Perhaps Michael Hingston, like Alex, “wanted to find a way to make the culture sit still, even for a minute, so he could find a way to enjoy it for a little while longer”.
The Dilettantes presses campus life between its pages.
It makes it sit still.
It preserves it like a napkin from a midnight ‘za joint.
Oops: ‘za would never make it past the copy editor of the campus paper, The Peak, which is at the centre of this debut novel.
(Tracy has posted a list of the unacceptable phrases. And dollars to donuts, she’ll catch it: she has a great eye for detail.)
Both Alex and Tracy are devoted staffers at the newspaper, although Alex is in his last year of classes.
And that is not the only significant change he is facing, for Metro has recently begun distributing its publication on Simon Fraser University’s campus.
Transitional times make for great fiction.
And while this is not the kind of drama that fills the fiction of Tomson Highway, Laurence Hill, Pauline Holdstock or Robert Hough, within the context of campus life, the characters of Alex and Tracey struggle dramatically in changing times.
But let’s put this in perspective. (And, yes, this is a long quote, but these are the only complete sentences I will quote here.)
“Two of the younger female editors vigorously compared sex lives, using cutlery as props, while Chip did several back-to-back spit takes from two seats over. Tracy was trying to convince Rachel that The Little Mermaid was actually a feminist cartoon. The web editor shared a plate of yam fries with the associate news rookie and listed his twelve favourite web comics, in ascending order. Keith asked whoever wandered past their table what they thought was the funniest thing about Darfur. The photo editor stuck his earbuds in. Suze and Steve playfully argued over which animal Rex Murphy most closely resembled: raccoon or platypus. (Everyone else assumed the two of them were covertly sleeping with one another – no platonic banter was that cute.)”
What I really want to quote though?
The entire page of dialogue that follows.
It somehow manages to encapsulate all of these events and conversations. It is incisive and keen, funny and real.
(When I first picked up this novel, I considered finding a corner on the UofT campus downtown to begin reading, just for atmosphere, but almost immediately I realized the author could pull me onto campus without a TTC token. Er, SkyTrain pass: this is Vancouver after all.)
Somehow Michael Hingston manages to marshal the dialogue to maximize efficiency and entertainment.
Like the Metro pillboxes “spreading like dandelion spores, pollinating every corner of SFU with bits of freewheeling fluff”, chuckles and snorts will spread throughout the text for readers.
(I really wanted to quote the parts that made me laugh-out-loud, but out of context, without knowing the characters, just type on a page, the individual sentences don’t seem as funny. Humour rooted in character: I like that.)
If readers are curious as to where, exactly, those Metro pillboxes are placed on the SFU campus? There is a map inside a leaf of the back cover. I love maps: in boxes of chocolates and in books. The last one I loved was in Pasha Malla’s People Park.
Pasha Malla’s novel (which also features a wide cast of characters and complex relationships), is set in nearly-but-not-quite Montreal, but in The Dilettantes, the map of the campus appears to correspond accurately to the SFU campus, though I have yet to confirm the placement of the Metro boxes. I don’t know the campus myself but, if I did, I would love to revisit it in the amount of detail the author has included.
(If you, too, love maps, I bet you’ll also enjoy the other supplementary pages too, interspersed throughout the novel, including a page of text messages, a list of the campus clubs, and a course syllabus for a film class, which handily references many of the movies and TV shows which also feature the campus as it actually appears. The pages are always related to an aspect of the plot unfolding in the narrative alongside, so it’s not just another excuse to laugh.)
The novel’s attention to detail not only contributes directly to the recreation of a time and place that many readers will recognize (even if the specific campus is not familiar, much of what unfolds there seems familiar) but to character development.
Without that, The Dilettantes might have settled at the superficial level, but readers do come to care for Alex and Tracy, to wish them well in these *exaggerated tone* tumultuous times. (Didn’t everything about that time of life feel exaggerated?)
But what truly sets the work apart is the tight construction of dialogue (you know, those bits that I didn’t quote, but you’ll enjoy them more if you find and read them yourself).
In considering his prospects of being a great writer, Alex Belmont despairs at being forever shelved in the shadow of Saul Bellow. Belmont/Bellow.
And, yet, at this stage in his life, he has just discovered the works of Barbara Pym, whose writing he overlooked for years because he was searching for Thomas Pynchon’s books instead. His world is widening, both on and off the page.
Michael Hingston is shelved between Highway and Hill/Holdstock and Hough on my Canlit bookshelves.
Yet, many readers will be pleased to discover his sharply funny debut novel, alongside the works of established writers.
They will be pleased to sit still and find a way to enjoy campus life a little longer.
Reading Companions: Christian McPherson’s The Cube People, Rob Payne’s Working Class Zero, and Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey (Because fictional workplaces are often more fun than the real kind.)
Edited to add link to interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter” in which the author reveals that the professors in the novel are all named for characters in famous campus novels (e.g. Straight Man, Moo).