Surrealist Statecraft

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Pillow, Andrew Battershill’s Giller Prize-nominated debut novel, is the self-reflexively surrealist tale of its titular character’s struggle with an avant-garde mafia and the brain injuries he suffered as a professional boxer. Given that Battershill’s few previous publication credits are mostly in online or student-run journals, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Battershill and the acclaimed Pillow have come out of nowhere. Yet while the book is certainly something of an eruption of raw talent, its influences and techniques are more savvy than truly surprising.

Much of the novel blends the surreal with the cartoonish. In one early scene, Pillow makes an escape by throwing a cash-packed briefcase into the air (“It hit the ceiling hard, and the bills spread out and drifted down slowly, the way leaves fall off a tree that’s just been hit by a car”). Its outlandish descriptions sometimes give the impression that what is most preposterous is the act of description itself: “Her sergeant, Michael Simon, was no wider than a highway and no uglier than a piece of roadkill. . . . He looked like someone who smelled like the inside of a crowded shipping container.” The chicken-or-egg ruminations of Battershill’s previous work are also in the mix, such as when Pillow wonders “who invented wallpaper patterns. Like who did the first one and thought it would look good on some paper and then put that paper on a wall.”

The perspicacity implied by Battershill’s backstory is evident in his use of the surrealists themselves, who seem to be in a state of permanent recuperation by critics and avant-gardists. What’s more, the book’s gender-swapping of figures at the centre of surrealism (Louise Aragon, Gwynn Apollinaire) is the kind of move that could be considered provocative but that is—considering Battershill’s milieu and the novel’s publisher—more probably guaranteed to earn plaudits. These smart moves, along with Battershill’s bleak sense of humour, strengthen a story that could reductively but not inaccurately be classified as that perennially amateurish tale of a narrator losing his mind. Still, the novel’s final images, in which Pillow encounters that most familiar and fantastic of animals—“He approached the largest sleeping giraffe and rubbed the giraffe’s flank, which felt firm, almost leathery”—are an instance of Battershill’s making something new out of surrealism’s enduring appeal.

November’s Radio, meanwhile, is Steve Noyes’ second novel, but it follows several books of short fiction and poetry. Noyes’ work has meandered from the prairie themes of his 1980s poems through his experiences in China, his interest in Islam, and his work history with the Canadian government; this succession of topics and influences indicates that November’s Radio exists as part of a career trajectory that is quite different from Battershill’s.

November’s Radio addresses topics found also in Noyes’ previous novel, It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away, but widens its scope from a white male’s experiences teaching abroad to encompass the troubled Wendy and her flight to China. Wendy sets off in pursuit of artistic fulfillment and to escape Gary, who is mired in the soul-crushing world of government bureaucracy in Victoria. Each struggles with mental illness, and each becomes acquainted with the sinister power of government and business interests.

November’s Radio takes some risks with perspective, such as when Noyes approximates (presumably) Chinese-language dialogue:

“I am not sure about the foreigner,” Chen said.

“She has a power,” she said.

“Uneducated,” said Chen. “Low civilization level. She is ignorant about China. She doesn’t speak our language. She smells.”

Less dicey is Noyes’ expansion on the male perspective of his previous effort. Writing from the perspective of a Western woman marks November’s Radio as more ambitious yet also within the realm of what one could tastefully attempt. Wendy’s dread of admitting to Gary that she “didn’t do a thing in China, not a thing,” in some ways gender-swaps the trope of the ineffectual male’s acting out fantasies of power, prestige, and sexual conquest upon migrating to East Asia.

The book effectively depicts depressingly similar Eastern and Western apparatuses of ideological interpellation and coercion. Its final sequence, in which a long-gestating, hologram-based performance is punctuated by the mundane trickle of “a few tourists” who “drift in and clump around” before vanishing, speaks to Noyes’ mastery of his diverse subject matter, but this expansive quality strips the book of the gauche insight that made It Is Just That Your House so appealing. While November’s Radio could be Noyes’ strongest work, its wide range and considered engagements with sensitive topics may leave one longing for a little more of Battershill’s raw instinct and ambition.

This review “Surrealist Statecraft” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 124-125.

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