- 2005 Giller Nominee. See the full 2005 Giller Prize Shortlist.
Alligator Hardcover – Sep 13 2005
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On the opening page of this mesmerizing first novel by the author of Open, a man puts his head into the mouth of an alligator, with grisly results. Part of an industrial training video, the incident is shocking yet strangely static, stripped bare of emotion. The girl watching the video has seen it many times before and her listless fascination with its random inevitability sets the tone for an unsettling exploration of the reptilian side of human nature. Like the man in the video, Lisa Moore's characters knowingly, and even willfully, place themselves in danger. Seventeen-year-old Colleen reels recklessly from vigilante-style eco-terrorism to drunken one-night stands with strangers in downtown St. John's. Her aunt Madeleine (maker of the alligator video) ignores the signs of serious illness in order to finish one last film. Madeleine's leading actor, Isobel, perversely gives herself up to the influence of Valentin, a rapacious Russian drug dealer whose cold-blooded lust for cash ignites a violent series of events. Only Frank, the young hot-dog vendor who lives in the bed-sit below the Russian, shies away from danger, though he is dragged into it nonetheless: "He waited in case something else was coming. He waited for something else. He waited for things not to be the way they were. But everything was the way it was."
Cutting rapidly from one point of view to another, roaming freely between past and present in a single scene, and lingering sensuously over miniscule physical details (like the jar of faded forget-me-nots on Frank's windowsill), Lisa Moore is a stylist in a class with Virginia Woolf and Jeannette Winterson. While her dialogue can seem unnaturally confessional and the number of characters makes it difficult to identify with anyone for long, Alligator is a triumph. No one else in mainstream Canadian fiction writes quite like Lisa Moore. --Lisa Alward
Lisa Moore is a highly inventive wordsmith whose talents have earned her a place on the Giller Prize Shortlist for the second time. Alligator opens with an exceptionally vivid scene: Colleen, a teenaged girl in St. John's, views a documentary film her artistic aunt Madeleine made twenty-odd years ago. In front of astonished witnesses, a professional alligator-wrestler in Louisiana just escapes with his life when the beast he knows so well attempts to devour him. The audience is transfixed; the cameraman keeps filming. As Colleen watches this terrifying scene, someone's actual brush with death, her attention focuses on every detail. She is no less riveted after her aunt returns home to announce, casually, that the man survived, and that they "had a little thing" together.
One crowd member in particular, a little girl holding a balloon, seems to be a surrogate for the girl watching the film in the narrative present. "The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There's no wind but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and settles, becomes still. There isn't a cloud. The little girl's blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light." Disaster strikes out of nowhere on a sunny day, and little girls everywhere can only watch. The magic of this book lies with its incantatory prose, and one can imagine what a treat it would be to hear Moore read in person; the effect would have to be spellbinding.
With prose like this, the very act of criticism can seem reductive, similar to the way a teacher 'explains' a poem in understandable prose for students, who then respond-quite rightly-"Well, if that's what he means, why didn't he just say it?" So, at the risk of trampling on Moore's artistry, here goes. David, Colleen's beloved stepfather, the only father she has ever known, has recently died of an aneurysm. Deciding she cannot sit idly by-her mother is frantic with suppressed grief-she engages in an act of eco-terrorism. By pouring sugar into bulldozers, she tries (and fails) to save the local pine martins' habitat. She is caught and punished. Later, still behaving very badly, Colleen absconds with somebody else's cash and tracks down the alligator man, but the episode seems anticlimactic and Moore kind of lets her go, as if the girl in the film had released her balloon into the sky.
There are many characters and a great deal of heartache in Alligator, and inevitably Moore's characters, carrying their various burdens, bump and collide into one another. The major link between them seems to be the experience of catastrophic loss, which also appears to be part of the modern predicament, or at least of life in present-day St. John's. Aunt Madeleine, for instance, is working on her magnum opus, a feature film (at last!) about old Newfoundland and a certain powerful archbishop. But she ignores her heart condition-and by extension her heart-to her detriment.
