An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion

wordsonpagespress2Poetry has comfortably slipped into its current position as the most honest medium of writing. It allows the poet to play with images, scenarios, and characters that may not necessarily be personal, but, at the same time, inject their words with a truth serum of sorts. There is a certain naked honesty to the medium regardless of how fancy a dress it chooses to don, with however many layers of taffeta and crinoline.

In her 2012 collection Love, an Index, poet Rebecca Lindenberg wrote: “Poetry/ how thought feels”, while James Dickey defines a poet as “someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.” Some subgenres of poetry can be considered more “naked” than others: one would understand, for example, why Emily Dickinson or William Blake are not necessarily the go-to for young audiences (unless they are trying to woo someone with romantic poetry). There is, however, one genre that I’d argue captures this wild spirit best: the surrealist genre.

When presented with the term, most people will proceed to recount the fantastical paintings of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte. Few will think of literature. Even fewer will be able to identify French writer André Breton as the “father” of the movement.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that the genre is not popular with the masses, though that is not to say that there are few writers who choose to work in the genre. This is why, if one is searching for contemporary surrealist poetry, it is best to turn to the smaller indie presses and poetry chapbooks. Pearl Pirie’s An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion is a fine example. Released in April 2016 from words(on)pages press, a Toronto-based publisher, this poetry chapbook not only demonstrates that the genre is alive and kicking, but that it is conscious of and adapting to current events.

The poems of An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion never stray too far from the reality of everyday life. Rather, they are gently planted amid a sea of turbulent self-reflection. Take the poem “Under the Tongues of Thunder”, which instantly won me over with its wise flying hippos, stating: “you can only fly/ for as long, as well, as I can, if you train for years/ by carrying hearses of friends.” That is not to say that one needs a red flying hippo in order to understand the beautifully dark reality of these words (although if you’re like me, the fantastical imagery does stimulate an otherwise drowsy mind). The balance and subtlety of the real and slightly ridiculous is so fine in these poems that moving in and out of them not only becomes natural, but one also begins to realize that our routine lives are not much different.

The true tour de force, however, is the poem “The Procedures for Filing Claims for Refugee Status.” If the exploration of the self is a topic that has existed—and will likely continue to exist—until the end of mankind, then the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis is more immediate. The poem approaches the subject with the same level of ridiculousness as the accusations government officials have been making; which is why the lines: “you can’t be too careful about who/ may carry disease or dis-ease” read so pointedly. Yet there is something about the images of tiny insect visas and the frisking of butterflies that makes it impossible to focus solely on the magical nature of the images. If anything, surrealism is the very thing that brings one’s focus to reality.

It’s a rather sad fact that one must often resort to shock value in order to get mass attention on an important issue. Luckily for literature, the genre of surrealism is still alive and kicking. An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion covers the realms of self-exploration and social justice, finally leaving the reader with “Poet’s Guide to Buildings on Fire”, which is impossible to do justice via explanation—one simply has to read it for oneself to appreciate the wit and honesty. It is like a modern-day companion to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Surrealism is more than melted clocks and heads instead of flowers, despite what much of modern day culture tries to convince us. True surrealism is conscious not only of the subconscious realm, but more importantly, it strives to address the ailments that plague it, presenting them in an unfiltered and moving manner—and Pearl Pirie’s chapbook does exactly that.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Advertisements

Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

isfdb.org
Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

goodreads
Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Disconnected Tales: Contrasting Ken Liu’s Original and Translated Works

While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.

Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.

As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.

71q9oot9qwl
Image from npr.org

The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.

A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.

Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.

C4iQTmtUcAAwnuX
Image from twitter.com/ShimmerProgram

In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.

Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.

Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

9781927040386

The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Navigating A Sea of Literature With Sjon’s “From The Mouth Of The Whale”

from-the-mouth-of-the-whale
image source: amazon.com

“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”

~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón

Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.

That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.

Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.

The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.

The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.

It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.

Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Fairy Tales and Flesh Eaters: A Closer Look At Rosamund Hodge’s Crimson Bound

crimson-bound
image source: rosamundhodge.net

 “I don’t recall hearing that any of the damned were content.”

“They’re content to stay in their sins.”

Young adult fiction is one genre that falls prey to the nonstop conveyor belt of the publishing industry—an industry which has arguably grown more focused on churning out books that sell rather than selecting books with “quality” writing.

It has also been heavily dominated by phases of popular subject matter which come and go over the years—we’ve luckily been more or less freed from the vampires and werewolves of ten years ago. Fairy tale retellings, on the other hand, seem to be the latest “in”.

