Monday, September 1, 2008

Jonathan Bennett

Entitlement by Jonathan Bennett (ECW, 2008) is a plot-driven encounter with one of Canada's richest, oldest, most entitled (and fictional) families: the Aspinalls.

A well-paced story with a thumping ending, Bennett's second novel occasionally lapses into sociological telling-not-showing about the meaning of wealth in Canada. It is saved, however, by its strong, compelling characters and clear, direct prose.

The novel is framed by the quest of a biographer to tell the story of Aspinall family, old, Upper Canadians who -- in the words of the patriarch -- manage to perpetuate their wealth and influence because Canadians don't really know they exist. Americans worship their capitalists, and the British gossip endlessly about the Monarchy, but Canadians kind of just assume that we're all pretty much the same. The rich amongst us benefit from this anonymity, this novel suggests. They just keep doing what they do, and no one bothers them much.

The biographer in the novel is sort-of trying to excavate this silence, though it's not immediately clear why she thinks there's a story to tell (there is, but she doesn't discover it until later).

I imagined the biographer as modelled on Stevie Cameron, but I hope the author of On The Take (Random House, 1995) was ... well, a little more intrepid, alert, smart and gutsy ... than the biographer presented here. There's a certain simplicity to Bennett's characters in this novel, embodied by (but not limited to) the biographer character. This simplicity grounds the novel's presentation of Canadians as passive, willing dupes to the super rich.

Are the Aspinalls supposed to be the Irvings? the Reichmanns? the Thomsons? the Westons?

None of the above. But one does note it's been many years since Peter C. Newman's The Canadian Establishment has had a new edition.

What are those rich people up to, anyway? National Post readers know; they provide glory for the rest of us. This novel takes that point of view, too; then twists it.

Back to the plot. The biographer discovers, and interviews, Andy Kronk, a working-class hockey player whose puck skills "earned" him a scholarship at Lord Simcoe College (UCC?), where he befriends the youngest Aspinall, Colin, a contemporary Oscar Wilde. Perceptive readers will pick up quickly that things won't go well for Colin. Twenty years later, Kronk tries to reconstruct the story.

At the heart of this book is the relationship of Andy and Colin. They live as brothers, yet are star-crossed. Colin is gay, loves Andy; not gay, Andy can only be Colin's platonic ideal.

Bennett's last novel, After Battersea Park, told the story of twins separated at birth:
Part mystery, part love story, Jonathan Bennett’s debut novel deftly examines fractured identities, families and cultures in a tale that spans one year, three continents and two generations. As William and Curt conflate and dissolve they wrestle with the twin masters of memory and truth, reason and passion. Here is a contemporary portrait of two men bound by blood and lies, but liberated by a chance to be both whole and wholly understood.
A thematic summary of Entitlement would also focus on the challenges of emotional connections between men. Bennett is a deft explorer of this continent.

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