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Gibson, Graeme

GIBSON, Graeme

Nationality: Canadian. Born: London, Ontario. Education: University of Western Ontario. Family: Married 1) Shirley Mann (divorced); 2) Margaret Atwood, q.v.; three sons. Career: Teacher of English, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto, 1961-68; writer-in-residence, University of Waterloo, 1982-83. Founding member, Book and Periodical Development Council, 1975, chair, 1976, executive director, 1977. Awards: Scottish Canadian Exchange fellowship, 1978. Member: Amnesty International; Federation of Ontario Naturalists; Writers' Development Trust. Address: c/o Writers' Union of Canada, 24 Ryerson Ave., Toronto, Ontario M5T 2P3, Canada.



Five Legs. Toronto, Anansi, 1969.

Communion. Toronto, Anansi, 1971.

Perpetual Motion. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Gentleman Death. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1993.


Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson. Toronto, Anansi, 1972.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Palm, Union, PSV: A Plural Country, with Jill Bobrow, Margaret Atwood, and Raquel Welch; photographs by Dana Jinkins, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Concepts, 1985.

How to Build a Clone Computer: The Clone Building Seminar. Independence, Missouri, Computer Training Corp., 1993.

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Graeme Gibson has a solid reputation among Canadian novelists, based on both his fictional writings and his activities in cultural politics. His first two novels, Five Legs of 1969 and Communion two years later, are relatively short works, with decidedly modernist styles; Perpetual Motion of 1982 has a more clearly delineated narrative and narrator; and Gentleman Death, published in 1993, cuts between a writer's life and lives in his writings. In 1973 Gibson also contributed a collection of interviews titled Eleven Canadian Novelists; although not itself fiction, this work reveals something of Gibson's concerns about the professional pursuit of writing in questions repeated to different writers.

Five Legs, Gibson's first novel, tells the story of the gathering of several people for the funeral of a student acquaintance. Its first half consists of the perspective of Lucan Crackell, a university lecturer and mentor of the deceased, who has been commandeered into attending the funeral, as well as driving some others to it. The novel's modernist style blends objective dialogue between characters with verbalized thought in a manner that strongly recalls James Joyce. The opening of the novel might almost be a re-presentation of Bloom's breakfast in Ulysses, as Crackell prepares breakfast for his wife and assembles his clothes for the funeral. In the course of his thoughts, we find a realistic psychological portrayal of a petty and critical mind. Gibson uses Crackell's profession as an English lecturer to inter-weave motifs of literary death and rebirth with the conscious, social, "real-world" action of funeral preparations themselves. Allusions to Milton's "Lycidas," among other elegies, lend texture to the novel. These notes are blended with an ironic tone introduced by Crackell himself, whose thoughts transform the traditional elegiac "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" to the blacker "Who would not weep?" when he thinks of Martin Baillie, nipped in his prime by a hit-and-run driver. Gibson skillfully interweaves hints of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, T. S. Eliot's characters in "Prufrock" and "Gerontion," Browning's monologues, and other literary reflections on death. Some risk is taken that the text may become too self-consciously literary, however; readers may not feel like discerning between the literary mind of Crackell and the book itself.

The second half of the novel adopts the viewpoint of one of Crackell's passengers, the dead Baillie's friend Felix Oswald. He, like Crackell, muses about his life and dislikes. The novel leaves an impression of an anarchic despair, tempered with a glimmer of hope.

The brief sequel Communion traces Felix Oswald after his graduation from school, as he works for a veterinarian. In a slightly more coherent diction, Gibson moves toward a static closure that shows Felix breaking a dying epileptic husky from its cage and releasing it into the wild. Themes of abnormality and frustration are symbolically presented, often in analogy between Oswald and the dog.

Perpetual Motion diverges from Five Legs and Communion stylistically and fictionally, telling the story of Robert Fraser, a farmer in nineteenth-century Canada, whose plowing uncovers the skeleton of a mammoth in his field. His discovery brings him into contact with the world of Victorian pseudoscience, and he becomes seduced by the dream of building a perpetual motion machine in the form of an orrery, a working model of the solar system. His pursuit becomes obsessive and appears elusive as well, until he in a moment of inspiration makes the mammoth bone he discovered years earlier a part of his machine. It then starts to move, and gradually gains speed until it flies to pieces.

In Perpetual Motion Gibson investigates the implications of technology from a sophisticated perspective, mixing the dream of total human control over the machine with images of extinction, both of the mammoth and of the passenger pigeon. Gibson also introduces aspects of the tall tale and magic realism into Perpetual Motion: throughout the book, characters tell tales of the fabulous, and the creation of perpetual motion itself falls into this category, making the book itself a version of the fantastic epic. But Gibson's tale is one with a moral: the human costs of technological fixation are seen in Fraser's family, as they suffer under his monomania.

Gentleman Death is Gibson's return to the literary scene after eleven years. Ultimately, this novel reconciles its narrator with mortality, but his growth into this resolution is painful. Gibson essentially triangulates his book between the life of the Torontonian novelist Robert Fraser (coincidentally the great-grandson of the protagonist of Perpetual Motion ) and the plot lives of two of his characters, travellers from Toronto to Britain and Germany. The interweaving of elements of Fraser's life with those of the characters he is laboring to bring to life is slightly disorienting, but gradually encircles the great unspoken in Fraser's soul: the source of his writing block and his greatest sadness, the death of his brother. In a conclusion that feels like the resolution of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Gibson shows how love of people and place can bridge the life of the present and ghosts of the past.

Ron Jenkins

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