Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Paternal Authority in Wayne Johnston's the Navigator of New York

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Paternal Authority in Wayne Johnston's the Navigator of New York

Article excerpt

IN THE NAVIGATOR OF NEW YORK (2002), Wayne Johnston warns his readers that his novel does not attempt to solve the controversy over who first reached the North Pole. This warning is not contained in an epigraph, but comes at the end of the novel:

 
   This is a work of fiction. At times, it places real people in 
   imaginary space and time. At others, imaginary people in real space 
   and time. While it draws from the historical record, its purpose is 
   not to answer historical questions or settle historical 
   controversies (484). 

While the purpose of Johnston's text was "not to answer historical questions," the lure of that possibility was most appealing. There is a play between historiography, fiction, and the writing of "contemporary" history in parallel with the writing of the novel itself. In its chiasmic structure, Johnston's note seems to urge the reader to rethink the novel she or he has just finished, and like many of his novels it encourages a reading in terms of the fluidity of boundaries between history and fiction. At a first glance, the title of the book, The Navigator of New York, could appear opportunistic. The protagonist comes from Newfoundland and goes into self-imposed exile in New York. Devlin, the narrator, writes: "There I was in Manhattan, and all I could think about was Newfoundland" (Johnston 52). Johnston might have been speaking for himself. "New York" in the title may serve to attract international readers and the protagonist of the novel is not "of' New York. But one learns, in the course of the story, that the narrator was conceived in New York and "navigated" in his mother's womb back to Newfoundland. Furthermore, this is a novel of exploration and "New York is to explorers what Paris is to artists" (Johnston 10).

The relationship between father and son has been the object of Johnston's previous work. The importance of the father to the emergence of a psychologically sound child was a staple in the work of Freud and Lacan, and the father figures in his novels invite analysis along these lines. After analyzing the fictional protagonist's adventure towards adulthood from a Lacanian psychoanalytical perspective, I show how, through the role played by the mother, Johnston subverts Lacan's ideas of the formation of the self as a result of the symbolic authority of the father. The mother, even if physically absent from The Navigator of New York, plays a fundamental role in her son's search for a foundational narrative of self fulfilment.

In a study of historical fiction in Canada, Herb Wyile noted that historiography in Canadian novels has become increasingly speculative. He calls the postmodern and postcolonial attempts to re-write history and to deconstruct the myths of a nation in the works of a number of Canadian novelists, Johnston included, "speculative fiction." "Indeed, instead of exhibiting a retrospective certainty, contemporary historical novels are undeniably increasingly speculative" (Wyile xi-xii). Wyile examines Johnston's view of Canada and Newfoundland through the bitter destiny of a fictionalized Joe Smallwood. If The Colony of Unrequited Dreams offered a criticism of the allegory of the nation, The Navigator of New York departs from such concerns and sets the ground for an historical adventure which defines itself as uncertain from its very beginning--the race for the North Pole. Using historical figures in a work of fiction attracts a lot of attention and Johnston probably did not intend to avoid the controversy over who reached the pole first.t This controversy, although the author denies it, looms over the entire novel. A question such as "Who was first to discover the North Pole?"--irrelevant to the Inuit who came along to help out with the various expeditions--became crucial for two main newspapers in New York at the turn of the century. The New York Herald supported Dr. …

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