One Hundred Days of Rain
$20.00, 192 pages.
In One Hundred Days of Rain, winner of the 2016 ReLit Award for best novel as well as the Publishing Triangle’s 2016 Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, Carellin Brooks describes rain as “unvarying and monotonous.” Such a phrase could also describe her book. Rain’s Vancouver-based protagonist, “our heroine,” lives a variant of the same day over and over; her life repeats with little difference. “This weather is driving me crazy,” our heroine confesses toward the end of the book. The book might drive readers crazy, too.
The book’s heroine, a broken-hearted writer (we never learn what she writes) and mother hurting from a slow, messy divorce, is something of a Sisyphean figure. Despite her daily efforts to solve or at least subdue her sundry problems, they come back to nag her again and again, like debt collectors. Rain’s heroine is all but dismembered by different people tugging her in separate directions: by M, her ex-wife, who tries to sue our heroine and take possession of her five-year-old son; by her son, whom our heroine must fight over for custody; by her son’s distant and once violent father, the last man she dated; by Nurse, “who she’s dating in a desultory fashion”; by S, her casual long-distance partner of “nine years now” (never explained); and by the rain, Rain’s primary antagonist. Yet no matter how much she’s tugged, our heroine remains stuck where she is. “I’m moving,” she writes in an email to a friend near the end of the book, “but I’m still here.” Our heroine goes to work. She takes care of her son when he’s around. She shops. She goes to court. She considers moving into a new apartment. She goes to work. She takes care of her son next time he’s around. She considers moving to a new apartment but isn’t sure if she’ll like it. And so on, ad infinitum—or it feels this way, at least. And all the while it rains.
Rain is arguably more a prosaic experiment in describing rain than a novel, traditionally defined. Brooks envisions rain in innumerable ways. One day, rain is a “faithless unwelcome friend.” Another day, “a vengeful thing.” Another day still, a “sudden model of efficiency.” A “democratic notion.” Rain “leaks out of the sky, like an orgasm out of a rock” (can the sky be rocky?). “Surely there cannot be this many separate sorts of rain,” the heroine laments. But there are, plus more:
This morning rain is faint, almost Victorian. Rain totters about with a skim-milk wrist held to its forehead, collapses on the divan. Rain seems not to be long for this world.
[R]ain has never been exactly, how you say, career weather. Drifting and dropping, that’s pretty much the extent of rain’s job description. If rain had a resumé it would be a little puffy thing, a breath of wet air that disappeared when someone opened the envelope.
Don’t the passages excerpted above read like prose poems? A reader could fruitfully treat Rain as linked collection of such. Structurally the book invites such a reading. Rain spans 202 pages and is divided into 99 short sections, many of which are no longer than a page. I counted the word “rain” over 160 times within the first 77 pages, before I gave up. It’s impressive that our heroine does not give up. It’s also impressive that, in writing the book, Brooks stuck with a task so seemingly tempting to give up. Perhaps it’s a testament to her imagination, to her ability to see and describe one subject so variously. Or perhaps—and this view is more cynical, but maybe also more realistic (I wish I knew how to differentiate the two)—it’s a testament to creative masochism. Some writers like to complain, or humble-brag, that writing is painful. Well, living is also painful. Rain is a painfully-written book about a painful life that’s painful to read.
Maybe that’s a triumph, or maybe a failure. Should reading a book about pain feel painless, or does such an approach naively confuse art with entertainment, pop with prose? Maybe a certain realist approach, that a book should evoke its subject with maximum verisimilitude—and if the subject is painful, then so too should be the book—is preferable? I might as well say it: I did not enjoy Rain. I didn’t read so much as wade through it. There’s a crucial difference between a book that’s interestingly painful to read and a book that’s just plain painful, and Rain was just plain painful. Reading it made for a painful experience in how pain can be its own sort of lifestyle, in vogue among those who are fortunate enough to choose it when they want to—like, for example, tenured writers. Contrast the heroine’s struggles with the struggles people face in East Hastings, a poverty-stricken area of Vancouver’s Chinatown, where six years ago city officials reduced the speed limit because so many pedestrians had been killed by cars. Do so because Brooks invites you to in the following passage, presumably set in East Hastings:
From inside the windows of the bus the passengers watch rain. Condensation wraps them in a frosted blanket of glass. She smears herself a hole to look out. Outside is the same view as always, the wet darkened streets, the unlucky. They totter from place to place trailing blankets. They shamble heedless across the avenue. The bus she’s on slows and picks up speed and stops regretfully a safe block from Chinatown’s main intersection. The Chinese crowd on.
