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Second Life is second-rate

Esi Edugyan buries Samuel Tyne under overly bleak, self-conscious writing

There’s so much in the promise in the premise of The Second Life of
Samuel Tyne. It’s a debut novel by celebrated Ghanaian-Canadian writer
Esi Edugyan (her name’s pronounced “essy e-DOO-j’n”)
about the bridging of past and present, urban and rural, Ghanaian and
African-Canadian. Set in the 1970s, it’s written with a poet’s
attention to wordcraft—each sentence has been tinkered with and fussed
over to the satisfaction of its master, much like the electronics repairs
performed by its title character.

Samuel Tyne is a harassed, depressed civil servant plummeting into a
midlife crisis. Upon hearing the news that his patron-uncle Jacob has died
and left Samuel his house and land in Aster, Alberta (based on real-life
Amber Valley, one of about 20 Alberta townships founded by African-American
immigrants around 1900), Samuel quits his job and hauls his neurotic, nagging
wife and brilliant, spooky twin daughters from Calgary to settle in Aster.
Samuel wants a second life, one where he’ll no longer be pushed around
by lesser men at work or by his wife who’s never really believed in
him. Like Willy Loman, Samuel wants prestige, respect and liberty to enjoy
life; like Willy, he’s great with his hands. Unlike Willy, Samuel is an
intelligent man and competent at business once neighbour and Aster town
official Raymond Frank (“candid king of the world”) sends
customers into his store.

Also like Willy, Samuel has a wife who opposes his dreams. But in
Samuel’s case, that opposition isn’t out of protectiveness so
much as spite, small-mindedness and tininess of spirit. Maud Tyne has turned
her back on everything Ghanaian—like Samuel, she’s trapped by her
past to point where she refuses to call her homeland “Ghana,”
instead using the imperialist name “Gold Coast.” Like many
immigrants, she’s swallowed the notion of “modernity,” that
the Euro-American world is the ideal of historical and personal development,
yet she’s as uncomfortable in the promised land as she is within her
own skin (if not skin colour). She despises her defiantly unassimilated
neighbour, Akosua Porter, generally refusing to speak with her in any of the
Ghanaian languages they share. Not that Akosua is a dream neighbour, being a
snide, condemning, superior anti-Westerner who takes delight in nothing so
much as her determination to take no delight in anything. Add into the mix
two overbearing Euro-Canadian locals, Ray and Eudora Frank, the Tynes’
daughters Yvette and Chloe who are incredibly (I mean that literally)
erudite, eloquent and possibly evil, and their reluctant houseguest Ama (a
French-Canadian schoolmate), and you have a quagmire of miserable people in a
dying town facing the threat of a serial arsonist, a danger which pales
compared to the rot inside each person’s heart and mind.

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne is an exploration
of death—the death of parent figures and the effect it has on the
living, the death of career ambition, the death of sexual intimacy, the death
of communities, the death of relationships and the death of the future
because of the corruption of children. It’s a stunningly bleak treatise
on lives riddled by indecision, second-guessing, mental quadruple-takes and
the steadfast refusal to find lasting happiness or transcendent meaning in
anything. Samuel, Maud and Ama are wracked by this soul-destroying inward
gaze. The bossy, nosy Franks and the self-righteous Porters are apparently
too simple to be self-reflective; the dreadful, brilliant twins Yvette and
Chloe are so self-reflective that they’re even more trapped inside
themselves than their parents are, emerging from their duoverse just long
enough to strike out at the dull-witted humans who saunter past their mental
crosshairs like carnival ducks.

These characters, like the novel they inhabit, are all deeply frustrated
and frustrating. I’m frustrated with the book’s unremittingly
joy-mincing triage of family and town, in which people are cloistered inside
their own skulls, oppressive and arrogant, or sociopathic. I don’t buy
this world any more than I buy one in which family and town are uniformly
thoughtful, kind and well-adjusted. The fussiness of these people and their
total domination by regret, spite, pettiness or arrogance, makes for joyless
and ultimately rather flat reading. The only surprise in this book is the
extent of some people’s badness. The message seems to be that people
don’t change unless it’s to get worse—they can exchange
homes and countries, switch languages and careers, but their only path is
downward.

Samuel Tyne’s titular “second life” isn’t a life;
it’s the Greek underworld. Samuel “dies” from his Calgary
civil service life, “descending” to the misery of Aster;
he’s tantalized by the prospect of a better life in the pseudo-Elysian
Fields, but discoveries that, like Sisyphus, no matter how much effort he
expends, everything is downhill. I just don’t buy it. No one learns a
damn thing in this book, not even the tragic lesson of learning too late
where the wrong turn was taken.

The prose is as intellectual and aloof as Samuel’s demeanour, and
its craft is so, well, crafted, that it’s passionless. Only in theory
do I accept that literary approach; for instance, one might imagine that the
best way to convey a boring event is to write a boring chapter. But actually,
that’s a bad idea. The Second Life of Samuel Tyne strikes me as a very
“English department” novel, its prose laboured over with great
intention and attention, crisply and self-consciously “literary.”
I hope that with Edugyan’s next venture, she assembles a more
emotionally varied cast and invests the intellect and artfulness of her prose
with emotions that extend beyond disappointment and desperation, as acclaimed
fellow-B.C. writer Eden Robinson did so brilliantly in Traplines, crafting
intelligent, emotional, beautiful prose that demonstrates how even in misery,
hope and happiness can exist. There’s no denying Edugyan’s
extremely refined skills; what’s missing in The Second Life of Samuel
Tyne is rawness, unrefinedness, and the honest admission that, believe it or
not, some people live in joy and love. V

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne By Esi Edugyan • Knopf/Random House
• 336 pp. • $34.95

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