I am very excited to be part of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury this year. While only one of KevinfromCanada’s top picks made it to the shortlist, I have to say that the actual shortlist ranges a number of attractive topics. Look at this range: (1) The Golden Mean takes us to Aristotle’s tutelage of Philip of Macedon’s son Alexander; (2) The Winter Vault starts in Egypt during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, moves back to the Lost Villages during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and then to Toronto with a look at Nazi occupied Warsaw; (3) The Disappearedgoes to Cambodia under the Kmer Rouge; and then we spend time in Canada proper with (4) Fall taking place in a private school in Ottawa and (5) The Bishop’s Man going to a priest’s parish on Cape Breton Island. I’m not saying KFC is wrong that other books on the longlist were better (he read them — I did not), but I’m certainly compelled to read these titles for more reasons than for their inclusion on the shortlist.
I started with Colin McAdam’s Fall (2009) because it was KFC’s least favorite on the shortlist. I thought, let’s get this one out of the way. One of the benefits of having low expectations is that the book has a great chance of meeting them, and that was certainly the case here — too an extent.
First, the basic setting. Fall (like the last book I reviewed) is set in an exclusive private school. This one places us in Ottawa’s St. Ebury. The principal characters are Noel, the son of Canada’s Consul General to Australia; Julius, the son of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, and Noel’s roommate; and Fallon, the Fall of the title, Julius’s girlfriend, and Noel’s obsession. Here’s an early passage from Noel about Fall:
One face could be my guide and salvation. It could be my comfort and the goal of superstition. It seems incredible that I can no longer picture her.
When I achieved a perfect mark on an essay, it presaged Fall’s eventual love for me. When I scored a shot from the line in basketball, which I rarely did, it was because I would kiss Fall that week, that term, that year.
Most of the book is told either in the first person by Noel, who is looking back, or in a stream of consciousness by Julius, who is very much in the moment. Julius is well liked at school. Noel is bookish and insular and, we’ll find out soon enough, downright creepy. To make things worse for Noel, he has a twitch in one of his eyes, earning him the nickname Wink. The only reason Noel and Julius are roommates is because everyone thought Julius would already have a roommate, so they got someone else. Noel was who was left over when it turned out Julius didn’t have a roommate. For almost a year Julius has been dating the beautiful Fall, and they seem to be developing a genuine loving relationship for a couple as young as they are. In the meantime, Julius and Noel have come to confide in one another. A friendship might even be budding. Noel is thrilled when he and Julius together pull a prank on another student. Only Julius is caught, and he doesn’t implicate Noel. In the ensuing punishment, Julius asks Noel if he’ll relay notes to Fall for him.
Up to this point the novel has been fairly uneventful. As far as events go, it’s fairly typical of most “school” novels. This is how Noel’s first section, the first main section of the book, starts:
The days that made me, that were supposed to change me, that didn’t actually make me, are showing me now what I was. My days in the room with Julius. Years have provided some safety.
We see the older narrator looking back through the years on some formative experience that happened while at school. What is unique is the style. Our narrator, as you can see from the pulled quote above, is not straightforward (though I’m willing to blame McAdam for the confusing abstraction of that first sentence, and not Noel). Noel is evasive even as he pretends to be honest: “Certainly, I never wanted to hurt her.”
The really unique style is found in the sections from Julius. They are told in a sort of frenetic stream of consciousness. The problem is that they are very simplistic and make Julius out to be a fairly shallow character concerned only with what is physically going on right in front of him. That might be exactly what McAdam intended, and this might be exactly who Julius is — it just doesn’t make for great reading, even when McAdam finds a unique way to show how Julius is feeling. Furthermore, the clipping style without quotation marks, without question marks, well, without a lot of punctuation, can get annoying very quickly:
My hair looks good.
I ate too much salami.
I’m humming a song I don’t know.
No one knows this song I’m humming.
I’m gonna choose a song I know and I’ll hum it.
I’ll whistle it.
Why am I humming and whistling.
My hair looks good.
My teeth look good.
Scar on my lip.
From a zit.
Many of these runs go on for pages and involve Fall’s dialogue too, but not her thoughts. Though it is annoying and, I thought, ineffective at building character, it does bring the reader to the immediate presence of Julius. Still, it’s not a very satisfying presence to feel. The only time I felt like I was getting something was when Julius was amazed by Fall and by his love for Fall. Others might enjoy the raging hormones, but that was gratuitous to me — and the problem was that there was a lot of gratuitous material, rendering the pages from Julius’s head almost pointless in the grand scheme of the novel. Indeed, even the passage where we really sense the nature of Julius’s and Fall’s relationship come from Noel:
Julius told me that when he and Fall first got together she wouldn’t let him kiss her. They pressed foreheads together and whenever their lips came near she made a quick mhn mhn sound . . . no . . . no . . . and he said it drove him crazy. But they held on to each other, kept their foreheads together and looked in each other’s eyes, so close that Fall’s two eyes looked like one. And Julius said that you’d think it was a tease, you’d think a girl who wouldn’t kiss would take a lifetime to go further once you kissed her. But it wasn’t a tease. Kisses were important to her. He said it never annoyed him. They walked around school grounds and stopped, got close, walked again, and stopped. He said he had never paid much attention to kisses before, just to where they were heading. But when he kissed Fall that night it wasn’t just a signal or a relief, it was a loss of bones and a jump that wouldn’t land.
Noel has the best lines in the book. Here’s another one where he’s wishing he had the opportunity to talk to Fall:
This is the sort of thing I had wanted to say to her. I understand you, Fall. I knew that you were so much more than a beautiful, popular girl; that a beautiful, popular girl could still possess an aching, solitary soul.
These lines, for better or for worse, are the best we get about Fall too. She remains basically speechless throughout. From such passages, we get the sense that Noel is sensitive, but his narrative is as self-serving as it is confessional. In fact, we sense his pride, that, as was the case in his youth, he doesn’t fully accept responsibility for what went wrong. This is where the book is so intriguing (though it is also frustrating because it makes the book a bit lopsided and incongruent). Noel’s menace, which I’ve only alluded to here, is compelling and confusing:
I couldn’t sleep so I wandered the halls. Everyone was in his own bed, in his own box, with no idea that I was outside. The EXIT signs hummed in the halls. Edward was in his room alone that weekend. I held my hand an inch from his door. I could have done anything. I stared at my arm and realized how much it had grown.
It seems that McAdams has attempted to write a book that juxtaposes a rational world governed by rules with an irrational world governed by the “animal choices.” And while we get a sense of each of these worlds — that’s where the book succeeds — they never really come together in the book, making the book feel unbalanced and self-contradictory in a bad way.
So, why did I say this book succeeded for me and then proceed to say many negative things about it? Well, first off I said that the book met my low expecatations. But it did that easily, because within the jumble is some real intrigue. It’s a dark book, and even if all of the elements don’t quite fit, several discreet units are done so well that in the end I was left with a positive impression. McAdam is obviously a talented writer. But to me this is a book whose whole is less than the sum of its parts.