The Path to Ardroe

SPG Reviews, November 5, 2013
John Lent's novel, The Path to Ardroe, offers a sustained, polymorphous meditation on understanding and accepting oneself, as seen in the shared memories, thoughts, and experiences of several Canadians. It offers a tapestry consisting of four strands of narrative, including those of three characters approaching mid-life, which are told in the first-person, and one of a young woman in her early twenties, which is told in the third-person. Lent's approach in this terrain is balanced and focused, each character's situation being sufficiently engrossing to make the experience effortlessly contemplative, highly observant, and satisfyingly rich with detail and personal insight. It is not only an enjoyable novel to read, but to sustain in the mind, as each perspective differs in its orientation to the landscape, the present, and the past, making the strands of selves form the parts of a distinct chord, the hum of the chord being unique and enjoyable, in itself.

The Path to Ardroe is a novel of the themes that recur and reverberate across lives and generations, showing their tendency to enter and enrich the texture of human thought and life. It will especially appeal to readers who have a predilection for novels about the writing process and the introspective turns that make writing such an intriguing and perplexing pastime. Two of its characters, Melissa Picard and Rick Connelly, are aspiring writers in pursuit of the experience and wisdom that will bear fruit in their writing lives. However, both are attracted, like moths to a flame, by the enigmas of their fathers. Tania Semenchuk's story is that of a woman walking the urban landscape of Edmonton, thinking about her past. She has congenital pancreatic cancer and now contemplates the Edmonton she grew up in during the period of the 'sixties, that time in which class boundaries were rendered explicit, and self-experimentation was an accepted form of political and cultural participation. It becomes clear that it was the Western Canada of this transformative time, as well as her experience of that strange and exciting decade, that have formed her. As she walks the Edmonton streets, she becomes more aware of an Edmonton of myth and enchantment existing underneath the bustling metropolis. Peter Chisholm's narrative is that of a man at a turning point in his life. He has rented a house in Scotland out of a vague sense of his own changing circumstances. He is in search of nothing short of the Holy Grail, but discovers a very Canadian truth that allows him to embrace a future that is more encompassing, in body, mind, and spirit.

Each of the characters in this novel is seen at a solitary, liminal moment of life, their thoughts and memories a snapshot of the elliptical movements of time and landscape. At these times, the human soul contemplates life, death, and its relationships with the world around it. The Path to Ardroe is a formally striking, even beautiful, novel. Its characters are subtly connected in mind and spirit and the reader experiences a sense of the present as a dream of the self that never ceases to transmute, shape, challenge, and entice its dreamer.

— Justin Dittrick

National post, August 3, 2012John Lent is a poet and jazz musician, so it is hardly surprising that he prizes matters of style and structure in his fiction. His most-lauded book, 2005’s So It Won’t Go Away, blurs the line between linked stories and the novel. So too does his new work, though where the former identified itself as “connected fictions,” The Path to Ardroe calls itself a novel, a subtle but perhaps not insignificant distinction. If So It Won’t Go Away is a series of distinct riffs and trills, The Path to Ardroe more closely resembles a symphony, with a number of different movements circling around a central theme.

The book is divided into two parts, each broken down into four sections. Each section is devoted to a specific individual: Peter Chisholm, who has travelled to Lochinver in Scotland putatively to investigate matters of Gnosticism connected to the Holy Grail legend, but more pressingly to reconnect with a research assistant with whom he once had a brief affair; the aforementioned Melissa Picard; Rick Connelly, a writer who has retreated to a cabin in the Okanagan region of B.C., to come to terms with his late father’s influence on his own life; and Tania Semenchuck, a middle-aged woman recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, who wanders the streets of Edmonton taking stock of her life.

The first part of the book, which takes place in the spring of 1994, moves forward through each of these figures, with two sections narrated in the third person, and another two in the first. Part Two, the setting of which, we are informed, is “Still Spring, 1994,” inverts the process, moving through the same set of characters in reverse order. Lent, along with the late Robert Kroetsch (to whom the book is dedicated), is one of Canada’s key postmodernists, and he borrows his structure from another important figure in postmodern literature: David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. (Though Lent notes in his acknowledgements that he began writing The Path to Ardroe in 1994, so it is entirely possible that he settled on his structure long before Mitchell published his magnum opus.) But whereas Mitchell ranges over hundreds of years of history in his book, Lent confines himself to a very brief period of time, diving relentlessly inward to chart his characters’ psychic landscapes at consequential moments in their lives.

It is significant that each character’s story involves movement — that is, physical displacement. Whether it be travel across an ocean or simply, in Tania’s case, a nighttime journey through the city streets, there is a clear sense that these individuals need to uproot themselves before they can manage to take stock of their various situations. Their movement across geography, fairly central in the sensibility of an author who has always concerned himself with landscape and its effects on character, is a mirror of their interior voyages, which themselves focus on artistic and political upheavals of the past forty years.

Thematically, The Path to Ardroe involves a reckoning with Boomer nostalgia and the transformations that have accrued — most specifically in the areas of sexuality and aesthetics — since the 1960s. Longtime readers of Lent will recognize familiar elements here: the ever-present alcoholic fathers, the obsession with landscape, the devotion to music, and a narrative exploration of consciousness and being. Lent’s approach is resolutely interior, and in certain long passages of the book not a lot actually happens: The narrative is more concerned with contemplation about the march of history and the place of individual consciousness in the world. Although the book as a whole disavows the notion that the idealists of the sixties vanished into the self-absorbed yuppies of the 1980s, Lent generally allows his characters a nuanced view of progress.

