Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans
McClelland & Stewart, 2007

Daniel Addison arrived on Partliament Hill in  Ottawa to work as a speech writer, “[n]aïve, innocent, and excited” and left five years later, “embittered, exhausted, and ineffably sad”.

The Best Laid Plans begins after that, so you might expect a nasty, weary, sorrowful tale. A story of incessant unravelling. One that lurks in the shadow of the phrase “a novel about politics”.

But it’s not like that. Unlike the character of Rumplun, it’s clear that neither the character Daniel, nor his creator, have “been born with a severe mirth defect”.

So even when things seem bleak in The Best Laid Plans, the subject is approached with a lighter touch. Rather than “you’re doomed”, here’s Daniel’s take on it: “So all in all, I’d say your chances of victory have improved from ‘don’t make me laugh’ to ‘you must be kidding’.”

All in how-you-say-it, right? Nonetheless, beneath the veil of humour are serious issues. Ineptitude might be presented in a light tone: “…a veritable tech-know-nothing. I think he probably contracts out the setting of his digital alarm clock.” But the overarching complications that arise in the story are as multi-dimensional as they would have been if there had been only finger-wagging and condemnation.

And even though the novel opens on Parliament Hill, and Daniel’s attempt to remove himself from political life is not a done deal, The Best Laid Plans is as much about relationships as it is about politics. Or, perhaps politics is more about relationships than most Canadians tend to think. In Terry Fallis’ novel, the political really is personal and the personal really gets political.

For Daniel, sometimes the overlap is stark: “..I was officially reconsidering my relationship moratorium. We Liberals do have some experience being flexible about our commitments.” Without a strong sense of Daniel Addison, that might simply sound glib. Certainly the humour in the novel would not be such a powerful vehicle without such vibrant characters.

One favourite character could be “the shit-disturbing, pot-stirring, trouble-making, rabble-rousing MP for Cumberland-Prescott”. Another could be Muriel Parkinson, vehement supporter of the Liberal party, “a kindly and perfectly mannered 81-year-old woman” who can “morph into a longshoreman” without warning. Perhaps Pete1 or Pete2 will steal your reader’s heart. There’s quite a cast of characters; no doubt someone is, even now, sketching out the casting possibilities for CBC television.

The primary roles, of Daniel and Angus McLintock, would take precedence. Both are flawed but ultimately likeable characters, and it’s the relationship between them — more so than the relationship between any politician and their constituency — that’s at the heart of this novel. It’s not always an easy relationship to understand or to negotiate; sometimes the two men have to play several games of chess before they can even begin to make sense of what’s happened immediately before they sat down to play.

“Through the centuries, chess has been a wonderful diversion. As the game develops, your cerebral resources, by necessity, shift from your problems in life to your challenges on the board. It is unalloyed escapism.”

Daniel and Angus use chess to escape their problems but, simultaneously, their brains are engaged in problem-solving. Readers of a good satirical novel might turn pages to escape the challenges of their own everyday life but, ultimately, that novel contains and reflects those very challenges.

You might read The Best Laid Plans for fun. Or you might read Terry Fallis’ novel to think. But what makes it such a good book is that you don’t need to choose: it’s fun and it’s smart. That’s uncommonly good.

Reading Companions: Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1988); Will Ferguson’s Happiness (2001, also published as Generica); Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness (2004)

My Canada Reads Responses (please see CBC Canada Reads for the event’s details):
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans (above) JAN29 (CBC pitch is here)
Carol Shields’ Unless JAN31 (CBC pitch is here)
Ami McKay’s The Birth House FEB2 (CBC pitch is here)
Jeff Lemire’s Essex County FEB4 (CBC pitch is here)
Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage FEB6 (CBC pitch is here)