Alligator by Lisa Moore

House of Anansi

This is not the poetic and stylistic East Coast prose landscape of Alistair McLeod.  Emerging from the heavy language-laden shadow of traditional Eastern Canadian writing, Alligator is a shifty and patchy, engaging narrative, cobbling together incidents and perspectives in bursts and fits.

Moore rotates through characters in small vignettes that increase in pace and brevity as the text progresses. The main focus courses through Colleen, a young girl spiraling outward into her own instinctual destruction. The novel opens with a description of a safety video Colleen’s aunt had made in which an alligator bites a man’s head after he places his own head inside its mouth. This image is a lovely central metaphor for her character because Colleen plays both parts of it: at once she is the dangerous beast, the one acting on natural impulse that destroys without sense of self regard; in contrast, she is the man placing herself in constant danger, tempting sharp teeth and jaws to snap upon her own head.

It is Colleen’s youth and recklessness that knits and propels the other narratives forward, sending them crashing and crossing together. She is the epicenter of the book: her actions sabotaging a forestry camp link her with her mother and the camp’s owner; her drunken entry into a wet T-Shirt contest ties her to Frank and therefore Valentine. It is obvious that Moore’s comfort lies in the short story, as her previous collections Degrees of Nakedness and Open show, and she writes the novel as a winding together of a number of shorter narratives. Moore constructs beautiful mini-scenes and strings them together: there is a an acting class near the end of the book that perfectly explains the language and movement of the work; there is a dance scene at a bar between Frank, the young male of the novel, and Colleen; there are the interactions between Colleen and her mother, particularly the ones in the courthouse.

From each center point her actions and interactions ripple into the other characters, creating a wobbly portrait of small town Newfoundland.  Yet, these connections seem natural, never forced and always tempted by an absence of control.

However, it is the surprising grit the novel shows that keeps a reader interested throughout. There is great violence here and the intimacy of the attacks are vicious, exemplary of survival and instinctual cruelty. Valentine is the best example of this: he is a former Russian mobster with no conscious and a willingness to destroy whatever is needed. This is where Moore leans into trouble, creating the one evil character in the book as a foreigner, a man literally off a boat from Russia. This problematic othering clouds the novel and constructs Valentine as a stock boogey-man, an a-moral creature that is an obvious outsider.

It is Alligator’s careful and ghostly prose that synchs the book to the reader psyche, a lilting and risky creatures that swims and hunts in the recesses of shadows. This book is a tightrope, a collection of people trying to walk between self destruction and contentment, between a quickened heart and a regular set of deep breaths.