Disregarding the fact that Brooks labels a diverse population of Asian people as “Chinese,” as well as the similarity in phrasing between “the Chinese” and “the rain”—as if both are homogenous invasions from which our heroine takes shelter—it’s tough to say what to make of this section, which is one of the only passages in the book to mention race. (Elsewhere, the narrator describes a newspaper diagram depicting “a cross-section of a [shipping] container with its cargo of illegal immigrant[s].”) Brooks could, of course, be trying to be ironic in some way I’m not getting, but even if she is, what’s the point? To shock both the heroine and the reader with a glimpse of the repressed real? Whatever Brooks intended to accomplish with this passage, it serves only to highlight how vanilla and ultimately unsympathetic our heroine’s struggle really is. Our heroine doesn’t suffer like her neighbours on heroin, and either she doesn’t care or she doesn’t notice. In that same passage about “the Chinese” crowding the bus, our heroine goes on to ponder bumptiously her own private suffering and the nature of rain:
They are going to work to school. They are going beyond the reach of rain. They won’t be caught. They won’t be left out. Rain is a vengeful thing, it has but one goal. To saturate them. Rain would like to fill her up until she can’t hold it any more. She sees herself broken and flooding, a vessel.
It would be easier to take our heroine’s struggle seriously if she didn’t take herself so seriously; humour is as foreign to her as are “the Chinese.” Not to say that Rain’s “broken” heroine should be (more) amiable or relatable, just that the book would be (more) interesting if its heroine’s struggle warranted the reader’s care. But do you care? (I didn’t even care enough to feel some schadenfreude in her misfortune.) Perhaps the concept of Rain is better than its execution. A drop of rain, after all, is a far cry from the heavenly cloud from which it falls.
“The writer’s job,” wrote Nabokov, “is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” Yet Brooks—who has also written a fragmented meditation on motherhood called Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces (Demeter, 2013), a history of British Columbia’s Wreck Beach called Wreck Beach (New Star Books, 2007), and a scholarly work on phallic feminine figures called Every Inch a Woman: Phallic Possession, Femininity and the Text (UBC Press, 2005)—shows that a writer can also simply drop rain on a character and she’ll suffer enough, at least by her own standards. In some ways, rain is even worse a fate than rocks. Getting hit by a rock is at least conclusive: you get hit, it hurts, you move on. But rain doesn’t hit, and its victim can’t move on. Rain nags, and its victims can neither catch sight of its end nor adjure it to stop. Rain is indifferent, and in this way like God. “Each day the rain ends up being different,” remarks the narrator, but each day it continues to rain—or it threatens to. “Rain has worked its way into a permanent condition.” Sometimes our heroine would like to escape this condition. “Anything but this dull grey cloud over everything, suffocating her.” But she can’t. There is no final rain, no rain to end all rain. “Not for them the relief of the breaking-point, and the flood.” Beware the pressure headache.
Curious that “character” and “catharsis” so resemble each other. It’s as though the former needs the latter to survive. Rain’s heroine never achieves catharsis and she never seems to be fully alive. Her real life seems to be waiting for her somewhere she can’t see, somewhere beyond the horizon, maybe with the sun. Yet she can’t even envision the sun; “the wet world has wrapped her too long, she no longer remembers anything else.” According to psychiatrists, a depressed brain moves too slowly to generate images of the future, hence why depressed people so often speak of darkness, nothingness, or abysses (see Kierkegaard). Rain moves like a depressed brain, unable to generate light. “Gloomy morning, gloomy noontime, gloomy day with no hint of what is to come.”
Daily life for our heroine is damp with what Stanford academic Sianne Ngai calls in her book Ugly Feelings “ugly feelings.” Ugly feelings, such as irritation or anxiety or envy—unlike Aristotelian feelings like pity or fear, or “more morally beatific feelings” like melancholia or shame—are “non-cathartic.” One lives with ugly feelings as one lives with an incurable itch (see for example Don DeLillo’s “The Itch”). Or with endless rain. For most of Rain, the heroine remains mute about the rain, just as she remains mute about her ugly feelings, her pain. “Finally even she begins to talk about weather,” the narrator remarks in the closing pages. “This rain is killing me, she says.” But of course the rain doesn’t kill her. It barely hurts her, like a hesitant bully. One night rain puts the heroine “in mind of toughs who pass a bit too close in the school hallway, bump you sort-of accidentally into the lockers. The cool and clang of it. Go ahead, complain. Come on, report us. The menace of rain, impending.” Our heroine’s struggle is boring. Boredom is another “ugly feeling.”
