The Full Catastrophe by Méira Cook

Wit, wisdom, rhythm, emotional warmth, charm, and more fill the exuberant pages of Méira Cook’s fourth novel, The Full Catastrophe. The title’s Greek root, strophe, means turn, reminding us not only of Cook’s alternating between poetry and fiction but also of the many turns in this novel. Her prose turns phrases with a lyrical lilt that lifts off the page in a stylistic dance. Ostensibly about the relationship between ninety-year-old Oscar Wolf Minkoff and his thirteen-year-old grandson, Charlie Minkoff, the novel portrays several other characters whose lives are intertwined in a plot that turns suspensefully and a postmodernism that plays with its own creation.

            The first playful turn appears in an epigraph, which alludes to The Wizard of Oz, but is attributed instead to Ethics of the Fathers, followed by a parenthetical “(Look it up)”: “And can a Scarecrow not have, occasionally, a bright idea? / Can a Tin Man not suffer a broken heart?” Like the Scarecrow and Tin Man, Charlie and some of the other characters seem to lack certain anatomical features, but Cook fills them with bright ideas and partially mends broken hearts in her ethical fiction where fathers go missing. Indeed, Charlie’s absent father, Nathan Dervish, is a kind of golem, a body lacking a soul, a Hasid with the Hebrew word “emet” tattooed above his heart. Emet means truth and consists of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Once the first letter is removed, “met” or death remains. In dervish fashion, Cook spins Winnipeg’s whirligigs and twirls the lines between truth and death, truth and fiction, truth and tragicomedy.

            The narrative begins on Tuesday, September 5, 2006: “The trouble with Charlie was he couldn’t make up his mind.” The point of view turns vernacular: “But, as his grandfather, Oscar Wolf Minkoff, pointed out, it wasn’t the poor kid’s fault. Indecision wasn’t necessarily a matter of choice.” Free will is one of the novel’s themes, Talmudic debate one of its modes of thinking, indigestion and indecision the plagues of Charlie’s life. “The fact that the doctors were struggling to assign the newborn a gender, to declare an ‘M’ or an ‘F,’ was just one more example of vacillation that was surely not, at this early stage, Charlie’s fault.” Accentuated by Hebrew and Yiddish rhythms, vacillation is a dominant motif in The Full Catastrophe.

            Intersexual Charlie inhabits this intertextual novel, along with an array of other eccentric Winnipeggers. If anatomy is destiny, then Cook subverts any fatalism, for Charlie at birth possesses ten fingers, two neat ears, a “comically snub nose, a well-developed sense of outrage.” From his grandfather’s point of view he is perfect, and we follow the perfections and imperfections in these generations, as the younger goes through a trying rite of passage, while the older celebrates a belated Bar Mitzvah. Oscar the tailor opposes the surgeon’s attempt to alter the infant’s genitals (“a ticking time bomb”) with his “Cat in a Box” argument, wherein a cat could never be turned into a dog or “a bomb.” In turning the surgeon’s finger quotes against him, the tailor’s needle subduing the scalpel, Oscar performs his own method of comic argumentation against authority.

            In this endeavour he is aided not only by the voice of his departed wife, Chaya Rifke, but also by Charlie’s godless godmother, Weeza, a lesbian truck driver and deus ex machina whose long hauls and U turns save Charlie. This Tristram Shandyesque opening chapter surrounding Charlie’s birth exhibits gender fluidity, the comedy flowing from Oscar’s malapropism of his daughter’s “post-nasal depression” to his highly original interpretation of Schrödinger’s cat experiment. Weeza knows how to urinate standing up, while Charlie has to sit down to perform this function. The opening chapter, “Boy Wonder,” ends with Charlie thirteen years later, hopeful about his mother’s “Wonder Wall” and foolish in his “dogged optimism.” Cook gives birth to her opening chapter that turns upon itself in foetal comedy and pathos within the womb of Winnipeg.

            The second chapter, “River,” skips to Charlie’s thirteenth birthday, which coincides with his first day at Assiniboine High School. Unable to sleep, he listens to the nocturnal sounds of the old GNC Building where he lives with his dog Gellman and his mute, artistic mother, Jules: “the knocking of pipes in walls, gurgle of water through drains, distant ping of the elevator stopping randomly on one floor or another.” These sounds in the building parallel the churning within Charlie: “he was exhausted and twanging with nerves … and felt a creeping nausea build in him.” Cook’s poetic ear captures the sounds of the building, the building nausea, and the canine comfort: “Charlie was glad of Gellman, snuffling at his feet, sharing his kibble-breathed, doggy fug, his fur electric with static.”

            Winnipeg’s rhythms and layered sounds appear in parentheses, echoed afterthoughts: “(buses huffing pneumatically on Main, clang of metal shutters over storefronts).” Urban cacophony fills The Full Catastrophe with a Joycean ebullience that mimics the turmoil within Charlie’s anatomy, as well as the lives of other working-class characters in the novel.  Cook’s sounds are also layered with Hebrew and Yiddish inflection, a diasporic drift of syntax.

            On his birthday Charlie receives a card from his father in New York: “The card featured a goofy-looking boy gazing into a sky full of stars.” If Charlie is “goofy,” then his father is “an odd man,” according to Oscar. Indeed, each character in the novel is eccentric, odd, or goofy — from teachers to tenement neighbours who exchange letters and emails in comic fashion. Meanwhile, the stars are picked up in the novel’s final section, March 2020, when asterisks fill the closing pages – a reminder of the origins of influenza, the pull of the stars in Emma Donoghue’s novel about pandemic. One of the structural strengths of The Full Catastrophe is the way one chapter or episode turns to another later on.

            Part of Charlie’s education is in Ancestry Studies, taught by Maude Kambaja whose cross-cultural email exchanges with Jules Minkoff contribute to the humour. To convey other messages, Charlie’s mute mother writes on the Wonder Wall, a giant chalkboard, and works on art installations and sculptures in a warehouse. Jules lost her voice during a blizzard when she fell through the ice of the Assiniboine River. In the chapter, “Voice,” (January, 2020) Weeza and Charlie visit Jules’s frozen installation, a quinzhee hut in the shape of a bottle on the river. Her Bottle Deposit is multi-dimensional. “Bottle Deposit is the response of the artist to winter, the container that we live in and through which, like all captive creatures, we view the world from behind distorting panes of glass.” The Full Catastrophe contains containers and distorts vision before it is refocussed in photographic and cinematic frames.

            Opposed to this frozen monument is the inner warmth of so many Winnipeggers, from Weeza to Oscar. Oscar’s escape from the Nazis in Lithuania marks him as Wonder Boy with a bar mitzvah lesson for all ages. Touching and richly textured, Cook’s tour de force is filled with bright ideas, broken hearts, and a sky that celebrates asterisks.

            The cover design features a tree above a city (Winnipeg) with roots descending beneath it. These roots belong to Adele Wiseman and Yiddish Lithuanian writers. The golden leaves on the dark branches belong to the fiction of Gary Barwin, Cary Fagan, and Norman Ravvin – other bright lights on the horizon of Canadian-Jewish literature.

About the Author

MÉIRA COOK is the award-winning author of the novels Once More With FeelingThe House on Sugarbush Road, which won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award; and Nightwatching, which won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. She has also published five poetry collections, most recently Monologue Dogs, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry and for the 2016 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. She has won the CBC Poetry Prize and the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize. She has served as Writer in Residence at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, and the Winnipeg Public Library. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, she now lives in Winnipeg.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (June 7 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 348 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487009941
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487009946

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Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.