I’m beginning at the end of this book with the Acknowledgements page where the author declares, “there are many other people within the world of literature and theatre who influenced and inspired me to write this story.” What I both appreciated and sometimes felt uncomfortable about was the recognisable quality of the novel’s setting and characters. Some of Bushkowsky’s success in the novel lies in his evocation of the small compass of Vancouver’s theatre world, a world where everyone is interconnected and anxious, a world that to this reader verged on the claustrophobic.
The end is also the beginning of the novel itself: Roy’s end. Diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live, theatre director Roy wants to make a road trip through the Okanagan Valley, BC’s main wine producing district*, with his long-time boyhood friend Alex, now a playwright. They embark on a tour of the vineyards and find themselves in a B and B not far from where one of the larger wineries is sponsoring a professional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Against a background of overindulgence in wine and encroaching wild fires that ultimately destroy their B and B, Roy gains a small extra lease on life and Alex finds lust that may ultimately be love.
Narrated by Alex, the novel allows the reader some ingress into the nature of male friendships. However, I didn’t always find Alex and Roy entirely sympathetic; they are often at once entirely too solipsistic and too insecure. Sometimes, too, their behaviour is unacceptably loutish. No wonder Alex refers to himself as “one of the assholes” (189). My reservations about the characters, however, do not necessarily detract from my response to the novel as a whole, which is in many ways a tightly crafted book.
Curtains for Roy allows Bushkowsky to meditate on the challenges, nature and responsibilities of writing, and it is totally unsurprising, therefore, that the play being mounted at the winery is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play that perhaps most of all his works contemplates the power of imagination and the power of the poet who “gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name” (MND 5.1.16-17). The novel also ponders the challenge of comedy.
Despite some almost farcical moments, Curtains for Roy may be at times comic, but its tone is insufficiently compassionate or optimistic for comedy. Bushkowsky’s characters are realistic and their situations on occasion deserving of pity, but one has difficulty liking them. One likes the characters in a comedy even if one condemns some of their actions. As I noted earlier, Bushkowsky’s characters are not entirely sympathetic even though they are highly recognisable. Perhaps it is true as some aver now that we do indeed live in a time where comedy as once understood is no longer possible because resolution is no longer possible. A bleak thought indeed.
Curtains for Roy is not so bleak, however, as to be totally without any sense of resolution. By the end of the novel, Alex has written “A romantic comedy with drama. Or a dramatic romance with comedy.” He has “stopped fucking things up . . . . Really” (270). He appears to be at least somewhat content. In terms of plot, it’s a not unsatisfactory ending.
I found it hard to define the mood of the novel, however: not so much pessimistic as somewhat anxiously cynical. But that, too, isn’t quite right. Perhaps I felt the book was a little too self-conscious of its own literariness. Bushkowsky depends heavily on the present tense even though he’s dealing with the past. What is particularly noticeable is his discarding of the conventions for punctuating direct discourse. No indication is made as the narrative shifts between dialogue and exposition: for example
Fuck, Roy says. What a night. Coughs.
He nods, but also says, Not really. (220)
Bushkowsky plays with our expectations, drawing our attention not only to the first person narration where everything can, I suppose, be regarded as a monologue by the narrator but also to the very artifice of fiction, to the createdness of his characters. No matter how realistic and no matter how closely the fictional world is moulded from the building blocks of reality, it is nevertheless a construct. The created characters cannot be quoted in the way one may quote a person who exists or once existed. The fictional personages’ words are just tesserae forming a part of the pattern of the whole mosaic that is the novel.
Bushkowsky is probably known more for his plays than for his fiction, and the more I thought about Curtains for Roy and about my own response to it, I realised the novel in its scenic organization and in the minimalism of its prose certainly recalls the conventions of drama. Further, what intrigued me most about the novel was its what I’m tempted to call Brechtian quality. I certainly felt somewhat estranged from both its characters and milieu, and that estrangement called my attention to the artifice or craft of the narrative.
* To those of my readers not resident in Canada, yes, BC does have a thriving wine industry, and if you are interested in checking out just how good some of our wines are, try http://www.winebc.org/press_room/awards/awards_archive_2014/