1532 Some things that remain true

Icefields
by Thomas Wharton, with a foreword by Suzette Mayr

Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2021 (first published 1995)
$23.95 / 9781774390368

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Morrison

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A reissued novel poses a special task for the reviewer, not least because many of the things people say about a book the first time around tend to remain true the second time. So, just to get it out of the way, I will tell you some things that remain true about Thomas Wharton’s Icefields, first published in 1995 but reissued in 2021 as a Landmark Edition by NeWest Press.

Icefields is about several people living in the shadow of Alberta’s Arcturus Glacier in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the spiritual, aesthetic, and interpersonal longings that compel them to remain in this place year after year. We meet the Scottish teahouse manager Elspeth, the journalist and mountaineer Freya Becker, the poet and veteran Hal Rawson, the Jasper tourism mogul Frank Trask, and Sara, daughter of an Indigenous mother and Rajasthani father, who tells stories of the arrogant English lord whose tour of the region brought her parents together. But we especially follow Edward Byrne, the Dublin-born, England-raised doctor who falls into a glacial crevasse in 1898, sees a beautiful angelic form in the ice, and spends the years after his rescue obsessively chronicling the advance and retreat of the frozen river.

Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, just east of the Alberta-BC border, provided the model for Wharton’s Arcturus Glacier. Photo by Thomas Wharton, 2010
Thomas Wharton at the tarn at Mt. Edith Cavell. Facebook photo

The book was a winner of several prizes, including the Commonwealth Best First Novel Prize (Caribbean and Canada Region), and received special critical praise for its prose style and narrative structure. For the former, reviewers used adjectives like “crisp,” like “deft,” like “cool,” like “clear,” with inevitable comparisons to Wharton’s icy subject matter. For the latter, critics singled out Wharton’s subtlety and light touch in his fragmentary and often very brief chapters, which chart the shifting allegiances of his several core characters, and the shifting topography of the icefield itself, over a timespan of more than twenty years. It’s all still true. Icefields really does do the things they said it did, and the intimate relation of its forms to its contents is essential to what it is. It is a novel that thinks poetically – that is, obliquely, imagistically, but also precisely – about a bunch of ice coming down a mountain, and in doing so shows us how much else in the world has to do with this force of nature.

What Has Been Uncovered

Suzette Mayr of the University of Calgary

The book’s broader themes – the things we think about when we think about ice – were always strongly implicit, but may be easier to see now. As Suzette Mayr writes in her afterword – one of two indispensable additions to this reissue, the other being a conversation between Wharton and Smaro Kamboureli – “If Icefields is a living glacier, coming down, and then receding, then what has been uncovered in the time between when Wharton first published the novel in 1995 and now?” If we know that the recession of glaciers is a consequence of harmful human actions, then it stands to reason that the intensification of nearly all world crises in the years since the first edition of the book has brought yet more of its frozen subtext up to the level of text. I think, for example, of a reflection made by tourism profiteer Frank Trask after Byrne tells him that the glacier is receding at a rate of a few feet per year: “It seems ironic to Trask, another joke at his expense in the country of illusion. That the ice should be disappearing at the same time that someone has finally found a use for it.” The deeper irony, lost on Trask but not on us, is that it is precisely this extractive ideology, which looks at stolen land and sees only use-value, that has caused the ice to disappear by overheating the world.

Smaro Kamboureli, University of Toronto

There are many such moments of clarity in the novel. Icefields subtly but continually reminds us that the decades it narrates saw capitalism reaching its worldwide, imperial stage of development, with correspondingly greater environmental harms and colonial dispossession, but also intensifying anticolonial resistance. This deepening of what has been called “modernity” coincided with big-M Modernism in arts and culture, and everything I have been saying about the book’s poetic thinking, its oblique formal suggestiveness, is also inextricable from both the big-M and small-m “modern.” As the poet Hal Rawson explains to a painter who asks him why he hasn’t written poetry about his experiences in the First World War, “War is not a subject now …. It’s a form.” Subjects becoming forms — or, if you like, the forms that subjects always really were becoming clearer, more manifest — is probably integral to the modern approach to art, and certainly to the kind of book Icefields is. Smaro Kamboureli, in her conversation with Wharton for this edition, observes, “…I recently came across the idea that modernity is a world gone mad with obsessiveness. I think Icefields is as much about the advent of modernity as about obsession.” Wharton replies, “I don’t know if I have anything illuminating to say about modernity in general,” and emphasizes instead how obsessiveness was important to his own writing process at the time. Wharton is being modest, and I disagree with him; if modernity, like war, is a form, then his book illuminates some meanings of modernity very well indeed.

