Outstanding nexus of narrative threads
Ohlin’s Inside is impressive in its maturity
It could almost be a challenge thrown down in a creative writing seminar: Devise a novel whose settings include Montreal, Rwanda, Iqaluit, Hollywood and New York, with extra points if you can squeeze in Brantford, Ont.
Furthermore, have the action hop back and forth in time between the late noughties and the mid1990s. Make suicide not just a looming possibility, but a virtual motif. Incorporate humour where needed.
Finally, give it all the narrative momentum and emotional coherence of a more conventionally structured work. You may begin.
Well, there is just such a novel, and those who have been following the career of Montreal-born Alix Ohlin won’t be surprised that she is the one who has written it. She emerged in 2005 with the novel The Missing Person and her work since has been marked by its audacious maturity — and its sheer profusion.
Indeed, along with Inside, House of Anansi Press is simultaneously publishing Ohlin’s new story collection, Signs and Wonders. The last time such a double-barrelled strategy was employed in the pop culture arena, it was by Guns n’ Roses. Ohlin, I’m prepared to say, offers a take on the human condition that in its nuance and insight puts Axl Rose in the shade.
The opening passage finds Montreal psychotherapist Grace engaged in a stress-relieving bit of cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, where she comes across a man lying face down in the snow, having just tried unsuccessfully to hang himself from a tree.
A pattern is set: someone has suffered something terrible, and someone else must decide just how far their duty to help goes and what exactly their motives are beyond simple instinct.
One of Grace’s patients is the self-harming teenager Annie, who ends up pursuing an acting career in post9/11 New York, where a runaway who reminds her of her teenage self enters the picture; Tug, that man in the snow, is trying to shake the demons of an encounter with a gruesome episode of recent history, and becomes Grace’s love interest against
by Alix Ohlin (Anansi, 258 pages, $22.95) all her better judgment; Mitch, her ex-husband, flees a troubled new relationship to do social work in the Canadian north and quickly finds himself in over his head.
Any one of these threads could easily have supported a novel of its own, but Ohlin gives them all equal weight, playing the parts against each other, overlapping them like a shifting Venn diagram echoing across time and place.
It may seem a daunting prospect for the reader, but really this is how life is now experienced for most of us, if not first-hand, then in the barrage of conflicting narratives to which we’re subjected every day. Ohlin imposes order partly through her canny choice of structure and her deceptively genial, sometimes gently comic tone, but mostly through her masterful way with character.
Jonathan Franzen has written of a fiction writer’s mission, “It’s not enough to love your characters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your characters: you always have to try to be doing both at the same time,” and Ohlin illustrates the maxim perfectly. The love she invests in her characters isn’t always smoothly transferred to the reader but it’s exactly that prickliness that makes these people so lifelike.
Charity and compassion are their own rewards, but as Ohlin shows, they are just as likely to backfire, especially when muddled by things like guilt and lust.
Set pieces and frozen moments are handled with equal flair: the subtle stages by which you realize that the stray to whom you gave temporary shelter has installed herself in your home and shows no sign of leaving, or that vertiginous instant when you decide that, all considerations of sense and suitability notwithstanding, you’re going to go to bed with a person anyway.
Ohlin’s combination of smooth prose, thematic reach and structural ambition makes for a novel that is both easily accessible and demanding in the best of ways. You need to pay attention. The shifts in time and place can be mildly disorienting — even irritating at first, especially in cases where you’ve been wrenched out of a narrative in which you’ve found yourself particularly invested.
But Ohlin knows what she’s doing, and it dawns that what’s true of all good fiction applies even more emphatically here: Inside, though fully satisfying the first time through, all but demands a second reading. It’s something most readers will be more than happy to do.
Alix Ohlin sets part of her new novel, Inside, in her native Montreal.