Book Review: Mantis Dreams (Adam Pottle)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Novelists who attempt to write a narrative with a protagonist that has a disability – especially a visible physical disability – steer a scylla/charibdis course between characters that evoke pity and those super-crips calculated to inspire by "overcoming" their disability. One solution to this problem is the creation of what satirist Mike Ervin calls the smart-ass cripple narrator. Jillian Weise’s Anne Hatley in The Colony and Robert Rudney’s David Allen Levin in Lovers Lame are recent examples, as are any number of characters from Anne Finger’s stories. To this select list we can now add Dexter Ripley, the acerbic diarist of Adam Pottle’s Mantis Dreams. Mantis Dreams is, to my knowledge, the first Canadian novel by an author with a disability to feature such a character, and it is quite possible that Dexter Ripley is the most memorable to date.
Ripley is a professor of British literature at the University of Saskatchewan who, because of the progressive nature of his Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease has elected to give up independent living for life in a Saskatoon nursing home in order to pursue his academic writing. Donning the mantel of the contrarian, he revels in his ability to alienate everyone that he comes in contact with – his sister Maggie, the university faculty, his students and the other residents of the nursing home. One can almost hear Simon and Garfunkel’s "I Am a Rock" playing in the background. If his willful blinder-wearing infuriates most readers…well, Dexter Ripley would be proud.
The title of the book comes from the periodic dreams of destruction that Ripley experiences in which as a gigantic mantis, he visits havoc on others.
Had a gloriously unusual dream last night. I stood in the middle of a field just outside Saskatoon. I was naked. I looked at my feet but they didn’t hurt. My feet and hands grew more and more rigid and hooked. My skin glowed green and hardened to the consistency of a clam shell. My elbows acquired spines, teeth. I giggled as I bent them. My spine curved and sprouted sharp green wings. I kept giggling. I started making spitting noises, which spurred me into spitting laughter. My body stretched upwards and outwards; my joints made crackling sounds. I grew a hundred feet tall and became a giant praying mantis. I crouched and then exploded upwards, leaping a kilometre in a single bound. The power thrilled me. I landed on the highway and, out of elation, kicked over a semi. I swiped a Hummer out of my way. I jaunted through downtown Saskatoon and with my astonishingly telescopic eyes could see all the way to Toronto, where it was equally sunny and boisterous. People clapped for me in the street, even as I stomped on them. I guffawed in my spitting mantis way. I loved their admiration.
Indeed, what Ripley is looking for is not sympathy, love or camaraderie, but admiration. To that end, there is one relationship that he does cultivate, that of his sister’s son Randall. Randall becomes the protégé that Ripley takes under his mantis wing in order to wean him away from and spite Maggie. It is the closest Ripley can let himself come to an emotional attachment.
With each entry of the diary, one learns that the karmic boomerangs Ripley has hurled at others have headed back in his direction. Because of his treatment of students and colleagues, he has been put on sabbatical from his university, and when the staff at the nursing home kick him out, the residents bid him good riddance. Maggie, whose combined guilt and good will borders on masochism, agrees to bring Dexter to live with her. For his part, Dexter’s analysis of the situation is that it cramps his style, making completion of the writing that he is working on harder. In the spirit of W. C. fields "I love humanity, its people I can’t stand," Dexter manages to complete his paper and read it to a sizeable group of other people with disabilities that Randall has been able to get him invited to, with the hopes that they will spread his philosophy. In the course of his stay at Maggie’s house, Dexter raises her patience to the breaking point. At the same time, his disease process accelerates causing him to have to move to a manual wheelchair, on to an oxygen tank, and finally to the hospital. In his weakened condition, he comes to a begrudging ceasefire with Maggie, but the mantis dreams continue.
One of Pottle’s major accomplishments is in the management of story structure. As disability theorist David Mitchell has pointed out, the classic structure of fiction is one in which a problem encountered is resolved and, in the case of a story in which disability is prominent, the disability tends to become the "problem" that demands a solution – either a cure or an overcoming. While writers like Weise and Finger have disrupted traditional narrative structure using post-modern techniques, Pottle takes a more traditional but equally effective approach through use of the venerable diary as narrative format. What Pottle does is to couple the diary format with the trajectory of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. As a diarist, Ripley can only enter what he knows to be happening at the time from the point of view of a person who understands the prognosis for his condition – and from that viewpoint cure and overcoming are impossibilities. Thankfully, Pottle suppresses the urge to use the vantage point of the artist to look back to imbue the process with meaning.
At the same time, the author provides Ripley with his own metaphor, Captain Ahab. Not surprisingly given his temperament, Ripley identifies with Ahab to the point of christening his wheelchair The Pequod. If the monomaniac pursuit of his goal means that he will ultimately go down with his ship, then, damn it, he is going to take everyone with him. Mid-way through the novel the reader is likely to wonder if the book will end with Randall saying "And I alone escaped to tell thee." Allowing Ripley this vision of his end works to permit the more prosaic fate that he actually comes to to provide the reader a small sigh of relief.
Another major accomplishment of Mantis Dreams is its ability to convey the physical reality of disability. While Dexter may prefer to be dwelling in Plato’s cave, his body will not let him, insisting that in the Cartesian struggle for dominance, it is going to direct the course. Throughout the book, Pottle provides the reader with continuous examples. Near the opening, when Dexter is still able to write physically, he records:
The pain in my feet has turned sonic. It makes an alarming bending
noise in my bones, arching all the way up to my brain stem, raising
my hackles. A noise like when Christopher Reeve bent a steel pipe. I
Shortly after this event, Dexter switches to the computer for his daily recording.
