Home Sweet Unhomely
The latest from André Alexis
At first, Geoffrey Morehouse, a federal clerk in the 1980s, resists the occult contagion that has overtaken his cubicle-hived floor at Transport Canada. His fellow bureaucrats have been voraciously reading a mysterious red book, with troubling results. They have begun speaking in fragments, omitting the words “I,” “eye,” and “aye,” and sticking out their tongues. The pressure to conform mounts. Everyone else has read the book — why not Geoffrey? Is being lizard-like really so bad?
This strange scenario crystallizes many of the strengths of André Alexis’s collection The Night Piece. For one, there’s the sheer imaginative gymnastics required to conceive this premise and the narrative twists and turns that unspool from it. There’s the deft mining of voice for comedy: Geoffrey’s deadpan account, its tone timid and pedantic, jars ironically with his unnerving plight. There’s likewise the gentle satire of bureaucratic Ottawa, a motif that binds several of these stories.
Especially striking, though, is Alexis’s use of a plot derived from the ostensibly low-culture genres of horror and fantasy as a substrate for high-culture philosophical rumination. Geoffrey eventually resolves to pretend he’s read the mysterious tome. He imitates his co-workers’ speech and mannerisms and takes a copy of the book home, opening it tentatively. Even this scant exposure sparks recurrent nightmares featuring an eerie figure whose nationality echoes the two words —“Norwegian roads”— that Geoffrey reads. In what ways has the text infiltrated his mind? Is the Norwegian a spectre of the author or something else? Geoffrey eventually concludes that “the red book is not a book at all. It is another mind. It is not another mind in the benevolent sense. It is another mind like a virus. What I mean is: if I were foolish enough to read the red book, I would become the mind within it.” From the sedateness of cubicle life and the surrealness of nightmares we are catapulted into the loftiness of the seminar room, there to debate the relationship of author to reader and text to mind.
To The Night Piece’s credit, the philosophizing arises from the plot organically and unobtrusively, enriching rather than overwhelming it. It’s a literary skill that Alexis, best known for Fifteen Dogs, winner of the 2015 Giller Prize, has been honing for decades. This volume collects stories from across his career, spanning his 1994 debut, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, 2010’s Beauty and Sadness, and the 2013 novella A, along with several new ones. At its best, Alexis’s writing channels the high-minded otherworldliness, not to mention the unnerving strangeness, of Poe, Calvino, and Borges. These propulsive tales unfold events in the manner of fables, elaborating weighty themes — the nature of our minds, the existence of divine powers — upon the thread of fantasy.
We see this fabular quality in “Cocteau,” named for the French author. (A few story titles are names of writers from whom, presumably, Alexis draws inspiration.) Here, a mediocre poet takes the job of caretaker of an abandoned — and, we learn, haunted — tower in a small Ontario town. A ghostly presence visits him overnight, operating as a muse whose poetry the caretaker transcribes and publishes under his own name. As the poet’s fame grows, admirers swarm the town, desiring a clearer understanding of the verses. From a tale of demonic possession, knotty aesthetic questions gradually materialize. What, if any, power does a text draw from its author’s life? What relationship exists between celebrity and craft? (Similar questions animate A, a satire of Toronto literary culture involving Atwood and Ondaatje, as well as a skewering of David Gilmour.)
Another of the collection’s standouts, “Horse,” probes the relationship of mind to body through a horror story involving a mad scientist. The scientist rents the upper floors of the narrator’s home and eventually recruits him as a guinea pig for an experiment in which the scientist assumes diabolical control of the man’s movements. Watching from afar as his body treks around Ottawa, the narrator experiences a gulf between his consciousness and his flesh: “I have a tendency to speak of my (so-called) mind as ‘I,’ but that’s not exactly what I felt. My body was ‘I’ as well. The constant unfolding of images, words, and desires that I take to be consciousness was, for the first few days, bifurcate.”
Not every story traffics in the fantastic, gothic, and grotesque. “Kuala Lumpur” poignantly relates a bereaved son’s struggles during his father’s wake as it descends into pandemonium. One of The Night Piece’s most memorable narratives, “The Third Terrace,” unfolds a noirish revenge drama that takes place in a world identical to ours, save that hand porn and hand prostitution — in which customers watch especially shapely hands rub oils across various fabrics — are booming industries.
In an afterword to the volume, Madeleine Thien evocatively likens reading Alexis’s writing to the sensation of walking on ice. We feel ourselves supported only “by a surface about to give way.” The image is apt. These stories often plunge us — drastically, suddenly, with a crack — into new, darker worlds, with all the terror and chill of falling beneath the ice. Yet easily overlooked amid the otherworldly horrors are the recognizable horrors of deceased parents and fractured marriages, as Alexis weighs fantasy against reality, one sorrow against another.
A clue to the wellspring of loss that permeates The Night Piece lies in the surname of the aforementioned bureaucrat: Geoffrey Morehouse. Throughout, characters seem deprived of, and in need of, a fortified sense of home, of homeliness. They lose homes, inherit empty and desolate ones, and rent them out to strangers. But the experience of being unhoused takes more expansive, figurative forms too. Alexis, who moved to Canada from Trinidad with his parents as a child, has written that he doesn’t “like to be thought of as a ‘black writer,’ largely because I refuse to accept that my race provides a royal road to understanding the fiction I write.” Nevertheless, the unhousing that characterizes the diasporic experience recurs within the collection. In the title story, for instance, the protagonist listens to a fellow guest at a Caribbean Canadian wedding in Ottawa recount his haunting by a soucouyant, a blood-sucking ghoul of Caribbean folklore. Like Coleridge’s wedding guest in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Alexis’s character is transformed by the tale he hears. The soucouyant later appears in the young Ottawan’s dreams, upending his understanding of community by investing it with new mythologies.
In this story and others, Alexis refutes Earle Birney’s claim, in his 1960s poem “Can. Lit.,” that our country lacks a sense of historicity: “It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.” Alexis’s ghosts of memory and reverie reanimate contemporary Canadian experience. Their hauntings invest that experience with tales from distant places and cultures, unsettling it. (The collection’s interlocutors include Maupassant, Fuentes, and James, too.) Brainy, horrifying, and internationalist in scope, The Night Piece exemplifies the Canadian unhomely in the best of ways. Domesticating the foreign, it renders newly foreign the domestic.