book The Rules of Engagement

reviewed by Wendy Kussrow

Published in Issue No. 42 ~ November, 2000

Every creature lives in a state of war by nature

–Swift paraphrasing Hobbes


The history of intervention is a history of such thresholds….and how the decision to take action is decided equally by whom you determine to be a stranger. Not only what you are willing to risk but for whom.

–Catherine Bush

After a celebrated debut with Minus Time, Catherine Bush throws down the gauntlet to readers in her second novel, The Rules of Engagement. Rules is striking in its deliberateness and restraint, an intricately choreographed duel. Through the revelations of her protagonist, Arcadia Hearne, Bush sets two equally powerful opponents back-to-back – Arcadia’s torrid past versus her torpid present. Then, in a narrative characterized by elegant, civilized violence, these rival forces pace off their appointed distance in opposite directions. With each step forward – and backward – Arcadia reveals a hint more of the extent to which she isolates herself from emotional entanglement in her contemporary London life and a glimpse further into the tragic circumstances that forced her to leave her home in Toronto. The novel itself is divided into two equal parts – the first set in London, the second in Toronto – with the two neatly linked by dual Trans-Atlantic flights. In the first pages, Bush ceremoniously sets forth her own rules for engaging the reader. Then, with discipline and delicacy, she unfolds a story of passion restrained and violence ritualized. Nothing can happen, no salvation can come to Arcadia, and no epiphany can come to the reader until the inherent conflicts are resolved with decisive action – until the duelists fire their pistols.

In Part I of Rules, Bush sculpts a detailed, three-dimensional figure of Arcadia Hearne, whose apocryphal name promises a lost Eden and a journey all in one. This haunted girl holds life at arms’ length – from her passive involvement in the most violent of world conflicts via computer terminal to her vicarious observations of and secret theories about the strangers who pass through her daily life. Arcadia amuses herself with daydreams in which she is the ultimate aggressor.

On the North London railway line…a man in a blue linen jacket sat across from me. I imagined myself kissing him – more curiosity than lust, for I’ll do this with all sorts of people…. How would his surprise transform him?

But this sort of decisive action, intimate and spontaneous, is the very sort of action that Arcadia cannot take. Her present paralysis stems from a fear that perhaps all intimacy leads to violence. She is plagued by a series of questions that play over and over in her head: “Are wars inevitable?” “Is every man capable of violence?” “What would you be willing to risk for love?” She is caught in a cycle of self-abnegation because she once failed to act with decision when the stakes were far higher, when the players were not strangers but lovers, and when the outcome was as uncertain as life or death.

One sleepless night, Arcadia reveals to her lover that the tragedy in Toronto has left her searching for “an explanation…expiation.” Yet, the reader is keenly aware that instead of an active hunt for one or the other, Arcadia has so far settled for static, risk-free philosophizing and theorizing. Until the visit of Lux (Arcadia’s sister) and the brush with danger and precipitous entanglement with Amir that result from the visit, Arcadia’s borders remain inviolate. Her life in London is a microcosmic mirror of the Post-Somalia American policy she attempts to unravel in her professional research – a policy in which “the fear of casualties [win] out,” leading to a policy of “‘force protection,’ in which one’s first priority must be to protect oneself.” This is the language of Arcadia’s career and of her personal life. Terms like “intervention,” “conflict,” “engagement,” and “minefields” drip with delicious ambiguity when the woman who uses them with such scientific precision bleeds them within, as her “interior war” of lost love and failed intimacy rages on. The beginnings of her theoretical studies could just as easily be the darkest confessions of her diary: “For most of the world, wars have grown fiercely personal again – devastatingly intimate” and “Rules of engagement exist not only to create just wars, or fair conditions, but to level the playing field.”

Thus, Arcadia contents herself with maintaining a passive and detached existence. In effect, she levels her own “playing field” by withdrawing from life altogether. Arcadia is like a small-town Horatio, or a not-so-Ancient Mariner, torn between shameful secrecy and a perverse desire to ‘tell the story.’ She confides in the reader:

When I tell people about the duel, I choose my moments carefully, and I do not tell everyone. Yet I’ve grown to yearn for this instant, for all that is exposed in people’s faces when I tell them.

It “amuses” Arcadia “to live in a city where one is called love so easily,” and she waxes suspiciously poetic about the joys of living alone:

The lusciousness of solitude is a pleasure I subscribe to. The thrum of privacy beckons as soon as you step through the door…. there’s no one to nag you when bits of food are stuck between your teeth…no one to stop you from eating a pear and letting pear juice dribble along your arm and down your chin.

So, while, unlike J Alfred Prufrock, Arcadia is not afraid to eat a peach, there are few other risks she will take. She lives alone, she waters her garden at night, and she has cut virtually all ties with her family and her homeland.

