A World Elsewhere
Wayne Johnston (Knopf Canada, 2011 hardcover) 294 pages $32 msl
Let us begin with a test. How do you react to the following?:
He should write Van and tell him they had dined tonight on Sham Chowder, Lack of Lamb, Crazed Ham and Duck à Mirage. Steam of Mushroom Soup and Perish Jubilee.
Did the above short excerpt from the thrice Giller prize-nominated writer WayneJohnston's new novel make you laugh? Did it make you blink in miscomprehension? Did it make lunch reappear in your mouth? If the first, good. If the second, you're in for a struggle. If the last, read no more.
As for me, I've always been a sucker for a good pun. On the literary side this weakness or strength has definitely assisted me with the enjoyment of writers as far afield as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and George Orwell. The same taste also led to a childhood appreciation of the comedic ouevre of Soupy Sales and an adult appreciation of jokes happily spritzed by small children. As such, A World Elsewhere frequently caused me to laugh aloud, mouth agape and reaching for the email in order to share the latest hula dance of twisted word play.
Yet, A World Elsewhere is not a comic novel per se. Rather, it is a quite serious - bordering on the tragic even - story that happens to have some incredibly funny passages. To which I say, fair enough. If King Lear can have his fool, Landish Druken can utter his puns.
Landish is the central character in this novel which travels from the poorest attic lodgings in 1890s St. John's Newfoundland to the Xanadu mansion of Vanderland in North Carolina. He meets Van Vanderluyden, one of the heirs to the vast American fortune of the Vanderluyduens on a park bench in Princeton where both attend university. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train are warmly invited.
It is never clearly stated just why Van sought out the companionship of Landish, for it is the former who introduces himself to the latter. The implication, given Van's frequent proclamations that he is not a homosexual, is that he in fact is exactly that. Still, there are no advances made on Landish's posterior, only a spoken desire for Landish to accompany Van as a good friend and boon companion who will live with him in Roman glory at the planned estate of Vanderland.
Let's be blunt here. Van is what we call a control freak, as charming a villain as one will meet in pages since Iago said to Othello, 'You know, about the wife...' He does not so much take on friends, or eventually a wife and daughter in truly loveless relationships, as he absorbs possessions. Once you come to Vanderland - as spouse, servant, friend, or one of his daughter Godwin's tutors - one hears the lyric of Hotel California echoing through the estate's endless halls: 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.'
Coming back to Landish, he ended up in that cold water garrotte because of a plagiarism scandal during his final term at Princeton. He wrote one of Van's papers for him, and darned if Van didn't rat him out; effectively destroying Landish so that he might possess him. This takes Landish back to St. John's in shame, with no hope of a career other than working on his father's sealing ship. Captain Druken had made a deal with his son: You can go to Princetona nd I'll pay for it, but when you come back, you works for me, sonny. Landish refuses and is disinherited as a result. Finally, in desperation, he reaches out to Van, enquiring as to whether that offer of living at Vanderland - by now completed - is still on.
In the meantime, Landish has taken on an orphan child named Deacon. Deacon's father was literally cast adrift by Captain Druken while on a sealing expedition and Landish takes on the upbringing of the lad. Incidentally, Captain Druken became wealthy and hated in St. Johyn's because of his drive and cruelty in being the first to bring in one million seal pup skins. I've done the math. It is impossible.
The relationship between Landish and Deacon give the book its charm and also the raison for most of the puns. I interviewed Wayne Johnston the day after finishing reading A World Elsewhere and he told me that Landish invents these stories in order to explain the world to his quasi-son. An example, while the two are en route by a Vanderluyden ship to New York:
Landish told him that on this ship, the men in charge of engines had what were known as "engine ears", which meant that they were deaf from the noise the engines made. Also, there were pursers who made sure that no one's purse was stolen. There were men called stewards who were in charge of serving stew. And other men called porters who were in charge of serving port. "I'll give you my stew if you give me my port," Landish said, but Deacon shook his head.
Well wouldn't you?
As the observant will have gathered, Landish and Van do reunite at Vanderland, the former with Deacon in tow. From there it is probably best to leave aside the plot details for your own discovery. Our objective is to encourage reading, not cocktail party fakery.
As endnotes, A World Elsewhere closely but not exactly follows the history of the quite real George Vanderbilt who constructed the estate known as Biltmore in the 1890s. Readers may also recall that the Vanderbilts were given the fictional name of Vanderluyden in Edith Warton's Age of Innocence and Wharton herself (accompanied by Henry James no less) makes a delightful cameo in WayneJohnston's novel. This is the sort of nudge nudge wink wink allusion that can explode a novel into dangerous shrapnel in the hands of lesser writers, and in truth I set the book aside for several days while deciding whether or not Johnston had got away with it. Ultimately I've decided that yes he has. I can tell if I really like a novel or not by mentally enumerating the friends, relatives and acquaintances I would loan it to. That number being greater than three, I can suggest it to you. Be seeing you.