As the book, and by implication the life of Dexter’s body nears its end, he records:
My mouth is all liquid warble. My lips and tongue shapeless gobs from a lava lamp. My voice a useless gargle. I feel like a Muppet. I am a visitor from the planet Cripple. Larga-blarga-flicker-bonk.
Pottle also nicely captures Dexter’s reaction to his formal diagnosis.
At first I hated my disability. Who the hell gets personal muscular atrophy? I did and I hated it at first. My body’s betrayed me. … I flexed, I fought, I festered…I broke mirrors, drank whiskey, failed my students on their essays. Before the chair, I was a prick. I admit it. Not the loveable kind, either.
While Dexter observes that he "grew into his disability," what he has actually manages to do is to use his disability to create a philosophic rationale that legitimizes his being a prick. Though Dexter’s arguments are likely to raise some readers’ blood-pressures, Pottle has created a character that is real by virtue of his own contradictory, self-serving behavior.
This being Pottle’s pilot novel, a couple of weaknesses are normal and Mantis Dreams is not free of these. The first is that in places the dialogue seems unnatural. By casting the work as a diary, however, Pottle is able to partially deflect this criticism since Ripley himself is – to say the least - an unreliable narrator, one who is ill at ease in social situations. The payoff with this strategy for Pottle is that readers realize that it is Ripley’s own socially-awkward and biased viewpoint they are getting. The second problematic area is the believability of some of the events. One notable example is when Ripley, having been put on administrative leave, charges back into the classroom on The Pequod a semester later during the final exam his replacement is giving. The instructor meekly leaves the room and the students continue with the test. What teacher among us would have simply handed the classroom keys to a stranger that bursts into the room and demands to proctor the exam – what students would put up with it? True, we are depending upon Ripley’s account of what happened, but Pottle can use this elasticity only so far without losing force for the legitimate claims that the novel makes.
Though it is always dangerous to conflate the point of view of a novel’s main character with that of its author, there is some precedent in disability literature for this inclination. Rudney’s Lovers Lame, Terry Tracy’s A Great Place For A Seizure and Ann Finger’s Bone Truth all read suspiciously like autobiography. Though Pottle's disability is a far different one from Ripley's, A number of details of Ripley’s life such as his having written a story about Ebenezer Scrooge and teaching at the University of Saskatchewan are true of Pottle as well, so it is difficult to tell whether some of the lampooning of the disability studies and the disabilities movement in the book are actually Pottle’s views or whether he, like Ripley, merely enjoys poking the alligator. One can be sure, though, that if disabilities scholars and teachers of disabilities literature read Mantis Dreams – and they should – they will definitely have something to say about it.
Perhaps the most obvious point of critique will be Ripley’s John Wayne approach to disability. While the general trend in disability studies and even among disabilities activists is to look at disability as a social construction that requires a group effort to address, Ripley holds with the Übermensch theory.
Since my body can’t recover, I’ll turn it into a philosophical instrument: a sharpened Vitruvian man, a curved compass needle, my limbs splayed all over the dial. Behind every successful idea, from Apple to Christianity, stands an enormous personality. So I must be larger than life, a giant, a horrible, glorious mantis too big and too pervasive to trap behind glass.
If Ripley were holed up in a mountain cabin with a shotgun, this might be a viable position, but while talking individualism on the one hand, he is demanding (and accepting) accommodation at every turn on the other. At one point when his sister threatens to kick him out, he counter-threatens legal action. It’s hard to imagine Dirty Harry taking anyone to court. Nevertheless, Ripley intends to provoke discussion and, in that regard, Mantis Dreams is likely to succeed.
There is one other important point that Mantis Dreams raises – though not explicitly – and that is the handling of what constitutes masculinity for a man with a disability. Since not every man in a wheelchair can be Mark Zupan, this often means how the author handles the sexual life of his characters. When it comes to fiction written by authors with disabilities themselves, the precedents are amazingly few. In the existentially stark world of Thom Jones’ fiction of drugged-out ex-Vietnam vets and beaten boxers with PTSD, machismo is mandatory. Rudney’s Lovers Lame, David Allen Levin is caught between a scapegoating resentment that he is rejected because of his cerebral palsy and the need to show that Levin, too, can have a sexual track record. Raymond Luczak’s semi-autobiographical characters, concern themselves with issues surrounding the life of a gay man. None of these, with the possible exception of Rudney, provide Pottle with much to build on for the creation of Ripley. While Ripley makes the obligatory macho gestures such as watching porn and making derogatory comments about women, Pottle deserves credit for not trying to turn him into a wheelchair stud. Perhaps, the most important contribution Pottle makes in this arena are the two scenes in which Ripley masturbates. These come across not as voyeuristic or cock-thumping sequences, but as a reality of his sexual life. By virtue of the fact that he has written a novel of a man with a disability, Pottle has added another board to the ground floor of disability literature. It will be interesting to see who builds on it.
The uniqueness of Mantis Dreams as a novel about disability by a Canadian writer should make the novel compulsory reading in itself – but the book has much more to offer. It is fast-paced, relevant, and original in its creation of the character of Dexter Ripley. It also maintains a sense of humor with playful entry titles like "This is No Country for Young Men" and "How to Stand Out Amidst a Confederacy of Dunces," and if Ripley’s sense of humor is in the Beavis and Butthead tradition, at least he has one. Deaf/blind writer John Lee Clark has argued that if a book does not provoke controversy, it is not worth reading. On that view, Mantis Dreams should be a success. If the novel becomes as widely read as all writers hope for, Pottle is going to need a big shield to defend himself from some of the accusations he has made against Canadian literature, not to mention most of the disability studies literati. Nevertheless, with the dearth of good fiction in disability literature and the need for models of how to move forward, Mantis Dreams, due to be released by Caitlin Press in October, definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf.