The obvious attraction to Marian Engel's 1976 novel Bear* is the forbidden, erotic story between a mousy, introverted librarian and an actual bear. But Engel's most popular and controversial novel (which was also her last) is far more than a gimmicky piece of erotica, the kind of stuff that makes good fodder for Amazon ebooks about women who fuck dinosaurs and werewolves; the kind of thing that might inspire someone to buy one of those wacky dolphin or dragon dildos (link NSFW, obviously).
Bear follows Lou, a lonely librarian who works for a Canadian historical institute, where her job is to catalog the seemingly meaningless photographs, maps, books, and bits of memorabilia donated by locals. When Colonel Cary passes away, he bequeaths his remote island estate in Ontario to the institute, and Lou is sent on an intriguing and exciting field assignment to catalog Cary's belongings, to see if there is anything there worth preserving, and if his enigmatic octagonal home would make a decent outpost for the institute. Once Lou arrives at the island, she's informed that among the items Cary has left behind is one of particular note: a pet bear who lives in his own log cabin shed behind the house, and who will need to be fed and cared for by Lou during her stay. Lou immediately wonders if the bear will make for interesting company. She has no idea.
Or perhaps she does. Although told in a brisk 120 pages, Bear gradually pulls back the dingy curtains on the life of a woman who spends her days in self-imposed exile, whether that's at the institute, where she catalogs the lives of others, or on Cary's island estate, where she welcomes the more easily justified solitude. We're left, as readers, to fill in the blanks between the lines on the pages, written in such a way to reflect Lou's train of thought, which shifts between dreamy and pragmatic; she is a woman whose life revolves around order and classification, but who battles with the ideas of desire and longing. She is only able to find validation for her existence in cataloging and classifying the value of the lives others leave behind. Why does she impose such loneliness upon herself? It's not a question that Engel answers outright, but one that we ponder as Lou's relationship with the bear develops.
Early on in the narrative, Lou begins finding little notes left by the late Colonel Cary, each scrap providing information on the lives of biology of bears, as well as mythology about these majestic creatures, and the way that other societies have worshipped and revered them. Lou looks upon her new companion with curiosity, but it isn't until Lou takes the advice of an old Native American island resident and takes a shit alongside the bear that their bond begins to deepen, and the bear's fondness for (or perhaps simple acceptance of) his new companion grows.
It isn't terribly long before Bear escalates their relationship from afternoon walks and playful swims in the lake to something startlingly sexual, as the bear quite eagerly licks Lou's vagina and the two begin spending many evenings together. But Lou remains frustrated; the bear never gets an erection or reveals his penis to her, but she remains enraptured with the creature, demanding that he rip her head off or tear her apart. Sex and violence have always been alluringly intertwined, and it's not uncommon for some to tell their lovers during sex that they wish to be torn apart, ravaged, destroyed, smashed into pieces, or broken in two; it's not a request to be physically harmed, but a desire for that person to physically exert themselves so completely over and into us, to furiously make love to us in such a way that we feel obliterated, where the physical action embodies the mental state, practically eclipsing it. Lou's passion and lust for this bear is so all-consuming that she wants nothing more than to see and feel her emotions illustrated physically. Her demands are metaphorical; she longs for the sexual act to release her from the ache of desire.
Lou, like most people caught deep in the throes of the kind of maddening lust that's often mistaken for amorous feelings, projects her ideology of the perfect soulmate onto this bear. Engel gives us just pieces of Lou's romantic history, written in such a tangential manner that we know it to be told from Lou's perspective, called upon like streams of memory feeding into a sea; streams that she stubbornly tries and fails to dam. Lou has only ever coupled with men who are emotionally unavailable and who treat her as disposable. She had an affair once with a man who left her for a much younger woman, and Lou reacted with great immaturity, damaging his car and scrawling hateful, accusatory language on his home in chalk. She has sex with the director of the institute every week on her desk, but always takes great care not to have sex on top of any valuable maps. The sex with her boss seems perfunctory and passionless, something she thinks she's just allowing him to do to her; a mid-afternoon interruption to her usual workflow and a minor inconvenience. There is no desire. There is no lust. There is no passion for Lou.
Reading Bear the same weekend that I watched Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, I found the two to evoke similar themes of loneliness, longing, and our struggle to reconcile our mentality with our nature. Although the two do not hold any real narrative similarities, Charlotte Gainsbourg's Joe and the literary Lou are both solitary women who suffer and struggle as a side effect of their nature, but who both ultimately find a certain dignity and strength in it. Their loneliness is an affliction, but it's also a self-imposed line of defense. Lou uses her life of solitude to justify her loneliness, while Joe lives in and embraces her loneliness to justify her solitude.
Lou has never been attracted to the right man, but the bear allows her to construct an ideal, one that sadly evades her. Lou and Joe are both frustratingly chasing after something neither of them can attain: that elusive and complete satisfaction. Joe whispers to her recurring lover, Jerome, "Fill all my holes," and while he could perform this act physically (in a sense), it's the existential meaning in Joe's request that Jerome cannot reciprocate. Lou asks the bear to rip her head off, and while he certainly could (as it's in his nature), it's the existential desire that the bear will never be able to fulfill.
Ultimately, both Lou and Joe find some closure in their respective conditions -- a better understanding of what their solitude means and what and who they truly are. And while it doesn't erase the pain and the persistence of memory, they each find a separate wholeness at the end of their desperate and disparate journeys, embracing who they are even if who they are leaves something to be desired.
* I'd like to thank BAD commenter Shannon Hubbell for bringing this book to my attention in Phil's post about the Tanya's Island trailer back in July. I immediately ordered Bear and anxiously awaited its arrival for weeks. Weeks.