‘After James’ by Michael Helm

9780771038761Reviewed by Angie Abdou

Critics have praised novelist Michael Helm as “one of Canada’s most commanding writers” (Montreal Gazette 2010), as “the literary craftsman” (The Star 2010), and as “the Canadian Faulkner” (Daily Beast 2013). After James, Michael Helm’s newest offering, reinforces his reputation as one the country’s most ambitious, original and profound novelists. His prior book, Cities of Refuge (2010), was nominated for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. After James – Helm’s most wide-ranging, mind-bending and troubling novel yet– proves well worth the six-year wait. Less than a week after its publication, Helm finds himself on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize short list for the third time.

After James breaks into three sections. One could fill pages summarizing the intricate, mystery-driven plots. In the first book, readers follow Alice, a neuroscientist who helped develop a “creativity drug” with alarming side effects. She runs away from Vancouver and takes a remote house-sitting gig, hiding while she readies herself to blow the whistle on her employer. In her borrowed home, Alice finds a key drive on which the house’s owner has left audio messages with an alarming story about the neighbour’s missing wife. A disembodied voice thus introduces the novel’s first mystery. But the mystery quickly morphs. Is the woman really missing? Is she dead? Is there a woman at all? Is our recorded storyteller a delusional mad woman? Is Alice herself a reliable narrator? Mysteries misbehave in After James. They don’t stay put. They travel, multiply, distort, contort and eventually they open up into more general and frightening mysteries. Mysteries like: Who are we? Or: What is the meaning of human existence? Little mysteries like that.

The second book shifts focus to James, a young man whose sole talent is that he is a very good reader. Fortunately, the mystery in this book depends entirely on that particular skill. A stranger named August Durant hires James to solve a literary mystery involving a famous Internet poet whose poems point toward precise knowledge of Durant’s missing daughter. As James works on the case, he discovers that the poems also seem to include intimate, secret details of other mysteries, other disappearances. Again the mysteries ripple outward toward life’s big existential mysteries.

The final section introduces a virologist named Celia, who has recently miscarried. She secretly names the miscarried fetus James. This third book centers around a beautifully rendered story about a near-disaster that Celia and her father have while exploring a remote cave. The sublime experience turns Celia’s scientific father toward religion, and he befriends a creepy conceptual artist who acts as his spiritual mentor. Celia’s distrust of this new mentor proves founded when he steals her identity for his art show. Aspects of that show have mysterious echoes of the novel’s earlier books. Helm’s confident and energetic execution holds readers’ attention fast to the page, despite the unfamiliar and sometimes disorienting narrative structure. All three of the stories vibrate with intelligence but also with real, visceral, messy, enraging, bewildering life.

Each section gestures toward a type of genre fiction, and the fast-paced, twisting plots fuel the novel. However, unlike other Canadian literary writers who have turned their attention to genre fiction (novelists like Michael Redhill, Craig Davidson and Shari Lapena), Michael Helm sacrifices none of the originality, intellectual rigour or experimentation that readers typically associate with literary fiction. Rather than bending to each genre’s formulaic patterns and expectations, Helm plays with – and troubles – those conventions. In the end, After James is about the way we read, the way a text can both encourage and frustrate attempts to make meaning. But Helm’s interest in reading does not restrict itself to the way we interpret and attach meaning to words on the page; After James also looks to the ways we attempt to “read” the world in which we live.

Readers, of course, will want to find connections between the three sections, to figure out the way the parts add up to a coherent whole. Each story has an apocalyptic bent. Sudden weather events, increasing infectious disease, disappearing species and general instability signal an imminent end. Other elements of theme and story echo throughout the novel creating a consistent mood of unease, but the novel both gestures toward and then resists easy one-to-one connections between the characters. In fact, some early American reviewers, like Publishers Weekly, fell into the trap of drawing erroneous connections, such as claiming Celia as Alice’s sister or Alice as Durant’s daughter. The Publishers Weekly review tries particularly hard to forge connections between the three parts, asserting (with no evidence) that Celia is the poet’s daughter. Confused reviewers present such interpretations as straight-up plot summary, as fact rather than argument. This type of misreading – and the reviewers’ certainty – prove the novel’s point about humans’ thirst for order and meaning. The novel repeatedly reminds us that people see things that are not there. For example, if we see a rock or a stump in the woods, we will likely perceive it as a bear. This misperception puts us on high alert and protects us from the outside possibility of it actually being a bear. Similarly, we create connections and patterns where there are none – find meaning in its absence – as a way of protecting ourselves from what James refers to as life’s “howling chaos.”

