Gabriel English was also the protagonist of Michael Winter’s short story collection One Last Good Look. I realized this after I had finished this novel and felt a little badly. As though I’d arrived significantly late for an event, only to discover that I’d under-dressed as well. Which isn’t to say that This All Happened wasn’t complete as a reading experience, but I like to know my characters from the moment they arrive in the literary world.
However, although this late discovery left me feeling discombobulated, I also felt it was wonderfully synchronous to have read This All Happened so immediately after reading Alison Pick’s The Sweet Edge. Both novels take as their subject young couples reconsidering their state of couple-ness. It was fascinating to read them in such close proximity, only a few years between their characters, but many miles (Winters’ novel set in St. John’s Newfoundland, Pick’s set in Toronto and northern wilds).
Ellen-and-Adam in The Sweet Edge and Gabe-and-Lydia in This All Happened: they’re not happy. And maybe that’s a good thing. “Happiness is too hard to write and boring to read.”
Gabe is musing on this (and on the unhappy portions of his relationship with Lydia) as he works on his novel, as finishing it is one of the goals he has set himself for the year in his life which is chronicled in This All Happened. Perhaps that’s why this novel begins with a moment of unhappiness.
On January 1st, at very-nearly-the-exact-moment-of-the-New-Year, “Lydia leans back to laugh at something Wilf Jardine says”. Gabe is unhappy about this, about Lydia’s laughter, about Wilf’s wolf-like interest in Lydia. He records this in the first entry of this year’s chronicles, one vignette for each day of each month following.
The structure of the novel is deliberate, the craft of novel-writing overtly considered by Gabe and, also, Maisie, who writes as well.
“A novel should be told by the voice of an authority, yet a voice that is still discovering the meaning of what the story is. There should be wonder. And all traces of the technical problem a novel delivers (that is, how do you keep the story afloat for three hundred pages?) should be erased or masked.”
And perhaps because Gabe has appeared in fiction before, it’s significant that the subtitle of this novel is “A Fictional Memoir”. So Gabe is the reader’s voice of authority, but the reader can’t help but wonder about Michael Winter, who is Gabe’s voice of authority.
How does Michael Winter keep This All Happened afloat for nearly 300 pages? The vignettes do mask the passage of time and attend to the flow of the story. Each days feels distinct, which sometimes makes for awkward reading (and, likely, awkward living for Gabe and company), the transitions often abrupt, as 28 to 31 snippets depict a month in Gabe’s experience.
In August, he writes: “I have my weight on one leg. I often rest on one leg to given an ankle some relief. The body does things the mind is oblivious to. Lydia is firmly planted on two legs. She’s slightly back on her heels, feet apart, ready to go. I am more floaty, balanced, ready to bend with whatever comes. Lydia anchored, resists any oncoming.”
So, the reader is conscious of the time that’s passing whilst the protagonist is trying to determine what to do with the fact that Gabe and Lydia are standing very differently in the world: you can’t help but note each day, even when it only takes a few seconds to read through it. (Check out the author’s method of self-editing at Salty Ink to see how he might have pared down those daily segments even further!)
The growing sense of unease between these two characters, throughout this paged year, alternates with moments of reconnection and refreshed commitment.
You can catch a peek of Michael Winter’s work here at The Walrus, a short piece adapted from The Death of Donna Whalen, which has also just been nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. But first I’ll be checking out his earlier works (inspired all-the-more by his appearance at this year’s IFOA).
What about you?
Rebecca Gowers’ The Twisted Heart (2009),
Diane Schoemperlen’s At a Loss for Words (2008),
Monique Proulx’s The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle (2003, English translation Homel & Reed).