Mythical Worlds

  • Alexi Zentner
    Touch.
  • Suzette Mayr
    Monoceros. Coach House Books
Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

Readers of Monoceros, Suzette Mayr’s fourth novel, are in for an immediate surprise. “The End,” reads the rather unusual title of the novel’s brief opening chapter. At the close of the six-page section, Patrick Furey, or simply “the dead boy” as he is called here, has decided not to attend high school on this Monday morning and to return home instead: “Because he wants to be in charge of his own ending.” Back there, the seventeen-year-old student will hang himself in his bedroom. He will not leave a note and will later be found by his mother.

In the sixty-odd chapters that follow, Monoceros explores the long-lasting consequences of Patrick’s suicide for those around him: “This Tuesday. This Monday that refuses to end. Every day a stretch of endless Mondays.” In contrast to recent non-fictional studies of grief such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, Monoceros is not an account of one person’s individual loss. Instead, Mayr is primarily interested in the ways in which the tragedy of Patrick’s suicide quickly spirals outward and how it affects even those members of the school community who knew him only casually. Monoceros is based on a similar incident at a publicly funded Catholic school in Alberta.

Approaching the teenager’s death from a variety of angles, Mayr explores the perspectives of classmates, teachers, school officials, and parents. The category “friends” is missing here because as a homosexual, Patrick does not have any real friends at St. Aloysius, a Catholic senior high school in suburban Calgary. He has a secret, on/off relationship with Ginger, a fellow student, but in the homophobic environment of St. Aloysius, this affair is doomed to failure. Mayr succeeds brilliantly in rendering the disturbing and stifling atmosphere that permeates every aspect of school life. Patrick, for instance, is subjected to physical violence, and he is the recipient of hate mail. Meanwhile, parents complain that their children are forced to read Timothy Findley’s The Wars, a novel these parents classify as pornography. Of course, none of the principal characters is left unaffected by Patrick’s suicide, but the ways in which they react to it differ widely. There are, for example, Walter Boyle and Max Applegate, who serve at St. Aloysius as school guidance counsellor and principal respectively. Passing as heterosexuals, they have been living in a relationship for more than a decade. Their concerted efforts to keep their secret life well-hidden from the school community are repeatedly rendered as comedy: “Monday, Walter decides to walk to work instead of taking the bus while the diapered and swaddled giant squalling baby Sir Max, His Royal Highness, the Sulking King of Coffee Tables . . . as principal of the school and so technically Walter’s boss, drives away and onward to his special, reserved parking space at the school.” In the immediate aftermath of Patrick’s suicide, however, Walter and Max develop in different directions. Concerned first and foremost with outward appearances, Max is glad that Patrick did not kill himself on school property: “It’s technically not a school issue.” Walter, in contrast, examines his own dubious role in the suicide. Seeking the assistance of the guidance counsellor, Patrick had been met with nothing but “globs of canned therapy-speak.” In the course of the novel, Walter not only questions the conservative values of the school, he also abandons his secret life with Max.

Other perspectives are provided by both of Patrick’s parents, by his lover Ginger, by Mrs. Mochinski, his English teacher currently in the middle of a divorce, by Faraday, a classmate obsessed with her virginity and mythical unicorns, and by several others. All of these characters try to keep their lives together while simultaneously coming to terms with Patrick’s death: “As the dead boy’s mother, you wonder how you got here.” The ease with which Mayr switches among thirteen points of view is admirable. She finds the perfect pitch and register for each single character. The necessary link between the individual chapters is provided by a fast-paced, often comical narrative and by a highly developed ear for rhythm. The most obvious example of this style is probably the novel’s opening chapter itself, in which the decision to kill himself quickly ripens in Patrick. With several paragraphs starting off with a straightforward “because,” “The End” is a staccato barrage of reasons why “the dead boy” wants to end his life.

Patrick Furey dies at the novel’s very beginning. In the final chapter, the world of St. Aloysius itself comes to an end as the unicorns of the novel’s title stampede through the school building: “The school gored, broken, and now empty.” In a surprising twist, Mayr here violates the basic assumptions of the genre of the realist novel, and I would assume that not all of her readers will be pleased with the narrative’s outcome. Nonetheless, the vengeance enacted on Patrick’s behalf by the mythological animals finally brings to a halt a perverted school system. Winner of the W. O. Mitchell Book Prize in the author’s native Calgary and longlisted for the Giller Prize, Monoceros underscores Suzette Mayr’s status as one of the major voices in contemporary Canadian fiction.

Alexi Zentner’s novel Touch had its origin in the short story of the same title published in the Fall 2006 issue of the literary journal Tin House. Albeit in a different form, the story now serves Zentner as the opening chapter of his debut novel. The section still contains the haunting image of a girl trapped under the ice of the Sawgamet River. According to Zentner, this is the image that came to him first and led him to construct a larger story around it. The young girl breaking through the ice while skating is Marie, the sister of Zentner’s first-person narrator Stephen. Not only does the young Stephen witness the death of his sister, he also has to stand by helplessly as his father loses his life while trying to rescue Marie. Three decades later, this tragedy continues to haunt Stephen: “Memories are another way to raise the dead.” Now in his early forties, Stephen returns from Vancouver to Sawgamet, the remote village in Western Canada where he was born and raised. Here, his mother lies dying and Stephen, an Anglican priest, takes over the local church from his stepfather. This moment of crisis, in combination with the return home, forces Stephen to confront the history of his family, a history closely intertwined with the history of Sawgamet.

Spanning four generations, Touch chronicles the story of the village from the late 1860s to the Second World War. Indebted to the genre of the Canadian pioneer narrative, Zentner’s novel tells of the hardships and privations of claiming the land. The descriptions of the early logging trade in British Columbia, for instance, are rich in detail. In contrast to classic pioneer memoirs, however, Touch as a work of fiction does not focus primarily on a realistic representation of the settlement experience. Like Joseph Boyden in Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, Zentner skilfully sews mythical figures and legends into the fabric of his narrative. In the course of the novel, readers of Touch encounter a mahaha, which is a kind of snow demon, a qallupilluit, which is a sea witch, and other mythological creatures. In several interviews, Zentner makes use of the term “mythical realism” to clearly distinguish his appropriation of North American legends from the magical realism of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Ultimately, for the principal characters of Zentner’s novel, a deep knowledge of the legends of Western Canada proves to be necessary for survival in the uncharted wilderness. Perhaps it is the measure of Zentner’s success as a storyteller that the mythical and the realistic elements in Touch do not cancel each other out. The history of his birthplace, as retold by Stephen, is a blend of both worlds: “Sawgamet has changed. The darkness driven away. But, I tell my daughters, there are still parts of the forest that remain secret, places where the mountains can loom close upon us, where shape-shifters fly past us in the dark.” In the narrative present of the 1940s, the line that separates wilderness from civilization is still precariously thin.

Apparently, Alexi Zentner is currently at work on a sequel to Touch. It will be interesting to see where his remarkable talent will carry him next.



This review “Mythical Worlds” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 181-83.

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