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The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

What’s in the Box?

Mandy-Suzanne Wong steps outside

Rose Hendrie

The Box

Mandy-Suzanne Wong

House of Anansi Press

248 pages, softcover and ebook

With a book like The Box, a reader has two choices: go along with its games or drop their forehead to the table and groan. To choose the former is to enter a puzzle of six distinct narratives that revolve around an enigmatic white paper box as it is, at various points, misplaced, stolen, and carried across a nameless city caught in continual snowfall. To choose the latter is to consider Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s latest title a convoluted anti-novel so crammed with contrived mysteries and circular philosophies that the experience is akin to being stuck inside the anxiety dream of a graduate student who has fallen asleep in the middle of their Borges thesis.

The story opens with the snow, which has been falling steadily for weeks. It falls at nearly the same rate at which it melts, leaving the streets cloaked in a perpetual layer of fresh powder — a ghostly blank slate upon which anything might appear. It is difficult to get one’s bearings within the disquieting cityscape. The location is never revealed. Neither are the identities of the speakers. The initial voice is that of a self-described misanthrope, whose blissful solitude is interrupted when they see a small object slip from a stranger’s pocket and feel an odd compulsion to return it. “I hesitated while the man went zigzagging down the lane,” they reflect. “Whether it was curiosity or dread that moved me I no longer know.” So begins a series of anonymous accounts that map the travels of this unusual artifact. As becomes clear, the people here are mere decoration. The box is the key. As the first narrator explains: “That thing, a paper thing, white paper in the snow, exerted counterforces which I cannot define but which proved stronger than history and all my instincts.”

The people themselves are mere decoration.

M.G.C.

From the snowy streets to an art gallery, an antiquarian bookshop, the bar of a hotel named La Blue Boite, a shipping and packaging facility, and finally a train station, the peculiar cuboid enters and exits disparate lives, disrupting some, enriching others, and perplexing everyone. It becomes an icon of worship to a group of violent teenagers and haunts a mysterious woman known as the Seeker, who pursues the “embodiment of the absolute unknown” with increasing desperation. Only one person claims to have been able to open the intricate woven design. What she found inside she will not tell. Each unique chapter holds its own self-contained story in which information is garnered second-hand, sometimes third-hand. The full picture is always just out of reach. Rumours and conspiracy theories abound. The word “so‑called” recurs throughout. As the weeks of snow turn into months, memories grow fuzzy and tempers fray. Will this weird weather ever end? Will the box reveal its secrets?

When it comes to novelty, The Box is never short of supply. The chapters, with titles such as “Changeling” and “Medium,” dance between bleak comedy, magic realism, murder plot, and dystopian climate fable, culminating with a slightly strained COVID‑19 allegory in the final act. The tone and form are in constant flux. One character may utter lines such as “A second ceiling of pure sound. Of chirp and chitter flutters like the tinkling ruckus of a restaurant from a distance elevated.” Another will wonder, in all earnestness, “if a tabletop’s memories of treehood were nostalgic or nightmarish.” It is difficult to know what to make of a work that is intent on piling mystery on top of mystery, like the relentless snowfall. As the symbolism accumulates, every vessel or vessel-like item teases a potential clue. (Snails —“a package that wants never to be opened”— hold a certain significance.) The “white wicker totality” occupies a space somewhere between a McGuffin and a metaphor. It is also, relatively speaking, the protagonist.

To call the endeavour experimental would be to put it mildly. There are multiple fronts of experiment at play, and Wong appears keen to pack in as much mind bending as possible. At times her imagination soars, especially in the chapter “Remainder,” where the power of material things is taken to its illogical extreme: a tree forms out of furniture, a massage table flees a hotel spa and hides in the corridor, and a character known as the indoor gardener discovers a living plant with fabric flowers, which he names Robin. A thread of sly humour provides welcome relief within a project that is in danger of becoming too self-referential, of folding in too tightly on itself. When the lighter touches disappear in the latter third, they are missed.

The Box is not a relaxing read, but neither is it trying to be. The prose is dense, intelligent, and often striking, but it is also a lot to bear. A few too many constructions describe the titular receptacle in roundabout terms, being at once “absolutely self-contained” and “the opposite of self-contained.” The book is bursting at the seams with subtext (Wong’s acknowledgements provide a lengthy and frankly intimidating list of writers and thinkers with whom the author is in conversation). The structure itself comes to represent another kind of unknowable box: this is, after all, the story of an inanimate object that refuses to tell its own story. Part of the intrigue arises from seeing if Wong can pull off such a high-wire act of conceptual gymnastics. In the end, though, she does not stick the landing.

During the chapter “Counterfate,” the curator of a renowned art collection describes a painting as “besieged by layers and layers of surface.” The same could be said of these narratives. Wong assembles a maze of unexpected twists and turns that start as wildly inventive but eventually grow tiring. When the incentive appears to be enigma alone, the maze becomes more like a trap with no way out. The motif of the box could mean anything: a consumerist critique, a climate warning, a comment on human agency or lack thereof, a symbol for the social construction of language and otherness. But it could just as easily mean nothing. As Wong said in an interview with Superstition Review: “Only a box that is no more than a box can invoke the paradox of its own powerlessness.” She later continued, “Straightforwardness here would miss the point.”

But what is the point? The novel draws attention to how the world is made and how it may be picked apart. A warning seems to lie at the centre of this puzzle. How readers will interpret it is up to them.

Rose Hendrie is working on a novel.

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