NOVELIST DELIVERS PROVOCATIVE DEBUT
But novel suffers from overabundance of material without going in depth on any of them
Afew months back, a controversial subject drew pundit opinion far and wide: literature affixed with trigger warnings.
To those in favour of a printed “statement about the content of a given article, book, film, etc., designed to enable people to make decisions about whether they want to expose themselves to that content” ( to borrow American blogger Betsy Haibel’s definition), such a warning is a valuable protective mechanism as well as a common courtesy.
But to the widespread application of such labels, opponents — the loud majority — have applied words like censorship, pointless, nannying, or ruinous ( and, apparently channelling T. S. Eliot, in The New Yorker Jay Caspian Kang even claimed a trigger warning “would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness.”)
While in the end the potential firestorm barely sparked ( according to Google Trends, the usage of “trigger warning” peaked in May and has dropped precipitously since), the proposed label sprang to mind as I pored over the pages of Vancouverbased Chelsea Rooney’s taut, unsettling and provoking debut novel, Pedal.
A trigger warning there would demand far more space than its elegantly simple title: “The following novel depicts active pedophiles, descriptions of pedophilia, a pedophile organization, incest, suicide, child abuse, sexual violence and rape, domestic abuse, general violence, early- onset dementia, and narcotics overuse.”
Technically accurate, that label would only prove reductive, casting Rooney as a posturing agent provocateur and her book little more than a platform. In fact, she ought to be commended for perceptively addressing such a difficult and inflammatory ( and decidedly uncommercial) topic with a subtlety that’s buoyed by ample empathy.
As Pedal opens, Julia is a 25- year- old graduate student in Vancouver. Disgruntled, she’s struggling with an unwritten thesis ( related to pederasty and trauma), a discouraging adviser, a floundering romance and a reliance on alcohol.
She’s also weighed down by family history in Nova Scotia: a newly ailing mother ( who’s a former maximum- security prison counsellor and recipient of marital wounds that required hospitalization), a repressed, let’s- not- talk- about- it sister, and an absentee father, nicknamed Dirtbag. That latter problem is arguably a perk, because “violent sexual criminal” barely covers the man’s transgressions.
Clearly, Julia’s something of a mess, and her mechanisms of coping — avoidance, partying to excess, angry outbursts — are no help.
Strong- armed into taking a break, infatuated with a handsome man nicknamed Smirks ( whose own demons echo Julia’s field of study), spending time interviewing women she nicknames the Molestas, and attending covert MMA ( Minor Attracted Adults) meetings, Julia decides that a 6,000- kilometre trip by bicycle — to locate and confront her father before returning to Harmony, N. S., her unharmonious hometown — represents the soul of wisdom.
Naturally, the stressful journey doesn’t recall any professionally equipped trek so much as Cheryl Strayed’s hasty and poorly conceived hiking trip in Wild.
Still, Julia pedals away from Vancouver hungover and accompanied by Smirks. And in no time the duo is beset by problems and dilemmas, not least of which are Julia’s attitudes about her chosen travel companion and festering worries about her past, present, and future.
Although Rooney handles each strand of her entwined themes competently, she creates problems with the cumbersome abundance of subject matter. Besides the occasional overload of metaphors and a mounting of coincidences, her relatively short novel is overstuffed with material.
The quest for a disappeared father and an exploration of the damages wrought by the man could hold any reader’s attention.
But by adding in a cross- Canada bicycling trip as well as a raft of other hot- button topics — from memory repression, dementia, and the sexuality of children to social attitudes toward pedophilia, rape in marriage, and the agonized mind of the pedophile — she’s only able to touch on an idea before moving on to another that she’s self- assigned.
With the confident tackling of difficult topics and her headstrong narrator, however, Rooney makes a promise that she’ll impress us again with strong storytelling from a distinctive and uncompromising point of view.
Chelsea Rooney will be participating in a panel at the Vancouver Public Library Stigma, Shmigma: Writers on Stuff You Shouldn’t Talk About with Dina Del Bucchia, Kim Clark, and moderated by feminist writer, Meghan Murphy. The free event is Oct. 16 in the Alice MacKay room at the Central Library, 350 W. Georgia St, from 7 to 8: 30 p. m.