History once was written in the past tense and allowed us to rest peaceably in our forebears’ images; good or bad, but largely undisturbed. Marx shot history up, for a while, into the future. Ineluctably, though after various indignities, it would carry us into a workers’ utopia. Freud and others relocated it into the present, as the nightmare from which we struggle to awaken but are forced, meanwhile, to relive.
In this last sense, Karen Joy Fowler’s playful and phantasmagoric “Sarah Canary” is a historical novel. Somewhat as “Ragtime” did, it takes historical ingredients, raises them to a fictional temperature, and cooks us in them. The tone is different. E. L. Doctorow’s novel is ironic and chastening. Fowler’s is ironic and in pain.
The history that Fowler lifts to myth, to trouble us, is that of oppression, the boot heel of progress. She sets her story in the 1870s and the headlong westward expansion that followed the Civil War. Her characters are the victims: the Chinese brought in to build the railroads, the Indians, the wildlife, the landscape, the misfits and, above all, the women.
“Victims” is partly misleading. Fowler gives them an exuberant and raffish voice; in their innocence, they will rise again with a power of dream. Fowler’s book has its own dreamlike power; it is part ghost story, part picaresque adventure, and partly a carnival of sad and comic extremes. Its chief villain, in fact--until his odd transformation at the end--is a carnival freak-hunter. It is hard to characterize except by accretion; one of its blurbs piles up Evelyn Waugh, Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor without really helping.
The book consists of a story and of mood-setting, temperature-raising commentaries. The story is the wanderings through the foggy forests and logging towns of the Washington Territory of Chin, a Chinese railroad laborer; B. J., an escaped asylum inmate; Adelaide Dixon, an itinerant lecturer on women’s sexual freedom; Tom, an Indian who is hanged for murder; Burke, a hermit naturalist; Howard, the freak-hunter, and others. Linking them is Sarah Canary, a mysterious feral figure who speaks in grunts and growls. She appears out of the fog, attaches herself to Chin, propels him through his wanderings, and disappears.
The commentaries are a series of interpolated passages, each a collection of historical incidents and curiosities taking place in the 1870s and illustrating some aspect of national extravagance and oppression. One suggests the popularity of freak shows, another is a list of anti-Chinese brutalities in San Francisco, a third is about the callous treatment of animals, a fourth--the Henry Ward Beecher-Elizabeth Tilton adultery case, and the real incident that inspired “Anna Karenina"--suggests the burden of obloquy borne by women in any sexual scandal. The incidents and their arrangement are diverting and shocking, and make us aware of the themes implicit in the story. Too easily aware, perhaps, like forcing plant growth.
The story may not need it. It is strange, moving and bewitching on its own. Its characters are bizarre and outsize, their adventures are penny-dreadful melodrama (a period touch), and yet, both in what they are and what they represent--innocents caught in the machinery of the new empire--they are unforgettable.
The plot is the weak part, not because it is melodramatic but because Fowler, a first novelist, works it too hard. In brief: When Sarah appears, Chin is entrusted by his Chinese fellow laborers to take the woman--ugly, raven-haired, gabbling and wearing the tattered remnants of an elaborate dress--to the nearest settlement. He is jailed and forced to act as hangman for his cellmate, Tom the Indian. Regarding himself as responsible for Sarah, he gets a job in the brutal asylum where she has been placed and, together with B. J., escapes with her.
She is abducted by Howard, who tours her as the “Alaska Wild Woman,” and rescued by Adelaide, who is lecturing on female orgasm in the same logging towns. Chin and B. J. follow after, and there is a violent denouement in San Francisco.
The function of such an extravagant plot is partly to establish the wildness of the time, but mostly to allow the characters to enact their dream-selves in a dream setting. Fowler’s difficulty is like that of a playwright who brings on wonderful characters in wonderful entrances, who has a haunting and convincing climax in mind, but who gets swamped in the middle-act traffic jam.
But the characters and the theme shine. Adelaide is a prophet ahead of her time. Her mission is impossible--for one thing, her upbringing has made her afraid of sex--and she is continually getting things wrong. Yet she is an authentic heroine, comic and touching, but magnificent as well.
Tom is a brilliant cameo: a man of enormous dignity who knows himself, like his people, to be already slain. There are two idiot savants--the doctor at the asylum and Burke, the naturalist who wants to educate Sarah up to civilization--who embody the wrong-headed scientific idealism of the time. B. J. is insane, in that he is totally detached from the ambitions and oppressions of his society. He is a saintly wraith.
Sarah is a wraith of another kind. She expresses nothing, yet, to the others, she is infinitely suggestive. She is the raw clay of womanhood; the others try to shape her to their own squalid or benevolent intentions and they all fail. She does not yet exist; she will, the author suggests, some day.
The book’s center, and its most wonderfully original achievement, is the outsider, Chin. He is a philosopher by temperament and upbringing. At the end, he will return to China and take the literary examinations required for the civil service. Here, in the wildness of the Northwest frontier, he is a mix of Confucian practicality and pious virtue--bowing sadly to necessity, he hangs Tom; but he never relinquishes his appointed duty to care for Sarah--and a speculative and poetic imagination. Years later, in China, his final classical meditation on dreams and a great woman dreamer ties this sprawling, incandescent book together, and heals its awkwardness.