Book Review

Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig

flawless 1970s fiction exploring dementia; plus shirtless pic

Written on the 20th June, out of the city.

cw: dementia, degenerative disease

This is another one of House of Anansi’s “A List”, the Canadian indie press’, well, A list: their most influential, most acclaimed and (often) best selling publications.

I’ve read a few House of Anansi texts by now, and the ones with the A in a circle and a yellow spine have all been spectacular, though, tbh, the contemporary Canadian text I have enjoyed the least in my time here was an Anansi book, so it’s not a faultless, flawless, publisher, in my opinion (edit from August – there exists no blog on this at this time lol).

In terms of comparisons to UK presses, House of Anansi is more Faber & Faber than Influx Press: lots of acclaimed, interesting, impressive texts, but lots and lots and lots of books. House of Anansi is a big indie press, not a small one. Obviously selective, but there isn’t a sole textual aesthetic guaranteeing that if you’re a fan of one book they publish you’ll likely be a fan of everything else.

Gil Anderson’s The Outlander is a very straightforward piece of historical fiction, but it’s absolutely gripping and one of the best novels I’ve read since being here. Anansi also publishes a few books by Marian Engel, the writer of Bear, though as her other books contain no graphic descriptions of bear-on-woman oral sex I’ve never read them.

Anansi publishes Margaret Atwood’s poetry and some of her non-fiction, and they also publish lots of internationally-acclaimed writers of both Canadian and non-Canadian origin. They’re an ambitious press, and an impressive one.

This text – Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig – was one of the press’ first novels, published waaaay back in 1973. It was Weinzweig’s first novel, too, and she was in her mid-to-late fifties when it was published, and only wrote two more books (a novel and a story collection) before her health severely declined and she became unable to write.

In spite of this, though, she lived until 2010. Imagine the horror of living for three decades with the inability to do something you discovered late[r] in life you excelled at.

Helen Weinzweig lived with dementia for as long as I have been alive, and I am not young. Christ.

I don’t think dementia is pleasant, I don’t think dementia is pleasant at all. It’s not a pleasing, drug-like intoxication where you know you’ll return to normalcy by the end of the weekend (or, at worst, the middle of next week): it is disconnect, memory-loss, displacement, fear, dependence on strangers who will always remain strangers and perhaps those strangers are your children, your lovers, your family, your friends.

Contemplation of dementia is something it is impossible to avoid while reading Passing Ceremony, and not just because of its author bio: not only is the novels’ form suited to a collapsing, loose, memorialising, one of the novel’s cast of ensemble characters is a woman suffering from dementia, living in the grand mansion which was once her family home that is now used as an events space, with the renters understanding that there is one room, out of bounds, where a moribund old woman is dying under the supervision of her grandson and his partner, whose BDSM sex life slips into – accidentally – their treatment of the woman. Her dementia, then, not knowing who anyone is, seeing everyone she knows as a stranger, is exacerbated by the house being filled with literal strangers every weekend. Weinzweig’s novel covers one such wedding party, but for this trio of characters, one can tell it is a very run-of-the-mill event.

Passing Ceremony is told in vignettes, which Weinzeig has originally hoped to have published unbound, so the episodes could be rearranged and read in any order, like The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson or the (eight years earlier) Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta. Persuaded by the Anansi Press editor who introduces the volume (James Polk), the final version removed this conceit and arranged the vignettes in such a way as to create a cohesive, chronological(ish) narrative. Certainly, there is a clear plot that runs through Passing Ceremony, and though it is mostly about people at a wedding remembering things and repeating past mistakes or actively trying to escape dangerous cycle of behaviour, the disjointed nature of the text – I don’t think – would be emphasised or any more expressive if, for example, a few chapters were read in a different order.

Weinzweig’s writing, though, is excellent – it is funny, it is moving and it is blunt and poetic. The bride’s father is returning to Toronto for the first times in years, after he ran away from justice after he murdered his ex-wife’s lover. He brings with him his new, eighteen-year-old, non-English-speaking, Mexican wife and their newborn baby. Most of the male guests seem to be ex-lovers of the bride, trying – hoping – to pick up a woman, while the bride is constantly remembering acts from her past that shamed her, hoping that her marriage to her friend – a depressed, recently (and deeply) heartbroken gay man – will help both of them settle into the conservative upper class milieu of 1970s Toronto.

In terms of the places mentioned and the political/pop cultural references that are found within the book, this is not just a very Canadian, but a very Torontonian novel, and had I read it last Summer when I was doing catering work at the kind of swanky event that this novel is about, I would have found it a lot harder to empathise with the characters (for, like in Washington Square (the novel I read immediately after this), working class and servant-type characters are not sufficiently characterised. Class, though, isn’t what Passing Ceremony is about: Helen Weinzweig’s perspective-shifting, witty, emotive, experimental novel is about the unhappiness inherent within all capitalistic, conservative societies. Every character – except the bride and her bridegroom (and, arguably, the bride’s father) – are powered and overwhelmed by an intense, raging contempt for other people’s behaviour which they judge to be disgraceful, despite doing exactly the same actions themselves.

Repression and judgement go hand-in-hand; impropriety and condemnation; contempt and the horn.

Weinzweig evokes a social group, a place, accurately and evocatively. I will try and get hold of her other two books, as this was phenomenal.

An excellent, engaging, powerful – and short – novel. Well worth a read!

nb: this is one of the few Canadian novels I’ve read that is set in a city. There’s a comment worth making here about how Toronto’s bookshops and publishers push an idea of Canada that denies the reality of the day-to-day life of their clients. Toronto is the biggest city in the country and the fourth biggest city in North America: the Canadian books I’ve been reading are, often, the ones being pushed in bookstores, and they are frequently very rural. Hmm. Interesting, maybe.

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