The substance of this passage, from the early pages of Stacey May Fowles’ first novel, could as easily have been pulled from one of Lynn Coady’s stories, or from Darren Greer’s Still Life with June:
“Life is a series of painful, tragic, unbearable events. Even the pleasurable moments have a distinct ache to them because you know damn well that they are fleeting, and it is best simply to avoid them because they make life’s painful trajectory infinitely harder to bear. And when you wake up one morning and feel the itch of bliss creep over you, you must realize that it is merely the marker that starts the path towards pain, because all the gain will merely become a loss in the end.”
An ache. A painful trajectory.
A sense of trepidation.
The transformation of pleasure into loss.
Sheesh, surviving your 20s is rough.
But what’s fascinating is that, despite some thematic similarities, each of these writers has a distinct voice; these works make for interesting reading companions.
Voice is at the heart of Stacey May Fowles’ first novel. Not simply the novelist’s voice, but the narrative voice, the kaleidoscopic voices of Morgan, Hannah, Estella, Mr. Templeton, Jacob, Finn, Montreal, and Toronto.
It’s strangely addictive, the sort of prose that immediately provokes either immersion or revulsion. (The same was true for me with SMF’s second novel, Fear of Fighting, which I also finished in a single-sitting.)
Here’s a glimpse of Hannah from one of the Finn chapters: “Tall and slim and always smiling, she was bent on saving the world one schizophrenic homeless guy at a time, and her affection for all things down-trodden was the trait that made you both love and loathe her naïveté. She was constantly rescuing flea-ridden alley cats and writing angry, socially-conscious letters to the editor.”
And here’s how Morgan is presented in one of Hannah’s chapters: as being “the kind of girl who doesn’t give a fuck about you, that she is the kind of girl who would return the clothes she borrowed from you with burn holes in them.”
And here’s how one of Morgan’s chapters presents Hannah: “HANNAH’S A LIAR.”
The reader’s challenge is clear: somewhere between or around these statements is something like truth. But how to decipher that — amidst outright contradictions — is perhaps more than challenging: it might be impossible.
In Hannah’s words: “The curse of the wordsmith is that she cannot differentiate between fact and fiction. Therefore, her past is a carefully linked chain of painful lies and her present is nothing more than the sparkle of swept dust.”
If the reader cannot trust the wordsmith, who does the reader trust. How do we assemble meaning? And not just as the reader, not just on the page, but how do we understand the world around us, the people who inhabit it, when we are not sure what is trustworthy?
Do we try to take pieces of truth and assemble them into something larger? Is it like the decorations in the Maple Leaf Motel, the” water fowl taxidermy, hockey sticks and red plaid flannel” that, together, comprise the “worst kind of Canadian iconography”, a nation of fragments on display?
Or do we try to look for intersections? In the words of Mr. Templeton, “This is the truth I learned from Morgan, the truth she told over and over again. We are all animals. We tell lies because we are hungry and want only to eat.” Do we start with the larger, the commonalities, and try to work inward?
There are some passages that appear in multiple places throughout the novel. For instance, this one, which appears in a segment from Estella and one from Morgan: “(The first time a man covered my face with his palm when I came and I knew exactly why he did it.)” And this passages also appears in two different voices as well: “(The after part is a lie. But she believes it to be true, so it fails to matter that it isn’t.)”
If, within the world that Stacey May Fowles creates, it’s less about what is true and more about what a particular character believes is true, then perhaps, with Be Good, it is less about what the authorial voice suggests is true and more what a given reader believes is true.
The prismatic effect of this novel is such that readers will need to turn the final pages to begin to feel their way towards a clear image.
The process might be frustrating or fascinating, depending on how comfortable you are with being uncomfortable, on whether you are willing to take the ache with those fleeting pleasurable moments, on whether you’re willing to accept that “all the gain will merely become a loss in the end”.
Reading Companions: Maureen Medved’s The Tracey Fragments (1998); Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories (2002); Charlotte Gill’s Ladykiller (2005).
My Canada Reads Indie Responses (please see Pickle Me This for the event’s details):
Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind (JAN28 above) (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Stacey May Fowles’ Be Good JAN30 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths FEB1 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water FEB3 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Darren Greer’s Still Life with June FEB5 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)