Repetitions of the Past

Reviewed by Will Best

Greg Rhyno’s To Me You Seem Giant is an homage to the 1990s-2000s Canadian “indie” music scene. The novel is split into alternating “Side A” (1994-1995) and “Side B” (2004-2005) chapters, each titled after a song from a Canadian indie band of that respective time period—from The Tragically Hip, Hayden, and Sloan to Arcade Fire, Feist, and . . . well, Sloan—with transitions that blend the mood and tenor across breaks like a carefully curated mixtape. Even the cover art is an homage, near identical to the cover of Sloan’s album One Chord to Another, and the title is a line from the song “Penpals” by (guess who?) Sloan. This remixing of the past and nigh-indistinguishable transitioning from past to present is precisely the issue which plagues the narrator, Pete Curtis: in Side A, he is in high school in Thunder Bay, hating both and looking forward to leaving with his band. In Side B, he is back at that high school in Thunder Bay (now as a teacher), still hating both, with a mixture of resentful hopelessness for the future and retrospection toward the period (Side A) when their guitarist abandoned them to become a successful musician on his own. Despite the banality of this “idealistic-teenager-turns-disillusioned-adult” trope, Rhyno mixes in enough wit and self-deprecation with the troubles of youth and ennui of adulthood to make the story freshly entertaining, and the encyclopedic list of 1990s-era cultural artefacts provides a warm nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that unique historical moment.

In contrast to Pete’s objectively depicted scenes and conversational musings, Louise’s first-person narration in Kara Stanley’s Ghost Warning is deeply immersive in her subjectivity. Heady mixtures of sensory detail—occasionally incorporating visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile seamlessly in a single paragraph—vivify Stanley’s settings in west-central Toronto; and her blending of description and thought (particularly early in the novel) renders the objectivity of narrated space and action indistinguishable from subjective experience.

But, ironically, while the reader is continually drawn into Lou’s present surroundings, she herself is traumatically trapped in the past, unable to make sense of her father’s sudden death from an indeterminate cardiac failure moments before the opening of the novel. Backdropping the common coming-of-age motifs—self-reliance, sexual awakening, moral development, etc.—Lou takes up her father’s final unfinished investigation of immolations and disappearances in her neighbourhood, trying to solve the case in memoriam patris. In her various emotionally intense experiences—ranging from ebulliently frivolous to viscerally disturbing—she continually seeks his “ghostly” advice, often using his stack of “interesting fact or quote” notecards like a Tarot deck or speaking to him in dreams, and contextualizes nearly every action through correlated memories of him.

Both novels come to a neat, pat close in similar scenes of faux-Zen self-actualization, of living in the present moment. Pete finds himself at a point of simultaneous past-repetition and future-uncertainty; but rather than brooding anxiously, he gets up onstage for a (possibly) final show to “live in the unmitigated present.” Perilously entangled in her investigation, Lou flees to Vancouver Island only to discover that she can’t “outrun violence”; and while driving leisurely back east through the Rockies, she stops at a mountain lake for a nonchalant swim, imagining a Zen koan from one of her father’s cards: a monk fires an arrow into the sea, and when it lands somewhere in the uniform surface, he says, “Bullseye.”

Neither of these plots is particularly novel, following the standard Bildungsroman format of a teenager (bleeding into late-twenties for Rhyno) struggling against the harsh realities of society and adulthood (tongue firmly in cheek) and achieving a sort of self-actualization thereby. But each book does have a certain redeeming novelty within that framework. The psychological complexity and emotional intensity of Stanley’s writing beautifully depict, and enwrap the reader in, her protagonist’s negotiations with trauma; and the 1990s nostalgia stirred up through Rhyno’s writing implicates the reader in the very past-fetishizing retrospection his protagonist is guilty of—provided the reader also feels a fondness for the era of radio-recorded mix tapes, artsy movie rental stores, and the inextricable tether of the landline. Both novels thus serve as experimentations with the Bildungsroman form, largely following the standard formal constraints but containing enough idiosyncrasy in style and structure to pique critical interest and avoid becoming, themselves, mere repetitions of the past.

This review “Repetitions of the Past” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 144-145.

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