Looking Sideways and Back

Reviewed by Ryan Fitzpatrick

Jason Guriel’s Forgotten Work is a speculative verse novel, set between the 2030s and 2060s, whose characters romanticize analogue culture in a future where digital technology has become even more invasive than it is now. Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, Guriel’s narrative slides between multiple characters—a music critic, a billionaire, a cadre of Internet fanboys—who share an interest and an obsession with the great lost album of Mountain Tea, a fictional contemporary of the bands Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade in Montreal’s vibrant mid-2000s music scene. For these characters, Mountain Tea becomes a point of obsession because of their unsearchability in a world whose information is enclosed by a single corporate conglomerate: in one of the book’s silliest jokes, the Web is now “the Zuck.” Specifically, the characters target Mountain Tea’s The Dead, an album so unfindable that it’s oddly less known than the band’s namesake—Peter Van Toorn’s largely forgotten 1984 book of poetry Mountain Tea, the 2003 reissue of which is mentioned so many times in Forgotten Work that I hope Guriel got a cheque from Véhicule Press.

Forgotten Work’s biggest pyrotechnic is its form. The novel is written in rhyming couplets—a move that could irritate with too heavy a hand, but Guriel shifts comfortably between his formal constraint and the more prosaic needs of the narrative. Guriel’s formal choice reflects his characters’ obsessions with the past. The book’s promotional material points us to William Gibson, Roberto Bolaño, and Vladimir Nabokov. In an article published on LitHub, Guriel shouts out Nabokov’s Pale Fire in particular as a model of a “long poem, in heroic couplets, that delivered a compelling story,” offering a different path through the long poem than the late modernist classics he read in university. For Guriel, Pale Fire delivers a poetry that is effortless, engaging, and destined to be considered “not quite a real or official poem.” Despite this plea for some kind of outsider status, Guriel’s concern about the use of narrative in poetry puts him in relation to a host of other Canadian writers straddling the line between poetry and fiction: the shared postmodern messiness of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack; the dense poetic fiction of Nicole Brossard and the narrative long poems of Dionne Brand; and recent narratively focused work by poets such as Kayla Czaga, Noor Naga, and Sandy Pool (among many others).

I’m interested in Guriel’s formal choice not only because it comes out of left field, but also because it seems, at least at first glance, an awkward fit with his subject matter. Forgotten Work seems to have a sly kinship with the still nascent sub-genre of speculative poetry, which so far has focused on the same kinds of content found in science and speculative fiction. One of the problematics embedded in speculative poetry is how a writer, when writing about the future, ought to account for the histories and futures of poetic form. Is it enough to write about the future using the tools of the present (or past) when language itself is likely to change? Guriel’s turn to Pale Fire and rhyming couplets sidesteps this question by reaching back through poetic history in a way that resonates with the book’s thematic concern with nostalgic obsession. Guriel’s formal constraint resonates with his novel’s world, providing a poetic tool to look forward at a world gazing back to the way things were. Maybe in the future crater of Montreal, freed from the crushing ephemerality of the digital network, poets will turn back to rhyming couplets as the formal mode best suited to write about present conditions.

Straining through this poetic nostalgia, Forgotten Work adopts experimental tactics from fiction that speak to the constantly sliding ground of digital spaces—from multiple points of view to massive leaps in narrative time. Shifting between different characters’ perspectives, Guriel tracks the search for The Dead. The book derives its narrative snap from the characters’ desire to hear such an inaccessible album. This desire—for the album and for analogue culture itself—stands in for a lot: for winning out against scarcity, for experiencing the crackling vinyl aura of “the real thing,” and for revelling in grand ambition and failure. Cue the obsessives trying to piece together the lost albums of the past: Smile, Lifehouse, Black Gold, Homegrown. Guriel’s targeting of this nostalgia is hazy and ambiguous, created by the way the text is saturated by the kind of detail you might pick up while travelling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, or the kind of texture you’d get flipping through an ancient issue of Spin. In a book invested in a double projection—projecting narrative forward in time so that the characters can project it back at us—Guriel leaves his own position on our historical conditions deliberately hard to read. At times, he jokingly hip-checks a hazy mix of cancel culture and poptimism, even naming himself as a victim of Authors for a Safer World, a militant organization known for assassinating critics. At others, he half-gags at the continuation of MAGA-style fascism as represented by Don Jr.’s following in his father’s footsteps. Guriel punchlines these kinds of details throughout his narrative with 1990s-style all-sides aplomb—another kind of nostalgia, maybe.

Guriel thematizes a mistrust of the digital as characters refuse and retreat from technology, whether through a refusal of eye implants, a distrust of long-distance transporters, or, in the book’s final twist, an entire city of people living in an Internet-free crater. In a mid-novel cluster of chapters, Guriel finds Geoffrey Gibson—contract academic and Internet obsessive, the closest the book gets to a main character—tracking down Mountain Tea’s bassist Hal Hawks to an abbey where monks copy worthy material from the Zuck. Guriel gives us a glimpse of this weird mix of digital and analogue as Gibson and his friend Hayes visit the abbey virtually:

“Hey, check this out,” said Hayes.
“I’ll switch the POV.” A chunky blaze
Of pixels flared. The Gundam was replaced
By Hayes’s view: a room whose stained glass faced
And filtered phony sunlight. Wooden desks
Were ranked, the holo scene shot through with specks
Of dust from Drew’s loft. Every desk included
Vellum and a laptop. Quills protruded
From quill holes, as if the desks had plumage.
Other tools lay scattered: inkhorns, pumice
Stones (to smooth the vellum), knives, and rulers.
Apparently the monks, like careful jewellers,
Copied zlogs their abbot judged of worth
Straight off the Zuck: stray words of grace and mirth,
Which pop-up pamphlets, pest-like, often wiped
Away. (82)

There’s an interesting friction, here and across the entire novel, between futuristic technology like holographic travel and the re-emergent tools of analogue culture. In the inscription practised by Hawks and the monks, Guriel imagines an extreme version of fan devotion that works to restore an aura to the constantly reproducing ephemerality of the Web, preserving creativity that might be the real thing if only it weren’t drowned out by so much findability. In this frame, it’s interesting, maybe even hopeful, that Forgotten Work dwells so much on the creation of fan works and speculation that try to fill in the vacuum left by The Dead’s absence. The book is filled with excerpts from fan fictions, blog posts, lists of imagined song titles, and news stories. Through this playful postmodern fictionalizing, Guriel signals the way that our approaches to past works and traditions form flags to rally around, for better or worse, whether those works include the long-lost music of a band like Mountain Tea or a largely forgotten poet like Peter Van Toorn.

*Erratum: A previous version of this review appearing online listed the publisher as Guernica Editions, while the text was in fact published by Biblioasis.

Work Cited

Guriel, Jason. “How to Write a Sci-Fi Rock ‘N’ Roll Novel in Rhyming Couplets.” Literary Hub, 19 Oct. 2020, lithub.com/how-to-write-a-sci-fi-rock-n-roll-novel-in-rhyming-couplets/. Accessed 13 Apr. 2021.

This review “Looking Sideways and Back” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Jun. 2021. Web.

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