Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist
Doubleday, 2010

It’s ironic. One of the women in Nicholas Ruddock’s novel is thinking about the heroines of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina.

“Look at all those passionate women, the ones in novels, the ones who wore their hearts on their sleeves,” she says.

“They all wanted something else, something other than the lives they actually had.”

But here’s the ironic part: it’s not just the women in The Parabolist who want something other than they have.

Most of the characters in Nicholas Ruddock’s debut novel are either lamenting what they do have, longing for a more passionate existence, or are engaged in pursuit of that “something other”.

That pursuit, of whatever it may be — poetry, anatomy, a first-year medical student, oblivion, release — is at the heart of this novel.

Whether concrete or figurative, the charaters’ struggles align and intersect in curious and unexpected ways. The layering amplifies the suspense of the story which is, at once, a literary novel and a page-turner.

The narrative zooms in to and out from various plot elements and developments in such a way that the reader is irretrievably engaged in a bizarre and complex maze.

It’s rather like the experience of the character who is trying to understand a short story about an ophthalmologist looking into a patient’s eye, who finds himself drawn into the soul.

“He walks along the arteries on the retina, here disguised as arrows, and then, like an insect in a carnivorous plant, the ophthalmologist gets undone, or lost, in his own heart, meaning his office, the medical building in which he works, which makes him fear that he is succumbing to the early onset of dementia.”

What can be seen from within, compared to the view from without. (Whether the face of a building or the terrain of the heart.) The cross-roads of vocation and desire. (Whether medicine or literature.) What is found and what is lost. (Whether a moose or a switch-blade.) Crossing the threshold of reason and insanity. (Whether a poet or a psychiatric resident.)

Readers might be inclined to think, at first pass, that connections are coincidental. Like one character, who thinks she sees someone she knows in a phone booth, one could dismiss something integral as chance.

The Parabolist has a hearty respect for accident.

For instance, consider the way that Valerie and Amber approach naming their poetry magazine:

“Valerie suggested that she’d take the alphabet A to Z and come up with twenty-six medical words. Amber could do the same with names of a purely feminist bent. Then they’d compare lists. If there was one word they shared, that would be the name of the new poetry magazine.”

Or, take Roberto’s faith in the random, in the overarching power of the seemingly disconnected:

“But as he carried Jasper home, and it took two hours for him to do so, he thought carefully about the scene of the crime, the broken streetlight, the alley, the violador’s knife in the gutter, the girl, and there was nothing there to connect either of them to anything. Nothing at all.”

But, like a zipper, the stuff of The Parabolist comes together neatly. It’s not seamless (and it’s not meant to be), but its focus is remarkable.

Note:This is the third of the five posts that focus on the titles nominated for the 2011 Toronto Book Award. The others have/will appear/ed on October 6, 8, 11,and 12,with something fun for the 13th,the date on which the prize is to be announced.

Toronto-ness in The Parabolist: University College and King’s College Circle (University of Toronto campus), Ferry docks, the Sam McBride, the Silver Dollar on Spadina, Eglinton Station, Glengrove Avenue, Avenue Road, Shaw/College, Bloor St. Viaduct, Laura Second store in the Yonge-Eglinton Centre, Britnell’s Bookshop on Yonge, Grace Church on-the-Hill, Eglinton Park

Companion Reads:
(Having trouble thinking of these: any ideas?)
Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus (2009)