No One and Twin Studies

Reviewed by Brandon McFarlane

George Bowering’s No One and Keith Maillard’s Twin Studies recover past aesthetics to explore the fluidity of gender, sex, and love. They are fascinating works due to the tensions between their forms and contemporary themes: both apply styles associated with problematic masculinity to represent modes of being that defy categorization. The effects are certainly novel, but many readers will question if they are appropriate for contemporary Canadian literature. Indeed, No One is a work of postmodern metafiction that explicitly flags and takes delight in the opportunities opened up by the tension, whereas Twin Studies uses the conventions of Victorian realism to represent the characters’ struggles to come to terms with their otherness. The contrast is striking: Bowering approaches the conflict with wit, playfulness, and tragedy; Maillard with, somewhat stodgy, seriousness.

No One is a “classic” work of postmodern metafiction that, if it were published in the early 1980s, could have served as a case study for Linda Hutcheon’s The Canadian Postmodern. The narrator is an unreliable writer figure. It is ambiguous who the narrator is; at times it is George Bowering, at other times a parody of Bowering, and at others still a cast of different male figures drawn from Western culture—e.g., Odysseus, Kurt Russell. The plot parodies The Odyssey—the narrator travels “home” for many decades striving to reunite with his lover in contemporary Vancouver, and recalls phallic-centric stories that romanticize promiscuity and sexual conquest. The narrator is also an ex-centric, who defends the delights of swinging while nevertheless acknowledging that such glamour is no longer considered “politically correct.” The narrative structure and timeline may shock some readers because they feature a narrator/protagonist who glorifies a centennial-years, bohemian masculinity.

No One is hilarious. The narrator finds comedy in sex and all the characters—artists, professors, publishers, etc.—have a heightened knowledge of language, hence sexual innuendos and other witticisms abound as lovers deconstruct language. From the narrator’s perspective, the relationships are equitable: women are just as raunchy, cosmopolitan, witty, and powerful as himself. Yet, the narrator unapologetically exploits celebrity and authority to seduce, and always notes that his partners initiated sex and experienced many orgasms. The strategy parodies defences of sexual assault based upon consent, the notion that women are also sexually exploitative and that, really, sex is just a lot of fun and not a particularly big deal. However, metafiction exposes that such stories are told by men—No One lampoons the politics of he-said/she-said by parodying the value unequally granted to male narratives. Indeed, each chapter features a sexual adventure told by the narrator. The sole exception is the final chapter, a letter written by the outraged Penelope figure. The intervention critiques charismatic storytelling, particularly the Western epic and postmodern aesthetics, and artistic prestige as tools of toxic masculinity.

Twin Studies features wealthy characters from West Vancouver who navigate identities that do not conform to existing ontologies. The protagonist is an Assistant Professor in Psychology who studies the bonds between twins at a fictionalized University of British Columbia. She is traumatized by the unexpected death of her identical twin sister and becomes involved with research subjects, teen twins who want to be identical but are not. Identical twins have split beings—each specializes and they combine to make a whole. So, for example, they’ll think the same thing but one will speak for the tandem; one will adopt a feminine identity and the other a masculine identity to make a balanced whole. When identical twins are separated, by geography or death, they lose half their personality, skillset, and being. When her identical sister dies, Dr. Bauer is not only traumatized but also loses half of her self. This plot line is juxtaposed with that of the teens, a brother and sister dyad who obsess about becoming identical twins and cosplaying manga archetypes to navigate their fluid gender and sexual identities—they flow back and forth between male, female, trans, straight, gay, and bi beings. The teen twins are manic-depressive, due to bullying and the fear that their divorced parents will separate them. And they constantly threaten to kill themselves due to a mix of depression, manga mythology, and adult manipulation.

Twin Studies intrigues due to its use of dated aesthetics to explore contemporary issues. The novel is written with a mishmash of Victorian and modernist realism. It explores how the conservative mores of posh Vancouver repress modes of being that defy traditional roles while promoting what conservatives often call “family values” and “natural” gender roles. It includes extended, detailed descriptions of mundane life, especially objects that are traditionally gendered. Such passages highlight the characters’ privilege while also implicitly showcasing how fashion, design, hobbies, marketing, and everyday interactions maintain rigid binaries. The narrative focalizes protagonists, hence the excessive descriptive passages reveal characters’ desires and anxieties, and evoke subtle intergenerational conflicts. The effect produces tedious prose but it nevertheless represents an experiment that inserts marginalized identities into literary forms that have historically been heteronormative. Twin Studies is a progressive comedy that concludes with the formation of a massive family that includes a spectrum of sexual and gender identities; but the story has its obvious limits as the new family is formed by owning side-by-side mansions in West Vancouver and its tokenish inclusion of ethnic diversity.

This review “No One and Twin Studies” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

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