Letters to Omar. Coteau Books
Spaz. Anvil Press
Bonnie Bowman’s Spaz and Rachel Wyatt’s Letters to Omar are classified as comedic novels in both the blurbs and micro reviews appearing on their jacket covers. But what makes a novel funny? It is impossible to reduce humour to the wit of a particular turn of phrase, the energy of a dialogue, the novelty of a premise, or the irony of a situation. Humour is about balance and timing: the narrative should fall somewhere between the real and the fanciful; the prose must ring true, while also managing to consistently surprise the reader; and the characters can be neither too strange, nor too ordinary. Such finely wrought narratives are not easy to craft. Spaz and Letters to Omar each manage to strike this balance to varying degrees of success. The laughs are many and they are genuine, but comedy is not the strongest aspect of either novel. The most memorable moments of both narratives are their sensitive descriptions of the strangeness of ordinary lives.
Spaz is the story of a misfit in love. We meet the protagonist, Walter Finch, as a
boy growing up in Agincourt. Bowman’s Scarborough, charming in its detail, is not the prototypical sleepy suburb full of endless model homes, each as identical as the families inside. The model homes are there, but Bowman’s characters are wonderfully, unabashedly weird. Walter is an unremarkable boy in all ways but one: having earned the nickname “Spaz” for his unusual gait, he develops a childhood fascination with shoes after a salesman suggests that he might learn to walk more correctly by wearing a pair of orthopedic straight last shoes. This childhood humiliation develops into an intense, consuming foot fetish that defines Walter’s adult life. The novel’s fairy-tale narrative begins when he slips a pair of red strappy sandals onto the most beautiful feet he has ever seen and she walks out with them, leaving her own shoes and socks behind. While Walter’s intimate relationship with feet as a shoe salesman, a shoe designer, and a fetishist is represented with a great deal of humour, the best moments in Bowman’s writing are her rhapsodic descriptions of Walter’s moments of ecstasy with objects of desire (sometimes human, often inanimate) that exceed the attainable. These dramatic sequences, sometimes written as interior monologues, sometimes as dream sequences, are so relentlessly detailed and evocative that they test the reader’s own limits around the question of sexual taboos.
Letters to Omar also explores the inner lives and fantasies of ordinary people leading seemingly mundane lives. At the centre of Wyatt’s novel are three elderly women: cousins Dorothy and Kate and their college roommate Elsie are lifelong friends who have shared homes, family,
and friendship for more than forty years. While Wyatt gradually fills in fragments of each woman’s history, her focus is on their daily lives in the present moment, especially their struggle to remain effectual in their own lives and their broader social context. Wyatt represents this struggle as both a function of the aging process and of the peculiarities of the dynamic between these particular women. From Dorothy’s collection of unsent letters to public figures (the titular Omar Sharif is her most frequent correspondent), to her collaboration with Kate and Elsie on a fundraiser for relief efforts in Afghanistan, their ambitions for the eighth decade of their lives are represented with a self-consciousness that gives the reader licence to laugh as well as to sympathize. Wyatt has a playwright’s ear for dialogue: the direct discourse between characters is the liveliest aspect of her prose and the source of much of the novel’s humour. Characterization, which is central to the humour and drama of Bowman’s novel, is achieved to varying degrees of success in Letters to Omar: at its best, Wyatt’s representation of her three protagonists is affectionate and dynamic, portrayed through a realism that is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. Dorothy is one such example. Kate and Elsie feel underdeveloped in comparison, and at times their voices aren’t distinct enough to differentiate them for the reader.
Like Spaz, Letters to Omar hooks the reader with its quirky premise and witty dialogue. But what sustains both narratives is their startlingly honest representation of the odd. Bowman and Wyatt suggest that everyday life is far from mundane. The way things really are is very strange indeed, and the most compelling characters are those who are, in the end, strangely, hilariously, and tragically ordinary.