HOUR (December 9, 1999)
Prisoner Of Passion - A Montreal Story
Where do the seeds of obsession lie, and who scatters them at our feet? In Jeffrey Moore's first novel, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, the sower is Gerard, a wonderfully bizarre and charming British conman, and the field is Jeremy Davenant, the enthralled son of Gerard's former lover.
In a literary game of blind-man's bluff, Gerard leads a young blindfolded Jeremy to a bookshelf, and urges him to allow fate to choose his book of life. The page the boy tears out of the randomly chosen book becomes the map of his future, and everything that happens henceforth is read in relation to that oracular page, which, among other things, lists the words and definitions to Shakespeare, shaking palsy and Shakuntala, a character from Indian mythology. What this all means in terms of Jeremy's destiny, of course, is open to interpretation.
Davenant is a character haunted by other things besides the page. In his adult life, in a Montreal that dwellers of the Main will recognize only too well, our hero becomes obsessed with the idea that the head of the department he works for at the university where he teaches-what else-Shakespeare, is out to get him, and that the Dark Lady the page has predicted will be his life's quest is the angry, ambivalent and complex Milena, a sometimes lesbian and generally infuriating character. Obsession, as always, remains in the eye (or soul) of the beholder.
It is, however, refreshing to see a book by a male writer so full of the minutiae of pathetic and impossible love. (As Richard Brautigan wrote in a poem to a woman smitten with him, "Thank God, it's you, baby, this time instead of me.") The ups and downs-mostly downs-of trying to court the uncourtable Milena, Davenant's "feminist fatale," make up most of the book's action, though there are plenty of other absurd goings-on on the periphery to keep the novel from becoming tedious.
Moore's prose is both sharp and whimsical, and as smooth and addictive as a good martini; there is just no compelling reason to stop swallowing it. Moore hitches us to the coattails of Shakespeare's bastard and we are subsequently pulled at breakneck speed through every nook, cranny, alleyway and basement of his obsessions until we are giddy.
Equally intense are Davenant's dealings with the various academics, junkies and other colourful Montreal miscreants who make up his world. The only place where the novel's pace occasionally lags is in the classroom. One might put this down to some sort of academic glee (or obsession) that seized Moore as he was writing an otherwise fabulous story, but it is a slight misstep, easily forgiven.
Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, which was nominated for this year's QSPELL First Book Award, is as sensual, squalid, playful, comical, mysterious and, yes, obsessive, as our fair city. You wake up after reading this novel with your hair and rumpled clothing reeking of cigarette smoke, and your temples pounding with a hangover. You may not remember everything that happened, but you know you had a good time. (-)