’S A FUCKING BEAR.” At the same time, at least the author remembered IT’S A FUCKING BEAR. I think I’d have been more annoyed had the bear tenderly made love to the heroine while Engel described his cock in this particular detailed way she has, which lingers on certain things lovingly and in strangely visceral language until even the commonplace becomes grotesque.
There are a few interesting points to the book. For instance, after Lou’s intimate relationship with the bear ensues, the writing style changes as the changes in her routine and self-perception energize her; there’s a transition from the dull pedantry of seemingly random, meaningless, limp observations and concerns with the trivial and formal into something richer and fuller and breathing with more life. I’d like to think that’s deliberate, but thinking so and assigning meaning to that has as much value as debating why an author long dead made the curtains in a room blue. Some things have about as much literary meaning as a drunk tweet, and only as much permanence as we ascribe to them. So take from that what you will.
It’s also interesting when she starts to self-flagellate and realize how wild she’s gone, but it also feels kind of obligatory, like this entire thing has been leading up to a tale of self-punishment and madness where the madness is the true end goal and turning point, which is a tired old trope—that we find ourselves in madness. Been done before, and without needing to ride bear tongue. It’s also particularly lazy when characterizing women, when so often women’s growth, development, shatterings and mendings, etc. are characterized as hysteria and not a viable building and strengthening of character. And when women are given to madness, they’re rarely allowed to be portrayed as truly terrifying in that madness, as someone and something of true and destructive power; instead of making them dangerous and acknowledging their capacity to become something awe-inspiring and frightening, that madness is used to reduce them to over-emotional creatures succumbing to irrationality. So many have done so much better than “woman goes sexually mad in the woods” as an exploration of female liberation of the self, so this rather falls short even for its time.
Though I have to admit I had a few really genuine laughs. Like when she expresses how absolutely “distressing” she finds small Victorian tables, and her disgust over the splay of their legs; like when she has an inner conversation with Satan, who mocks her unoriginality and suggests she could have been more innovative and recherché with an armadillo or, say, an abominable snowman (clearly Satan’s been reading Chuck Tingle); like when she’s tempted to write back to her direct superior and tell him to “go screw a book.” There are moments when Lou is likable, but she’s mostly erratic.
Erratic. Erotic. Obsessed with a bear.
I should’ve written this book’s tagline.
The ending was rather prosaic and poetical, but honestly, the story made its point chapters before with a buried and easily overlooked line hidden in the drudgery:
Fish wives. Fish widows. And we all set out to be mermaids.
The rather poignant takeaway from that is somewhat lost when one is instead caught in staring at (and live-tweeting) little moments of literary splendor such as:
[…] but once the honey was gone he wandered off, farting and too soon satisfied.
“Eat me, bear,” she pleaded.
Eat. Me. Bear.
At least the book gave me the opportunity to say this.
…I'll see myself out.
— X (@thisblackmagic) March 18, 2017
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