Toughs, torture, and talking: a CanLit book review, cubed

Pillow, by Andrew Battershill. Coach House Press, 2015.

Pillow, by Andrew Battershill. Coach House Press, 2015.

There are few better experiences in one’s literary life than picking up a book for no reason other than the cover speaks to you in some fashion, purchasing it based on a cursory cover scan, and reading it to discover it to be absolutely a special piece of work. It’s a short file of such experiences for me: Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah, Patrick Ness’ The Crash of Hennington, Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues are a few of what is a very short list. A bit longer now, though: Andrew Battershill’s Pillow definitely makes the cut.

Pillow follows Pillow, a former boxer turned mob enforcer. Sounds pretty routine, until we discover this “mob” is run by André Breton, the famous French writer and founder of the Surrealism movement. Pillow doesn’t really enjoy the work, and now that his sometimes-girlfriend Emily is pregnant he’s looking for a chance to go legit. When he has to rough up the avant-garde dramatist Antonin Artaud for some rare coins, he sees a way to free himself from Breton’s gang. But he’ll have to be clever, and with two determined (and determinedly offbeat) police officers on his tail, Pillow may not have the smarts to outwit both corrupt cops and an unpredictable (and unpredictably violent) French surrealist.

With a plot like that, how could I not but be drawn in? Elements of film noir and classic crime fiction weave dreamlike throughout a convoluted narrative that simply should not work, yet Battershill fully commits to the conceit and batters it into gloriously bruised shape. Pillow is a delightful protagonist, slightly dim yet smarter than he thinks, and his interaction with Emily crackles, aided in no small part by Battershill’s magnificently heightened dialogue. Pillow, like its gangsters, is a surreal experience. It’s also a crackling good read that I’ll soon be revisiting.

The Crimes of Hector Tomás (Freehand Books, 2012)

The Crimes of Hector Tomás (Freehand Books, 2012)

There have been a few Canadian books over recent years that have given voice to people trapped under repressive regimes. Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, Laurence Hill’s The Illegal, and Chris Gudgeon’s Song of Kosovo spring to mind as fine examples of the theme, delving into the tragic impact such events take on the human condition. If there’s any justice (inadvertent pun considering the subject matter, my apologies), Ian Colford’s The Crimes of Hector Tomás will be recognized as another superlative entry in the genre (OppressLit?).

Set in an anonymous South American country beset with (intentionally) vague coups and random abductions, Colford charts the downfall of Hector Tomás, living in the provincial capital of B____. Hector’s father Enrique is a distant figure whose sexual preferences make him a target of both the country’s military regime and its rebels. Throwing the Tomás family into turmoil after an act of childhood violence, Hector’s life becomes one of isolation and loneliness, and after being apprehended near the bombing of a bus, Hector is summarily delivered into a nightmarish spiral that warps his being.

Colford’s presentation of Hector’s tribulations—entwined with tales of Enrique’s self-loathing and Hector’s childhood girlfriend Nadia’s embrace of the rebels—is masterful, every scene perfectly meshing into a story at once intimate and epic. The (for lack of a better word) Kafkaesque nature of the unnamed country lends an air of unreality to their individual ordeals, their lives controlled by outside forces that evince no strategy save the subjugation of all who fall before them. In Hector Tomás, Colford has constructed a world that is gruesome, gripping, and wholly believable, and its harrowing depiction of the malleability of the soul should make it required reading.

Mirrors on Which Dust has Fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015)

Mirrors on Which Dust has Fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015)

Discussing a novel like Mirrors on which dust has fallen is far from an easy task (at least for me, but I’ve got that brain thing). Much as with Jeff Bursey’s previous work, the impressive yet admittedly esoteric Verbatim (presented entirely as a Hansard transcript), Mirrors is presented in a far-from-usual form that may turn off potential readers, but will reward those with an open mind and an eye towards unorthodox literary experiments.

Set in the fictional burg of Bowmount, Mirrors resembles the post-modern works of Robert Coover crossed with a late-era Robert Altman film (think Short Cuts). Bursey tracks his many disparate characters as they wander almost aimlessly through their days, the narrative heavy with dialogue and light on conventional plot. As the chapters pass, we begin to recognize certain characters and themes: as the smart-yet-underachieving Loyola (as close to a protagonist as the novel allows) and his sex-obsessed friend Jules comment on everything they can think of, Bursey reveals a radio station in the midst of an update/staffing crisis, a church in the throes of scandal, and a pet shop caught in a hostage situation.

Bursey makes the choice to present his disconnected narrative almost entirely through dialogue, rendering the multiple plot threads through the personal verbal interactions of his actors. It’s a bold, slightly alienating choice that brings the underbelly of the city to life in a way few novels can manage. What you take from Mirrors may depend on what you bring to it; arrive expecting to be spoon-fed the narrative and you’ll leave hungry, but come expecting a challenge and you’ll leave fully sated and wanting more.