[T]he only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide the story ends – Andrew Kaufman, The Waterproof Bible
Back in the good ol’ days there was real and unreal and that was it; it was one thing or t’other. Then all these other realisms started appearing: surrealism, magic realism, hyperrealism, neorealism, pseudorealism. Suddenly it all got very confusing. Confusion, of course, is a state of mind. And if you were looking for a state of mind in which to approach The Waterproof Bible I would aim for this one: Things only get confusing if you let them get confusing. Accept what’s presented on the page as reality even though a) that reality doesn’t match the one you’re comfortable with and b) it stretches the laws of physics (and possibly credulity) beyond breaking point. Just suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s not hard. Fans of science fiction do it all the time. We accept concepts like transwarp beaming—which even its inventor describes (will describe) as “like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse”—without batting an eye so the notion that another race of sentient humanlike creatures exists under the earth’s oceans and have gone undetected for millennia isn’t such a stretch and the fact that a woman could be born with the ability to project her emotions is nothing. Oddly enough the one thing I found impossible to accept in this book is that the homes of these underwater denizens have stairs. I don’t care what universe this book is set in there is no way anyone needs stairs under the sea. That aside I got on just fine.
Setting the kind of realism Andrew Kaufman writes aside, the reason he doesn’t churn out straightforward stories is made clear in an extract from this essay written after Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature:
42. I just don’t like Realism. I find it dull. I find it adequate to document the whats of a world; what it looked like, what the politics were, what the structure of someone’s day was. But it’s clumsy at best when it tries to capture emotional reality. Even in the hands of a master like Munro, Realism fails to capture the heart. No story where a couple talk, then break up over dinner will have the power of a story where, in between the main course and desert, the girl grows wings and flies away. That poor guy sitting at the table, with everybody else in the restaurant looking at him, broken and stunned: that’s what it feels like to get dumped.
43. Give me Aimee Bender over Alice Munro any day.
44. And I’m pretty sure I’d feel that even if I grew up in Hamilton or Montreal or Barcelona. Realism doesn’t work for me.
45. At best it’s a nature vs. nurture argument. The nature of my love of the metaphoric and the nurture of growing up in the shadow of Alice Munro: they both contributed. Their influence cannot be divided.
For as short a book as this is there’s a lot packed into it. We have no less than five storylines and I wasn’t surprised to discover that the book began life as three separate novellas. Arguably the main one, although not the first one, is the story of two Aquatics, Aby (Aberystwyth, although why she’s named after an historic market town in Wales I have no idea)
and her estranged mother Margaret, and Aby’s long journey to try and reconcile with her mother before Margaret dies of something called “ryð” or “the rust”:
As every Hliðafgoð knows, the ryð signals the beginning of the end. Some have lived for years after its appearance, others for only hours; most live for another few weeks. No cure has ever been found.
The next storyline concerns Rebecca Reynolds. The book’s opening chapter is entitled ‘The woman who couldn’t keep her feelings to herself’ and when we meet her she’s sitting in the back of a limousine with her brother-in-law Lewis on their way to her sister’s—his wife’s—funeral. For some inexplicable reason the limo’s stalled in the middle of an intersection:
[S]he looked down at the carpeted floor and remembered that she was in a limousine, travelling to her sister’s funeral. Her grief, sadness and guilt returned.
As Rebecca felt these emotions, Lewis became overwhelmed with them as well. The grief, sadness and guilt were heavy and painful. It had been three days and eleven hours since he’d discovered his wife’s body, but until now Lewis had felt nothing. A sense of relief flooded through him. Then he remembered that he was sitting beside Rebecca and that these feelings weren’t his own, but hers.
While they’re there a white Honda Civic driven by a woman with green skin almost crashes into them. This is Aby who’s getting to grips with driving for the first time but we have to wait for a few chapters before Andrew takes us back in time and explains how she got to that point in time.
Anyway, having got out of the limo to get a better look at this strange-looking woman before she flees, Lewis decides he doesn’t want to go to his wife’s funeral:
“Lewis? Where are you going?” Rebecca asked, projecting her confusion across two lanes of traffic.
“I can’t go to the funeral.”