Helm plays with this neurological desire for patterns. For example, a reader might be tempted to assume that Celia in the final section is actually Alice from the first section. Despite the name change – and false names are not uncommon in the narrative – we might read Celia and Alice as the same character. Helm teases readers with this possibility. Celia is an anagram of Alice. Alice goes by Ali and Celia by Lia, also anagrams. The relationship each has with her father is similar. Also, both men have recently experienced a kind of conversion. Both Ali and Lia are scientists. They are both childless and of an age where they will likely remain that way. They both think about their childlessness a great deal. Each has a sister. Each sister’s name starts with the letter C (Chrissy and Claire). We want this pattern to work, to make a tidy coherence out of what is a wide-ranging and sometimes overwhelming narrative. We want the story to conclude where it started and make a satisfying, tidy circle. But life is overwhelming and untidy. Chrissy is not Claire. A neuroscientist is not a virologist. The two stories cannot be merged into one. This near fit, though, seems to create a neurological trick, an open loop. The Toronto Star review likens this structure to a magic trick, but it is more of a science trick, with connections to what Helm himself refers to as “genetic transference, the process of recombination, shuffled codes.” Because readers cannot put the book away by connecting its parts and solving its mysteries – which are no smaller than the mysteries of life itself – the novel continues to work on the imagination long after the reading is done.

At a Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild conference in March of 2015, Michael Helm talked about trying to write fiction in a way that reflects the experience of being alive rather than the (formulaic and predictable) experience of reading a book. He succeeds. Often the experience of reading this book is one of uncertainty. The novel is – in the words of James – a “heaving enigma,” exactly like life itself.

This is something new. Much fiction offers readers a familiar narrative arc in which a simple, issue-driven problem is introduced and resolved. With After James, Michael Helm has done a rare thing: he has created a novel that is truly novel.

After James is a novel about everything – neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, poetry, Neanderthals, the end of time, the beginning of time, chiasmus, sex, spelunking, computer hacks, the sublime, the stoned, bear spray, Syria, Turkey, translation, urban life, rural life, genetics, ghosting… and the list gallops on. As an examination of how much a novel can hold (and how much a novel can withhold from a reader), After James follows in the tradition of nineteenth century novelist Henry James. The title After James thus refers to the way the novel takes after James. But it is also important that Helm’s novel comes after Henry James, much after. How has the novel form changed since Henry James? How different is a twenty-first century novel from a nineteenth-century novel? What does it mean to write a novel about everything in the globalized, technological, über-fast world of 2016?  After James looks backward and forward. It is a book both fully engaged with the history of literature and completely of its time. Michael Helm drags the Canadian novel into the twenty-first century.

After James’ thematic preoccupations – its emphasis on absence/chaos instead of meaning/order, its insistence on the inability of true connection in a hyper-connected world, its clear portrayal of the highly fractured self, its brutal representation of the inevitability of human loneliness, its repeated reminders of imminent apocalypse – might suggest a relentlessly dark novel. Of course, After James is dark. We live in a dark time. However, the novel also contains plenty of humour and beauty. Both Helm’s sharp wit and his arresting, poetic sentences give readers plenty of reason to smile. Ultimately, After James is an act of hope in the face of overwhelming reason to despair. People without hope do not write novels like this one.

Any attempt to review this book diminishes this book. A reading like the one offered here takes a living thing and tries to pin it to the page, to dissect it. After James’ beautiful sentences, its intricate and complex structure, its intellectual energy, its philosophical scope and depth – none of these elements can be captured in paraphrase or in critical response. Michael Helm possesses a rare talent. The fusion of intellect and artistry places After James in a class of its own. Reviewers who attempt to tackle After James will be forced to agree with the book’s assertion that “there’s a degree of cowardice or fraudulence in every reader who feels the need, upon closing a book, to open his mouth.” Perhaps the most brave and honest review of After James should restrict itself to two words: Read it.

McClelland & Stewart | 432 pages | $32.00 | ISBN # 978-0771038761

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