Writing the streets

Set in a gritty St. John’s, Lisa Moore’s Alligator is an engagingnovel that follows lovers, low-lifes and the beast that is ambition.

illustration Kate Sinclair

It’s a well-documented fact: Canada is an enormous land mass. You can make this country your home and still never, in your lifetime, experience isolation in the flat prairies, vertigo peering up at the Rockies, or rapture from the alien glow of the Northern Lights. This sense of mystery, which in its darker moments can lead to a sense of alienation from ‘the others,’ has pervaded through our culture’s traditional music, art and literature.

Over the past couple of years several Newfoundland authors have shrunk the country down a few sizes, captivating readers from Prince Rupert to Charlottetown with tales from their own backyard. Best sellers such as Michael Crummey (The Wreckage), Michael Winter (The Big Why) and Edward Riche (Rare Birds) have exposed lit-heads across the 49th parallel to stories that value an exploration of human nature over geographic loneliness.

Out of all the contemporary Newfoundland writers, perhaps no one has bridged this gap as much as Lisa Moore. She has a bi-weekly column in the Globe & Mail, and pops up in various literary publications and CBC productions. Open, her 2002 book of short stories, was praised for its sensual, almost painfully tangible, imagery and characters. (She says in the 2003 book Writers Talking: “I could never really trust that it was enough to let the popcorn be a popcorn, I want it to be suffering unrequited love, or be an egomaniac.”) There was so much praise, in fact, Moore was nominated for the 2002 Giller Prize, along with Austin Clarke, Carol Shields, Bill Gaston and fellow Newfoundlander Wayne Johnson. Although the prize went to Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, a star was born.

Following up on the success of two collections of short stories is Moore’s brand-new release, and first novel, Alligator. Like Open, readers are introduced to an eclectic group of characters living, working, screwing and creating in St. John’s. There’s Madeleine—who Moore, a NSCAD graduate, calls the “overarching creative spirit of the book”—an aging filmmaker entranced by her own film. Isobel, the star of Madeleine’s cinematic masterpiece, is sleeping with Valentin, a nasty Russian refugee who is plotting to burn Isobel’s home for the insurance money. Valentin is also blackmailing his neighbour, the innocent Frank, who saved every penny for years to buy a street hotdog cart. Frank, in return, is enamoured with Colleen, Madeleine’s 17-year-old niece, on probation for pouring sugar down the gas tank of a bulldozer in a childish attempt to save the Newfoundland pine marten.

“I wanted to show the city through the minds of characters,” Moore explains over the phone from her home in St. John’s. She’s back in the city—the scene of the crime, if you will—after a kerosene-lit summer at her cottage. “They come from all walks of life, and they become connected. It’s a very specific place; a portrait of the city at a particular time, which is now.”

Never sacrificing imagery for narrative, Alligator, which takes place over a two-week period in August, flips easily between characters and plotlines. Unbeknownst to each other, all of the characters’ catharses happen at the same time—a structural move that Moore compares to music composition. The book does move like a song, or perhaps more like a busy city street: pick any moment, and if you observe closely enough, there are people being kind and generous, or ambivalent, or even violent. “In a city, these stories happen all the time,” she says.

Although all of her books take place in St. John’s, Moore says she’s not driven by a sense of responsibility to write about the city. There are moments within the novel that feel like they could happen in any urban centre, but then a description of a city street, of a shared meal or the smell of the harbour grounds you right back in St. John’s. “The city was a starting point for the movement, for the sorts of lives that are led. It was important to set this novel here, but I don’t feel the need for the next novels.”

Moore is much more interested in the emotional integrity of her characters, and how they respond to “morally perilous” situations. She describes her character development as “running a video camera or film camera, if you could hear the characters’ thoughts at a particular time.” In a Giller Prize video promoting her nomination, Moore further explains her drive to “make them as real as possible so you can taste, smell and hear what they hear.”

Ultimately Moore’s characters struggle with the same issues that most of us are all too familiar with: ambition and money. She explores the gap between greed and survival and how it fuels us to become creative individuals. Driven by others’ observations that her characters in Open show no regret for their actions, she also toys with ideas of regret and remorse—of the longing (or lack of) to take back a destructive action that hurt another. “Some characters do things that are irrevocable, they just can’t be fixed.”

Moore offers up Valentin as an example of a character who wreaks havoc without any real sense of decency. In a horrific scene near the end of book, Valentin leaves a drugged Frank to die in Isobel’s burning home. He only decides to save Frank after a woman, walking her dog, witnesses the scene, and even his decision not to implicate Isobel in the fire is not motivated necessarily by love, but by self interest.

Perhaps we’re not that different than the titular alligator, which Moore describes as a metaphor for ambition. Like her young character Colleen, Moore visited an alligator farm in Louisiana and found herself captivated by the oft-misunderstood creatures and their ability to appear inanimate in the water. “I was overwhelmed by their power, by their muscles and strength,” she says. “They’re a predator, but they usually don’t attack humans. If they do attack, it’s to eat, to fulfill a need.”

With sharp teeth and resonating images, Moore continues her journey illuminating what makes us human—the good, the bad, the greedy and the downright wicked.

Lisa Moore reads at The Word on the Street, Atlantic Authors’ Stage, 3:30pm. Free. For a full TWOTS schedule, turn to page 46.

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