Literary Thrills

Reviewed by Brandon McFarlane

Timothy Taylor and Andrew Pyper have oddly parallel careers. Both began writing in the mid-1990s; both eschewed professional careers; both their debut novels—Stanley Park and Lost Girls—were best sellers; and both have garnered laudatory reviews. But there is one significant difference. Literary critics and literary awarding agencies have recognized Taylor’s fictional offerings while all-but-ignoring Pyper. As the Toronto-based writer has repeatedly lamented since he bleeped onto the Canlit radar, the “literary establishment” has dismissed his writing as insignificant, superficial, and decidedly unliterary. And, to a certain degree, he’s right. What makes Taylor’s writing so literary and Pyper’s, well, so not?

The question is pertinent not simply due to Pyper’s public musings but because both novels are being marketed and received as literary thrillers. The term has been appearing in book reviews and dusk-jacket copy, and seems to describe texts that fuse the archetypes of the thriller genre with the pretensions of “literary” realism—psychologically realistic characters that have a purpose beyond advancing the plot; a tendency to avoid cliché language in favour of subtle metaphor and symbolism; and an interest in using fiction to creatively comment upon broader social phenomena. Both novels certainly invite the label. The major plot arch in The Blue Light Project involves a terrorist attack. A man holds hostage the studio audience for “KiddieFame”—an insidious reality show where the audience votes celebrity-craving preteens off the program. By fragmenting the text and switching between narrative perspectives, Taylor creates a cast of compelling characters while simultaneously developing suspense as each shift in perspective temporarily suspends and yet advances the plot. The Guardians is a haunted-house story set in a thinly disguised Stratford, Ontario. A partied-out promoter suffering from Parkinson’s disease leaves Toronto to attend the funeral of a high school friend. When he comes back to town—and I am trying to avoid spoilers here—the narrator begins recounting his and his friends’ involvement in a long-forgotten disappearance. Things become darker when, the day after the funeral, a second young lady has gone missing under eerily similar conditions. The narrator confesses his role in the first mystery and becomes an amateur ghost-hunter attempting to prevent a second homicide. Much of the story’s suspense originates from the unreliable narrator who struggles to accurately recall the past and experiences hallucinations due to his degenerative disease. Pyper has penned a ghost story that becomes all the more riveting and realistic due to the unreliable narrator’s unfortunate health problems.

The novels are examples of the high-mimetic—a term Northrop Frye used to describe texts that are written “realistically,” but where the characters have extraordinary powers and inhabit slightly fantastical worlds. Taylor’s characters are subtly superhuman. They are capable of amazing physical feats: one character wins an Olympic Gold medal despite a broken ankle; another magically navigates the city’s topography scaling walls and jumping between buildings. Their abilities are hyperbolic and the strategy romanticizes the cityscape and certain privileged relationships to the city. Pyper’s novel is a ghost story after all. So there are ghosts. The characters have visions. And the plot has its own internal logic despite the sudden twists, turns, and abrupt reversals. These characteristics are certainly found in other literary texts. Taylor’s characters are similar to those in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. And there is a long history of ghosts and haunting in Canadian literature. It would be a mistake to deny both novels a “literary” status because they have engaging plots and some fanciful characteristics.

The difference, and it is a big difference, between the two novels is that Taylor uses the thriller and romance motifs to present an abstract interrogation of contemporary culture. Competing groups battle to dominate the city’s mental space—between aesthetes and corporations to control the street’s image, and a parallel conflict between those who wish to remain invisible and those who garishly seek fame. The plot, characters, and settings are analogic—they represent abstract ideas and the privileged concepts are romantically aestheticized and triumphant. The Guardians is just a ghost story. The text does gesture towards endorsing some form of “lost” masculinity where bros stick up for bros—the protagonists’ lifelong friendship originates from a high school hockey brawl. Pyper does undermine the chaps’ tendency to evaluate women solely upon their sexual desirability when one of the four reveals that he is homosexual—a revelation that suggests all their sexism is just part of the “dude” act. However, such didacticism is offered in a hackneyed and explicitly moralistic scene in the last few pages. Pyper’s real intention is to scare the reader and he succeeds at his task.

The Blue Light Project and The Guardians can certainly be called “literary thrillers,” but a more accurate term would be the “mimetic thriller” because “literary” seems to primarily describe a heightened use of realist aesthetic strategies rather than a tendency towards literary abstraction. Pyper likes to complain that he is not taken seriously as an author, but he conflates “serious” with “literary.” Pyper is an excellent writer and The Guardians is yet another example of his mastery of suspense. But he is primarily a genre writer and a damn good one. He’ll get his accolades from the Globe & Mail and the New York Times, but will once again be snubbed by the more “prestigious” Canadian awards—unless, of course, he manages to gain a “people’s choice” nomination for the Giller Prize. Contrarily, The Blue Light Project will be prominently represented on such shortlists. Taylor imagines a glorious vision of beauty and artistic revolution—the brilliant Blue Light Project—that overthrows greed, chaos, and corruption. The prose is saturated with a poeticism and romanticism reminiscent of Ondaatje’s Toronto classic (minus the nationalism). The Blue Light Project prophesizes a role for urban art that reminds us that unless we aestheticize and romanticize the city, our urban environments merely become the embodiments of soulless capitalism.

This review “Literary Thrills” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 185-86.

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