Faulty Families and Towering Slums: Two Stylists Get Crafty

Reviewed by David Huebert

“This civilization is collapsing around us! The whole world will be warring over water in a few decades!” These words—Joly’s boyfriend Ben’s response to her varyingly (un)wanted pregnancy—bespeak the central concern in Michelle Kaesar’s slick and crafty debut novel, The Towers of Babylon.

The novel unfolds through four books of about sixty pages, each told from a closely limited third-person perspective. Book One details Joly’s struggles with her pregnancy, art, and self-worth. The novel opens with Joly suffering through a job interview for a nauseatingly woke coffee shop—a scene that becomes increasingly compelling in retrospect as the novel spins you into its gravity of global cannibal capitalism. Book Two introduces readers to Joly’s friend Louise, a depressed marketing exec turning to pot and extramarital sex to enliven—or divert from—a stale life, passionless marriage, and her “office drone” colleagues. Cleverly, it turns out that Louise’s ennui is born in a primal scene of disaster capitalism—the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh—that keeps the theme of global capital alive and buzzing. In Book Three, Kaesar achieves the remarkable feat of rendering Ben—a Marxist-bagel-slinging-PhD-dropout-cum-preacher—coherent, likeable, and empathetic even as he rails bombastic against the “neoliberal labour model.” Ben’s section ends with a resounding sermon about climate crisis and the coming End Times that serves as the book’s important, if not groundbreaking, intellectual climax. Book Four follows Joly’s investment-banker brother, Yannick, through his struggles with alcoholism, his entrapment in the moneyed guillotine of Bay Street, his dream of “freedom forty” retirement in Bayfield, and recurring thoughts of suicide.

The novel’s central image motif is mesmerizing. The titular towers of Babylon find many avatars in the text, including the condominiums of Toronto (“Hundreds of towers of Babel all across the city”), the CN tower, a bagel display, a mosque on the Iraqi 250 dinar note, and “Torre David,” an abandoned skyscraper in Caracas inhabited by the poor and homeless. Kaesar demonstrates a knack for image-patterning, continually revising and refreshing her central metaphor.

The book has clear strengths, but there are problems. The novel’s thirty-plus pages of sex scenes border on tasteless, adding little to the narrative. The fourth section is the book’s weakest. After impressively humanizing Ben, Kaesar’s exploration of Yannick, his banker-bro friends, his nagging mother-in-law, and his sexual pragmatist money-dazed wife, the writing often descends into cliché. The novel is not particularly novelistic, and readers hoping for an immersive beach-read may be disappointed. But the sections excel at the level of verve, energy, and momentum, with each chapter achieving a fresh and vivid voice.

Ryan Turner’s second fiction collection, Half-Sisters and Other Stories, is a quietly dazzling feat of psychological athleticism. A controlled and understated stylist, Turner’s is a deft craft. Often, nothing sensational happens in these stories; but their emotional power seethes in the shadows, chews the reading brain.

In “Poses,” Grant becomes friends with an art teacher, Meg, and brings her to a wedding as his beard. Theo, the protagonist of “Moving,” brings his grandmother home after his mother’s death and helps her through an embarrassing scene of incontinence. Filled with credible and sophisticated detail (“never shake hands across a doorway”), “The Poet” details a Soviet civil servant’s pseudo-exile to the sun-starved North, ending in an embarrassment caused by his attachment to one of the prisoners he stewards. Throughout the collection, striking images are often conjured in passing: a woman living alone dies and is said to be devoured by her many cats; the “oddly sweet smell” of a rural garbage dump where “bulldozers topple mountains of garbage bags off a cliff into a pit where several fires perpetually burned”; a woman stoops onto all fours in her yard during the Russian famine, eating grass.

The titular gesture to “half-sisters” offers an interpretive yoke; all Turner’s families are somehow busted, splintered, or convoluted—fathers leave their children, mothers die, women adopt their brain-damaged in-laws, grandmothers move in with their grandsons, mothers parade their infidelity. Turner’s persistent examination of the complex differences between family structures exposes the false fantasy of the nuclear family, but it is in the intimate minutiae of the self-assessing mind—the characters’ subtle realizations, always potent, credible, and unique—that Turner nests his gift. In his characters’ small revelations, Turner shows us the truths we’ve always felt but never quite articulated, “like waking angry from a dream.”

This review “Faulty Families and Towering Slums: Two Stylists Get Crafty” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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