‘Involuntary Bliss’ by Devon Code

Book Reviews

involuntaryReviewed by André Forget 

On a purely narrative level, there is nothing remarkable about the story Devon Code tells in Involuntary Bliss. Indeed, it seems at first to be nothing more than another tedious example of what we might call existential white guy fiction: two young men spend a weekend wandering around Montreal smoking pot, drinking Fin du Monde and talking about love, death, poetry, the difficulty of living a truly authentic life in the modern world, etc. Naturally, it includes all the requisite affairs with beautiful female painters, acts of meaningful rebellion against the soul-destroying conditions of late capitalism, journeys to exotic locales, drug-fuelled epiphanies in said locales, and unattractive beards one expects from such novels.

For a certain kind of reader, this is probably already reason enough not to be bothered with the book. Fortunately, Involuntary Bliss is not as irritating as its plot synopsis makes it sound. In fact, the simplicity of the novel’s conceit allows Code to indulge his remarkable gift for making even the most ordinary subjects weird and bizarre and compelling.

The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed graduate student who travels to Montreal to catch up with his former classmate James, who dropped out after the death of their mutual friend Warren. Most of the novel is taken up with James’ stories about his life since leaving school, all of which are really about his obsession with Warren’s death, and his even stranger obsession with the Cyclopean Studies seminar that introduced James, Warren and the narrator to the obscene “Peruvian novella” with its “confounding notion of involuntary bliss.”

We never find out what exactly what Cyclopean Studies is, or why exactly it is that the Peruvian novella “would make the Kama Sutra seem like a bedtime story for small children.” But this never feels very important, as the driving force of the novel is James’ constantly frustrated attempts to make sense of the world around him. It is to Code’s credit that James is never allowed to be fully self-conscious of his own absurdity even as he rails against the absurdity of the world, for this more than anything else is what makes the novel work.

Code is clearly in conversation with the tradition of the existentialist novel, and one gets the sense that he is using the tropes of the genre against themselves (for example, when James travels to Peru hoping to encounter the sublime at Macchu Picchu, he has the bad luck of visiting on a day when it is completely rained out.) Instead, James is constantly on the move, physically and spiritually, without ever seeming to arrive anywhere. And because of the disjointed nature of the narrative, we don’t realize until the end that the moment of epiphany that we have been primed to expect at the novel’s climax has chronologically taken place before most of James’ narrative, thereby sending up the whole notion of a moment of life-changing truth. The actual epiphany that comes, when it comes, is much more beautiful and useless.

All of this is made enjoyable by Code’s wry, winkingly aloof language. His greatest strengths are as a stylist, and it is gratifying to see an emerging writer so completely in control of his characterization of the world. There are relatively few truly virtuosic passages, but when he chooses to show it his facility with the long sentence is reminiscent of Orhan Pamuk’s masterful digressions. Still, it is his consistent willingness to insistently, pedantically and above all comically follow a thought through to its conclusion that really sets him apart. Consider the following, relating to a job James gets at a hotel:

He’d made so many sacrifices in the few short months he had been in the employ of the Auberge St. Eglise. He’d shorn his beard. He’d cut his hair. In the end it was the one sacrifice that he refused to make that was the only one that mattered. The crux had been the denim trousers he’d worn in spite of the management’s insistence on polyester pants, denim trousers being in his estimation the most appropriate pants an arranger of hotel furniture could wear. Polyester did not breathe, did not sit well against his skin, nor did it suit his sensibilities. Every time someone put on a pair of polyester pants it was an affront to human dignity, and to common sense. Never had he heard a hotel guest compliment the employee’s polyester pants. Never had a hotel guest chided him on his denim trousers, the guests of the Auberge St. Eglise proving entirely indifferent to the pants worn by hotel furniture arrangers, which is why the management’s insistence on polyester was absurd, much like their insistence that he wear a bowtie at all times.

This business about trousers and bow ties continues for another two pages. And as often happens when a simple point is belaboured for no apparent reason, it becomes wickedly funny. But the passage also does a lot of practical work in terms of establishing the kind of person James is—namely, the kind of person that fancies themselves a bohemian but still gets in a lather about trousers. The cumulative effect of these kinds of passages is to create the sense that James is a person of principle and commitment who is pathologically incapable of establishing priorities.

Code also has a gift for the kind of backhanded, understated one-liners one associates with a distinctly British tradition of writing in the vein of Kingsley Amis and Christopher Hitchens: “Jean-Marc drew their attention to the green canvas that Madeleine had been working on when they’d arrived, the merits of which James thought to be particularly obscure.” The interplay between the somewhat affected earnestness of his digressions and the ironic phrasing of the one-liners leads one to feel that however sympathetically Code may draw his characters, he is also sending them up.

