I knew Bear by reputation many years before I actually read it, and now that I’ve done so, the controversy that surrounded its publication—already a bit ridiculous on the face of it—seems positively quaint. Only in a place like Canada, where Queen Victoria’s prudish reign hung on in spirit until the final days of the twentieth century, could a novel like Bear be controversial. After all, we’re talking about a book published in 1976—17 years after Naked Lunch, 42 years after Tropic of Cancer, 54 years after Ulysses. If its sole aim was to shock through depiction of sexual debauchery, then it was decidedly too little too late.
Fortunately, Bear’s sole purpose is not to shock. I’m honestly not sure whether that was even among its purposes at all. Its risque subject matter aside, Bear reminds me less of the taboo-probing forbears listed above than of Surfacing, Margaret Atwood’s novel published only a few years earlier in 1972. It’s been over a decade since I read Surfacing, but my thoughts turned in its direction as a read Engel’s novel. Both books feature female protagonists facing some profound but largely unspoken emptiness in their lives, and both venture into the Canadian wilderness in an effort to address it. It is in these wilds that Engel’s protagonist, Lou, meets the eponymous Bear while on an assignment to catalog the possessions of the late Colonel Cary.
What follows is a subtle and often unspoken portrait of loneliness. There are a few short passages with explicit language that strike with surprising keenness amidst the literary prose, but my takeaway from Bear was less the protagonist’s peccadilloes than than the yawning and undefined hunger inside her. It’s a rich story well told, and one deserving of continued appreciation beyond its seamy notoriety.