There are a lot of lonely characters in CanLit: just think about all that snow, how starkly a single shape stands out in relief against the “great northern woods and in the empty places of the earth”. (I’ve recently read Louis Hémon’s snow-soaked 1921 classic, Maria Chapdelaine, translated by W.H. Blake.)
And too much time alone? It can get to you. It can mess with your head. And if you are Marian Engel, your character might find herself in a startlingly intimate relationship with a bear while you are browsing through a collector’s edition of the DSM while archiving a library in northern Ontario.
If you are Felix in Devin Krukoff’s debut novel, Hummingbird, you could turn to the internet to check some details, but why bother, when there’s so much porn to watch instead. Anyway, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with you. Maybe your life isn’t perfect, but whose is? The people who brush up against you in this story have got problems too. Which doesn’t make you feel like you belong. But it also doesn’t draw attention to how alone you are with yourself either.
The thing about being alone, about being in your own head all the time? There’s nothing outside of your own thoughts that you can orient yourself towards.
And the thing about reading a book about this kind of character? You really have no way of judging where the borders are. You can’t tell when you’re actually stepping outside of the house or simply stepping into a private room on the internet.
It’s not hard to guess what Felix is doing in private rooms on the ‘net. But it is hard to find the boundary between Felix’s thoughts about the girl whom he knows online and the girl whom he thinks he recognizes on her way home from the filming location.
So pretty early on, readers of Hummingbird are asking themselves questions about what’s real and what’s imagined. And trying to fit their answers with Felix’s conclusions? That leads to another set of questions about whether this is a situational matter for Felix or whether elements of this story serve as symptoms from a diagnostic perspective.
This means that either the most remarkable or the most frustrating aspect of Hummingbird rests on whether Devin Krukoff successfully carries off the construction of his main character and the depiction of Felix’s worldview. Because if readers cannot determine whether or not what Felix sees bears any resemblance to what they might observe of the same scenes, they must care enough about Felix to continue to situate themselves alongside his position.
Which isn’t unusual in CanLit novels. Although the reasons vary. There are unstable parents, like in Barry Dempster’s The Outside World and Ian Colford’s Perfect World, who are fearful of dark forces in the world beyond their homes or people embodying those dark forces. There are addiction issues, as in Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted and Lauren Davis’ The Empty Room.
Times of crisis and change are overwhelming for characters, as in Joey Comeau’s Unqualified and Joel Thomas Hynes We’ll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night. There is remarkable rage in Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist and in one of the stories in Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and debilitating loss and sorrow in Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You and David Chariandy’s Brother.
Devin Krukoff’s Hummingbird is Felix-soaked. And so it should be. But what does that mean, when you cannot determine where meaning resides?
Word choice matters: adjacent, synchronized, abutting, intimate, drowning, isolated, hunkering and trembling. He forgets how to interact with things and he forgets people.
Vision holds rapidly changing shapes, patterns or fractures: concentric circles on a screensaver, flickers on a screen, an answering machine’s blink and fireworks. Some things are unfocussed and other things are overfocussed (what’s the difference really).
Sound is rhythmic or random: skipping songs, doors rattling, applause, a migraine’s thrum, a dial tone, a bass vibration and an appliance’s hum. There is a button next to a hospital bed and there is a mouse button to click.
And someone’s stomach lurches. Wait, maybe that was me.
It’s lonely, it’s disorienting, but it’s also consistent and credible and crafty.