“Because she’ll be there. She’ll see me. She’ll know.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Gesturing with his right hand, Lewis hailed a taxi, which stopped in front of him. “You’ll regret this,” Rebecca shouted. Her anger reached pedestrians on the far side of the street, causing some to stop and stare, while others scurried away. Lewis climbed inside the cab and shut the door. He looked straight ahead but continued to feel Rebecca’s anger as clearly as if it were his own.
He heads to the airport and buys a one-way ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia; on arriving there he buys a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia; he doesn’t stay there but buys a third ticket and some twenty-six hours after his wife’s funeral will have ended he finds himself in the Fort Garry Hotel, “the second-finest hotel … in Winnipeg, Manitoba,” waiting for a barber; he’s decided a change of image is in order. Lewis is looking for some sort of closure because he blames himself for his wife’s death:
On the morning his wife died, Lewis had decided to let her sleep in. He got the newspaper, made coffee and relished the day’s normalcy. Ninety minutes later he went back upstairs to wake her. But she did not wake up. Lewis stood over her, counted to fifteen and then shook her. He checked for a pulse but couldn’t find one. Her skin was cold.
He then walked downstairs and began reading the business section of the newspaper. It was the only part of the paper he never read. […] He’d reached the Gs when he set down the paper and walked back up the stairs.
In his mind he rehearsed the conversation he would have with her. He pictured her stretching, her arms over her head. You’ll never believe it, he’d say. I thought you were dead. With a small, embarrassed smile on his lips, Lewis opened the bedroom door, but Lisa was still lying in bed. He checked for a pulse. He still couldn’t find one. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he watched daylight brighten the room. He checked once more and then dialled 911. The receiver was still in his hand as he sat down beside her.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, having already begun to believe that his failure to find a pulse had been what killed her.
As it happens Lewis doesn’t find closure, not at first anyway, but he does find God. Or at least a woman who claims to be God, if only on a part-time basis:
"Being God isn't a full-time gig?"
"Who would I invoice?"
Also in Manitoba at this time—in Morris, a small town in the middle of the Red River Valley and just down the road from Winnipeg—is Stewart Findlay:
For three years, six months and one day Stewart had been the Prairie Embassy Hotel’s only employee. This, less three weeks, was exactly the amount of time he’d been building [a] sailboat … in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. Or, more specifically, on a bend of the Red River that could float a boat only once a year, for a few days during spring runoff.
Stewart is Rebecca’s husband. His employer is Aby’s mother who after lived for many years “unwatered” had lost most of her green skin tone and is living as a Siðri, which is what the Hliðafgoð call us humans. I referred to Aby and her mother as “Aquatics” earlier but that’s not strictly correct. Aquaticism is a religion and only Aby continues to practice.
And then there are the Richardsons, Kenneth and his son Anderson:
Kenneth Richardson had begun rainmaking in 1978, at the age of twenty-two. He’d had no one to teach him but had stumbled onto a process of filling small cloth bags with silver iodide and attaching the bags to a flock of starlings he tamed and trained himself. The birds, sixty or seventy at a time, would fly into a cloud. The silver iodide would fall out through tiny holes he’d cut in the cloth. The cloud would be seeded, and rain would begin to fall roughly five minutes later. Kenneth was never sure how it worked. He just knew it did.
Years later he brings his son into the family business but when Anderson invents a new way of making rain using car batteries and a kite the two fall out and haven’t spoken for years. See a theme here in the book? They divvy up their territory but, having forgotten about Canada, end up both been called to attend to the drought that’s been plaguing the area for some fifty-four days. Still refusing to even acknowledge the presence of each other they end up booked into adjoining rooms in Prairie Embassy Hotel and a day or two later one or the other (or indeed both of them) does manage to bring the rain. A rainstorm of biblical proportions.
One other player who deserves mention, although his storyline is entwined with Rebecca’s, is Edward Zimmer. Edward Zimmer is in charge of E.Z. Self Storage which is where Rebecca rents unit #207 which is where she keeps her emotional baggage, literally:
When Rebecca turned fourteen, she began collecting mementos from all the good moments in her life. Her emotions had become so powerful and important to her that when one of them left her, she felt incredibly vulnerable. Keeping these feelings of joy to herself kept her from feeling exposed. It gave her some privacy. It soon became a habit that every time Rebecca experienced a moment that produced any significant emotion, happy or sad, she stored a souvenir.