Often our heroine refuses to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella or even take the bus. At least, she refuses at first, but gradually, with much stop and go, she comes to speak about the rain and her pain, and to protect herself from both. An epic storm never comes, and neither does catharsis, but gradually the heroine does learn to cope more maturely with the rain and her pain, her external and internal weather. “Things change every day,” writes Haruki Murakami in Kafka On The Shore. “With each new dawn it’s not the same world as the day before. And you’re not the same person you were, either.” Rain captures a life changing so subtly and slowly it’s all but imperceptible, like changes in rain. It’s repetition with very little difference.
This isn’t to say that weather in Rain is a simple projection or externalization of the heroine’s feelings. Rainy Vancouver feels miserable, and it isn’t a pathetic fallacy; rainy Vancouver generates this feeling. Rainy Vancouver is miserable. So, combine miserable Vancouver with a miserable person who chooses daily to be miserable and you have a wholly miserable world, which is the world of Rain.
Rain liquidizes binaries such as those between self and other, inner and outer, subject and object. Indeed, the book hits its readers over the head again and again, like frozen raindrops, with such acts of ‘deconstruction.’ In one telling scene, the heroine imagines rain as
a spurned lover who won’t get the hint. Imagines her voice turning harsh like with M, the times M didn’t do what she wanted. Can’t you see? Don’t you know? She’d like to tell the rain to see someone, fix its flaws. But rain can’t change. Won’t. And she’s stuck with rain, no way of getting out of this one.
Here the heroine is speaking all at once about rain and her ex and her past and her pain. Differences don’t pile up so much as clot.
And all the while it rains. The rain is the book’s strongest character. It’s a banal monster. A petty weather-bully. Appropriately, the narrator ascribes it human qualities: “This is rain’s only desire, to gather and grow.” “A mother in a tantrum, the rain exhorts them with angry exclamations.” “[T]he rain takes its first tentative shoves, tries its weight, like a bully dancing on tiptoe.” The rain is both weather-god and antagonist, organic occurrence and writerly imposition, godly and deus ex machina.
Also, in a more abstract sense, the rain is the book’s narrator. Details don’t matter to the narrator, just as details don’t matter to rain. “[T]his obliterating rain obscures everything,” and “everything” includes other characters; the reader gets misty glimpses of them, little splashes of them here and there, then they evaporate. Characters remain impersonal, nearly anonymous; they are called “M” and “S” and nothing more. (Whether this is a clever stylistic feat or a writerly failure is up for debate.) The narrator’s cadences are redolent of rain’s:
Rain goes down to the river. Rain goes down to the sea. Rain carves a path. Rain a funnel and conduit. Rain finding a way. Rain goes through, goes under, goes around, always ever in the same direction. Rain a constant. Rain fights and hammers. Rain is the loudest of weathers.
This prose pitter-patters. In a way, Rain is one long onomatopoeia, one sustained articulation of rain. Put your ear to a conch and hear ocean. Put your ear to Rain and hear rain.
The struggle against rain in Rain is individual as well as collective. The rain is a banal monster against which, or under which, characters struggle together, whether they talk about it or not. So Rain is also concerned with collective identity and place, what makes a here here and not elsewhere. Margaret Atwood’s Survival thesis, by now whittled down to a phrase so woody you could tap it for maple syrup —that CanLit is about surviving Canadian environments, and surviving the environment establishes a sense of “here”—is unfortunately relevant. So too, while we’re at it, is Northrop Frye’s infamous observation on “Canadian sensibility”:
It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as “Where is here?”
“Here” in Rain is Vancouver, where rain is a “birthright,” where rain baptizes babies, confers identity, and defines but doesn’t distinguish. In Vancouver “they are proud of rain or rather proud of themselves for surviving it.” Brooks’s book makes two seemingly contradictory suggestions about identity and place: first, that while identity is fluid, it is even more so in Vancouver, where rain is status quo; second, that in Vancouver, rain is so constant that, paradoxically, it’s fixed, and so too is identity—life in a place always wet with rain is placid. (This fixity might explain why the book somehow feels claustrophobically spacious.) “I’m moving,” writes the heroine, “but I’m still here.”
“Each day the rain ends up being different,” remarks our self-serious heroine, but each day it continues to rain. Reading One Hundred Days of Rain feels much like living through one hundred days of rain. This feeling might, of course, be Brooks’s point. Yet whether it’s a point worth making is another matter.