Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist

I came to Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist later than I should have, not only because I ignored several people who recommended it to me when it was first published in 2010, but also because I promised and failed to read it after I had the pleasure of talking with Nicholas in a pub about a year ago. This past fall, however, when Nicholas sat on Vocamus Press‘s The Future of Publishing panel, I decided that I had to right this particular wrong, which I did over Christmas.

The premise of the novel is that a young Mexican poet, someone who is not the writer Roberto Bolano but who resembles the literary fictions that Bolano created of himself in his own novels, comes to Canada in 1975 and stumbles into teaching poetry to a class of University of Toronto medical students. A group of these students befriend their new teacher and begin to discover themselves differently through him.

Ruddock tells the story in short sections, alternating his attention between the students, their teacher, and other characters as well. Each of these lives is connected more or less strongly by a single event that lies at the heart of the story — the rape and intended murder of a young woman who is rescued by the young poetry teacher. Each character’s story is eventually revealed to flow through or from this event, though they are not always themselves even aware of its influence.

It seems to me that there are two interpretive keys to the way the novel gradually uncovers the significance of this single event. The first is found in one of the novel’s primary threads, where two of the medical students work together in dissection class to cut away the layers of their cadaver until it is nothing more than an untidily fleshed skeleton. As they work, they find themselves in a grisly kind of intimacy with the body, aware that it is no longer a person but still unable to treat it wholly as a corpse, as when they peel the face away but leave the lips as a last sign of humanity.

The second interpretive key is found in the scene where one of the medical students goes north to surprise his married lover in the boathouse of her cottage in the middle of the night. As he comes to her in the darkness, he begins to kiss along her body, beginning at the feet, mentally naming the muscles and ligaments as he goes, a kind of erotic dissection mirroring the clinical dissections he has been performing in class. He soon realizes, however, that the woman he is kissing, who is willingly accepting his kisses, is not his lover at all, and he is forced to flee.

These two dissections, the clinical and the erotic, one laid over the other, provide a figure for the novel as a whole, for the way it proceeds. It takes as its cadaver the moment of rape and attempted murder, peeling back the flesh of this moment layer by layer, exposing the stories that intersect in it as if they are the musculature and ligaments, getting down to the bone, not to a tidy classroom skeleton, but to whatever bloody bits remain on the dissection table after the procedure is complete. Yet, the dissection of this moment, of what lies beneath its surface, is not only clinical, it is also erotic, the equivalent of tracing its musculature with kisses, of discovering the body by touch and by taste, by passion, even if, in both forms of dissection, we always fall short of definitive knowledge, always fail to know this person whose lips we have left as a mark of humanity, this person who we thought was our lover but now know is not.

Ruddock’s novel is, in both of these senses, a dissection, a clinical and yet erotic exploration of the complex stories that make up any given moment, but an exploration that must always, in the end, admit incompletion, must admit that neither science nor passion is truly capable of comprehending story, not even one moment of story, but that story is nevertheless, even and especially for this reason, worth telling.

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