Whatever Lola Wants
by George Szanto
Brindle and Glass
424 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Aaron Shepard
From his heavenly cloud, Ted tells stories about what he sees on Earth. His audience is Lola, once a movie star, now a god, ranking higher than Ted’s status as an immortal. There is a gentle irony in this idea: the gods are out of touch with the world and need storytellers to re-learn their humanity. Szanto establishes this premise with nimble efficiency, exploring the laws of this particular heaven more fully as the novel progresses.
Ted’s story revolves around the conservation-minded Magnussen family and Johnnie Cochan, a developer whose vision of a utopic, hermetically sealed city called Terramac becomes a megalomaniacal obsession. Caught between is Carney, Ted’s son, a disaster-recovery specialist.
The concept of Terramac – where all ecological processes are controlled – raises fascinating questions. What is ecological perfection? How do we define “pristine” in relation to true wilderness? Thematically, Carney’s attraction to chaos mirrors Cochan’s desire for complete control.
Like the American writer/environmentalist Rick Bass, Szanto explores not just our relationship with the natural world, but the way our differing perspectives on nature affect our personal relationships. But whereas Bass’s writing encompasses the minutiae of an ecosystem down to the geological, Szanto is at his best in the human sphere, crafting vivid scenes and dialogue.
Szanto is also an accomplished crime fiction writer, and his gift for creating fast-paced narratives is evident throughout. The prose is energetic and expressive, carrying us through an intricate story covering multiple decades, characters and plot strands. His warm, ironic humour is reminiscent of Jack Hodgins’ stories.
While the Magnussen family is the David to Cochan’s Goliath, every character comes in shades of grey, bearing flaws and neuroses sourced in earlier tragedies. Even Carney, ostensibly the hero who unites the Magnussen family in their fight, is burdened by an incapacity for empathy. Though some characters never rise above their defining traits, the evolution of Carney and others into complex, realistic protagonists is one of the novel’s great satisfactions.
The omniscient point of view – being able to see into the minds of every character – is particularly apt in a novel where an immortal is telling the story. However, the sheer number of points of view, including that of minor characters onstage for a mere page or two, stymies Szanto’s otherwise crisp pace, creating a surfeit of detail and dialogue in some places.
Another risk is in Lola becoming a proxy for the reader’s emotions as she laughs, cries or rages at key points in Ted’s story. This is a tricky balance, as we need to see Lola grow invested in the story, but without us being told how to feel. As for Lola and Ted, their own story, while endearing, takes a while to catch fire.
Quibbles aside, Szanto has created a fictional world of remarkable scope and depth, exploring family, science, poetry and the nature of storytelling itself. He casts a wide net, but his joy in the undertaking is palpable and infectious, making an epic journey feel like light lifting.
Aaron Shepard’s first novel, When is a Man, is published by Brindle and Glass.