Finding the Correct Light

Reviewed by Paul Barrett

Small-town Ontario is not typically the first location that springs to mind when one thinks of lycanthropy, witchcraft, drug-fuelled hallucinations, and bar fights featuring live owls as projectile weapons. Yet, André Alexis’ Days by Moonlight reimagines a number of small Ontario towns as the sites of such activity. Eschewing the contemporary CanLit trend towards realist, dry narratives, Alexis’ latest work offers a surreal, joyous, and playful adventure. Indeed, Alexis’ closing “Note on the Text” dismisses contemporary expectations that Canadian writing lean towards the documentary, stating that this is “not a work of realism . . . but one that uses the real to show the imagination.” Part sociological account of small-town Ontario life, parody of Canadian stereotypes of politeness, reflection on artistic life, love story, meditation on grief, and philosophical tract, Days by Moonlight finds Alexis’ imagination in fine form.

Part five of Alexis’ planned quincunx, Days by Moonlight fits nicely into the series: Father Pennant from the first novel, Pastoral, makes an appearance that will lead careful readers to reassess his earlier depiction. Days begins with botanist and illustrator Alfred Homer accompanying Professor Morgan Bruno on a trip in pursuit of a missing Canadian poet, John Skennan. Homer is mourning both the end of a relationship and the death of his parents and is, therefore, more than happy to join the Professor on his trip. Alexis revels in the differences between his two guiding characters: the Professor’s love of language and his obliviousness to the realities of his world blend nicely with Homer’s melancholic affect. The two care for one another in a way that makes this far more than just another buddy road narrative.

The places they visit may be familiar in name—Nobleton, New Tecumseth, East Gwillimbury, and others—yet Alexis’ rendering transforms them into a Homeric odyssey. Or is it a Dantesque hellscape? Their pursuit sees them visit the “typically Canadian” Pioneer Days in Nobleton in which the locals donate a home to a local poor family, burn it down a year later, and allow the poor family to keep it only if they can save it from the fire. In Coulson’s Hill, they witness an Indigenous Parade: a form of “symbolic restitution” in which people are invited to throw tomatoes at townspeople dressed as the Fathers of Confederation. In Schomberg, Black residents maintain a public code of silence to honour the racist silencing of their ancestors. As the journey progresses, the absurd gives way to the fantastical, including a return to a seemingly prelapsarian garden.

While the stated goal of their adventure is to track down Skennan, Bruno explains that they’re really “looking for the correct light,” the particular detail “that’ll illuminate the work.” Whether the focus of that light is Skennan, Canadian poetry, “what you could call a ‘Canadian instinct,’” mourning and regret, or the enterprise of the imagination more generally, Alexis masterfully navigates the landscapes, interior and actual, of Alfred’s journey.

Perhaps my only critique of the novel is that Alexis sometimes strains too far to accommodate the absurd and hilarious within the framework of a novel of ideas. A few rare moments find the characters acting as mouthpieces in philosophical debates, à la Fifteen Dogs, in a manner that detracts from their characterization. Yet these unconvincing sections of the text are minor. Days by Moonlight is an inspired, strange book that secures Alexis’ place as one of Canada’s most interesting writers. Where so much contemporary Canadian writing is sombre and humourless, Alexis’ latest work will spin readers and critics alike who will be confounded trying to untangle parody from beauty from hilarity from insight.

This review “Finding the Correct Light” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 128-129.

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