Goodbye to Language

Reviewed by Zachary Abram

The English actor Peter Ustinov once quipped that Toronto was what New York would be if the Swiss ran it. While Ustinov, who famously donned the meticulously manicured moustache of Hercule Poirot, presumably meant the remark as a compliment, many have bristled at Toronto’s purported stuffiness and set out for skylines that promise to be a little less drab. This is the case for the protagonist of Brad Casey’s debut collection of linked short stories, The Handsome Man. His defining characteristic is wanderlust. While his home base is Toronto, few of the collection’s stories take place in Canada’s biggest city. Instead, the man alights to an enviable number of hipster enclaves the world over: Montreal, Berlin, Rome, etc. The man’s travels, sometimes by motorcycle, sometimes with movie stars, sometimes with a bevy of glamorous women, reveal not so much a protagonist on the run from a multitude of personal problems, but rather a budding Instagram influencer, each story mediated through just the right filter named for just the right cultural reference.

It becomes apparent, however, that readers are meant to interpret the man’s peregrinations not as aspirational but as evidence of the depth of his emotional crises. He is not travelling, but escaping. It is never quite clear from what, exactly, he is escaping. Besides his nomadic streak, the man’s other chief attribute is his seeming allergy to introspection. His deep alienation from himself rivals the protagonists of Franz Kafka or Albert Camus: “Maybe his instincts were right, I think, not to trust me. Maybe he thought I was a bad man and maybe I was, maybe I am.” Of course, Kafka and Camus were commenting on the fundamental alienation felt under oppressive systems of bureaucracy and colonialism, while the protagonist of The Handsome Man seems most offended at the sight of a group of people “wearing J. Crew covered in tattoos.” The radical self-fashioning intrinsic to Casey’s travelogue means that his protagonist is less a flâneur who loafs to wryly observe society at a distance, and more a throwback to Vice magazine’s long-running feature “Dos and Don’ts.”

The protagonist is unmoored, at home nowhere despite being welcomed everywhere. While pathos and moments of genuine connection are found in The Handsome Man, Casey’s steadfast sincerity never quite coalesces into a coherent commentary. The stories hold little objectionable content, nor do they delve into politics or address issues of class, gender, or race. Writers are by no means required to address these issues, but their omission here means that Casey never interrogates how it is that his protagonist ended up astride a vintage motorcycle, how it is that he can drop everything and gallivant around Europe, how it is that beautiful women will not stop hitting on him, etc. Mercifully free of these questions, the protagonist and reader never have to grapple with the ramifications of this (perhaps gendered, perhaps race-based, perhaps class-based) asymmetrical allocation of resources.

Few would accuse the skyline of Banff National Park of being drab. While The Handsome Man globe-trots, John O’Neill’s Goth Girls of Banff stays put in the harsh but heavily touristed climes of the Canadian Rockies. O’Neill depicts Banff, both the town and the park, as a place for searchers. The characters who populate this winning collection make the pilgrimage to Banff with expectations, usually of salvation. What they find is something distinctly less divine. Any hope of communion with nature is either thwarted by mundane human interference or the revelation of violence that lurks just below all that beauty. Feelings of isolation are only exacerbated by Banff’s trails and vistas: “Loneliness is always more. It’s never simple. It’s like this place. Loneliness is a whole mountain range.”

O’Neill’s characters have come to Banff to confront their grief head-on. One widower disobeys his wife’s last wishes that her ashes be spread at Bow River and, instead, buries her in three places: “[n]o more arguing with the dead . . . ‘The dead don’t know anything.’” In another story, a lonely and overweight bachelor wants to bury a tooth he loses on one of Banff’s precipitous trails as a last-ditch effort at regeneration: “Rudy considered dropping the tooth, sowing it in the wilderness, from which might grow, what? Another him?” In the titular story, two sisters run a business where, clad in Goth garb, they juxtapose Banff’s natural beauty with the spooky and macabre:

WANNA ADD SOME EDGE TO your mountain experience? To sharpen the dull blade of things, and let darkness descend, like beautiful sleep but with your eyes wide open? Call the Goth Girls of Banff.

When one of the sisters, Jessie, drops her facade to comfort a distraught man, her sister, Linda, becomes indignant that she has let slip the veil. Jessie becomes disenchanted with her Goth pose: “Shouldn’t the Gothic be a place where grief can live? I hated our Gothness. We were a contradiction, a fraud.” When it is revealed that the distraught man may have himself been performing, the crux of O’Neill’s accomplished collection is also revealed: given the extent of human idiosyncrasy and deception, not even being in nature comes naturally.

Ottawa’s reputation as “the town that fun forgot” is crucial to C. J. Lavigne’s skewed depiction of Canada’s capital in her fantastical debut novel, In Veritas. While Ottawa’s reputation as “Dullsville on the Rideau” precedes itself, it was not properly quantified until 2013, when, at the inaugural “Boring Awards,” Ottawa beat out stiff competition from Abbotsford, Brampton, and Laval to be named Canada’s most boring city. There is little doubt that if the members of the jury had been aware of Ottawa’s preponderance of dragons, ghosts, and sorcerers, the results would have been different. These are exactly the types of creatures that populate Lavigne’s magic-realist version of Bytown. Beyond the novel’s fantasy elements, however, there is a nuanced meditation on language and its role in reflecting and determining truth.

The novel’s title and the protagonist’s name, Verity Richards, signal the novel’s preoccupation with truth. Like all good fantasy heroes, Verity is special. She has synesthesia, smelling birdsong, hearing sunsets, and seeing voices. Lavigne depicts Verity’s mode of perception as a mere quirk; even the dragons Verity sees along Ottawa’s power lines aren’t imbued with mythic potential. It is only when Verity sees a street magician transmogrify a dog into a snake that she embraces her own type of magic. Naturally, Verity has a crucial role to play in an impending interdimensional war that threatens to destroy the world. These time-worn tropes are imbued with new life by Lavigne’s own legerdemain. More interesting, however, is the novel’s linguistic critique. At one point, as Verity is being ushered into her new reality, a character asks, “How do you explain things there aren’t words for?” Lavigne is skeptical of whether language is the most direct path to the truth, or even a particularly useful one.

Throughout the novel, the signified and the signifier consistently miss each other: “[H]e would write a word and then cross it out . . . language was insufficient for clarity and he’d only used the best word he had under the circumstances.” The fellowship that Verity is initiated into communicates via posters for a mysterious band called “The Between,” suggesting that Lavigne’s truth is nestled comfortably in that liminal space between reference and referent. As in debt to Saussure’s semiotics as it is to Tolkien’s sword sorcery, In Veritas is a welcome novel because it finds the mythic in the mundane and escapism in realism.

This review “Goodbye to Language” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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