Long Digression About Byrne’s Irishness

Icefields. First edition (NeWest Press, 1995)

As an extended example of the book’s understated engagement with modernity and its discontents, consider the origins of Dr. Edward Byrne. He is born in Dublin to a Catholic family in what is not yet the Free State. His mother is devout, and attributes Byrne’s recovery from a childhood illness to the miraculous power of prayer. His father, also a doctor, is a rationalist with little time for religion, and Byrne goes with his father to England at eleven after his mother dies. He quickly loses his religion and seems to occupy a tenuous position for the rest of his life, appearing English to some and Irish to others.

Sara, who takes care of Byrne after his fall into the crevasse, catches his Irishness right away – she is concerned with origins, and her well-travelled father liked to do the accent for fun. However, others often call Byrne an “Englishman,” a role he self-consciously appears to play. Such an assimilation seems to have been paradoxically easier for Irish immigrants to manage in Canada than in the United States (Canada had an Irish Catholic Prime Minister, the Conservative and Louis Riel persecutor John Thompson, by 1892; the United States didn’t have an Irish Catholic President until 1960, and we all know how that ended).

At the toe of Athabasca Glacier. Photo by Thomas Wharton
First US edition (Washington Square, 1996)

Tellingly, when Byrne meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle during the celebrity author’s trip to Jasper, they are described as “two doctors” rather than “two Irishmen.” Doyle grew up in England with Irish Catholic parents, but his politics tended to the Unionist (he was even knighted, for goodness sake) and his big idea to save the nationalist Roger Casement from execution for treason was to testify that the man had gone mad. Like Byrne, Doyle abandoned his Catholicism, but unlike Byrne he replaced it with Spiritualism rather than an irreligion troubled by brushes with the mystical.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, Dr. Byrne is called to attend to an Italian railway worker who was pinned to a rock face by an explosion and is slowly dying from an abdominal wound. With his right hand stuck through the palm, the man is half-crucified, though it is a measure of Wharton’s subtlety that he never uses that term to describe the position of the body. Instead, we read that another worker, the man’s brother, holds up a hand-made cross to him while he prays soundlessly. The cross is made of blue paper — the same colour, of course, as the layered ice of the glacier.

While nominally Catholic, and child to a mother who believed in miracles, Byrne takes after his father in this moment. He judges the situation hopeless, gives the dying worker a mild sedative — literally bromide — because it is all he has, and stays the night while the brothers whisper to one another in Italian. The next morning he uses his magnifying glass to check for signs of life in the form of condensation coming from the man’s mouth, but finds none. He is soon taking stock of the sun flashing on a nearby lake and judging it a “glorious day.”

Athabasca Glacier. Thomas Wharton photo
First UK edition (Jonathan Cape, 1997)

This episode is redolent with subtext. Byrne’s science, his lenses and bromides, seem to put him at a remove as chilling as the ice he loves from men with whom he might have found common ground. The Italian worker’s death stresses the reality behind a place like Jasper in 1912, where the colonized and minority peoples of the British Empire are being chewed up by the hungry maw of capital just like everywhere else — and Byrne is one of these minorities whether he wants to be or not. And so that blue paper cross oddly seems to link him to the brothers in some more secretive, dreamlike sense, as it shares the colour of the natural forms he glories in. As with the vision in the crevasse, it is a moment when the true relations of things come to us buried and upside-down.

As a thirty-something in 1912, Byrne is a near contemporary of James Joyce (born 1882) and is in his own way also a figure of exile, but unlike Joyce he seldom seems to have looked back on the island he left. It’s worth noting that others with Irishnesses no less overseas than Byrne’s became republican and nationalist heroes: the great James Connolly was born in Edinburgh to Irish parents and spoke with a Scottish accent all his life; his friend and colleague James Larkin was born to Irish parents in Liverpool; the gunrunner Erskine Childers was born in swanky Mayfair to an English father and a mother from a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowning background. None of them were inhibited from making great, even ultimate sacrifices for the Irish cause. But the ice becomes Byrne’s true country instead.

