- 1/ First Fiction
If there is one common thread running through most of this year's first fiction, it is that things are never what they seem. Characters are not who or what they appear to be, or they discover that what they thought were the most basic facts about their lives are false, or they are forced by their own choices to lead lives of deceit. Families uproot themselves and move halfway across the world to be part of noble political movements, only to confront a very different lived reality. Novels that seem to promise strong political messages tend more towards whimsical subtlety (though in many cases this enhances their sense of political engagement). Memories turn out to be unreliable or even treacherous. Surface appearances give way, again and again, to hidden depths lurking somewhere just out of reach, like the town in The Sentimentalists that was sunk to make the St Lawrence Seaway, still there and partly visible beneath the water. The gap between appearances and reality is precisely where these narratives become so interesting. The ethical and interpretive challenges that this gap creates extend not just to the stories' characters but often to us as readers as well.
Two books stand out among this year's first novels: Don LePan's Animals and Johanna Skibsrud's Giller Prize-winning The Sentimentalists. If you read nothing else from this year's batch of novels, however, read Animals. Few Canadian novels have been as powerful. Animals is a dystopian satire set somewhere around the late twenty-first [End Page 117] century. However dramatic its subject matter, what ultimately makes this book so compelling is its subtlety. It is disturbing and gripping and relentlessly well told. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's best work (it reminded me in many ways of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker), it succeeds through its narrative restraint. It would be easy to go overboard in this type of world-gone-wrong dystopia but LePan never does. Instead, LePan delivers a tale that is at its most poetic at all the most jarring moments. There is an awful lyrical intensity, an ability to evoke a fragile state of innocence in the midst of a brutality that resides in people's attitudes as much as their actions, that makes Animals especially poignant. A great part of its power lies in what LePan manages to avoid; the narrative is suggestive rather than graphic or confrontational.
This is not, however dystopian, some sort of apocalyptic nightmare. On the contrary, it is set in a world that has settled into a comfortably dysfunctional way of life, like the proverbial frog in the pot of gradually heated water. After decades of increasingly brutal but financially efficient advances, the livestock industry has imploded. Ever since 'the great extinctions,' as they have come to be remembered, the consumption of meat (chicken, beef, pork) has become a thing of the past. Worse, the rate of children born with some sort of extreme disability has skyrocketed, so much so that a new category has emerged: these sorts of children have come to be called mongrels. There is a sinister kind of duplicity about it all. The word mongrel is an umbrella term for a whole set of distinct problems, but even so, mongrels have slowly but surely become recognized as a wholly different type of species: as non-human. Categorical shorthand has been transformed into ontological difference. The differences aren't always obvious at birth, of course, but as a baby ages and it becomes clear that it is a mongrel rather than a human being, the creature must be handled differently, left to sleep on the floor, fed different types of food and no longer at the dinner table, dressed differently. In other words, it must be recognized for what it really is: a family pet. Loveable, perhaps, and eager to please, but clearly incapable of the sorts of development that one would expect to see in a child.
That might not in itself be so bad except that times are tough. The bottom has fallen out of the welfare state and people are edgy...