In Praise of Older Genres

André Alexis’s kidlit for grown-ups

Literary fiction has a lot to learn from genre. I discovered this myself when I started moonlighting as a children’s author. Genre I define as a form of writing that follows certain unbreakable rules, and kidlit is one. Like a lot of genre publishing, not only is kidlit going strong, but it is liberatingly versatile and form pushing despite its rules. It also bubbles over with something literary fiction often lacks: story. In The Hidden Keys, another instalment of his ambitious quincunx, André Alexis delights us with a literary novel playing dress-up with genre and offers the best of both.

Alexis explained his quincunx project in a 2015 blogpost for Quill and Quire. “I’m obsessed with storytelling, with all of its ins and outs, its rhythms, graces, failures, byways, irreality and, of course, its traditions.” To explore his obsession, he has taken as his narrative template Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Teorema in which “a god comes to earth and interacts with the members of a well-to-do family.” Alexis writes, “I wanted to tell it as a pastoral (that is, a tale set in an idealized rural world), as an apologue (a moral tale involving animals), as a quest narrative (with Treasure Island in mind), as a ghost story (like Ugetsu Monogatari), and as a kind of Harlequin romance.” Of his five-sided project The Hidden Keys is the third, following upon Pastoral and the apologue Fifteen Dogs.

The Hidden Keys is the Treasure Island version, although not a retelling of the story. There is no island, just Toronto so lovingly described it emerges as a character in its own right. Standing in for Long John Silver and Israel Hands are a pusher, Errol “Nigger” Colby, a black man with albinism, and his psychopathic sidekick, Sigismund “Freud” Luxemberg. The Azarians are the well-to-do family. The deceased business mogul Robert Azarian left not only his fortune to his five adult children, but also a memento mori of personal significance for each of them: a Japanese screen, an architectural model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a framed poem, a painting of the Emperor Nero beside a man with a raven on his shoulder and a bottle of Aquavit. And the god unleashed upon them? Robert, through his bequest? Or is he Tancred Palmieri, a most moral thief who is Alexis’s protagonist?

Tancred befriends Robert Azarian’s youngest daughter Willow, a junkie in her fifties with but $15 million left in her bank account, the rest having been shot up her arm. Willow believes that there is more to their inheritance. When she was a child, Robert used to organize elaborate treasure hunts for her pleasure. She thinks the memento mori she and her siblings received contain clues to something else he left them. She convinces Tancred to steal the other four mementos so that they can find the treasure Robert has challenged her from beyond the grave to find. Tancred, being an honest thief, will claim his reward only from Willow’s share, give the siblings theirs and return to them their stolen memento mori. When Willow dies, he honours her by keeping this promise. Each chapter in the novel is built around one of his thefts.

Outwardly, it is the treasure-seeking plot of The Hidden Keys that keeps the reader turning the pages. What is the significance of these disparate objects? Is there really a treasure? On top of this, Alexis manages to up the page-turning power by throwing in another genre layer, for where there is crime there must be a detective, in this case Tancred’s best friend from their impoverished childhood in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood of Toronto, Daniel Mandelshtam. Also from the old ’hood are Willow’s dealer and his pal, the stand-in pirates, who also know of Willow’s quest and find a way to make Tancred cooperate with them. And as a Mensa-bonus, Alexis has created a treasure hunt for the reader hidden within the text, “snippets of—or allusions to” 14 other works besides Treasure Island, some very obscure.

Plot is what drives genre fiction, but it is also its weakness. Once the puzzle is solved or the criminal caught, the reader generally reflects on the story for about as long as it would take to stuff a crossword in the recycling. This is where The Hidden Keys masterfully transcends its form. At the same time that Alexis has indulged us with a humdinger plot and a ludicrously happy ending (I was astonished how good it made me feel), he has also written a multi-layered, nuanced, absorbing novel that touches on themes that can be described only as “great,” themes that are presented not only in the moral decisions the characters are required to make, but in their musings as well—musings that left me musing whenever they came up. What is the meaning of family? Does God exist? What is the nature of goodness? How relevant is place? This, for example, on the latter: “[Tancred] had once wondered if home were people or a place. It was, of course, both and neither. Each person who lived in Toronto held a facet of the city. Naturally he did as well and, to see himself clearly, to begin the new life, he would have to be in that place that held the old one, that held those who knew him.” Coming near the end of the novel, this passage, beautiful and profound, resonated even more. By the time I finished The Hidden Keys, solving the mystery was the least of my interests. In fact, I found the mystery distracted me from the true pleasure of the book—the reflective frame of mind it asked of me—so much that I found myself agreeing with the character who tells Tancred, “I used to love a good puzzle. But I am old and I find this business only mildly diverting.”

I would be remiss if I did not mention how frequently funny this novel is, from its charmingly ridiculous character names to how Tancred manages to steal the unstealable. It is also why I could not help reading The Hidden Keys as kidlit for intelligent grown-ups. It has everything the best of children’s writing offers: an engaging plot, an engagement with morality, goofy names and laughs. Perhaps this is what Alexis was implying when he dropped this clue: he credits as his inspiration not R.L. Stevenson, but Captain George North, the pseudonymous children’s author of Treasure Island.