Close encounters of the deferred kind
If I Fall, If I Die By Michael Christie William Heinemann, 323pp, $29.99 The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie’s debut collection of short stories set among the marginalised and disadvantaged in Vancouver, was published in 2011, received favourable reviews, won the City of Vancouver Book Award and was longlisted, alongside Michael Ondaatje’s Cat’s Table, for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most coveted English-language literary award. (The eventual winner was Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues.)
Four years later, Christie’s debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die, is also set among the disadvantaged and marginalised, white and indigenous, in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where the author was born and raised. It is ostensibly a tale about a young boy, Will, nearly of age to enter high school yet never having left the confines of his own home, and his first forays outside those familiar walls, membranes constructed and maintained by his agoraphobic mother Diane.
Christie’s sense of Thunder Bay is palpable in terms of knowledge and feeling: the location not only drives the narrative, it is as much a central character as any of the human beings populating the novel.
Thunder Bay was once an important transportation hub for shipping west Canadian products, mainly grain, eastwards. Will’s uncle and grandfather as well as his mother’s first love all worked the grain elevators. But in Will’s generation, social, economic and technological changes have led to a collapse in the grain transport industry. Jobs have been lost, less money is in circulation. In If I Fall, If I Die, we see the consequences firsthand.
The story is told in the third person, through the alternating perspectives of Will and Diane. As the novel opens, they have turned their house, which neither of them has left for many years, into the world: “They’d always called the kitchen Paris, his studio New York, their bedroom San Francisco, the living room Cairo.”
In this world, protected from the wider one, they spend their time in acts of creation: painting, sculpting, storytelling. Their lives have all the appearances of having sucked the Outside In (the title of the novel’s last part). However, this is illusory. It is only after Will takes the Inside Out (the title of the first part) that the outside world is allowed to intrude.
As Will, helmeted, enters the outside world, Christie’s prose is curious, urgent and dynamic. After Will has his first taste of the strange destructiveness of the outside world, what his mother feared begins: a series of what he terms destructivity experiments. What initially seems to be her agoraphobia, pure and simple and without cause, is slowly revealed to be rooted in her personal history and that of Thunder Bay. This is also why she has kept her son inside for so long: so that the world will not kill him, as it has killed everybody else.
Will eventually finds all the dangers Diane fears, partly because of the friends he makes, including two Native American boys, although on first sight all we know of their ethnicity is what Will knows: “his brown skin was the tint of the milky tea his mother often drank”.
Will’s tale of exploration is a variation on the bildungsroman: part adventure story, part detective fiction and part Treasure Island. Diane’s story is, for the most part, one of a recluse and of seclusion.
In Will’s story, Christie’s prose possesses an alacrity that surges forward, while in Diane’s the sentences are shorter, sometimes stilted, with a firm focus on the past. Both fall into the trap of occasional melodrama and sentimentality, but appropriately for a coming-of-age novel, and for Diane’s world, there is a constant source of drama and anxiety.
This is an adult book, concerned with what happens to a society when industries wane, and with post-colonial interactions with indigenous groups. Christie does not prescribe concrete solutions but he does show us the absurdity of the status quo by conveying it through the eyes of a child too inexperienced to hate others because of cosmetic differences such as skin colour.