But while Involuntary Bliss is thoroughly entertaining, I was somewhat puzzled by how short it was—especially considering that its digressive tendencies are an integral part of its charm. Coming in at a mere 169 pages, it didn’t feel so much like a novel as the first part of a novel, a longer and more interesting one that would delve further into the labyrinthine world of Cyclopean Studies, expand on the origins of the narrator’s relationship with the self-involved James and the iconoclastic Warren, and tell us more about the Peruvian Novel and its confounding theory of involuntary bliss.

The works Involuntary Bliss evoked most forcefully for me—Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, Italo Calvino’s early short stories—have a sprawling quality, a habit of expansiveness. In Involuntary Bliss, this expansiveness is gestured toward rather than realized. One gets the sense there are dozens of narratives branching out from the main story that have simply not been developed.

For example, James dates the beginnings of his troubles to an encounter with Lydia, a missionary who comes to his door just as he is on the brink of formulating a brilliant thesis about the Peruvian novella. The encounter with Lydia, and with the elder who follows up on her visit, initiates a psychic break that eventually leads James to abandon his graduate studies. It also provides a platform for one of Code’s most virtuosic sentences, a page-and-half long jeremiad on the exigency of modern life that includes such delightful locutions as “the denigration of the Cyclopean Weltanshauung [sic] in favour of a bleary-eyed and depthless bi-opticism” and “the hegemony of arborescent thinking and the subsequent perversion of rhizomatic cartography.” But then Lydia is gone, the episode wraps up a few pages later, and we never hear from the missionaries again.

There are certain restaurants in Toronto where one can order an entrée the menu takes a full paragraph to describe, and be served a piece of lamb the size of an eyeball resting delicately on three grains of bulgur, drizzled with an eyedropper’s worth of sauce, and garnished with an almost sarcastically small sprig of parsley: the more delicious the food is, the more one feels one has been ripped off. It is true that sometimes less is more, but sometimes less is also just less. Given the almost effortless way Code grants depth and individuality to even the most minor characters, his willingness to abandon the many possible storylines they could inhabit seems almost immoral.

But Code’s brevity is symptomatic of a disease sweeping Canadian literature, an affliction that, even as it has grown to epidemic proportions, I have only heard spoken of in hushed whispers at the bar as the hour creeps toward last call: I am speaking, of course, of the 200-page novel.

The 200-page novel is not always 200 pages long. Sometimes it is a mere 140 pages long, other times it stretches to 300. But what all 200-page novels (or rather, the 200-page novel as an epiphenomenon) share is a modesty of scope, an unnecessarily small cast of characters, a reluctance to push the narrative beyond certain artificially proscribed bounds. The 200-page novel is distinguished from the novel that simply happens to be 200 pages long by the fact that it could easily have been longer, but isn’t. For example, Éric Plamondon, André Alexis, Louis Carmain and Jacob Wren have all published books in the last two years that could have easily achieved the kind of sprawling magnificence one associates with the highest achievements of the craft. Instead, their work is truncated or broken into smaller, less individually ambitious pieces. If the average word count of a first novel is anything to go by, anything more than 100,000 words ushers an attack of vertigo.

I do not know exactly when I started to notice the 200-page novel as a literary phenomenon. I only know that I awoke one morning in late 2016, shortly after finishing Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and right before launching into the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, and realized I simply could not imagine such work being published in Canada. When Canadians write long novels, they tend to be formally conservative works of historical fiction—novels with an almost pedagogical bent, like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls, or more recently Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Novels whose length we can, perhaps, excuse because they are educational. More experimentally daring writing is allowed in Canada, but only so long as it doesn’t take up time and space that could be more productively spent learning about Serious Issues. The noteworthiness of exceptions like, for example, Ghalib Islam’s Fire In the Unnameable Country seem only to underscore how entrenched these ways of thinking seem to be.

As in the case of so many other things, it is possible that there are corporate or marketing influences at work here, and perfidious capitalism is ultimately (as usual) to blame. If so, it would seem that marketers are paying more attention to esoteric theories about what people want rather than the hard data about what they actually pay for, attested to by the runaway success of writers like James, Ferrante, Zadie Smith, and Eleanor Catton.

Involuntary Bliss is Code’s first novel, so perhaps we can hope that this is simply a foretaste of richer things to come. In the meantime, it is well worth reading, and if existential white guy fiction is not your particular bag, don’t worry—you can polish it off in an evening. Unfortunately.

BookThug169 pages | paper | $20 | ISBN 978-1-77166-249-9

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Andre Forget

André Forget is a staff writer at the Anglican Journal and The Puritan, and an editor at Whether Magazine. He lives in Toronto.