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Reviewed by Dave Williamson
There is a lot of white space in the pages of this new work by the genre-bending British Columbia writer M.A.C. Farrant. All the better for you the reader to write down whatever connecting thoughts you might have as you progress through a series of numbered fragments.
Farrant’s unnamed protagonists (or Farrant herself, if you see this as an exercise in post-modernism) consider the way we live now and wonder what kind of future it is leading to. They live in a gated community patrolled by security guards, and their concerns come close to what prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn dramatized in his scary look at the future, the 1987 play Henceforward . . . .
Ayckbourn’s comedy shows a logical extension of our fixation on electronic gadgetry; his main character brings into his home every kind of music and movie and stores all manner of food, making it unnecessary to leave the house. This coincides with the takeover of the streets by unruly gangs. A barricaded fortress is therefore essential. (Recent riots in Montreal and Vancouver and further advancements in home entertainment systems make Ayckbourn seem eerily clairvoyant.)
Farrant’s offering is far less dramatic, more cerebral, though her characters are reluctant to venture far from home. There is in their gated community an illusion of happy coziness:
The streets are named after characters in the Robin Hood saga –
Friar Tuck Way, Little John Way, Nottingham Forest Way, North and
South Maid Marion Way – sentimental theme-park- like names that
serve to counteract the wretchedness of the outside world.
As does the private security patrol, the dogs, the cameras, the
brick fence topped with razor wire. (56)
The gated community, Sherwood Forest Estate, is cleverly referred to as “voluntary confinement.” It is “an affluent fortification, a private prison, one of more than thirty thousand in North America. It’s a cultivated oasis of spacious homes, winding streets, parks, and artificial ponds that sits, self-contained and guarded, on a rise overlooking a ten-mile surround of abandoned farmland” (53).
In a note related to this, Farrant refers to a “cartoon of St. Peter telling hopeful man at entrance that he prefers not to think of Pearly Gates as gated community” (138).
Farrant avoids the usual fiction-writing obligations – develop characters, build engaging scenes, etc. – and opts for pithy one-liners and key literary references. “We think about the estate going on without us, abandoned, dirt covering our garden of tiny delights” (86) conjures up the title and content of Lorna Crozier’s 1985 poetry collection The Garden Going On Without Us.
And there are epiphanies such as this one:
Companions in tribulation, we view the nightly news where horror
and trivia are delivered by anchors with merry eyes, with voices as
sweet as lullabies. We seem to be participating in a nightmare about
humanity, but who can tell? . . .
We watch, enthralled.
The way high-definition colours . . .
encase reports of bombings, floods, starvation, murders.
The way our spirits are buoyed or slammed as we flip through
emotions while the stories slide by – rage, blame, guilt, frustration,
and the big one: gratitude that what’s portrayed about others is not
yet directly about us. (87)
The featured couple has a child “who keeps her distance, a twenty-five-year-old daughter who is a musician and lives in the city. She has changed her name to Angela Banger” (66). Angela mystifies her parents but is utterly recognizable to the reader: a young woman who believes “Everything sucks. Money sucks. Work sucks,” and thinks “Sustainability is so yesterday” (97).
And there are some clear feminist observations that could be attributed to Angela or Farrant herself, such as: “By then I’d decided all men were alike – a penis and a list of demands” (187).
All these examples show just how quotable The Strange Truth About Us is. Whether the fragments add up to a lucid whole depends on the willingness of the reader to put them together like some sort of literary jigsaw puzzle. (After all, Fragment # 37 does tell us, “We think a novel should be novel.”) One thing is sure: the format invites – if not demands – us to dip into the book again and again for insights that are sometimes funny and always timely, provocative and unsettling.
This review first appeared in Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2012). Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose new book is a comic novel called Dating.