Most tend to play it safe with the more traditional, hence very over-written, stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Some, like A Whole New World by Liz Braswell, read more like fanfiction. And some, like the forthcoming Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, have realized that perhaps Western fairy tales are too familiar and boring to today’s readers, and have (finally) decided to expand further into new territory. Vassa, in particular, looks toward Russia and the folktale of Vassilissa the Beautiful for inspiration.

But we’re not here today to talk about Liz Braswell, or even Sarah Porter.

Instead, let’s take a glimpse of Rosamund Hodge.

Despite Hodge’s books being amongst the aforementioned fairy tale retellings, Hodge brings a much darker spin to them. She takes only the most basic and familiar pieces of the original folklore to form the spinal chord of her novels. The remaining bones are artificially grown yet organically attached, taking inspiration and ideas from various other sources, more specifically French culture and Greek and pagan mythology.

Hodge’s debut novel Cruel Beauty, published in 2014, is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The novel received relatively high praise and established her as a writer who, although may be playing it a bit safe with subject matter, is nonetheless trying to bring something new to the table. Her latest novel, Crimson Bound, strove to continue this streak of success. As ratings have demonstrated however, that didn’t necessarily end up being the case.

Although it has a similar style to its predecessor, Crimson Bound is a standalone that also includes French names and aspects of the culture, as well as some demon-like creatures, but beyond that it is much darker and hungrier. It’s a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but the only things it really takes from the story are the “don’t talk to strangers”/“don’t stray from the path” mantra, as well as a short line in the end with the familiar “the better to ___ you with”.

Rachelle lives and trains with her aunt to become the next woodwife, charged with weaving charms and protecting humans from the Great Forest. The forest is ruled by a terrible creature called the Devourer which frequently unleashes waves of nasty creatures called woodspawns. All changes when one day, while walking through the forest, she encounters a forestborn, a creature that is no longer human, which has killed in order to stay alive and is now a servant of the Devourer.

Despite her aunt’s warnings, Rachelle talks to the forestborn, developing a trust for him and falling pray to his lies. She ends up marked by him and faced with an impossible decision: either kill someone and become a bloodbound, tied to the Great Forest and doomed to become a forestborn herself, or refuse and die in three days. Choosing the former and killing her aunt, she travels to Rocadamour and joins the King’s bloodbounds, assassins responsible not only for ridding the kingdom of woodspawn but also eliminating the king’s enemies.

If the above summary has managed to confuse you then don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The world-building of the book veers from simple to complex and back.

The main problem is with the initial setup itself. It takes several chapters to gain a full grasp of the terms “woodwife”, “woodspawn”, “bloodbound”, and “forestborn”, and even then it is only a couple of them that receive a good amount of attention and explanation. It eventually made me wish more time was spent on explaining just what the Great Forest and the Devourer were, as opposed to presenting both as bad and then stating that it was only the Devourer who was bad, and now that he was eliminated the Great Forest could be the way it once was ages ago.

The characters were the ultimate driving force of the story, particularly the heroine Rachelle. While some retellings portray Red Riding Hood as very badass and fearless, Rachelle spends much of the story either telling herself or other characters about how she’s a monster who deserves to die, and that she cannot ever be forgiven.

For some people, such a self-deprecating character can be off-putting, and in the past I have frequently struggled with female characters who constantly put themselves down for not being pretty enough or strong enough. With Rachelle however, there was something genuine in her words. Perhaps it’s because I could relate to her self-criticisms (though I luckily haven’t encountered any forestborn or curses). She was easy to sympathize with, and for people who see themselves in her, empathy was equally natural.

Just like most YA novels, Crimson Bound didn’t escape the familiar convention of the love triangle. Much to my surprise, this triangle wasn’t equilateral like in most books – in fact, it frequently lost its “triangle-ness” throughout the novel. The two love interests, Erec and Armand, were complex and fully developed, and just as filled with dark thoughts and struggles as Rachelle and the rest of the fictional kingdom. An added bonus was the fact that Armand was the first male love interest I ever encountered in a YA novel who didn’t have hands, making for a much less idealized story. It would be difficult to describe both of them without giving too many spoilers away, and I will leave that for any curious reader to discover for themselves should they choose to pick up the book.

The one issue I had was a small thread Hodge left dangling: the character of Amelie, a girl who Rachelle saved from the woodspawn and an aspiring cosmetician (another somewhat unusual feature in a fantasy novel). Despite clearly repeating how Rachelle loved Amelie as a friend, I couldn’t help but wish that Hodge had actually turned that into a romance instead. The chemistry between them felt right, as opposed to the one between Rachelle and Armand, which took me time to warm up towards. However, this is one small disappointment which I hope novels of the future will address, and that fairy tale retellings of the future won’t shy away from queer relationships.

