Promising Debuts

Reviewed by Stephen Dunning

Speakeasy testifies to the research skills that undoubtedly helped to make Alisa Smith an award-winning journalist and successful nonfiction author. In this, her debut novel, Smith convincingly treats of the Allied efforts to crack Japanese communication codes during World War II, displaying not only technical familiarity with the world of cryptology, but also a strong sense of subjects with intrinsic narrative appeal. Add a strong female protagonist and an equally strong, coke-addled bank robber with an erratic Robin Hood complex, all played out against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest during the Depression and war years, and it is not surprising that the story consistently maintains the reader’s interest.

A number of persistent problems, however, limit the novel’s literary achievement. In odd-numbered chapters, Lena Stillman recounts her work in the mid-1940s as a code breaker during the war. In even-numbered chapters, Byron Godfrey describes the exploits of Bill Bagley’s gang (of which Lena was a member), from December 1931 to June 1933. About a third of the way in, however, we discover that Byron’s narrative is a journal that has just come into Lena’s possession, and from this point, Lena comments occasionally on the contents of what she has just read. But how are we to understand the status of the chapters that precede Lena’s encounter with the journal, or of Byron’s epilogue, which Lena could not have read? It feels as if Smith happened on the idea of the journal midcourse, but did not go back and rework the novel’s structure coherently. In addition, there are no significant thematic links between the two narratives.

Lena’s voice often proves anachronistic. She describes something happening in “real time,” a decade before the expression came into currency. Similarly, she employs “begged the question” incorrectly to mean “raised the question,” a relatively recent solecism. These minor lapses characterize a more serious problem: Smith’s imposition of a contemporary progressive consciousness on that of her narrators. Convincing historical fiction requires a narrative method-acting that issues in true ethical otherness. Smith’s deft handling of the historical material suggests that she has the investigative skills and intelligence to achieve this.

Like Speakeasy, Steven Peter’s first novel, 59 Glass Bridges, has two narratives, also separated by about a decade. But here the parallels between these books stop. An unnamed, thirty-something speaker carries the bulk of Peter’s novel, narrating two out of every three chapters. These chapters are set in what appears initially to be an Escheresque labyrinth of endless white hallways, indifferent to both the narrator’s expectations and the laws of physics. Every third chapter harkens back to the narrator’s childhood, where he recounts episodes primarily from his history with his grandmother, though at times he touches on his parents’ disastrous relationship. This second narrative progresses largely chronologically, moving from the narrator’s experiences at the age of eight to sixteen, and then ending with the death of his grandmother much later, which (one surmises) precipitated whatever led to his entry into the labyrinth.

The relationship between the two narratives works very effectively here, in that we can trace the narrator’s conflicted behaviour towards Willow, his guide in the labyrinth, to his equally problematic relationship with his grandmother, whom he loves deeply and yet whose authority he habitually resents. Moreover, the realistic setting of the earlier narrative provides relief from the surrealism of the labyrinth.

Peters, however, does not rely primarily on the regular interspersing of realism to help orient the reader. Instead, he draws extensively on classical and biblical allusions to provide signposts. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur provides the primary classical source, while most of the biblical allusions are filtered through Dante’s Inferno, passages of which appear as red marginalia in a New Testament that the narrator discovers. The novel proves very effective in intermingling these sources, though figuring out what is going on will put fairly heavy demands on the reader given that Peters retains the original Italian, which the narrator does not understand. But tracking these references down provides important clues to how and why he ends up in the labyrinth, and to how he might escape. And though the Minotaur remains to the end of the work, its meaning finally transcends the classical world that gave it birth.

Indeed, Peters offers a strangely compelling tale of postmodern disorientation and salvation, one with roots in a past that it acknowledges as authoritative, but to whose authority it refuses to surrender definitive interpretive prerogative. This is a powerful work from an extremely promising writer.

This review “Promising Debuts” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 161-162.

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