Carnival by Rawi Hage and Ballistics by D W Wilson: Dashboard existentialists

Two Canadian novelists stretch and expand the fictional geography of their native land in their new books.

The novelist Rawi Hage has a socio-political vision that he expresses realistically and also in symbolic terms. His fiction drops the reader into a space where abstractions take on solid form and allegory coexists with the allegorised – as if George Orwell had created a human community to accompany the animal one that represents it. The author of a novel set in his native Beirut, De Niro’s Game (an allusion, by way of The Deer Hunter, to Russian roulette), and another set in his adopted home of Montreal, Cockroach (immigrant life through a Kafka-tinted lens), Hage has opted this time for an imaginary setting, an English-speaking city that hosts a large annual carnival. But rather than him having, for instance, a carnival standing in for a multi-ethnic melting pot, we get both sides of the equation. The narrator, Fly, explains: “There is no better place for an exile to hide . . . than among a horde of humans in masks re-enacting the periodic cycles of life and death.” It’s a burst of clarity on an already clear topic, delivered towards the end of a novel that feels louchely opaque and guarded about its intentions.
 
Perhaps as a joke, Hage has given his loose narrative a formal architecture. The curtainraising announcement of Act I is followed by these opening words: “I was conceived on the circus trail by a traveller who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes” – though what follows could be nobody’s idea of a confession or apologia. Instead, the book flits between slice-of-life impressions and a sense of crisis. A plot of sorts materialises from nowhere at the end of Act II and then disappears for most of Act III, before returning in a rush of incident as extreme as the earlier digressive casualness.
 
Hage’s prose is stark in tone but verbally busy, importing imagery from every direction and discipline. Named after the class of taxi driver to which he belongs (“flies” roam the streets where “spiders” wait to be des - patched), the narrator refers to the taxi he drives as “my boat”, “my airplane”, “my home” and “my library” and sees the people around him in terms both nationalistic (a Turkish receptionist is easy to bribe because that’s how things went in the Ottoman empire) and atavistic (Fly’s customers are “owls” and “hyenas” and “nocturnal apes”; human beings are “talking apes”). Numerous vocabularies angle to impose an underestablished significance. The result is about as bleak as fiction can get and still be whimsical.
 
Except for the occasional unexpected visit from a beleaguered friend, Fly’s social life is confined to café chit-chat – this is heightened reality with more than its share of the mundane – and his only ritual is masturbating daily to historical visions in which he prevents the occurrence of some genocidal or imperial atrocity. Until he gets involved in low-level crime (and then without relish), he is in essence a pair of eyeballs on wheels – eyeballs unusually given to glazing over with boredom and popping with anger and contempt. The city’s topography is blandly nonspecific (“Main Street”, “the highway”, “the market”, “the bridge”) and Fly’s picture of urban unease trades not in capitalised nouns or landmarks you can put into Google but in artfully flattened stereotypes of recognisable phenomena. At a hospital, he comes upon “a faint chaos . . . of doctors disguised in aprons, pointing magic wands at nurses in angelic uniforms and muffled tap shoes, waving bandages mistaken for egg rolls”. Out on the road, he notes “the parade of teenage boys driving with hands that dangle in the manner of caged animals, their menacing eyes scouring the long thighs above spiked heels”. Men who work out are “inflated balloons with broken cords, always walking as if they are taking their first step on the moon”. These are tickling comic formulae but it is hard to det - ermine their implications for Hage’s project.
 
On the whole, Hage does without any form of governing logic, but an undertone becomes steadily more audible: the superiority of secular knowledge to nationalist and religious dogma. Despite holding to a teenager’s vision of utopia (a beach with ball games and women in bikinis), Fly is a salivating autodidact with a frame of reference ranging from Alexander to Zorro, and his flat is crammed with works of literature and history, organised according to some variant on the Dewey Decimal system that gives a prominent role to “the colour” of a book’s “skies” and “the circumference of their authors’ heads”. Pursuing a remote and calculatedly anonymous existence, uncoopted by any clan identity beyond that of “fly”, he is devoted only to his “arsenal of books”, the majority of which come from the wild-man, dissident and post-colonial traditions from which Hage also claims descent.
 
