A Multi-Generational Mixtape

  • Ian Williams
    Reproduction. Vintage Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Reproduction—the debut novel from Ian Williams—is an inventive multi-generational saga that pushes the limits of narrative and language. The novel explores the ways families are bonded, whether by blood, story, or choice. Its size, encyclopedic knowledge, Biblical intertextuality, and peregrination through the complicated genealogy of family (from the cycle of birth, life, and death) recall Steinbeck’s East of Eden, but in language and style it is closer to the work of Zadie Smith and the late David Foster Wallace. Fitting the cyclical nature of life and the seasons, the novel is told in four sections (with an interlude between them titled “The Sex Talk”), moving from Toronto in the late seventies to the mid-nineties, and finally to the present. Before the narrative proper, we encounter an upwards-moving genealogy that begins with “before” and then seven epigraphs. The genealogy—devoid of names, with representative sex chromosomes in their place—and the epigraphs, ranging from Margaret Atwood to Genesis, speak to Williams’ awareness that both he, as author, and his characters are part of an inherited chain of stories.

The opening lines let us know we will have to decipher differing perspectives in the text. From XX: “Both of their mothers were dying in the background.” From XY: “Both of their mothers were still alive in the background.” XX focuses on Felicia Shaw—a nineteen-year-old from an unnamed island in the Caribbean—while XY centres on Edgar Gross, an older businessman from Germany. Their mothers share a room in palliative care at St. Xavier hospital in Toronto. While hardly an ideal match (Edgar is a self-aggrandizing womanizer and Felicia is a young faith-based woman), they strike up a romance of circumstance (with equal parts comedy and tragedy) that sets in motion the novel’s power dynamics in relation to sex, race, and gender. Eventually they reproduce (despite Edgar’s desire for an abortion), which sets up the storied lineage to follow. Part two focuses on their progeny—Armistice, who goes by Army and is a charismatic opportunist—and a summer in the mid-nineties in the shared split-level Brampton home when Felicia’s cantankerous landlord’s two children (Hendrix and Heather) visit from the US. The third section takes place in the present and introduces us to Chariot (Riot)—Heather’s son—who creates a scandalous masturbation video that gets him expelled from university. The final section explores the relationship between Army and a dying Edgar who he meets in person for the first time.

Even though Edgar is mostly absent, Army receives his father’s business acumen and desire for younger women. A major theme in the novel is sex and the entitlement men often feel to women’s bodies. Observing Felicia early in the novel, Edgar notes that she has a “[g]ood body, useful body. Her body seemed useful to the point of being industrial,” and his failed attempt to rape her is echoed in Heather’s tragic narrative and pregnancy. The novel provides an empathetic look (Einfühlung is a theme) into the pain and invisible labour of women in relation to the pervasive misogyny of men. Hence, depending on the context, reproduction can be productive or destructive and Williams demonstrates this in both narrative and style.

Williams challenges the reader to entangle meaning, as they encounter crossed-out words, Bible verses, lists and epic cataloguing, letters and text messages, play-like scripts, and a close reading of a song with chords and annotated text boxes. I was particularly drawn to the music in the text, as Williams incorporates popular lyrics from Nirvana, Barenaked Ladies, and Wu-Tang Clan, among many others, and describes a number of mixtapes that Edgar (and later Army) use to convey their emotions. The music provides a sonic textuality, such as when Williams includes both a lyric and three bars of actual music from the Negro spiritual “Ride the Chariot.” However, by far the most experimental and obscure section of the novel is the fourth. Like Edgar, the text gets cancer, which causes textual blight as we get smaller text inserted within the larger narrative. However, the careful reader will see the reproductive meaning in this painful experience as they suture these words into sentences.

Sometimes the dialogue felt a little stilted, and I wanted more of Felicia, who seemed particularly held down by the weight of her circumstances. It would be nice to see her embrace her Blackness more directly (why is her island unnamed?), and the text could perhaps find ways to challenge its genetic metaphor in terms of race and gender (concerns to be taken up by others with more detail than I can provide here). A few quibbles aside, Reproduction treads new ground in CanLit, and Williams is a formidable talent deserving of his Giller Prize for this novel. With narrative warp and weft, the novel grapples with pressing social issues—from race and class to sexual assault—to provide a detailed portrait of the ways that one family is held together by (and within) story. Reproduction is a novelistic mixtape that shows the extraordinariness of ordinary people and their interconnected lives. In terms of creating new life and potential, which we get to enjoy, the novel lives up to its title.

This review “A Multi-Generational Mixtape” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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