Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush

It's the end of the 20th Century. Arcadia Hearne is in self-imposed exile in London. In her own modest (dare I say, Canadian?) way, she is reckless with her love. She is drawn toward men with secrets, particularly men with third-world ties and third-world secrets. And she has secrets of her own, which burden her attempts at love.

Her darkest secret is articulated at the story's outset: when she was a younger woman living with her family in Toronto, she was party to a duel. Over her. Pistols at dawn, sort of thing - literally. Over her.

If that doesn't make you stop and scratch your head - if that compels you to click over to Amazon and buy now - go to: you'll love it. As for me, I'm definitely in the head-scratching category. But I will say Catherine Bush's The Rules Of Engagement engaged me. And Bush's weird choice of artistic material (what would a duel look like? how would it affect its protagonists?) works surprisingly well in highlighting larger, seemingly more complex problems.

Bush's concern turns out to be, well, world peace. Using a duel as a plot-device seems a bit wingy on the face of it, but as her narrator points out, until very recent times duels were a common practice in Europe and North America. Respectable citizens of the state engaged in them without a moment's hesitation. Now they seem outlandish. Why? Is it at all conceivable that war itself might someday be thought of as similarly absurd?

Bush's prose is understated, shining an eerie and discomfiting light on an ambitious narrative that could (and sometimes does) lapse into outright melodrama. Melodrama is clearly appealing to both the narrator and the author. Why?

As a reader, I have two inner bookshelves. I like melodrama as much as the next person, and I stock that bookshelf with comics, spec-fic, crime novels, etc. I stock my other shelf with what I’d like to think is less histrionic material: ideas, memoirs, some litter-at-choor. And yet are the two bookshelves so separate? Don't they bleed over with indiscrimate frequency? Why does the ego find itself continually drawn to melodramatic confrontation, like duels – be they intellectual or physical? It's almost as if the ego prefers risking extinction to accepting alienation, a dis-ease which every one of the book's characters suffers: with their geography, each other and themselves. They reach out, they smother, they lash out, they retreat.

The rules of engagement between lovers, cultures, and nation states are difficult to articulate, nevermind abide by; exceptions can always be made. Just when, finally, can we ask the ego to step aside, in aide of survival, or some more sublime, deeply engaged way of being?

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