The Question

by Austin Clarke

Published by McClelland & Stewart

243 pages, 1999


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Read an interview with Austin Clarke





Fantasy Interrupted

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman


On a field of sable, the letter Q, gules. With an out-of-focus headshot, the cover lures the reader to The Question, Austin Clarke's novel of sex and betrayal set in Toronto in the 1990s. What is the question? The title is our first clue. For this novel is about a man with all the answers who does not know the question. A man who misses the obvious, who fails to heed hints and warnings. A man who is never present, who chooses to abandon life. A man who prefers fantasy to reality, escaping through the toilet of memory to a refuge of a simpler time, or into the tub where he bathes himself in the past. A man who, when his fantasy world is interrupted by marriage, shorts out.

Clarke creates an unnamed narrator to tell this tale of the disintegration of a man and a relationship. The narrator evokes little sympathy both because of what he does to other people and because he is so wrapped up in himself. Yet, while unsympathetic, he is complex and interesting, fully realized and his story holds our interest. Will he ever develop insight? Will he learn to walk the unfamiliar icy streets, to integrate successfully his rich Barbadian past into everyday life in a new land, a new culture?

On the surface, The Question is a simple story of a confused man whose unfortunate choices lead to predictably unhappy conclusions. The protagonist does not develop; he learns things about other people but little about himself. However, one joy of The Question is how Clarke's telling allows the reader to feel superior to the characters, to see what they cannot. His mastery of style adds layers and depths that are invisible to the drowning man he is describing. Through diction and imagery, Clarke shows us a narrator obsessed with death, depressed and grieving, whose mental health issues interfere with both decision-making and intimacy. The narrator sees churches as sepulchers, tombstones in the streets; birthday cakes like white marble crypts; napkins like slabs of gravestones and sacred marble; pictures like headstones. Allusions to half-blind monsters killing those seeking shelter in his cave suggest further layering, for Clarke bravely includes his narrator's day job, his work as a judge at immigration and refugee hearings, as part of the picture of a whole character.

The Question is about an interracial marriage. From Othello to OJ, the race issue cannot be ignored. Yet, The Question suggests that it is too easy to blame discrimination for what are ultimately personal problems. As a cautionary tale, The Question warns of the risks of seeing women in parts (the narrator is a breast man) or as symbols of acceptance, of having "made it." On another level, the story cautions men who choose partners for the wrong reasons -- her hair and skin, her money, her citizenship, her desire to start a family, her strength, her superiority. In reality, The Question suggests, the man may have been identifying with the woman's damaged psyche, her having been abused (by her uncle), her anger, her passive-aggressivity. The narrator is attracted and then repelled by a predatory female, misreads her seductive disclosure and her secrets, and tolerates her verbal abuse until he explodes.

How are failures in his personal life related to his job performance? What are the implications of a judge who cannot distinguish between truth and lies, who does not recognize when he is being seduced by words, by stories? Here, character informs the themes. The Question is also commenting upon a multicultural nation. Who makes the laws, who makes the decisions, who keeps the gates, controls the doors of home? The Earth is a globe; people migrate; culture happens where person and place intersect. Thus, the contribution of each person, each individual, is significant. Who assesses the person? Who judges the judge? Who permits or denies refuge? For this man, the narrator-judge, makes a lot of mistakes. He identifies with manholes and the homeless who seek warmth there. He moves into someone else's home. Then he gets mad when he looks around and doesn't find himself reflected there. Well, hello? To be a man, one must assume responsibility for self, stand up to the angry parent, or risk forever being the whipping boy who lives inside the mausoleum of your skull. Of course, Clarke knows there are no easy answers. The Question also reminds us that the compulsion to control, even to strike out, to wound, stems from insecurity and fear, whether we are talking about parents, intimates, or nations.

This novel is very rich and will enrich those who choose to read it. The Question challenges us to think about personal, familial and national identity; cross-cultural relationships; immigration and citizenship; Canadian culture. About creating family and culture where we live, integrating what we bring with us into the place where we land. About making ourselves at home.

The Question is Austin Clarke's ninth novel; he has also published five short story collections, three non-fiction books and one collection of selected works. He is a recipient of the Order of Canada, the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award and the 1999 W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize for an outstanding body of work combined with mentoring of other writers. | February 2000


J. M. Bridgeman is Contributing Editor at Suite 101.