‘Love and the Mess We’re in’ by Stephen Marche

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Alex Merrill

Stephen Marche’s new novel set my head spinning, and this was not only because the story sometimes goes in circles.

Spherical text is one of several reasons you won’t find this book in eBook format. To read this book, sometimes you have to turn it sideways or upside down, which would stump a Kindle or iPad user with those devices’ baffling ability to adjust the page upright with every movement. Love and the Mess We’re In is a sensuous experience in other ways too, and meant to be handled in real space. You’re supposed to luxuriate in the thickness of the pages, not to mention the sumptuous white space throughout, a reminder that meaning is found not only in words but in the spaces – the breaths – between words. You’re asked, also, to marvel at the typesetting that defies convention with changing fonts and sizes and where it’s placed on the page. Even the dust jacket with its large, subtly textured title is intended to be explored. And if you look underneath you’ll find a different cover with another design containing clues to the story.

I wondered if this stylistically extravagant book is Marche’s way of thumbing his nose at the parsimony of the publishing world and austerity trends everywhere. He took six years to write it, he has said, two of which he spent in its design, collaborating with designer/publisher Andrew Steeves. Take that, you scrimping world.

Despite this purely print offering, Marche is no technophobe. A self-described “enemy of boredom” Marche has shape-shifted each of his books in unorthodox ways. His second novel, Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is a choose your-own-outcome tale solely for the Web (you can read it for free here on The Walrus website). Shining at the Bottom of the Sea also resists the usual categories. Shining is an anthology of essays edited by fictional editor Stephen Marche about the history of the imaginary island-state of Sanjania, all written by the real Stephen Marche.

But what about the story itself, I wondered while wandering the first confusing pages of Love and the Mess We’re In. Does all this font and fury signify anything?

Love is, after all, an engaging story, a sinuous tale of love and betrayal and shame and insanity. Clive and Viv are about to embark on an adulterous affair in Buenos Aires while Viv’s husband Tim, Clive’s best friend, languishes in a mental institution in Ontario after a breakdown. How each partner in this messy ménage navigates the murk of adultery and madness is the gist of the plot. It takes some readerly patience to get to that gist, for each time I turned a page I had to decide how to read that page, where to start and where to end.  But when I figured out that this book required more active engagement than most novels, I was hooked.

Most of the first half of Love focuses on Viv and Clive’s dialogue and internal monologues which run across two pages at a time – her words on the left page, his on the right. We learn who Viv and Clive really are through their unspoken thoughts juxtaposed as marginalia with their conversation.  These marginalia are essential to the story. To paraphrase a line from Marche’s first novel Raymond and Hannah, where Raymond describes a writer as “a master of marginalia,” I think the core of Marche’s storytelling can be found in what may look like irrelevant asides, the “corners of his work.”

These marginalia also serve to underscore the paradox of human communication: words tend to separate us, not bring us together.  Clive and Viv talk and talk but don’t really connect – each so wrapped up in their own guilt about betraying Tim, not to mention that they are both writers and always thinking about work. It isn’t until the two of them finally touch that the prattle of their minds stops.

Which brings us to the sex in this book. Literary descriptions of sex notoriously fall short and/or inspire giggles with their cheesiness, but Marche comes very close to the mark. The first 200 hundred pages is Viv and Clive’s hesitating approach to a seemingly unavoidable coupling – they talk, balk, think, balk – and with such build-up there’s considerable pressure on the writer to deliver.  Clive and Viv’s words begin to break down, their ability to talk and think breaks down, and words start scattering across the page until there is nothing left to utter, a great big O.

What happens after Viv and Clive’s Argentinian tryst involves some strangely poignant star charts and a hilarious foldout subway map of New York City. These unique features are worth lingering over. If you haven’t before considered the curious shape of that city, you’ll never be able to not think about it again.

This novel isn’t a quick or an easy read. But it is worth the effort.

Gaspereau | 272 pages |  $28.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1554471072

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Alex Merrill

Alex used to live in Quebec and now she lives, reads and writes in Winnipeg. Some of her stories have made it into Prairie Fire and Event. A few others have appeared in the anthologies A/Cross Sections: New Manitoba Writing, and Creekstones: Words and Images.