“Esprit de corps” is a French expression translated literally as “spirit of the body,” but metaphorically it suggests the pride and loyalty felt by members of a group. The expression emerges in Malcolm Sutton’s first novel, Job Shadowing, which tells the story of two separate yet linked characters, Gil and Etti, each involved in mysterious couplings. Etti’s connection is with an eccentric artist, Caslon, who uses this military term to communicate his ideal: “being a small part of a great body whose power comes from the parts.” Gil, meanwhile, listens as an outsider to one of many lectures on the zeitgeist of the mostly millennial audience: “Rather than going away to find ourselves we believe in staying where we are and viewing the world from another angle, another person’s perspective. Let us discover what it is like on the shadow side of the global experience. . . . An institution of job shadows” (emphasis original). Both Etti and Gil become indistinct extensions of the characters they shadow—Gil so intertwined with his subject, Victoria, that while he retains a first-person narrative, chapter titles are given her name rather than his. Etti is viewed more as a trainee of the sinister Caslon, a man so obsessed with living through other viewpoints that he creates a genetic double as a separate body. The idea of body and spirit links characters in ways that become increasingly disturbing.
The theories of esprit de corps and zeitgeist emerge in Erika Rummel’s The Effects of Isolation on the Brain and Lisa de Nikolits’ The Nearly Girl, although the emphases and approaches to identity and connection are distinct in each novel. In Rummel’s novel, the reader is immersed in the perspective of Ellie, who is mysteriously abandoned in a cabin in the “Near North,” expecting the arrival and rescue of her conspirator, Vera. Travelling back to Ellie’s difficult childhood in Vienna, and her subsequent emigration to Canada, the novel explores the impact of an even darker kind of esprit de corps, along with the recurring lines from canonical writers that intertwine the thoughts of isolated Ellie. Unfortunately, both Sutton and Rummel, in their approaches to character and story, evade what is perhaps the most interesting esprit—how the isolated reader “shadows” a variety of people, relationships, and narratives. Neither book is as compelling or successful as de Nikolits’ satirical, yet tender, examination of personalities, families, and group dynamics.
In de Nikolits’ The Nearly Girl, a young woman named Megan falls hopelessly in love with an eccentric poet named Henry, who treats her abysmally but then becomes a target of questionable psychiatric treatment, through which he is rendered an overmedicated, malleable shadow of his unconventional self. Megan becomes pregnant, marries Henry, and then abandons both child and husband to her own parents, an ordinary couple who become the extraordinary foundation of family. The daughter, Amelia, later enters into group therapy with the charismatic Dr. Carroll, whose self-declared revolutionary treatment labelled “D.T.O.T.” (Do The Opposite Thing) again leads to disturbing consequences for his patients. Both “artist” and “expert” are interrogated in ways that are compelling, often hilarious, and yet oddly uplifting. The structure of the frame established through the novel’s prologue and epilogue is eclipsed by the fast-paced story of lives and communities, with titles that list either single characters or relationships. Disappointing, however, is the reductio ad absurdum approach to Dr. Carroll’s theory, which becomes less engaging, particularly as it extends increasingly into the bizarre life of its founder.
All three novels probe boundaries between bodies and spirits—and create a variety of extended bodies—inevitably transgressing borders between the mundane and the magical, between “Spaceship Earth” and the extraterrestrial or fantastic. Most powerful, however, is the affirmation of esprit de corps in ordinary, yet extraordinary, families, communities, and relationships—their capacity for loyalty, acceptance, and reconciliation. These novels ultimately lead the reader to reflect on how his or her own opening of a book is itself an act of eavesdropping, shadowing, or even (ideally) “viewing the world from another angle” while “staying where we are.”