The number of boxes under her bed grew and grew. By the time she was sixteen, the shoeboxes were stacked three high and took up all the space under her bed. When she went to university, she took the shoeboxes with her and rented apartments based on closet space. When the closets weren’t big enough, she got rid of her roommate and used the second bedroom. Then the living room. Then the kitchen. Finally, Rebecca rented unit #207 from E.Z. Self Storage near the corner of Queen and Broadview in downtown Toronto and moved all of her boxes there, where they were safely secured under lock and key.
Other than Stewart, [Zimmer] was the only person Rebecca had ever trusted with the secret of her collection. Somehow it had seemed not only permissible, but necessary, to confess to Edward the true nature of the objects she stored in unit #207. It was a confidence he had never betrayed.
What will Edward do when Rebecca decides the time has come to empty out her unit, to emotionally detach from her past?
So what’s going on here? Is this allegory, symbolism, a fairy tale or a bit of everything? I’m going to go with the latter. You can read it as straight fantasy or science fiction but there’s obviously a message—well, several messages—underneath. It’s clearly a book about how easy it is to lose connections be they with another individual, yourself or your faith. The Richardsons fall out over something or nothing as far as I’m concerned but it was important to them. The same goes for the Aquatics. I grew up in a society where religion mattered. Hell, what football team you supported mattered. I turned my back on all that and haven’t spoken to the surviving members of my own family in about fifteen years so I empathised strongly with Margaret. Beliefs can be important. They can also be debilitating. Look at Lewis whose life is crippled by guilt because of his ridiculous belief that his failure to find his wife’s pulse killed her. It is more or less ridiculous than the Aquatic’s belief in vilja?
An Aquatic will never question anything that happens by chance. In fact, the greater the coincidence, the more an Aquatic believes it was meant to be. This concept is called vilja, which translates as ‘God’s cheat’, the idea being that what appears to be chance is how God influences the plot of your life. If something extremely improbable happens by chance, it wasn’t chance at all, but Gods hand arranging the events of your life to meet the divine will.
I knew a man who said he didn’t believe in coincidence, only God-incidence. I thought—still think—that he’s a nutter and I can quote scripture to prove that he’s a nutter but let’s not go there. I wrote a poem once:
THE NATURE OF BELIEFS
The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.
They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
19 December 1996
People believe in the darndest things and for the daftest of reasons. When Aby’s car nearly crashed into the limo Lewis was in, this was how he reacted:
He’d been confident that the grief he so desperately wanted to feel would soon arrive. But now, having nearly been killed by a woman with green skin, it was easy to believe that stranger things could happen and that his grieving might never begin
Or what about Rebecca and her mother’s bracelet?
Rebecca had to leave the room, but she needed something to take with her. An object she could hold, something that would continually confirm that her mother had come home. She knew she couldn’t take the pill bottles, because their absence would be noticed. She looked around, but there were very few things in the room that hadn’t been there before her mother’s return. Then she saw the identification bracelet that her mother had been wearing when they’d carried her into the house.
For the next six weeks, while Rebecca’s mother remained in bed, Rebecca carried the plastic bracelet with her at all times. She held it in her hand while she slept. She kept it in the front right pocket of whichever pair of pants she was wearing. She never forgot to bring it with her, not even once. When someone asked her how her she was doing, Rebecca could just say fine and they would believe her.
Or what about these weird beliefs?
It is important to understand that, for devout Aquatics, simply being unwatered is a sin. At the core of the religion is a belief in the Finnyfir, or Great Flood. In this way, Aquaticism is not unlike Judaism or Christianity, but with one central difference: where those religions believe God flooded the world in order to start again, Aquatics believe God simply liked water better.
While Aquatics believe that it’s a sin to breathe the air, it is a minor sin. Within Aquaticism, there is only one sin that is considered an act so blasphemous it is beyond forgiveness, and this is to die with air-filled lungs. This, Aquatics believe, curses your soul to wander disembodied and alone, unwatered and unforgiven for eternity.