Tania admits the feminism that allowed her generation of women unprecedented sexual freedom was not an unalloyed success; there remains a “lingering chauvinism” that manifests itself in situations such as overhearing a man in a bar ask “what’s the difference between a woman and a six-pack.” It is precisely this kind of corrosive attitude that results in Melissa falling victim to a sexual assault that comes “as close to rape as anyone could get.”

Melissa gives her stories to Cynthia, the Boomer writer she idolizes, who tells her that her work is not mature enough yet. “Don’t worry about fame and glory,” Cynthia says. “They don’t exist. It’s all right to have small, earnest fantasies about success and all that. They won’t hurt you. But you can’t mistake them for the reason you’re writing, and something tells me you won’t.” This might appear as the sage advice of a wiser, more experienced woman, or a brand of Boomer arrogance, depending upon one’s vantage. That our last glimpse of Melissa involves her descending from the top of Notre Dame du Strasbourg to reintegrate herself in the world below indicates that the former is more likely.

How much more difficult is it, then, to reconcile the final pages of the novel, which feature Peter engaged in a kind of spirit quest at the behest of his much younger lover – a harrowing spiritual journey that ends with him discovering his own holy grail, which amounts to nothing more than himself. “It occurred to him that there was another density to this thing he was, a fullness that descended within him, that began in the head and descended through his heart into his guts and genitals. This volume! It was what he was, sitting on stone, breathing, in and out.” Even the revelation on the novel’s final page is insufficient to undercut the solipsism of this epiphany. In this instance, at least, the marriage of style and substance in Lent’s novel is indeed complete and inextricable: the two halves of the book are mirror images, and in its closing moments, Peter encounters his true self, which is his own reflection.

• Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire.


Interview by Kristin Froneman

As a young student at the University of Alberta, John Lent often strolled up Whyte Avenue in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district, where his contemporaries –– writers, artists, musicians ––  would gather at the local watering hole.

It was at a time when Alberta’s capital was still experiencing substantial growth. Two decades after the end of the Second World War had brought in new immigrants, many from Eastern European nations, and the city’s population had more than doubled.

Although he would leave Edmonton in 1971, eventually making his way to the Okanagan, Lent says the city has played several significant chapters in his life as a writer.

“In 1954, my father lugged up our first rental TV into the house... Having a car then wasn’t assumed. Most of my modern life assembled out of those experiences,” said Lent.

Like his own life, Lent’s latest and 10th book, The Path to Ardroe, is also set along the south banks of the North Saskatchewan River.

“The High Level Bridge is a big chapter of the novel as it connects all the districts,” said Lent.

Born in Antigonish, N.S., Lent and his family (which would go on to include six siblings) found themselves in Edmonton in the early ‘50. After leaving the city to get his PhD at Toronto’s York University, Lent would later release his first book of poetry in 1978.

After teaching writing at Nelson’s Selkirk College, he came to the Okanagan in 1979, where he would start his tenure as a well-respected creative writing professor and mentor to many. He retired as regional dean of Okanagan College’s Kalamalka Campus in Vernon last year.

Written in each voice of the four baby boomers, who grow up in the south-side neighborhoods of Edmonton, The Path to Ardroe follows as their lives change as the culture and sub-culture transforms as the decades pass.

“The birth of this novel is very strange because I started it in 1994, and finished it years later,” said Lent. “It’s actually set on one day in 1994, and follows the characters to all these different places, including Scotland, France, Edmonton, and Vernon.”

Lent first started The Path To Ardroe while on sabbatical in Edinburgh. Accompanied by his wife, artist and writer Jude Clarke, who was completing a residency there, he started to think about his childhood, and the idea came to base his characters from a period of time where change around the world was happening.

“I turned 20 in 1968 and that was transformative,” he said. “For a Catholic living in the south side of Edmonton, the ‘60s was when things changed for me; I wrote music and poetry, it was a fascinating time.”

The idea to fast forward the setting of the book to the ‘90s, when Lent actually started to pen it, came from his own observations of how life was, this time, changing around him.

“There were two things in the ‘90s that bothered me. The boomers, my generation, were subjected to stereotyping of being from that ‘60s generation. The ‘60s were trivialized, but so much change took place back then. Then there was the ‘90s virus. Everyone was so ironic about everything. I was fighting against that –– there had to be something else. I was pushing away from that cool irony, that stylish, slick, ironic character.”

Upon returning home from Scotland, Lent sent his original manuscript out to a number of book agents.

“I got some interesting bites, but nothing substantial,” he said. “So I put it away under my bed and instead wrote, So it Won’t Go Away (Lent’s second novel, published in 2005).”

Gathering dust, Lent went back to The Path to Ardroe after his publisher, Thistledown Press, who published his last six books, including 2009’s collection of poetry Cantilevered Songs, asked if he had anything on the go.

“I had just retired and didn’t want to immerse myself in a big frantic project,” said Lent.

However, he soon found out that editing can be just as big of a job. He spent long stretches of the morning re-writing the chapters –– the stereo tuned to jazz or classical, depending on the mood of what he  was writing. Dividing the book into eight panels, Lent devoted approximately 100 pages, or two panels each, to each of his four characters.

“Each character faces a dilemma that comes to a cliff hanger. It starts them off then comes back to them... I love the juxtaposition of character to character, and from time to time,” he said.

Once written, he sent the chapters to his editor Michael Kenyon, who helped him bring the novel to its present status.

“He would say ‘don’t do that, do this’ and he was right on the mark,” said Lent, adding, “The older I get, the more I realize there’s a discipline in repetition. It takes a while to get that feeling. You have to trust in the process... and write it out.”

Describing The Path to Ardroe as a happy and at times funny novel, Lent says he set out to write it as that of a Chagall painting.

“The stuff I published after ‘94 was pretty dark. I had written about dysfunctional families before, and this time I wanted to write something buoyant, but hopefully powerful.”