Sometimes, it’s clear who the bad guys are. Sometimes they’re clearly drawn, not only unsavoury, but also unprincipled.
Like the misogynists who people the Signy Shepherd series by Susan Philpott, in which women are rescued from life-threatening situations by other women working a type of Underground Railroad, called The Line. (Blown Red, 2015 and Dark Territory, 2016)
“’Trust me,’ said Wilkington, moving Stone toward a side room where they could talk in private, ‘you don’t want to go there. The woman’s like a zebra mussel; she gets into everything and is almost impossible to scrape off.’ He gave Stone a reassuring squeeze on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, though. She’ll still write you a fat cheque. She has more money than she knows what to do with.’”
And it’s just as clear in a Stephen King novel, like Mr. Mercedes (2014): “Shiny happy people don’t hold guns in their laps that way.”
The bad guys in novels like this have no conscience.
“Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Boots are called A CONSCIENCE. I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd.”
But sometimes it’s less clearly defined. Sometimes everyone is equally untrustworthy.
Consider Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People (2016). “She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.”
In this novel and in other stories, it’s family you cannot trust.
This is true, too, in Ian Colford’s Perfect World (2016).
Tom observes “…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”
And sometimes true family stories lead to the same conclusion. Or, they lead to more questions and not conclusions. As in Deni Ellis Béchard’s memoir Cures for Hunger (2012). “My father was a bank robber. The truth was better than I’d expected. I felt as if I were reading the stories of gods and their progenitors. This was what I’d wanted, something that would set me apart forever.”
What happens when the truth cannot be captured in words. When words are inadequate, as they are for young Deni Ellis Béchard. “The more I wrote, the more I became clear; my words, my way of telling a story, the further he receded. He eluded me – the landscape of his youth, the people who’d helped create him.”
When the line between memory and imagination are blurred, as they were for Tom in Perfect World: “…he can’t be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination.”
When timelines shift and blur experience with remembrance. “Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.” (Also, Perfect World.)
Where is the line between belief and reality? As Catherine Cooper wonders in White Elephant (2016): “She wanted her life back, and if there was any chance that believing in this could help her, she had to try.”
Can we count on narrative to reshape, to illuminate, elucidate?
“I found myself peeling back the fictions. I craved to see the characters clearly and wondered how much of what I was writing was true – not just my embellishments, but his own exaggerations and those of his family. There was so much chronology I could never iron out, so many jumbled facts. He often told his stories slightly differently, depending on his mood, on whatever truth he sought in his past at that moment.” (Béchard)
All of these ideas — belief and reality, fiction and narrative, memory and imagination — combine in Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur (2016).
Readers explore them across an expanse of time (1956, 1965, 194, 1974, 1979, and 1980) and space (Mauritius, London UK, Hamilton, and Toronto).
The narrator’s father has a reputation which precedes him. “By the time he was sixteen, he had already engendered a reputation among Port Louis lowlifes as something of a smooth talker, consorting fellows were wise to avoid his badinage….”
And he is not simply a smooth talker. “For there is great reserve in a dependable liar – in somebody one can trust to be tenaciously mistrustful.”
Or he is more than a smooth talker. “Does your father lie to get at truths or to get at fictions?”
Where is the border: when is one’s father an inspired storyteller and when is he so stuffed full of chicanery that you can’t tell where the lying ends and the fathering begins (or, ends: perhaps he is not actually a father).
“A liar usually gags on the truth, responds to its pungency with lurid outbursts.”
The timeline itself must be rearranged, unfolding from the “dawn of exploitation”
The past is complicated: “a gushing rainbow of memories from the gutter, glittering on their way to the raised relief of our minds.”
Maybe he’s powerful: “What the menteur does, it’s….it’s like the breath of a hurricane. It’s a force of nature.”
Maybe he’s stultifying: “Waves of fear pressed down from the tip of my head, which gave me the sense of being flattened inside a box.” 103
Maybe his presence obliterates letters of the alphabet, literally erasing words which might have told other stories (like the newsletters which are missing the letters ‘d’ and ‘f’ sometimes, resulting in mysterious phrases, like “the eclines in onations”).
Abandonment: “It was like looking at something chaffing with inactivity at the pawnbrokers, waiting to be picked up by its owner.”
Or cloying presence: “He had the kind of face you wanted to forget soon after seeing it, it seemed to signify so comprehensively absolutely nothing at all. Like a head composed of wet sand (or a mutilated potato might be more for it), it was blank and expressionless.”
Grand Menteur is a story about teeth-grinding and bitter rivalries and revenge. “For what was stolen from me, for what was never given to me this night, I would make everyone the worse for it.”
But it’s also about a girl and her father. And what one does when one’s father is a Grand Menteur.
Which is something that many of the characters who fill the stories discussed here know something about.
I don’t want to call them out, because that would be spoilery, but they know who they are.
They have written their own definitions for storytelling and chicanery, invented their own vocabularies, drawn their own boundaries, constructed their own narratives.
Whether they’re trying to get at the lies or get at the fictions, these stories make for excellent reading.