Diorama of Athabasca Glacier at the Royal Alberta Museum. Photo by Thomas Wharton

I was thinking about these things all the way along while reading Icefields – Ireland, Joyce, modernity, nationalism, exile, and how Byrne related to each of them — when suddenly, very near the end, they all came out into the open. It is now ten years after the death of the railway worker, and Frank Trask confronts Byrne about his efforts to keep ice-crawlers off the glacier in a markedly roundabout way:

— I’ve just been reading about a fellow called James Joyce. It says here he’s written a great big fictitious book that nobody can understand.

— I’ve never heard of him.

— Well the thing is, he’s a native of Dublin, like yourself. That’s why I thought you might be interested.

— What’s the book called?

— Ulysses, but God knows why, because it’s about an Irish Jew. Tell me something, why is it you Irishmen always have to complicate everything?

After many years of playing at being an Englishman, Byrne becomes an Irishman again in light of his antagonism to Trask’s projects. Trask further adds, “The Prince of Wales will be here in August, and things are going to be ready, goddamn it. I don’t need any Irish patriots blowing up bridges.” Trask claims it is just a little joke, but the exchange makes explicit the subterranean rumblings I had been sensing from the beginning. And, really, the whole book is like that in a way that seems essential to its structure. Thematic and imagistic pressure builds until it all falls away in an avalanche rush of revelation.

The slough at Appleyard, Alberta. Thomas Wharton photo, Facebook

Fragments and Avalanches

Despite the short, fragmentary chapters that comprise this book, it would be wrong to call Icefields by the name of that recent critical bugbear, the “novel in fragments” or “the fragment novel.” It’s one of the real structural achievements of the book that, like the icefield itself, the constituent pieces readily make a coherent whole when one stands back to look. It is therefore quite unlike fragmentary works that seem to have fallen back on the form out of an uncertainty over how to make it all hang together (and no offence taken if you are now looking askance at this very review).

In fact, one of the most striking short passages in the book almost becomes an ars poetica for how the fragment works in Wharton’s hands:

I lean back on the sun-warmed rock, close my eyes, and listen. The glacier moves forward at a rate of less than one inch every hour. If I could train myself to listen at the same rate, one sound every hour, I would hear the glacier wash up against this rock island, crash like waves, and become water.

Thomas Wharton of the University of Alberta. Photo by Mary Sperle

One sound, one inch, at a time, the glacier implacably advances and just as surely falls back again. But speed it up and the process is as fluid and unbroken as a wave. In much the same way, the short, often fragmentary sentences that comprise Icefields’ chapters nevertheless create an elegant music in their totality (an incredibly difficult thing to do) and the short chapters likewise create a steady-flowing arc when seen in concert. The characters grow and change by increments until the inevitable calamities happen: ice falls, wars start, loss is felt terribly. But the buried traces of angels and wonders likewise wait their appointed times to resurface. It’s on this basis that Icefields has such a structurally satisfying ending, one which feels both inevitable and unexpected.

As Suzette Mayr says in her Afterword, even Wharton’s early work in a creative writing class they took together almost 30 years ago had “an understanding of time in a fluid and geological — rather than human — sense. I remember an excerpt he wrote that described a day in the life of the Cretaceous Era. Time, for Tom, was never a hindrance.” Ultimately, then, the word “fragment” is almost something of a misnomer — it’s not that we’re seeing the pieces of something broken, but rather that the book’s efforts to show the long, slow march of historical, psychological, and glacial time will of necessity appear to us as a series of moments, each with its own weight and significance among countless accretionary others. No wonder, then, that poetry – the art form of the individual moment – seems so intimately related to how Icefields does what it does.

Thomas Wharton. Courtesy Facebook

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Geoffrey Morrison

Geoffrey D. Morrison is author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). His debut novel, Falling Hour, is forthcoming February, 2023 with Coach House Books. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory. Editor’s note: Geoffrey Morrison has reviewed a book by Brett Joseph Grubisic, and his Blood-Brain Barrier is reviewed here by Matthew Tomkinson.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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