Much of this chic, world-travelled woman's mental energy is spent reviewing her marriage to Marty, her ex-husband, whom she left to pursue her career. Men still like Madeleine, who is very funny and knowledgeable. On the way to a younger man's apartment, Moore records these anticipatory thoughts: "She could do savvy and raunchy and acerbic. She could do spiritually enlightened if she had to. Coy she would not do. Girlish she would not do. Tenacious she could do." Being a feminist of her generation evokes moments of hilarity-like the memory of the time in the late sixties when "she had been on the floor of the Women's Centre with twelve other women convulsed with laughter all trying to work a speculum and a hand mirror." Rather than labouring over connections between past and present, Moore simply proffers Madeleine's current vulnerability to sentimentality, while insisting on present realities, which include Colleen's world of "bum-fight videos you can find on the Net," and "articles in Cosmo about winding a scrunchy around your lover's balls to maximize his orgasm." These things are just there, like Oxycontin.
Simply put, this is still no world for idealists and innocents, which brings us to Frank, a young man who has watched his mother die of cancer, valiantly making little jokes with her son, who thinks, "her eyes must weigh as much as transport trucks." Frank's dream is to have a successful hot-dog cart (yes, Frank sells franks). He works and saves and is victimized by villains who sniff out his weakness. His childlike nature is mirrored in descriptions like the following portrait of his new bed-sit, where "water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar." This may prove too twee for some readers, but not for others. Yet this passage reveals the way Moore's word-enchantment can get in the way of our caring deeply about her characters.
The novel's principal bad guy, a Russian named Valentin, has suffered hideous trauma in his early life, and Moore's portrait seesaws between sympathy and revulsion. Life has taught Valentin to survive at all costs-he moves smoothly, like the predator he is, into St. John's society-so that, for example, while a part of him feels he might be in love with the woman who is starring in Madeleine's film, a stronger part decides it would be an excellent idea to burn down her house for the insurance money. As things heat up in the plot, the vulnerable (Frank, and the actress, Isobel) crumble under the willpower of this nasty Russian. From an early focus on Colleen, Moore switches her headlights onto Frank, the orphaned boy who morphs into a version of the nearly murdered alligator man in Louisiana. Despite an occasional oddness in the book's structure, Moore's rhythmic sentences and powers of description create a strange reality for her readers as she writes of a place and time that is at once modern and mythic, and wholly her own.
Nancy Wigston (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
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In a sense, Alligator is much more developed than Moore's later title, February, but February is a comprehensible story of a disaster, and its consequences for individual lives and the society. Alligator is much darker than February. There is no disaster, the tragedy is intrinsic to the characters of the people. In the end one person is dead, one came home, one is in jail for life, and one escaped an attempt on his life, even though we don't quite know how, or what it took him to fully recover.
Towards the end the story breaks down and the books seems strangely unfinished. There is, of course, no need to tell a whole story. It is possible to enter somewhere in the middle and exit wherever the writer wants, but the beginning of this book did not point to such type of a narration.
If you want to read good prose, you should not miss this book, but keep in mind that this is a very dark story. Is it, perhaps, a new "The Way we Live Now" for the 21st century?
I gave it three stars because there are some really great parts that I did enjoy. If I think of the book as merely fragments of character then I like it a bit more than if I imagine it as a cohesive book. I love books that cast wide nets with lots of characters and story lines, but I recognize that it's a hard thing to reign in and keep control of and I think it got away from Moore here a bit too often.
All in all, I found my mind wandering away from the book too many times while I was reading it, just unable to be captured by what was happening on the page. I think I would give Moore another shot though. Maybe try one of her short story books as it seems she would be good at writing short stories.
I have to admit, most books that win prestigious awards are beyond me and I can't seem to really get into them; this was the exception to the rule. Alligator's chapters are separated by a different character leaving you wondering how everyone connects and what happens with the person you just left behind. Lisa Moore did a wonderful job of having me relate to each character, namely Colleen and Frank who describe their own struggles and trepidations while working to achieve their own greatness, whatever that may be.
I'm glad I took the time to read through this book before passing it on and trust that whoever reads it next will enjoy it as much as I did or more.
Thanks for reading,
The story definitely has a Canadian feel to it, but why do all novels set in Canada have be set in small towns? Don't authors know that the majority of Canadians live in large cities? Maybe the authors feel it adds to the grittiness of the book. In this case however, it certainly do not.
In short, the book is a snap shot look in to the lives of several very ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary Canadian small town. Each person is flawed in his or her own way, and the book follows them as they go about their business. If there was a point to the novel (aside from just simply reading a book) then it was definitely lost on me.
If you're looking to read a Giller Prize winning book, then I recommend The Life of Pi. If you're looking to read a book that is set in small town Canada, then by all means give Alligator a shot.
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