It all started with a lit­tle as­sas­si­na­tion...

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

ONE ab­sent-minded mo­ment and some trou­ble with driv­ing in re­verse: that’s all it takes for a ve­hi­cle to go off-course and, if Ian Thorn­ton is telling the tale, for his­tory it­self to be fa­tally de­railed, re­sult­ing in calamity af­ter mind­less calamity fall­ing like domi­noes through the ages.

The Great & Calami­tous Tale of Jo­han Thoms is the Toronto-based writer’s first novel, but its am­bi­tions are grand: it an­a­lyzes the prin­ci­ple of cause-and-ef­fect through the his­tor­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tion of Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand of Aus­tria and his wife So­phie, Duchess of Ho­hen­berg, in 1914.

Franz Fer­di­nand and So­phie were rid­ing in a mo­tor­cade through Sara­jevo when a wrong turn by their car’s driver brought them face-to-face with their as­sas­sins. This event helped kick-start the First World War.

Out of the murk of his­tory Thorn­ton plucks the un­for­tu­nate cab­bie, re­names him Jo­han Thoms, turns him into a large­headed, golden-haired ge­nius, and makes him the star of this novel.

For his ac­ci­den­tal role in the 1914 tragedy, Thoms shoul­ders a mas­sive bur­den of guilt and runs from the arms of his beau­ti­ful Amer­i­can girl­friend into a life­time of para­noid wan­der­ing.

It could be a grim tale. But Thorn­ton heaps sor­rows onto Thoms’ over­sized nog­gin with all the solem­nity of a tod­dler load­ing or­na­ments onto a Christ­mas tree.

Soon, the con­ceit that Thoms alone is to blame for ev­ery dis­as­ter af­ter 1914 be­comes cen­tral to the novel.

Thorn­ton main­tains a ruth­lessly cheer­ful ap­proach to his sub­ject. Cameos of pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal fig­ures (Hem­ing­way, Or­well and Wilde) sprin­kle the plot and quotes from po­ets and song­writ­ers both long-dead and mod­ern be­gin each chap­ter.

Thorn­ton takes cheeky de­light in all the name-drop­ping with­out wor­ry­ing overly about his­tor­i­cal ex­ac­ti­tude. He rarely both­ers to get into the heads of his pro­tag­o­nists, in­stead main­tain­ing a third-per­son om­ni­scient voice and a sum­ma­tive style.

The re­sult reads like a lengthy Wikipedia en­try spliced with Woody Allen’s Mid­night in Paris mashed up with a Har­lequin Blaze, with a side of cir­cus­tent an­tics (at one point, lit­er­ally).

Thoms pays lit­tle at­ten­tion to the sup­posed so­cial aus­ter­ity of the post-Vic­to­rian era, and in­ter­sperses the Fer­di­nand dis­as­ter nar­ra­tive with mind­less or­gies and weeks-long sex­ual marathons, which, while they add levity, some­times feel point­less rather than grat­i­fy­ing.

Thoms is clearly not a his­tor­i­cal novel, but a mod­ern novel toy­ing with his­tor­i­cal tropes. In its jovial re­launch­ing of fa­mil­iar le­gends, it bears re­sem­blance to Natalee Caple’s re­cent his­tor­i­cal novel In Calamity’s Wake, a med­i­ta­tion on the life of Calamity Jane, but it lacks Wake’s heart and lyri­cism.

Thoms’ plot re­quires both the reader’s in­dul­gence (in Thoms’ teeth-grind­ingly one-track-mind­ed­ness) and so much sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief that the bur­den of hold­ing it all up is ul­ti­mately more tir­ing than fun.

Take Thoms’ sup­posed ge­nius: af­ter one vic­tory at chess early in the novel, his rare in­tel­li­gence is never demon­strated. “Balls to the out­bursts, you rot­ter,” Thoms tells him­self at one point. “The mad­ness suits you well.”

It doesn’t, not re­ally — Thoms is a clas­sic nar­cis­sist, and his story is less “great” than he thinks it is.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.