‘Leaving Tomorrow’ by David Bergen

Book Reviews

Leaving Tomorrow coverReviewed by Mark Sampson

Is there any vitality left in the literary genre known as the Bildungsroman? This grand tradition – defined loosely as a coming of age story (or a “fiction of development”) where the protagonist discovers his or her vocation or some other crucial aspect of one’s identity – is almost as old as the novel itself. Its practitioners read like a who’s who of the English canon: Dickens, Flaubert, Brontë, Naipaul, Updike and even Canada’s own Margaret Laurence. The form rings many bells for the solipsistic modern reader: she loves that the Bildungsroman places the self and its quest for agency at the centre of the narrative; she appreciates its linear, straightforward approach to time; and she swoons over the genre’s deeply held belief in the possibility of change, that a character can grow and improve her life and learn Important Things about herself by the final chapter.

Yet, in our fragmented and deeply mechanical post-modern age, there is something about the genre that seems a bit out of step with the times, a bit naïve. A bit musty. We almost crave a kind of anti-Bildungsroman now: a story, preferably written by Franz Kafka or J.G. Ballard, about a character’s self-image slowly getting unraveled by the randomness of an uncaring universe. So if one does decide to write a traditional Bildungsroman, how does one breathe new life into the form? How does one, to borrow from another cliché, make it new?

David Bergen certainly puts forth an answer to this in his latest novel, Leaving Tomorrow – an answer that has at its heart the inventiveness of language and a relentless commitment to characterization. These are two aspects of writing that the Giller Award-winning author from Winnipeg has always excelled at. Caveat emptor: Bergen’s latest book is an unapologetic Bildungsroman, and, if we were to go by the dust jacket copy alone, sounds exactly like 400 other Canadian novels you’ve already read. The story introduces us to Arthur Wohlgemuht, a sensitive young man born in 1955 who grows up in the fictional community of Tomorrow, Alberta, where his father works as a ranch hand. Arthur’s family life is marred repeatedly by tragedy: his older sister Em drowns while he still a toddler, and his older brother Bev grows up to enlist in the Vietnam War, only to come home suffering from PTSD, and accidentally kills someone while drinking and driving. The frame of Leaving Tomorrow’s plot involves Arthur taking the blame for the accident (he was in the vehicle too, but wasn’t the one driving) in order to spare Bev further strife.

Arthur aims to escape all these difficult circumstances, as well as the grinding dullness of rural Alberta, and uses his ambition of becoming a writer to do so. He leaves Tomorrow shortly after finishing high school and moves to France, where he takes work tutoring a young child in English for a wealthy French couple. He spends his ample free time wandering the streets of Paris, thinking about writers and writing, and meeting an assortment of attractive young women.

In many ways, it seems as if Arthur is aware that he is a character in a fiction of development. At one point, he writes a letter to his cousin Isobel (whom he had a sexual relationship with during his mid teens – but it’s okay because, as he points out, she’s only his cousin by adoption) in which he says, “I imagine writing a novel in the style of Flaubert or Stendhal, a Bildungsroman that will be from the perspective of a young man who grows up in the provinces and runs away to Paris, where he falls in love with an older woman.” This is not the only time that the novel tips its hand toward the self-referential. At one point, earlier in the story, Arthur tells us:

One of the great pleasures of reading, especially reading done on a ranch in Alberta by a young boy who wants more, is the possibility of other lives, the possibility of extending one’s arm and being pulled through the curtain onto a stage where Swann is in love, and Emma rides her carriage in circles through the city with the blinds drawn, and Joyce’s hapless boy is infatuated with Mangan’s sister for whom he will buy a trinket at the market.

We are in very familiar territory here: the escapism that reading provides and the romanticization of Somewhere Else, a place that our hero can achieve through sheer acts of imagination. Indeed, Arthur’s life seems saturated with that important coming-of-age story staple known as yearning, and it finds its most persistent expression in the long parade of women he has sex with or wants to. There is the aforementioned Isobel, as well as a girl named Alice (the daughter of his father’s employer on the ranch), Sammy (former girlfriend of Bev’s), Stella (the young wife of the man Bev killed while drunk driving), Aniane (a waitress Arthur meets in Paris) Bérénice (a friend of Aniane’s) and Carmine (the mother of the boy he tutors in Paris).

The truth is, all of these recognizable tropes and machinations would make for a predictable novel if we weren’t in the skilled hands of David Bergen. Not only does the author play up his preternatural talent for depicting young lust (as we’ve seen in his previous novel The Case of Lena S.) as well as the trauma that war can leave on a psyche (as seen previously in The Time in Between and The Matter with Morris). He also has the good sense to lend a certain plasticity to the world he creates in Leaving Tomorrow. There are parts of the story that are nearly supernatural. Arthur is, for example, able to recall with perfect clarity his own birth and early infancy. And when he suffers an accident on the farm, he develops seizures that enable him to see through time and space itself, to make connections to the past that no person really can.

These are this book’s true strength. Leaving Tomorrow struck me as a rich commentary on the Bildungsroman form as well as a highly readable and compelling novel. Bergen show us the panoramic view into life and other people that this genre often lends to its protagonists, but also pokes gentle holes in that view for readers who are paying attention. Of course, one can read Leaving Tomorrow as merely a well-written (though overly familiar) novel about someone striving to escape his rural past and fling himself into a much more intellectually fulfilling future. But Bergen is also throwing a very cagey wink our way, telling us he’s having a bit of fun with the structure and clichés he knows so well. This is Leaving Tomorrow’s real achievement.

HarperCollins| 288 pages |  $27.99 | paper | ISBN # 978-1443411387

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Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson’s most recent novel is The Slip (Dundurn Press, 2017). He has also published two other novels, Sad Peninsula, (Dundurn Press, 2014), and Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007), as well as a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a poetry collection, Weathervane, (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His short stories, poems and book reviews have appeared widely in literary journals across Canada. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island, he currently lives and writes in Toronto.