The opening paragraph of André Alexis’ A tells us that its protagonist, book reviewer Alexander Baddeley, believes “reviews were meant to be ‘corrosive’ in order to be true.” I must point out that, despite the fact that I’ve submitted to this very site reviews that might be described as “corrosive,” I disagree wholeheartedly with Baddeley—something to keep in mind while reading this non-corrosive review of Alexis’s fine novella.
A, released in September of 2013 by Toronto experimental press BookThug, is an afternooner, a slim, propulsive read, effortless and a little addictive, quaffed easily in a single sitting. Alexis’ novella primarily concerns itself, at least initially, with literary inspiration—the fount of the creative impulse. Alexis’ protagonist is obsessed with a prominent poet, a Salingerian recluse named Avery Andrews. In A’s early goings, as Baddeley begins his search for the poet, André Alexis (the novella’s author, just to keep things straight) gradually establishes an entirely pleasing air of Paul-Auster-esque mysterious surreality. Baddeley eventually finds Andrews, who reveals the exalted source of his poems’ creation. I’ll stop right there describing the novella’s plot, as Alexis’ gradual unfolding of A’s central metaphorical conceit is, for me, one of the book’s chief pleasures—I’d go so far as to suggest that potential readers avoid A’s sample text available on the BookThug website.
Though Alexis and his protagonist share a home city (Toronto) and the vocation of Globe and Mail book reviewer, Baddeley is most likely not a direct surrogate for the author. The novella’s opening page offers a less than flattering assessment of its protagonist: “To make up for his ‘failings,’ Baddeley sometimes flaunted his own (wilfully acquired) quirks as if they were the marks of deep feeling.” Though written in the third person, Alexis’ prose furthers this characterization of Baddeley through its use of quotation marks and bracketed asides: “Andrews ‘hauteur’ appealed to most of his readers;” “the rooms were in order, the furniture arranged ‘just so;’” “Marva was telling the truth about some aspects of her story (the cardigan, say).” The effect is subtle, but in their constant employment, these stylistic quirks serve to emphasize and expand upon the reader’s idea of Baddeley as a hesitant, insubstantial man.
Alexis’ prose is simply a joy. Initially the book is spare and efficient, with only the occasional, precise simile (“the lake was greenish-grey and as placid as a corpse”). As the novel progresses, and Baddeley begins his own creative journey, the prose flowers with him, increasingly lingering on lengthy descriptions:
The tea house itself was predominantly wood—exposed beams, dark brown slats, knots and whorls like maddened veins. It was the kind of room that made you think of splinters until you actually touched the wood of the table and benches and could feel them, smooth as polished stones.
Again, the prose subtly yet economically characterizes the book’s protagonist.
There is an undercurrent of disdain for the entire hoopla that surrounds literature, specifically Canadian literature, running through the novella’s first half: a best-selling book is said to have been “bought in great numbers and read by almost half of those who bought it.”
In the book’s second half this satire becomes more pointed and specific, culminating in a scene where Baddeley attends a dinner along with many figures of the current Toronto literati, who are skewered one-by-one. In the best bit, Margaret Atwood is described as having “something of the iguana to her.” While certainly funny, the more specific the satire, the less interested I was, perhaps because I’m not thoroughly immersed in the Toronto lit scene. Those with complete knowledge will probably find a lot more to laugh at—or be offended by. (Is this the reason A has remained mostly unreviewed?)
The open question that remains is the book’s ultimate purpose. The thought occurred to me that the whole thing is nothing but a piss-take, a send-up mocking literary scenesters and their surrounding machinery, as well as the highfalutin “true artiste”—every single character in the book is held in a mostly unflattering light. Also, the passages where Baddeley interacts with the source of creation have a bombastic grandiosity that opens them to potential ridicule.
However, these passages also contain a sense of genuine reverence, which seems to discount them as pure satire. And really, could Alexis be writing fiction about the stupidity of writing fiction? (This might be apt and funny for an author’s final work, but Alexis has just recently published another novel, Pastoral, with Coach House Books—so he seems to still believe in his own fiction, at least.) Perhaps Alexis aims to comment on the intertwined nature of creativity, the ridiculous and the sublime bound inseparably. But why, then, would such a laser-specific satire of the Toronto lit scene be required? Every time I try to grasp the book in my hand, it slips away. But that slipperiness in itself could be considered a merit of the work.
The book’s final page may offer the key—a dream sequence offering a single lovely, ambiguous image, and a final line that (maybe?) offers Baddeley a hint of redemption. Exactly what Alexis is up to here, I’m not entirely sure. Regardless, A is genuinely fascinating, a work whose rich complexities belie its brevity..
BookThug | 96 pages | $15.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927040799