Devoted Aquatics, which Aby certainly was, believe that losing your keys not only predicts, but elicits mental illness. To lose one’s keys is the equivalent of losing one’s mind.
Not knowing about the existence of these marine creatures when Lewis meets God, he doesn’t think to ask her whether she prefers water to land, but he does ask a question that I think would be at the top of many people’s lists of things to ask God if they got half a chance:
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”
“Because it makes a good story.”
Lewis did not know how to respond. Both her response and how quickly she gave it were unexpected. “That’s…cruel,” he said finally.
“You gotta think about it as if you were dead. Because at the end of your life, all you’ve got is the story of it. If you were guaranteed a happy ending, how satisfied would you be? You’d want some drama! Some intrigue! You’d want to feel that you’d struggled and overcome, even if you’d lost.”
“So death just makes a good ending?”
“Works every time,” she said.
Only one of the main characters dies by the end of the book but I’m not sure that necessarily guarantees a sad ending; that’s not what God meant. For a story about a bunch of sad people there’s actually a lot of humour to be found in this book. Aby is a fish out of water metaphorically at least since I assume she’s a mammal and not an amphibian although her genus is ambiguous and don’t get me started on her ability to live in both salt and fresh water. Her ability to cope—and go undetected—in this strange land is as remarkable as it is unbelievable but it’s always entertaining to see Morks and Datas struggle with everyday human activities. Balancing humour and seriousness is not always easy. A little leaven goes a long way. I think Andrew gets it about right although the ending was—perhaps unavoidably—a bit on the sentimental side and sentiment is even harder to work with than humour.
The book ends with a flood. The symbolism there’s perhaps a bit heavy-handed but it works even if the physics do not; I’m thinking here about the water flooding a five-storey hotel. Of course not everyone’s caught in the flood—Rebecca’s some eleven hundred miles away, for example—but most of the players are. Some can swim to safety; others board a leaky “ark” and set off to rescue whoever they can in Winnipeg.
The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you choose to end the story. I doubt Kaufman thought of that first—God alone knows who did—but he must’ve had that in mind as he brought this one to an end. Assuming, of course, that any story ends when an author stops typing. For me this one hasn’t ended yet. To be honest I can’t get it out of my head and even when I’ve moved on to the next book I can see myself harking back to this one again and again. This is the third book I’ve read by Andrew. I loved his first book, All My Friends are Superheroes; and I liked his third, The Tiny Wife; The Waterproof Bible was his second and, in his opinion, his best. I think it possibly is although I do have a special soft spot for anything to do with superheroes. (Recently read Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero.) Despite the fantastical aspects of the book each of the characters is very human, even the two non-humans.
To be fair, the ending is probably the weakest thing about the book and I think the problem there is there are too many storylines. It feels as if only the Aby storyline ends properly and the rest just run out of gas; we expect everyone to get over their personal crises and get on with their lives eventually, and a lot of that will happen after the book’s finished, but only Aby gets to close one door and open a new one. I was reading a post by a book club based in Bournemouth and this was what they had to say about the ending:
We had trouble remembering how this book ended, even the members who had only just finished the day of the meet, it just wasn't memorable. Although it didn't have any loose ends, it was too sudden and still left us asking questions. We did discuss that the ending seemed rushed, but was that reflecting the fact that there was a genuine urgency in each of the characters stories?
What is also notable from this article is how much the book polarised opinions:
Nineteen people came to this meeting and gave the book an average score of 6.3 out of 10, our lowest being 1, and our highest score was 8.
I can see why but I still think 1 is very harsh criticism. I liked it. I wouldn’t have sat down the day after finishing the book and written almost 4000 words about it if I didn’t. I have more book reviews written than I know what to do with so I know it’ll be a while before I’ll be able to find a gap in which I can post this but this is a book I wanted to promote. If a guy can’t promote books he loves on his own blog then I don’t know what the world’s coming to. An end most likely.
You can read a good interview with Andrew Kaufman here where he talks a bit about The Waterproof Bible.
I’ll leave you with this video interview with him:
Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man turned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in the East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida. He’s currently working on something called The Waterfields and that’s as much as I know.