Realism as Escape

Realism is a multifarious and much-contested term; we rely on it to explain what fiction attempts to do but cannot always achieve. Realism can be the basis for narrative play, as writers turn away from the everyday to new modes of representing human and non-human life. Riel Nason’s All the Things We Leave Behind and Nathaniel G. Moore’s Jettison each experiment with realism in order to establish new and strange relationships to the everyday.

Nason’s latest novel, All the Things We Leave Behind, turns to the world of antiques. Set in small-town New Brunswick in 1977, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Violet as she manages her family’s busy roadside antique store, the Purple Barn, while her parents try to retrace the last steps of her missing older brother, Bliss. Having worked as an antique collector, Nason provides rich details of the material objects cultivated and curated in the Purple Barn. However, the novel and especially its focus on antiques would have worked just as well if it had been set in the present day. As the title suggests, the novel is about things left behind, memories that must necessarily be displaced, although not forgotten, as Nason’s characters struggle to move on from tragedy.

Two tensions establish the trajectory of the novel: first, Violet’s efforts to procure all of the contents of the Vaughan Cottage, and second, her ability to see a mysterious herd of ghost deer, and specifically a white deer named Speckles that she and her brother encounter before Bliss’s disappearance. The looming ghost herd haunts Bliss and prompts his disappearance; after Bliss and Violet encounter a local waste site for deer killed on the highway, Bliss spirals, unable to forget the ghastly scene.

Nason carefully charts Violet’s emotional state as she awaits her parents’ return to the Purple Barn after they attempt to piece together the details of her brother’s disappearance, later revealed as a suicide. Violet spends her summer alone at a campground and several characters look out for her in her perhaps all-too-adult role managing the family business. As the novel progresses, Violet not only looks after the store but also must shore up public opinion concerning her brother’s death. Often, Violet appears to “play” adult in her interactions with customers and colleagues at the store, revealing the limitations of her coming of age in a matter of mere months. But All the Things We Leave Behind is not a Bildungsroman (although it features flashbacks to Violet’s childhood moments with Bliss). Rather, the novel assumes that upon the return of her parents, Violet will return to her remaining adolescence, having gained closure regarding the death of her brother.

Although there are moments when Violet’s pseudo-adulthood is unconvincing, her passion for antiques is undeniably endearing. She reflects on her collector’s passion—“the energy surge . . . the rush, the thrill of the hunt . . . the little squeeze of anxiety”—which she knows that she shares with her father. Nason’s obvious talent is her ability to imbue her story with exquisite details, including her characters’ relationships to the eclectic objects around them. Nason brings to life not only the mysterious ghost herd, but also the entire setting of the Purple Barn.

Nathaniel G. Moore’s collection Jettison is a jarring, absurdist, and unapologetic departure from realism. Each of Moore’s stories takes up a grain of popular culture—the Star Wars franchise newly purchased by Disney; Jaws reincarnated in a sister-in-law; an American Psycho but one found in a local literary circle; the Amazing Spider-Man, better known as the amazing hypochondriac. Each of Moore’s titles is a confusing promise of some logical association with a popular narrative. But this is not so. Each story is dense and thrillingly nonsensical.

The special quality of the collection is the absurdity of Moore’s characters. “A Higher Power” presents us with the neurotic Amanda; recounting her survivor’s tale in an AA meeting, Amanda is revealed as highly unreliable in her obsession and rivalry with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. It is a peculiar narrative in which Amanda ends up a victim—but a seemingly grateful one:

While I’ll never remember all the dance moves I pulled out in a sweat of vodka funk with the former prime minister, I can tell you this, not a day goes by when a Top 40 song from the early 2000s plays on a radio that I don’t cringe in shame. Then, I dust myself off, move forward into the bright reality of modern life and feel warm gratitude that I survived.

Moore’s collection is chock full of unreliable narrators. We meet the so-called son of the Zodiac Killer, but he admits to the inconsistencies of his own reading: “These are facts that add up to only a handful of moments from an entire life I was never privy to know. I truly never knew the man.” Indeed, this last line is telling—he likely did not know the Zodiac Killer but nevertheless wanted to build a myth surrounding the mysterious, disappointing figure of his own father.

Many of the most memorable moments in Moore’s collection are metafictional, as he teases the literary community of which he is a member. The most charming is “American Psycho,” which features a confusing rivalry, one-sided attraction, and later friendship between an unstable ex-Globe and Mail columnist, Susan, and an up-and-coming novelist, Daniel Benjamin. Given the unreliability of his characters, and the carnivalesque effect of the collection as a whole, it makes the most sense to approach each of Moore’s stories independently, for his characters are neither interconnected nor recurring throughout the collection.

Despite Riel’s perhaps untimely representation of Violet’s maturation, and Moore’s jarring prose, All the Things We Leave Behind and Jettison are two dynamic works that clearly present complex thematic projects. Nason and Moore offer readers a chance to explore the capacities of realist and surrealist effects in shaping human experience, whether as a confrontation with grief or to set the stage for social critique.

This review “Realism as Escape” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 172-174.

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