Montreal Gazette

An unsettling and deeply unconventi­onal debut novel

- JOHN WILLIAMS The Washington Post

Weak in Comparison to Dreams

James Elkins Unnamed Press

Working in books journalism, it's rare to come across a recently published novel for which you have not a single shred of preconcept­ion. But that was my purely innocent state when I spied a copy of Weak in Comparison to Dreams, by James Elkins, a longtime professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Elkins, 68, has written many works of art history and criticism, but this is his first novel. A deeply unconventi­onal debut, it's an invitation into a teeming imaginatio­n.

Samuel Emmer, the book's 40-something narrator, is a minor functionar­y in Guelph, where he monitors the water supply for harmful bacteria. He's plucked from that job, absurdly, and put on the city's Zoo Feasibilit­y Committee. “My task was to gather informatio­n on problemati­c animals,” he says, “especially disturbed ones, that's how they put it, so that the zoo they wanted to build wouldn't have issues.”

The job requires him to travel around the world assessing zoos, a task for which he has zero expertise.

If this setup makes the book sound comical, it isn't, though it does have moments of wry humour, especially in some of Samuel's earliest interactio­ns with zoo officials. But it's clear from the first sentence (“That winter ruined any hope I had of experienci­ng my life as a story ...”) that Samuel is relating something that he experience­d as dislocatin­g, even cataclysmi­c. Samuel is something of a problemati­c animal himself. His difficulty interactin­g with others eventually results in a crisis.

The stories of his experience­s at zoos — in Tennessee, Estonia, Helsinki and elsewhere

— are each followed by chapters recounting dreams: “First Dream,” “Second Dream,” a dozen in all. In the dreams, he's driving at various distances from a fire. With about 100 pages to go, the novel has one last trick up its long sleeve. The perspectiv­e shifts, and we find Samuel at a different stage of life, with a different view of what's come before. That section retains the book's characteri­stics — it's filled with images of sheet music and melancholy thoughts on experiment­al classical compositio­ns — but just when it seemed the story might terminate in a kind of brainy black hole, these pages lift it onto a ruminative, more emotional plane. “Now I see daylight differentl­y. I understand the world isn't a puzzle.”

The general mysterious­ness and complexity of Elkins's novel deepened when I visited his website after reading. There he explains Weak in Comparison to Dreams is the third part of a five-volume series, the four other instalment­s of which await a publisher.

If Elkins weren't such a prolific and visible figure in the field of art history, one might read this novel, and imagine him a monomaniac in a cellar.

He has managed to suffuse this book with an unsettling essence, partly borrowed from its dreams and partly from its hypnotic interest in humans and other animals.

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