Alain Farah, the narrator, of Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (Pourquoi Bologne, 2013; tr. from the French by Lazer Lederhendler, 2015), is, to borrow a phrase, unstuck in time. In two rapidly overlapping time periods, Farah the narrator, and the author, is a professor at McGill, rapidly loosing his sanity. It is not so much that he moves from one year to another, but that they exist concurrently, with one or the other occasionally taking prominence, but as he puts it: “The year is 2012 and 1962. The year is 1962 and 2012.” Though facts of his biography differ in each period, Farah’s personality, interests, and the demands of his situation remain the same. Much of his life could happen in either period, like his childhood, when he “held jobs from the age of thirteen on, no longer to pay [his] mother’s gambling debts, but, like all kids, to earn a little pocket money.” Farah is writing a novel, or having his assistant write it, about the MK-Ultra (CIA-sponsored experiments) program at McGill. The experiments involve drugs, mind-wipes, memory/identity reprogramming, and water immersion as a memory trigger. That novel is the novel Ravenscrag and it is also his life—investigating Dr. Cameron, the one rumored, to be performing the mentally disturbing tests—within the novel. Within the fiction of the book, Dr. Cameron and McGill’s connections to the historical MK-Ultra program are rumors, while in reality, Cameron did perform horrific experiments for MK-Ultra. Ravenscrag is a slippery, playful novel of surfaces that admits there is life below the surface while remaining uncertain if it will, or can, venture there.
That sounds possibly dismissive, “this book is slick and clever, all surface,” but Farah admits it. He tells us “You’ll find me likeable, with my electronic cigarette and my designer-label ties.” He seeks to fictionalize situations, whether in a general sense, or down to details that mirror well-known books, movies: “I love this character life, this sweet life, without psychology, this life of surface.” He loves it and is afraid of what might exist in the depths. There is ever something fractured beneath the surface; the question is if it will cohere into.
Cultural references from the whole breadth of the brows are essential to Ravenscrag, so much so that it isn’t certain when have a meaningful connection, or are simply part of Farah’s self-amusement. At times, there is too much of the latter, making the material light, almost skimmable. This is very much a post-modern science-fiction noir, but it may be that only sartorially. On the first page, Farah intentionally sets nerd alarms ringing: he references the video game meme “All your base are belong to us.” It’s unsettling because Farah the narrator is barely able to distinguish it from reality. The more references shift from their origin, the more you have to unpack just how accurate they are (like the history of uses of Blade Runner as a title), the more thrilling it is.
Beyond the embrace of science fiction and noir, of the bizarre romanticism in fantasizing about MK-Ultra, admitting its inhumanity, but still playing a game with it, Ravenscrag gives over with wild abandon to imagination and paranoia as defining traits. Describing, admiring, his office, Farah spirals:
I’m aware of my lack of caution. A man armed with a high-precision rifle, in the grip of madness or under contract to take me down, hidden behind the perforated venetian blind of his apartment, could easily shoot me in the back of the neck without my ever noticing the laser sight.
The paranoia plays out in a way the infected my own interpretation. At one point, Farah asks his assistant if the secret service may be secretly poisoning them. She asks in return “You mean the tap water?” I immediately suspected her: he didn’t say anything specific, so why did she go directly there.
Farah’s investigation into Dr. Cameron and MK-Ultra is as noir as the time travel and mind-wiping experiments are science fiction. Others around him always seem to know more, and happy to make the leap to genre, they embrace their roles, whether it be his secretary (the loyal assistant who is actually more on the ball than the purported hero), a woman he met at a party who keeps on returning to him (the manipulative femme fatale), a security guard at the Dr. Cameron’s facility Ravenscrag (friend or foe?), or his friend Umberto Eco (the ally with his own agenda and flair). Farah is at a loss because there is indeed a conspiracy, and he needs to uncover who is on what side. When planning an attack on Cameron, Eco lays it out as a movie scene, noting “no subtitles” and “then you dolly the camera back from the table.” They planning on hiding a gun in the bathroom, and I went scrambling to the Godfather but the scene is different enough that it stops before recreation.
The slipperiness of the book makes it easy to read lightly, to fly through the strange entertainments of the novel, of Farah’s drugs and conspiracies. From the outside, the book is as slippery as Farah’s personality, ever-dodging people, ever-unsure of himself and others. Yet, the way it self-contains, even as the multitude of references reach outwards, hints at something else. It self-references: a neighbor’s daughter in the present matches the name and description of Farah’s daughter in the 60s; the security guard of Cameron’s institute has similarities with a childhood friend of Farah’s. The cultural mentions do the same: Farah is asked “Will you be able to adopt the prone position when you shoot?” and sure enough, twenty pages later, a specific mention of Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, which leads into the Quebecois classic noir of madness, Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode.
This last reference is important, because Montreal is integral Ravenscrag (originally published in French by the fantastic press Montreal Le Quartanier). Just prior to the Next Episode reference, Farah is caught up in a 2011 protest at McGill, shooting a connection straight to the Montreal independence movement of the 60s, of which Aquin was a part, and his novel centered around. Montreal history exists in Ravenscrag the same way that Farah, both lives of Farah, does: they are covering and uncovering trauma.
Ravenscrag plays its games, gets too clever for itself at times, too caught up in its anti-narrative literary style. Despite that, the relationship to trauma aligns with the more traditional pieces of a novel, the characters, their experience, their development. Farah grounds his character, his self, through confession. He shares what he does not have to, what is shameful, embarrassing, as when sitting at home he admits to his childhood experiences wetting the bed and why, or confessing to pissing in a potted plant as an adult. Farah confesses as much as he can, compulsively, including the consequences to him of his mother’s gambling debts. He does not admit his trauma, but circles around it, hiding it by confessing everything else, and through that, leaving a perceivable outline. Resolution of this trauma may not come for Farah, or it might, the way his final scenes embraces the wildest aspects of the novel make it uncertain, but it is how memory, trauma, and narrative intertwine that matters, and the way that fiction, even the absurdist and anti-narrative fiction of Ravenscrag, can both obscure and reveal the paths that lead to and from those traumas.