Another interesting touch to the story is the myth of Tyr and Zisa, a brother and sister who faced the Devourer with two legendary swords. Their story is told in a very Grimm-like fashion, especially in a scene where Zisa goes to a blacksmith and asks him to make swords out of two bones and is told that she must pay twice, and with her body, in order for him to fulfill her request.

Weaknesses aside, the novel gives some hope to the genre being a much more, dare I say, realistic rendition of a fairy tale spin-off, and proves that even retellings can have various degrees of originality to them. It will particularly appeal to readers like myself who remember the fascination of reading the original, uncensored Brothers Grimm fairy tales before bed, and the bloodthirsty, childish delight of loving every dark and twisted moment of them.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Bureaucracy of the Supernatural: A Review of Neil Smith’s “Boo”

Boo Neil Smith
image source: news.nationalpost.com

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

“The facts of America do not apply here. The fact is that an unplugged lamp should not turn on… the fact is that people should not vanish into thin air when they die.” 

I came across Boo, by Neil Smith, through an interview with the author on CBC radio. It sounded worth reading, but I couldn’t remember the title or author, so I went to Chapters and sleuthed around until I found it in a “New Can-Lit” display.

Boo is about Oliver Dalrymple (nicknamed “Boo” for his pale appearance), a young boy who wakes up in heaven.

The story is narrated by Boo in the form of an extended letter to his loving mother and father. He hopes that, if he can ever get it to them, it will ease their pain. Throughout the narrative of his death, we learn more of his life – severely bullied and obsessed with science, Boo was a weird-looking loner frequently stuffed into his periodic table-decorated locker. He’s a bit of a smartass, though unintentionally, and has a weird sense of humour that comes across in his narration.

I was particularly drawn to Boo’s narrative style. There is something subtle about the formality of his tone, and the character himself, that reminds me strongly of one of my close friends. Though he’s hardly a typical teenage boy – being dead and all – Boo seems familiar and amiable in a way. We want to be nice to Boo. We also might want to make fun of him, just a little bit.

What I like best about the novel are the intricacies of the setting and the characters’ nonchalant attitudes towards them. It is the “bureaucracy of the supernatural” – where something mysterious and otherworldly turns out to be run in a similarly mundane fashion as our own world. There’s no escape.

As he explains to his parents, Boo’s heaven is a place called Town, surrounded by walls and entirely populated and run by thirteen-year-olds. The afterlife is subdivided by age and country, so Boo is surrounded by everyone else who died in America at the age of thirteen. Once someone dies and comes to Town they stay there for about fifty years, so that they get a chance to live out a full lifetime. With its city council of thirteen-year-olds and rummage-sale furniture, Town reminds me of being homeschooled (I started school in grade six, after years of kid-focused nonstructural learning).

Town has hospitals and cafeterias and a thriving arts scene. Books, food, and other things are provided as needed by what most “Townies” assume to be God. There are art classes, support groups for getting over being murdered, and a museum of curious things including a revolver and a kitten. Townies do not grow old and their bodies don’t change; wounds heal themselves, buildings repair themselves, and traumatic memories are often wiped. Smith captures the intricacies of a thirteen-year-old personality so nicely: the uncertainty, the bravado, the desperation for answers. Boo figures he lost a few IQ points but gained a few social skills, and makes friends. He does much better in Town.

At first attributing his death to a heart condition, he soon realizes that there’s more to it than expected with the arrival of Johnny, another boy from his school who died shortly after Boo. Johnny insists that they were murdered at school by some crazy kid he calls “Gunboy”, and, along with their friends, the two boys try to solve their own deaths while navigating the peculiarities of the afterlife. Desperate to find a portal back to the living world, Johnny’s quest for revenge upstages Boo’s curiosity-fuelled scientific quest for understanding when they run into a boy Johnny is convinced killed them. From there, the story quickly snowballs into a clash of friendship, violence, and the supernatural.

Smith’s world and characters are surprisingly uplifting, and the plot was charming and exciting. Every time they think they’ve caught an answer it escapes, and the story gets more involved until the intense climax. In the bittersweet conclusion, Johnny is given a second chance and Boo learns more about himself than he ever did while alive. Town gives Boo what he needs in order to both find the truth and be happy with himself. It is, in the end, his own heaven as he needed it to be.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege