The Logogryph (Thomas Wharton)

[Previously published online in Prairie Fire Review of Books.]

The Logogryph is Thomas Wharton’s third book, and establishes Wharton as one of Canada’s best and most imaginative prose writers. Something between a novel and a collection of short stories, The Logogryph is presented as a series of texts ranging from a brief survey of the literature of Atlantis to a tale about dueling margin-scribblers. Independently, each tale is a remarkable stand-alone work, wound together through the framing narrative of a young boy who falls in love with literature after given a suitcase full of old books by a neighboring family, the Weavers. The narrator begins reading a coverless book:

I soon found out the book’s title and author. For a while I lived within its story, until another book tempted me away. I could tell you its name: the novel is well-known, but what mattered that day was the possibility of the book’s still unread pages, its dreams of what other books it might be. (23)

It is this interest in possibility, in potential, that draws me so strongly to Wharton’s work. The Logogryph is subtitled A Bibliography of Imaginary Books, and its many stories visit and revisit that imaginary terrain to unearth the very thing that makes literature notable and worth reading—its imaginative depth, its ability to not only represent the world but move beyond it, into the realm of possible existence. Wharton’s first novel, Icefields, recalled the work of Ondaatje, but here it is Jorge Luis Borges who stands as the most obvious influence.

Wharton’s prose style is lavish but measured and clean. He manages to craft dense but quick-moving and lovely prose, and his sentences are able to be self-reflective without seeming narcissistic. One story begins:

Not merely a dense work of prose but one that has collapsed in on itself, no longer a novel but an abyss, into which you pour your patience, your powers of concentration, your time, and your willingness to be carried away by a great story well told. The novel swallows all that down without thanks and demands more. You grow exhausted as you continue, but there is no lessening of the novel’s inescapable attraction, its ability to absorb all your formidable reading energies. Your eyes become dry and sore, the muscles in your back scream for relief, your whole body slumps and sags forward, threatening to topple right over into the pages. (69)

This is a wonderful passage and a great example of the deftness of Wharton’s prose. Here Wharton uses the word “you” to at once address the reader as a narrator and to place the reader into a second-person narrative in which the character of the reader is engaging in the act of reading—the same act the reader is engaged with in the physical world. Wharton is not content merely to draw out this conceptual trick, but going forward begins to describe the experience of reading in threatening terms—the novel is at once charismatic and monstrous, exhibiting a certain attractive vampirism. The threat that the reader will “topple right over into the pages” has a clever double-edge, as the reader figure might collapse onto the book in exhaustion or perhaps fall inside the book itself, consumed in this manner to become a character in the book—precisely the effect Wharton’s book has had on the read-life reader, who has been reconceptualized through this second-person narrative as a character in Wharton’s book.

Another great example of Wharton’s cleverness and humour is the essay on the literature of Atlantis, which has as its conceit the idea that Atlantis indeed did exist and continues existing to this day. The essay is written in part as a parody of postcolonial literature surveys, and in it the indigenous literature of Atlantis is considered as a response to outsider view of the island, as represented in foreign literature.

The first Atlantean winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, e’Aea [… in the novel Time’s Shoals] envisions an alternate-history Atlantis that sank beneath the sea two millennia ago, during the classical age in Greece, and that has adapted to underwater life and carried on its existence, oblivious to and concealed from European civilization and its later manifestations on the American continent. e’Aea even goes so far in this conceit as to invent and include two entire “lost” philosophical works by Plato, Timaeus and Critias, in which Atlantis and its destruction are described. (47)

The joke, of course, is that Wharton has reversed the situation. Plato’s Timaeus and Critias both survive, and though they are relatively ignored alongside Plato’s more popular works they are nonetheless readily available. The “conceit” of Wharton’s own piece is here revealed in reverse, resulting in a fresh, imaginative story told in a creative, engaging fashion.

The Logogryph is also a wonderfully designed book, easily the most attractive publication by Gaspereau, a press known for its attractive, well-designed books. Beautifully fashioned, both in terms of its physical and its imaginative properties, The Logogryph is an outstanding book by one of Canada’s brightest and most inventive writers.

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