Think of Elizabeth Hay as a gentle murderer. She knocks off a goodly number of main characters in her new novel, Late Nights on Air. But, in most cases, they have the decency to die off-camera, mysteriously and bloodlessly, despite unsettling hints of murder and abuse. The one death presented to us most vividly is a drowning, an event more sad and poetic than terrifying.
This writerly restraint may be explained by the fact the novel is about a group of “shy” people, the often timid folk who become faceless performers on radio, only outgoing when alone in a studio with a microphone. They are the “extroverted introverts” of the world, as one character describes his radio pals at CBC Yellowknife.
Despite being a gentle sort, Hay knows how to be tough. Late Nights is set in the Northwest Territories, with the second half of the novel a canoe trip that borrows heavily from Hay’s own six-week canoe trip in 1978 along the Thelon River through the barrens. Just try it and you’ll discover what toughness is all about. If you survive. Some don’t.
Unlike in Late Nights, no one died on Hay’s real-life canoe trip but two friends accompanying her did have a fling, just as romance erupted when the characters in the novel stuck their paddles in the river.
Hay, whose book has just been longlisted for the much-vaunted Giller prize, has a definite romantic streak, although she claims she is also very “down to earth.” Maybe she really means “earthy.” She can talk animatedly about great sex scenes in movies. Her books have their share of sweaty couplings. But, like death, the action occurs modestly offstage. We are permitted, however, to imagine the moans.
Love, she admits, is definitely at the heart of Late Nights. The love of Late Nights is mainly unrequited, heartbreaking, sometimes cruel and often passionate.
“It’s about a man who hears a voice on radio and falls in love. It’s about the power of suggestion and the power of imagination.” Alas, what Hay’s characters imagine they will get and what they actually get are not always the same thing. There lies the adventure of the novel.
Love, in its most complicated forms, drives most of Hay’s fiction. Even as a child in Owen Sound, Hay was obsessed by romance. She didn’t want to read books that lacked a love story and, now as an adult, she writes classy literature filled with longing, lust and adultery.
Perhaps because she is a romantic, Hay is also squeamish. Although she is Ottawa’s No. 1 movie addict, as one can guess from a previous novel about a family of Ottawa cinephiles, Garbo Laughs, Hay does not like to watch blood splattered on the screen and she certainly does not splatter blood on her own pages.
“I have a big confession,” Hay says. “I’ve never had the guts to watch Psycho. Before, I’ve been able to avert my gaze, I’ve seen certain things like Janet Leigh screaming in the shower. But I don’t have the stomach for suspense like that.” Indeed, Hay had to watch the movie Jaws holding the hand of her daughter on one side and that of her son on the other. Hay, not the kids, was scared. Once viewed, a scary scene is imprinted forever on her mind.
“There are certain movie scenes I wish I had never seen. They just come up repeatedly like the taste of onions. I’ll be walking and get a flash of, oh, God, Elliott Gould, in The Long Goodbye. There was a scene where the villain took a Coke bottle and smashed it across a woman’s face.”
But back to Janet Leigh. The late movie star played a morally ambiguous character in the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. Before the movie is half over, Leigh’s character is killed in the world’s most infamous shower scene. This seemingly premature death was deemed a revolutionary act in modern cinema. Headlining stars like Janet Leigh simply didn’t die before you finished your popcorn.
Likewise in Late Nights, the woman we think will be the star of the book, Yellowknife radio announcer Dido Paris, disappears halfway through the story. It’s a terrible shock. Frankly, she’s the most fascinating character in Late Nights.
Dido is gone but Hay ensures she is not forgotten. We palpably feel her absence for the remainder of the book, in large part because she left a trail of broken hearts and confusion in the CBC Yellowknife radio station where she worked. (Hay worked at that same station back in the 1970s before she landed in Old Ottawa South and became one of Canada’s most celebrated authors of fiction with the likes of Small Change, A Student of Weather and Garbo Laughs.)
Dido is the catalyst for a game of musical beds. Or maybe not. There are many mysteries in Late Nights. Some are sexual and some are fatal. Hay makes you, the reader, work hard trying to determine who is sleeping with whom, who is abusing whom, who is really dead and who has just disappeared.
Hay’s editor at McClelland & Stewart, Ellen Seligman, is partially responsible for this deliberate effort to withhold information that would help explain the facts of love and death in Late Nights. “She doesn’t want me to say too much,” Hay says.
And Hay doesn’t say too much. Long after reading this book, chances are you will be still thinking about Dido and the other characters. Dido, as it turns out, is a big tease, not just for the Yellowknife folks who fall in love with her, but for all of us who meet her on the page. Yes, Dido is frustrating but she is far more intriguing then most femmes fatales in Canadian literature.
Dido Paris is a name Hay created years ago, hoping for the right novel to place the character. Late Nights on Air, it turns out, was a good choice.
Originally published in Ottawa Citizen on September 23, 2007.