Then, thanks to the “intervention” of Lux, a professional TV host on a world music show and an amateur human rights activist, Arcadia comes face to face with her Third World alter ego, Basra Alale. Like the narrator, Basra is named after a city of many “flowers, and fountains, and hanging gardens,” also long lost. Basra is fleeing to the West, ostensibly London, from political persecution in Mogadishu. Leaving behind family and home, as well as violent punishment and oppression, Basra seeks a new life in an alien land. With similar goals, Arcadia has forged a new existence (though it can hardly be called a “life”) in London, trying to escape the painful memories and guilt surrounding her final year in Toronto by settling for autonomous anonymity across the Atlantic. Her interaction with Basra sets her on a course that ultimately brings her new love and new pain, as a chance acquaintance with the mysterious Amir Barmour (Basra’s shadowy companion) turns into a passionately physical and intellectual affair. But even the calculated risks Arcadia takes in opening up to Amir will not prepare her for the ultimate challenge of facing Amir’s real identity.

Although Part II formally opens on Arcadia’s flight home to Canada – journey to her past that promises to make some sense of her present – it symbolically begins the moment she confronts Amir, not with angry words but with an assault:

I punched him…The reverberation of the gesture traveled up and down my arm, which I clutched in horror, as if I could stop myself from any further–Shock swilled through me, and yet, on top of it, a distilled note, a guilty adrenaline rush of satisfaction.

After a decade of outward contentment and inward seething anguish, Arcadia acts. After years of theorizing as to what extremity of emotion would push one individual to strike out at another, she discovers that threshold firsthand.

Arcadia’s newly released impetus to act catapults her from a canal boat into muddy waters, through a dark night, and onto a plane bound for Toronto without so much as a look back. The novel’s second half, characterized by this new dynamic will to act, unfolds in direct contrast to the more meditative and inversely nostalgic first half, and yet Bush’s stylistic contrasts are complementary and necessary. The fragmented memories of the duel finally come into focus as Arcadia’s flashbacks and the facts fall into place. Likewise, her hunt for Basra and for what remains of the men she once loved and lost helps catalyze her thoughts and guides her actions towards some degree of closure. Ironically, her compulsion to find this refugee is fueled neither by the altruism she claims nor the backward jealousy of Amir’s possible involvement with Basra that she fears. It is not even her need to know the truth about Amir’s work that drives her to find Basra but a question Bush herself never articulates, the one Arcadia must answer for herself – Is there life after loss?

Catherine Bush’s second novel is a study in contrast and in conflict, both literally and figuratively. The author fills her story with richly paradoxical flourishes, setting fairy-tale imagery and medieval allusions (often in flashback) against the jarring present tense of a narrative filled with the facts and figures of late twentieth century warfare. Bush is a connoisseur of the extended metaphor, able to plumb the depths of irony and emerge with the bittersweet truth of it unsullied by sarcasm or bitterness. This novel is a literary feast of figurative language. In the course of the story, Arcadia makes a journey every bit as allegorical as her name. From the very first line – “Lux was coming” – Arcadia’s voice prepares us for the imagery-laden narrative to come, where every event and every philosophical digression circles back upon itself with double meaning. We experience the déjà vu even as Arcadia herself experiences it, and we are helplessly caught up in the same fatalistic force that seems to propel the narrator back to face her past. While the final revelations of this novel seem a bit anticlimactic given the vast psychological terrain the narrator has traversed, it is the ending that must come when a person chooses to walk away from a dead-end obsession and towards self re-creation.

Readers learn, as Arcadia learns, that the only real triumph to be found in the conflict between man and his own soul comes from letting go and moving on. Though the gesture might lack the fundamental melodrama of life and death, it brings healing and peace. Bush’s denouement binds multiple narrative strands in a clean, well-executed knot. Her choices are neither self-indulgent nor simplistic. Her brand of realism manages to keep optimism alive without settling for romantic compromises. There is a violent elegance to her prose. It is compact, yet descriptive; immersive; and filled with momentum. No passage is superfluous. She blends the compact expression of a short-story writer with the endurance of a novelist. She respects her readers, trusting them to discern the difference between the fictional vehicle and the real story, but she also knows when and how to use repetition and artistry for emphasis. The result, a novel of three-dimensional characters that inspire real sympathy, allows the reader to remain detached, clear-headed, and open to any direction the narrative might pursue. Bush’s novel is a liberating, sophisticated, and gratifying read. It is for the romantics, the pessimists, the realists, and just about anyone in between. Those with the grit to reach out and take up the literary gauntlet that Bush throws down can be assured that her newest novel will give ultimate “satisfaction.”