Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Dark Diversions


John Ralston Saul’s tragic-comic picaresque, Dark Diversions, is cleverly structured to begin as a short story collection and emerge as a cohesive novel. Surely a less knowledgeable, searching and well-traveled author would be unable to deliver with this bold structural experiment, yet Saul, largely by the individual fascination created by each of these increasingly absurd tales of the rich and privileged, certainly succeeds. There was a unique sense of satisfaction I received upon seeing the threads of the dozen or so short stories tied together, both in theme and plot, in the final chapters of the novel.


At the simplest level, it is a story of the drifting rich, in the vein of Fitzgerald, or even Tolstoy—a story of those modern souls possessing ample supplies of money, culture and power to keep them entertained for the remainder of their lives, yet unable to manufacture a healthy marriage, a sense of fulfillment, a love for life, even to stop themselves from doing something inconceivably evil.


Many of the stories echo the great modern stories from around the world. There is Gatsby-esque nouveau riche fraud, living in New York, driving a leased Rolls-Royce, showing paintings in a rented mansion, “most of them third-rate by first-rate artists,” infiltrating the upper tiers of New York society through a carefully plotted façade. 

There is the Anna Karenina influenced tale of Jack, a filthy-rich American oilman pursuing an extramarital Mexican tryst with the clever, pretty blonde, Patty. He claims to love her deeply, yet can’t help but attempt to run her off a cliff. Like Anna, he feels trapped by love without any traditional structures holding it together. “How do I know she needs me; I mean, except for the money?” he asks in a moment of drunken vulnerability.


These are stories about the tragic intermingling of power and love, and certainly they are dark, sometimes to the point that reciting the plots alone would make them seem morbid and gratuitous. But Saul has a knack for compassionate characterizations, wry one-liners and wicked turns of phrase, and he successfully turns the merely depressing into black comedy, often with profound implications.


Thematically, the novel is typically postmodern: the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, and humanity’s capacity (or lack of it) for self-knowledge feature prominently. Saul’s technique in addressing these themes is brilliant, and is the most engrossing aspect of the novel: he begins with an anonymous narrator, a continent-hopping journalist, objectively narrating dramatic stories of the rich, the famous, and the powerful. Progressively, however, the stories become more intertwined, the transitions smoother, and his own personal involvement deeper. The first half dozen or so narratives hold almost no literal connection, and could be featured separately in a short story collection. The final three are deeply personal; they are the tragedies of the narrator’s own life. The narrator is incapable of maintaining his separation from the “dark diversions” he chronicles, and the final three stories tell of his own personal tragedy.


It’s a concept that Saul has talked of openly: “I came to like the idea of a narrator who spends the whole book creating the impression that he’s not involved, when really, it’s all about him,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. It isn’t till the last pages, though, that the reader becomes privy to this in Dark Diversions. The first half of the book is the narrator, Thomas Bell, gazing objectively on the face of evil, attempting to understand it. It isn’t till the middle that Bell even reflects on why he is doing this: “Something about the face of the devil and the unlimited forms it can take,” he muses, considering his penchant for “collecting dictators.”


In the last three stories, Bell is shocked from the illusion of objectivity that he has clothed himself with, and is horrified to find the evil that he has been examining in demagogues and adulterers is also within himself. By his inaction, Bell watches a woman die. Then, in the most compelling and complex narrative of the novel, Bell is given a set of diary entries from a recently deceased man whom Bell had known in his youth. Bell sees himself through the eyes of another, and his paradigm is shattered as he realizes that in his quest for knowledge through the stories of others he had failed to gain knowledge of his own self.


Saul is at his strongest in these rich concluding stories; he is at his weakest in the chapter “the narrator pauses to reflect,” in which the narrator does just that. It’s a bold but, I think, unsuccessful delving into the postmodern trend of “meta,” self-reflexive storytelling. The narrator, at this point, comes right out and has a chat with the reader about the story thus far, asking why, up to this point, we haven’t even heard the narrator’s name, and don’t know a single personal detail about him. The narrator then criticizes the late-twentieth century novel for being too prescriptive, and not letting the narrative speak for itself, which, the narrator then goes on to admit that that is what he is in the process of doing, and suggests, ironically that you ignore his musings: “this is crude narrator interference and you should ignore it.”


While the section is good for a laugh, I must say that I think you should actually take the narrator’s ironic advice here. The points made in the “meta” section are made more poignantly in the final chapters of the novel through the narrative itself, and I found myself wishing I’d had the privilege of unearthing the themes from the story myself rather than being handed them, tongue-in-cheek, by an ironic narrator.


Thankfully, even during the rare points where Saul’s innovation falls flat, a satisfying emotional core is maintained. It’s a story about a narrator’s realization that he is more than a narrator; he is the story’s life and blood, whether he likes it or not.