Death and Transcendence

  • Dean Serravalle
    Reliving Charley. Oberon
  • Mark Sedore
    Snowmen. 3-Day Books
  • Tom Managhan
    The Bottle Collector. Your Scrivener Press
Reviewed by Justin Shaw

The male protagonists in these novels are concerned with transcending death—literally and figuratively. All three men take journeys to reflect upon their pasts and to challenge themselves to affirm their existences, with varying, though sometimes predictable, results.

Dean Serravalle, in his debut novel Reliving Charley, delivers a cautionary tale on a recurrent theme in Western narrative: mortality and the desire to transcend it. Serravalle’s economical prose articulates the heavy existential subject matter with clarity and ease, avoiding pontifications on the plight of humanity. Rather than focus on the tragic process of individuation and the Romantic confrontation with death, Serravalle instead examines how death can be a catalyst for raising a greater social awareness. The novel opens with the titular character mourning his wife’s recent death. Charley’s friend Samuel then reveals that he has developed a stem-cell serum that regenerates cellular growth and reverses aging. However, this Faustian tale eventually undermines Charley and Samuel’s attempts at death-transcendence, and suggest that their desire for immortality is the same selfish impulse evident in the acquisitive lifestyle of the youth-oriented American Dream.

Serravalle explores the gendered aspect of the American ethos of acquisition, as both men attempt to use their “invigorating” youth to (re)acquire the love of Linda, a common love interest. Aligning this masculinist orientation with the ethos of capitalistic acquisition that support the American Dream, Samuel begins to envision Jay Gatsby as his personal mentor in hallucinations—a side effect of the serum. In this sense, the reverse-aging serum is more than a simple means to transcend physical death; it also gives Charley and Samuel a second chance to “live out [the] imaginings” they suppressed in the past, including excesses such as infidelity. But the serum has an unanticipated feature: stressful situations, such as those brought on by the acquisitive lifestyle, drastically increase the rate of regression, bringing them closer to birth/death. Samuel, whose acquisitive orientation is stronger than Charley’s, eventually succumbs to this reverse fate, while Charley learns to temper his selfish inclinations to prolong his youth indefinitely, which secures his relationship with Linda. Thus, Serravalle suggests that dreams of immortality must always be approached with caution: there is always risk in “liv[ing] out our imaginings.”

Mark Sedore’s debut novel Snowmen was the winner of the thirty-second 3-Day Novel Contest. Sedore also tackles mortality and its attendant existential concerns, though he does so with a detached irony that is both his strength and weakness. Snowmen depicts the cold relations between brothers Charlie and Larry, the latter of whom has Asperger’s, which only exacerbates the situation. When Larry is diagnosed with cancer, he decides to raise money for cancer research by being the first person to walk solo across the Arctic Circle. But when his sickness prevents him from doing so, Charlie decides to do the walk for him.

With its alternating narrative structure, between Arctic present and past backstory, Sedore’s novel shifts from survivalist fiction to family drama/romance. His spare prose captures the sublime Arctic landscape, while also articulating the quotidian idiosyncrasies of Charlie’s experience. In the most notable instance of the latter, Charlie identifies and articulates common sounds and vocal utterances in their musical note equivalents: a character “cackles a crazy frozen laugh that measures from middle C to F-sharp,” and he hears a “wail or howl . . . in the G above middle C.”

Charlie’s motives for making the trip are selfish rather than altruistic. Not only does he do it to “spite” his dying brother (after a violent altercation over a disputed love-interest), he also sees it as a way of proving he can survive the hardship. Thus, fundraising concerns are peripheral, and Larry is assigned the role of antagonist, providing Charlie with the negative, fist-shaking impetus to keep moving. And though their relationship is often caricatured, Charlie’s journey and his freely chosen confrontation with mortality sits uneasily with his brother’s forced confrontation with the same. Thus, the reader’s sympathy for Charlie’s self-imposed middle-class plight wavers throughout. But maybe this is precisely Sedore’s point: both men are equally cold in their own way. They are the titular snowmen, and their coldness exists between them rather than in one or the other. In this sense, Sedore’s novel is more an exploration of contemporary masculinity and the gender expectations that sometimes stifle the bonds between men—even brothers.

Tom Managhan’s The Bottle Collector is an episodic novel that depicts the solo sailing trip of Mark Weathers, from Windsor to Thunder Bay. As a retired psychologist steeped in middle-aged reflection, Mark is unhappy that his life has failed to measure up to his past ideals. Thus, he decides that if he doesn’t find a reason to keep living at the end of his journey, he will commit suicide. The novel vacillates between sweeping existential meditation and everyday observation, the latter eventually leading Mark to appreciate the simple goals and achievements in life, such as the search for bottles undertaken by two peripheral characters in the novel. Managhan’s humour, as channelled through Mark, is sarcastic and occasionally condescending, symptomatic of the protagonist’s self-loathing as projected onto others. And though Managhan depicts Mark as wavering between offensive defensiveness and apologetic self-reproach, his character is often difficult to sympathize with. Particularly problematic are Managhan’s representations of rural characters through Mark’s point of view: most are unflattering rural stereotypes, from boisterous and uncultivated to simple and docile country folk. This representation is sometimes subtle, other times humorously foregrounded—but either way, the condescension is there. This criticism aside, Managhan’s novel is at times both funny and insightful, as Mark learns to appreciate the links between the collection of discarded bottles for redemption as a redemptive process in itself, and his own previous occupation as a psychologist who tried to redeem those left behind by a society with loftier goals in mind.

This review “Death and Transcendence” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 170-72.

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