The strange narrativity that structures The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis is both anecdotal and historical, relying on the interplay between the ricochet of the unnamed Editors and the bounding prose of Bernard himself. The book begins with the story of the text itself, a found text discovered by chance, reconstructed and bookended by The Editors, a force half detective and half biographer. The Editors themselves lay out the facts: when and where Bernard was born, his education, even highlighting the publishing history of the manuscript, eventually delving into the purpose of the text. This metatextual introduction serves as part introduction, part obituary; the reader is given the life of a man broken down into the facts, rationalized and structured into a typical linear narrative.
Yet, what follows is the scattered memories of a person, a de-structuring of a man’s own life. The reader is given only the gathered scraps that can not be pinned down to dates or sources. The chronology of Bernard is blown apart and recounted with an odd haphazard casualness, the voice of the text (is it Bernard, the intrusion of The Editors?) overly intelligent yet seemingly uncaring about the story’s ultimate direction. The reader is told the manuscript was found through “an act of fate” and it seems as if the story is constructed as such, a random string of occurrences bound only by the recurrence of characters and their inclusion in a singular volume.
If the purpose is, as The Editors propose, to bewilder, than the text does an excellent job. The sentences here are winding and strange, rarely ending up in the same area as they began. More, the reader is given long blocks of prose unbroken by paragraphs and completely without dialogue breaks; the only dialogue in the text is incorporated into the body of the prose and the only interaction between individuals is the direct conversation between The Editors and the reader. This style throws the reader into a spiraling mess that associatively jumps and starts in spurts. The reader is spun around, asked to maneuver the novel while being given very little in terms of a standard novel roadmap.
What keeps Bewilderments from tumbling into reader frustration and solipsism is a firm grounding into the environments of Toronto and the scattered dots of British Columbia. While never the site of extreme reflection, these reoccurring backdrops provide the much needed consistency that makes the characters relevant to the reader. It’s important that these backdrops are not places of beauty, as Canadian literature often engages with its landscapes, but as surreal blendings of physical reality and consciousness, spaces that allow the first person narrative to step in and out of but never revel in.
Along these lines, the narrative landscapes the reader is given is almost always the stories and legends of others. The work revolves around these stories of the unnamed rock historian, Louis Daguerre and photographer John Wakefield and retellings of historical rumours. Daguerre is especially intriguing because of his relationship to dioramas. The static scene that Daguerre constantly upsets is a parallel metaphor for Bewilderments: the reader enters into scenes but rarely do they physical morph or shift locales; instead each chapter is a set scene, a static environments that allows Bernard to whirl inside of. In a similar way, the legends and narratives of others allow Bernard to enter into, posses these stories without inhabiting them fully. Each rumour is in fact a sort of set scene as well, a static place where Bernard’s consciousness can swirl inside of. The reader is forced to juggle these multiple tales, creating each page as a disorienting collage of diary-style writing and history.
Perhaps this is what ultimately draws the reader in. The Editors are unable to catalogue Bernard’s life; likewise, Bernard struggles to present any coherent linear whole of himself. The reader comes to realize that life becomes a messy series of intertexts and backdrops, crystallized moments that pulse forward and back in the mind, and any attempt to render those serious and straightforward is unnatural, unsatisfying.