Shani Mootoo sidles up to her story.

Moving Forward Sideways Mootoo

Random House Canada, 2014

A novel like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is more openly preoccupied with questions of grief and loss.

One like Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts explores family relationships and the passage of time in a familiar then/now rhythm.

In Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Jonathan wanders through his memories of Sid, Sid’s own writing, and settles only temporarily in Sid’s environs, all as a means of grappling with mortality, a means of naming his discovery, of rooting his rediscovery.

Directionally speaking, Jonathan is a little all-over-the-place, which suits someone faced with a lot of changes all-at-once. It’s the kind of situation which invites excessive hyphenation and other extremes. And, yet, the novel’s style is neither verbose nor chaotic.

Links between narrative segments are drawn subtly and epiphanies are quiet, sometimes playing out underwater, allowing sensation to be simultaneously more subdued and more acute.

Take this childhood memory of Sid’s, shared with readers almost immediately:

“Zain was quiet for a while. Then, as she slid into the water, she said, ‘That’s a shame, because there isn’t anything crazy about you.’ She swam off and dipped under the water. Up came her feet, toes pointed at the sky. She stayed like that for a good minute.”

A hundred pages later, readers have this passage:

“What might I have become had I not left? Was remaining in Canada an act of courage or was it timidity? I certainly didn’t feel like a returning champ in front of my parents. I slid into the warm water. Keeping my eyes open, I dived under and splayed my hands on the concrete at the bottom. I thrust my feet up, pointing my toes to the sky.”

Zain’s toes and Sid’s toes: both point to the sky, but there is no additional elucidation provided for readers; perhaps the scenes will layer for readers and illuminate a parallel, but maybe the details will slip past.

What is impossible to overlook, however, and accessible to readers whether or not they can perform handstands, is the broader theme of subverting expectations. Jonathan’s journey requires that he face the about-turn in his own identity, as he undertakes to become reacquainted with Sidney, who lived as a woman with Jonathan’s mother in Toronto but now lives as a man in Trinidad.

“All I learned about women and about men, including what I had learned as a child parented by two women, seemed now to be a lie. A wave of nausea crashed through me. I felt myself falling, and the tungsten lighting on the veranda dimmed.”

And, yet, as dramatic as this aspect of the story seems, Jonathan does not attempt to deal with it straight-on but seems to edge up to it, and though occasionally overwhelmed emotionally, he persists, staid and determined.

“As I remembered Sydney’s voice telling me this, I saw that, over time, I had become used to the switches in Sydney’s pronouns when he talked in this ironic manner about himself. Moreover, I had myself learned to be quick and creative in concocting sentence structures – often, I thought now, humorously complex structures – so as to avoid using pronouns when I spoke of his past as Sid.”

This is not a novel rooted in voice, however, unlike Shani Mootoo’s highly acclaimed Cereus Blooms at Night.

Instead, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is rooted in the process of shifting and evolving understanding and Jonathan lacks the confidence to stake a solid claim on the page that readers of Shani Mootoo’s earlier works might expect.

This is as it should be for a character who is tentatively reaching out to secure connections which have been broken.

Jonathan is a writer, one skilled at adopting the perspectives of others, but that depends upon a certain solidity in his own connection to the world. With his changing perspective on his past, he is not able to write in the same way, neither to write the stories of others nor to write his own.

“Sid, I thought, could tell them stories about me.”

Zain rewrites, edits and revises. He reads, reconsiders and revisions. He moves forward sideways, gradually coming to accept a certain amount of mystery. Tales of transformation are seldom linear, always wondrous, and require space to unwind.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab shifts through past and present, Toronto and Trinidad, and love and loss delicately, stead-fastly.

IFOASmallBadgeShani Mootoo will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.