About 50 pages after the book starts rem - inding you of Bohumil Hrabal – that is, at around page 50 – Fly reads a passage from Too Loud a Solitude, Hrabal’s spirited novel about his experiences compacting waste. It is a precedent that perhaps explains this book’s dazing fidelity to a series of vignettes which, lacking a thread, slips too easily from the mind. Hage used to drive a taxi and the book presents a trove of impressions similar to those unleashed by Hrabal in his book, in which the writer evokes with as much irate energy and deranged pathos as he can recover (though in this case not quite enough) the shaggy underdog’s existence from which writing has helped him to escape.
 
One of the services literature provides is a kind of armchair tourism and Hage has introduced readers to a place – a magical-realist Montreal – that we haven’t seen before. No better-known to most readers of fiction are the towns of eastern British Columbia overlovingly surveyed by the 27-year-old D W Wilson in his first novel, the flinty comingof- age story Ballistics, a follow-up to his story collection, Once You Break a Knuckle. Like Hage, Wilson employs a central metaphor that leads a double life, “ballistics” referring both to causation in a family’s history and to the gunshots that played a causal role. “How it all began – that’s a good question . . . It’s like asking when a bullet starts toward the beer can,” explains Alan, a philosophy student who leaves his spiralling thesis and no less tameable girlfriend back in Toronto to spend the summer in the Kootenay Valley, where he was born. Alan sees himself as the endpoint of a knock-on process and the composition of his personality is traced in a sustained piece of “primal self-cataloguing” that draws on an appropriately broad range of factors, the lifestyle prevalent in his home town, Invermere, accounting only for why he can “handle a firearm and drive stick”.
 
After the grandfather who raised him has a heart attack, Alan drives west into a fire engulfing the Canadian Rockies to find, at Gramps’s behest, the father he never knew. On his way, he encounters (also for the first time) his other grandfather, Archer, who met Gramps back when he was just Cecil, after he discovered Archer on his land and shot him in the leg. They became friends, unofficial relatives in a ramshackle extended family (Archer’s daughter, Linnea, got involved with Cecil’s son, Jack) and lovers of the same woman, Nora, who started as Cecil’s fiancée and ended up as Archer’s wife.
 
Once or twice, Wilson appears to get lost in the time scheme: it is odd for Alan to say that someone “studies” photography when even the period of reminiscence that the book records took place “some time ago”. Odder still – and with more serious repercussions for the reader’s pleasure – is the decision to give Archer part-time control of the narration, producing an effect as obtrusive as that of the “ballistics” metaphor. Given that Alan knows the full layout of events by the time he starts narrating, there seems to be no need to delegate the release of information to another source. Rather than being mutually enriching, the two voices get in each other’s way, sapping the book of momentum.
 
They also double up on each other, providing, over 380 closely printed pages, too full a helping of this writer’s habits. A prose style that starts off as bracing, even breathtaking – Wilson can make a simile and a verb out of pretty much anything – loses impact through lack of modulation. Wilson has a taste for such sentences as, “Maybe a person’s fate is decided more readily by the decisions they don’t make” (the italics on loan from John Irving), but description is the gift he is keenest to cultivate – rightly, though he does it to excess. A 4x4 has a “smell of Old Spice and sloshed beer”; stubble is compared to “steelwool” and hair to “sewing-thread”. Some passages seem to work their way round the senses: “It looked like the mountains had sprouted hairs. I couldn’t even smell smoke anymore . . . My teeth felt fuzz-coated . . .”
 
Though Wilson’s home turf lies about as far west of Montreal as Milton Keynes does from Tehran, Wilson has a passport in common with Hage and is eligible for the same awards (the Giller Prize, for which Hage has been twice shortlisted, is the most prestigious). It isn’t clear what unifying qualities the national literature of so diffuse, though oft-caricatured, a nation could be said to possess, and on one level the things that Wilson and Hage share are not strikingly Canadian. Writers from all over the world display, like these two, a devotion to the first person and a preference – the costs of which are clearer than the benefits – for introducing dialogue without punctuation. But perhaps the idea of being a Canadian writer is being exploited as a licence. The recourse to a method and philosophy that might be called dashboard existentialism, though tiresome when practised “south-of-the-forty-ninth” (Wilson’s word), is offered in these books without irony or apology, as if the limits of a sweaty-palmed, dewy-eyed sensibility, downbeat but capable of affirmation, could be offset by a backdrop we haven’t seen before.
 
Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the NS
Rawi Hage's new novel takes place in an imaginary English-speaking city which hosts an annual carnival. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism