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Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Kindred Spirits

Kit Dobson’s ambitious debut

Alexander Sallas

We Are Already Ghosts

Kit Dobson

University of Calgary Press

232 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

Kit Dobson’s debut novel, We Are Already Ghosts, revolves around several members of the Briscoe-MacDougall family, as they convene at their “comfortable, well-worn” lakeside cabin in south-central Alberta during the summers of 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011. Over two decades, they face good and bad fortune, feel enthused and stagnant, make decisions and have decisions thrust upon them.

The experimental narrative jumps between multiple characters’ inner monologues. Verbs like “feeling,” “hoping,” “imagining,” and “remembering” appear frequently. Thoughts possess depth uncaptured in articulation; when dialogue makes a rare appearance, it tends to contradict or minimize the thinking that preceded it. In this way, Dobson suggests, the version of ourselves that the world knows and history records never captures the complete picture. “We are already ghosts” because we exist somewhere between alive and dead, haunted by “spectres and shades.”

Early in the novel, for example, the pragmatic accountant William wonders why his thirteen-year-old daughter, Helen, insists on accompanying him on regular trips to the regional dump. Quietly, Helen sympathizes with the “men, and, much less often, women who were poor- and rough-looking” who scavenge the scrapyard. She feels “a restless sense of injustice” that “such poverty could be the case.” The outings prompt her to ponder basic questions about social inequity: “How could such a stark difference exist between their lives and her own?” After Helen’s sudden death ten years later, the grieving father reflects on his daughter’s “simple delight in the place.” As readers, we know that’s a mischaracterization — but he doesn’t.

With shades of anthropomorphism.

Sandra Marisol Del Río Mendoza; Alamy

The others at the cabin include William’s younger brothers, Doug, an erudite professor, and Mike, an introspective lawyer. They’re known for lengthy, good-natured arguments — what their elder sibling calls “ritual disagreements.” Then there are William’s wife, Clare, and Mike’s wife, Jéanne; William’s sons, John and Michael; and Mike’s kids, Benjamin, Celeste, and Daphne. Plus the assorted partners and pets who come and go. It’s a lot to keep straight (having two characters named Michael doesn’t help). Indeed, for the first sixty pages or so, Dobson has to keep reminding us who’s who. During their inner monologues, the characters often refer to one another with labels like “the children” or “the three brothers.” But real people don’t think like that. Such direct exposition takes us out of the action by breaking the dramatic illusion.

Elsewhere, Dobson’s prose is creative, crisp, and evocative. Looking into the water, Daphne notices “a minnow’s twirl caught in a shaft of descending sunlight.” Later she relishes “the feeling of the lake mud oozing between her toes” and the sensation of “her digits squishing the muck.” Beneath the cabin lies “the granite of the Shield that crossed the continent to the north and east, the very tail of a coiled and slumbering lizard of the depths along whose spine they all ran.” Dobson counterposes such metaphors with relatable action. The Briscoe-MacDougalls do the usual cottage things — eat together, play board games, suntan, swim — and in each chapter they consider issues of the day. The Robert Latimer murder trials: ’96. George W. Bush’s presidency: ’01. The War on Terror: ’06. The ongoing crisis in the humanities: ’11.

The novel also offers heartfelt reflections on growing older and on parenthood. For middle-aged Jéanne, youth meant having “time enough to be bored,” as the future “stretched itself ahead of me in a hazy, open sort of way.” As one of the Michaels goes from an ambitious, brusque teenager to a struggling thirtysomething academic, he reckons with “aging into the disappointment of not being famous, of not being terribly interesting.” He regrets wasting so much time on trivial left-wing student politics and acknowledges that “his belief in revolution excused everything that he and his comrades did — to themselves, to one another, to the world.” William worries about “the speed, the rashness” of his young sons and wants to tell them to slow down, because “there is so much time to come.” Yet he recognizes the inherent contradiction that “trying to warn them to prepare themselves for the long haul would be to speed them up even more.” Come 2011, Benjamin, now a perpetually worried new parent, develops an appreciation for his relatively painless upbringing and for his mother’s self-sacrifice in raising him: “That anyone could give her very consciousness over to the maintenance of the life of another human being was something that he found quite marvelous.”

Although Dobson’s characters span generations and possess distinct interests and professions, their voices tend to sound similar. Other than excitable Clare — for whom Dobson lets the exclamation points fly — they’re hard to distinguish from one another. There’s no reason for a teenage girl to speak like her mature father or for a high-minded scholar, Françoise, to sound like an image-conscious French teacher, Celeste.

Throughout, readers encounter an awful lot of telling rather than showing. To some degree, that’s part and parcel of the book’s concept: to establish the disconnection between the characters’ thoughts and expressions, an omniscient voice must communicate the gulf. Still, the technique can be unsatisfying. Following a heartfelt proclamation from Celeste, for instance, we’re told that Daphne feels “there was something a little bit embarrassing about the sentiment, but only in its honesty.” This verdict heads off our own interpretations. The categorical narration even extends to pets. Passages such as the one in which Sarah the dog “cocked her head and continued to be puzzled by the humans, by their laughter, by the strange ways in which they used their energies” cheapen the story with anthropomorphic clichés.

In their place, Dobson might have pushed his approach further. Yes, elements of our being remain unexpressed to the outside world, but some stay unexpressed internally. Many philosophers suggest that certain conditions preclude the emergence of thought entirely. To borrow a term from Martin Heidegger, it’s not merely that we’re always ghosts. We are “always already” ghosts: never fully ourselves, even to ourselves. Dobson, himself an erudite professor, steers clear of this deeper position, which might have increased the novel’s conceptual heft. Even so, between some astute writing, moving ruminations, and a palpable late summer atmosphere, there’s much to recommend his ambitious debut.

Alexander Sallas is a doctoral candidate at Western University and an editor-at-large with the Literary Review of Canada.