‘The Blue Light Project’ by Timothy Taylor

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Corey Redekop

Everyone was adrift. The encircling authorities, the cameras, the grip of the hostage drama itself. Everyone was living in fear about the end.The ending was the thing. And Loftin felt it in a flash, his own story arriving. There was a great war going on here about control over the ending. Each breath of this common air fully vested.

A hostage-taking in the middle of an unnamed city. No demands save one: the desire to speak to one particular journalist. The population on edge, the authorities confused, the journalist unwilling. The stuff of pulp thrillers a la James Grippando or Greg Iles.

Or, in the hands of Timothy Taylor, the naked assembly upon which to construct a meditation on the precariousness of existence, of living for those atypical moments of personal transcendence.

Both approaches have their merits, final reaction entirely dependent on whether the reader desires either a clear-cut plot-driven narrative or an abstract open-ended treatise. But if you really wanted a Grippando, why would you open a Taylor?

Bursting onto the scene with his justly praised award-winning Stanley Park, Taylor was a hot property almost from the get-go. His follow-up novel, Story House, didn’t catch fire as Park did but was a sterling work; more deliberate, less flashy, proof positive that Taylor’s gifts for remarkably researched details bolstered by strong characters was no fluke.

The Blue Light Project is his most innovative yet, a novel ostensibly about a hostage taking yet in reality a return to one of Taylor’s favourite themes, a study of finding meaning, of discovering a sense of personal order in a world designed to intimidate the masses and destroy the weak. Some reviews have argued that Taylor’s refusal to make his story simpler and more concise constitutes a failure; I argue that being challenged is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the end result is Taylor’s finest effort yet.

Taylor weaves together the disparate threads of three distinct stories, leaving enough space between them to keep the reader intrigued yet ultimately bringing them together in a deeply satisfying if oblique manner. The first concerns Eve, a former Olympic biathlete famous for winning the gold medal on a broken ankle. Now bemusedly working on selling the rights to her life story — “They call it ‘personal story management,’” she grouses at the underlying ridiculousness of the endeavor. “I bet Stalin could have made good use of a phrase like ‘personal story management.’” — Eve has been in a suspension of life for quite some time, ever since her brother disappeared without a word.

Secondly, there is Rabbit, an underground artist who climbs about the city, a physical character for whom Taylor likely feels the most affinity. Taylor’s past works have celebrated a counter-culture mindset in one form or another, and Rabbit certainly qualifies, practicing his art on the walls of the city while pushing his body to its limit through an offshoot of Parkour:

Freesteal was what people around Rabbit called what they did: a combination of running, climbing, exploring places off-limits to the public, and leaving public art on the walls wherever they went. Freestealers were pacifists, craftier and less territorial than graffiti writers….The art was a gift to the cityscape so that the free eye might freely find it.

Finally, there is Pegg, a disgraced journalist wasting his life as a celebrity journalist after a scandal involving his falsifying an informant brought his Pulitzer Prize-winning career to a halt. If Eve is the emotional element of the novel, and Rabbit the physical, then Pegg is the cerebral, the bitter cynic who filters the world through a prism of mockery and disrespect.

The three inhabit a world where uncertainty is the norm, and the randomness of life is outlined in stark detail. Taylor has a great deal of fun laying out hints as to how the world of his novel functions, tweaking our society ever-so-slightly. Eve’s stepson Otis is the creator of Molechess.com, “[the] noble game bent to suit suspicious times. You owned a piece on your opponent’s side, activated for a single move of your choosing. So were games upended by black bishops slaughtering their own, knights rampant behind the lines… Was it more exciting with traitors?” The most popular television show is KiddieFame, an American Idol-like talent show that emphasized a cruel twist designed to utterly destroy contestants:

You had to kick people off the show in order to find a winner. KiddieFame was unusual, however, for having two methods. A competitor could simply lose in the voting that followed a set of performances. But then, in the show’s signature moment, they could also be the target of a surprise Kill. These were rare because they followed not bad performances, of which there were many, but perfect ones: performances that received five stars from every voting remote in each of the six hundred seats in the theatre.

In such a world, with the possibility of betrayal and destruction around every corner, a hostage taking of the KiddieFame set seems almost a foregone conclusion. When it happens, very early on, the only inkling of motivation comes when Pegg is asked for by name to come in and interview the hostage-takers themselves. As the public gathers outside and watches on television, Eve and Rabbit cross paths, Eve certain that her brother would be brought out by such an event, Rabbit trying frantically to repair a mysterious art project he has devised that spans the city (the blue light project of the title).

The Blue Light Project does not do things the easy way; there are no clear lines of plot, the agendas of secondary characters flit in and about, not everything is tied up in a neat bow. Some reviewers have tried to compensate by refusing to follow the inner logic, instead imposing upon Blue Light a structure Taylor never intended: one reviewer in a major Canadian publication takes this so far as to devote the majority of the review to Pegg’s interview with the hostage taker, all but ignoring Eve and Rabbit, removing much of the mystery Taylor delicately builds, and emphasizing all out of proportion what turns out to be a fairly small segment of the actual novel.

Blue Light, despite some remarkably tense moments, is not a thriller, and Taylor never posits it as such. The hostage situation is integral, but it functions as a pivot point for the others to balance on, not as a central theme. What is far more important is Taylor’s conjecture that only through trauma can we see clearly and possibly hope to achieve something meaningful in our lives. Blue Light’s characters are all seekers; of what, they are not sure, until something jars them from complacency. We see this in the various mobs that surround the building, yearning to be a part of the conclusion, wanting to be a part of anything that might affect them and thus add significance to their existence.

In only three books and a collection of stories, Timothy Taylor has proven himself one of Canada’s preeminent novelists. The Blue Light Project is the work of an author fully in control of his talent. It’s a brilliant work.

Knopf Canada | 368 pages |  $30 | cloth | ISBN #978-0307399304

One Comment

  1. Posted January 30, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Lovely review. I agree that it’s brilliant. It could easily have turned into a thriller but is so much more. I particularly appreciated the strange plight of artists who want desperately to “make it new” in a world that allows the new such a brief life before it is called old, that must astonish in a moment and, in another, fade as a cliché.

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Corey Redekop

Corey Redekop was born in Thompson, Manitoba. He now lives in Fredericton. His latest novel is Husk (ECW).