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Reviewed by Diane Schoemperlen
If I had a literary manifesto, it would begin with this quote from Octavio Paz’s 1973 volume of essays, Alternating Current: “The most perfect and vivid expression of our time, in philosophy as well as in literature and art, is the fragment. The great works of our time are not compact blocks, but rather totalities of fragments, constructions always in motion by the same law of complementary opposition that rules the particles in physics.”
As Paz sees it, the fragment is the form that best reflects the ever-changing realities of our modern lives, each fragment being like “a stray atom that can be defined only by situating it relative to other atoms.”
M.A.C. Farrant’s The Strange Truth About Us: A Novel of Absence is a full-bodied incarnation of the vitality and the gravity of the fragment as literary form. It fairly vibrates with what Paz calls the “contrapuntal unity” of fragments connecting, reflecting and deflecting in variable relation to each other.
Assembled in three parts and calling itself a novel while applying some kind of centrifugal force to all that we think we know of the novel form, The Strange Truth About Us is a collection of prose fragments, snippets, speculations and meditations, much like those enticing and elusive particles of which quantum physicists are so fond.
The first part, Annotations About an Absence, is a series of 115 short numbered fragments delineating the attempts of a retired couple living in a gated community to create an imaginary novel expressing our endemic fears of both the bewildering present and the nihilistic future. In their community the “streets are named after characters in the Robin Hood saga – Friar Tuck Way, Little John Way, Nottingham Forest Way, North and South Maid Marian Way – sentimental, theme park-like names that serve to counter the wretchedness of the outside world. As do the private security patrol, the dogs, the cameras, the brick fence topped with razor wire. Yes, we understand the irony.” Remember when razor wire was strictly a prison accessory? Yes, we understand the irony.
Many of these annotations consist only of a cryptic sentence fragment or two. Number 37, for instance, reads: “We think a novel should be novel.” Number 57: “Another gust from the future. We are surplus here. We are your nightmare here.” Number 76: “Novel, queer, eccentric. It feels strange to us. We tell a strange story.” All of these fragments within fragments are like a set of Russian wooden nesting dolls, in this case with our very own faces painted on in ever-decreasing size and detail.
The second part, Woman Records Brief Notes Regarding Absence: Benchmarking, is a complementary series of 115 numbered sections serving as ironic endnotes to both the project itself and the creative process in general. Number 1, for instance, reads: “Woman charges self with task of foretelling future using only twenty-six letters of alphabet, eight punctuation marks, and ten numbers, one to nine including zero, thereby proving some tasks are impossible to complete.”
These first two parts are rich with references to the products and byproducts of our contemporary culture, including music, movies, martinis, paintings, politics, climate change, species extinction, the Oxford English Dictionary and books, books, many books, including some of my own frequently reread favourites: The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa; For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard; Vanishing Point, by David Markson; Oulipo Compendium, by Harry Matthews; and The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton.
The third and final part, Other Prose Surrounding Absence, consists of 27 prose pieces that are something like stories, something like essays, mostly like ruminations on the end of the world as we know it delivered with intelligence, irony, wit and existential charm.
The Strange Truth About Us is impossible to summarize, save to say that it is both an acknowledgment of and an antidote to all the uncertainty we must shoulder in this, our age of anxiety and absence. Delightful and disturbing in all the best ways, this book addresses that which mostly remains unspoken in ways that have seldom been spoken before. M.A.C. Farrant, we need to talk.
This review first appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 27, 2012.