Reclamation and Decay

Reviewed by M. Sean Saunders

Frank Macdonald’s A Possible Madness tells the story of a semi-rural Cape Breton community struggling with the promise of much-needed prosperity and jobs versus preservation of the local environment. Lined up on the side of economic development are the community’s mayor, the Nova Scotia government, and a dubious corporation called Resource Reclamations Limited. Opposing them is the novel’s central character, David Cameron, who is the owner and editor of the community’s weekly newspaper. Cameron is determined to discover what lies behind a secret coal-extraction deal struck between the two levels of government and Resource Reclamations.

Macdonald is adept at humorous portrayals of gruff, garrulous, small-town characters. Two standouts here are Ronald Macdonald—who wages a one-man campaign against the fast-food chain whose eponymous clown brings, he feels, both his name and that of his clan into disrepute—and Mrs. Big Sandy. The latter is a chronically (and comically) enraged termagant who terrifies everyone in the community (but turns out to be, perhaps predictably, a bit of a diamond in the rough).

The author’s timely subject has the potential to reach beyond the novel’s local setting to raise important questions concerning corporate and government ethics, the challenge of balancing ecological and economic concerns, and the role of the media and private citizens in the conversations and decisions arising from such questions. However, the novel does not realize this potential. Neither its important topic nor its comic characters are enough to sustain it in the face of certain shortcomings.

While the creative writing maxim “show, don’t tell” is something of a cliché, it might profitably be applied to the rather flat, expository prose which makes up much of this work. I was particularly frustrated when such telling contradicted what the text was showing. For example, although we are frequently told that Cameron’s two children are more important to him than anything else, such narrative assertions don’t ring true when we are shown a man who gives virtually all his time to his work or to other relationships.

In addition, Cameron—along with the novel’s other serious characters—is an underdeveloped cut-out who seems to exist chiefly in order to propel the narrative’s exploration of the issues it raises. Consequently, it’s difficult to become emotionally connected either to him or his cause.

Doug Harris’ YOU comma Idiot is a very different kind of book, a blistering social satire set in Montreal, which frequently had me laughing out loud. It’s also a tour de force of second-person narration. By the second sentence (“You’re the kind of guy who rehearses a conversation fifty times in your head and then blows it when it’s for real”), I found myself implicated in the insistent “calls into being” produced by the novel’s unusual narrative voice; that is to say, it seemed, at first, as if the novel was supposed to be about me, unnervingly calling me into existence as its self-loathing protagonist. This is disconcerting, but is also an effective opening strategy. While it’s soon clear that the “you” is not the reader, but drug-dealing layabout Lee Goodstone, his second-person voice nevertheless conveys the sense that this drifting loser is desperately trying to call himself into existence, or at least into an existence with more meaning than the one he’s caught in; he no more wants to be who he is than the reader does. A related effect of this narrative style is that Lee always seems to be looking in at himself from the outside, never fully able to be himself.

Near the end of the novel, after Lee’s life has been disrupted by a series of events that threaten media exposure of his drug dealing, he finally seems prepared to take responsibility for himself and his past. However, Harris saves the plot from mawkishness by reminding us that Lee, as likeable as he is in many respects, remains a significantly flawed person: the story concludes with Lee and an estranged friend becoming reconciled by inflicting a revenge beating on one of Lee’s drug-dealing rivals. While satirical, this final image of masculine friendships being defined and sustained through violence is nevertheless a disturbing place to close.

Marko Sijan’s Mongrel is even more disturbing in the links it draws between violence and unexamined masculinity (and between violence and race, and ethnicity, and nation, and homophobia, and misogyny, and arousal . . .). Sijan’s novel is breathtaking in the seemingly effortless arcs it draws between, as just a few examples, high school bullying, the Holocaust, teenage consumption of pornography, hostilities between Serbs and Croats, sexually fetishized violence, American imperialism, and even Quebec politics and separatism. Furthermore, these connections sneak up on the reader, with the inextricably complex interrelations between such forces becoming evermore apparent and oppressive as the narrative grinds to its brutal conclusion. Perhaps most devastating, these larger, comparatively abstract concerns are revealed through the gradual unfolding of the interconnected, day-to-day lives of the novel’s five separate multi-ethnic teenaged narrators and their friends, all of whom are high school students in Windsor, Ontario. Multicultural Canadian youths thus emerge as emblems of large-scale failures of human ethics and morality, both historical and contemporary, and as agents for the continued perpetration and perpetuation of such failures. This, of course, is not how we like to think about youth—or Canadian multiculturalism.

Sijan’s novel is a remarkable achievement, a powerful and disturbing commentary on contemporary Canadian culture and on our sense of our place in the world. However, I cannot say I enjoyed reading it (and suspect I wasn’t supposed to). Its characters are self-obsessed, ignorant, and self-destructive. As a whole, it is brutal, violent, and vicious. Read it at your peril.

This review “Reclamation and Decay” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 176-78.

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