Monday, November 9, 2009

The Prescription Errors by Charles Demers

There is a glut of poet-novelists in this country (Atwood, Ondaatje, Michaels, Redhill). What we need are more comedian-novelists. Stand-up comics and novelists share a lot in common; both employ narrative techniques based on sharp observation, carefully chosen language and syntax, and devices such as irony and absurdity, and of course... timing. Charles Demers's debut novel The Prescription Errors has it all. But there's something more too, and it relates to the commitment comedians, by virtue of their craft, make to the here and now, critiquing our personal and social foibles, fakery and false-gods. The poet-novelists and historical-novelists that rule the Canlit roost are devotees of a specialized craft that is increasingly speculative and relies on heavy-duty book research. By being unflinchingly focused on the state of things as they (we) are, stand-up comics have insight into more prescient matters relating to our current political-ethnic-economic condition, how well we are treating each other or not, the state of our humanity or lack of same. The siphoning of writing talent away from the literary arts to the big and small screens (chasing money and notoriety) goes some way to explain why much of the fiction being published (and lavished with prizes) is disconnected from everyday experience and reality on the ground. Aspiring novelists see themselves on a career track that goes from a university creative degree to post-graduate studies to an academic position and writing novels. To my mind, cab-driving (Exhibit A) may be better training for novel-writing than getting a creative writing MA. Exhibit B is Charles Demers, a guy who's got his fingers in a lot of pies, activism, television, radio, stand-up comedy, journalism, and internet-publishing. He's hard to categorize (and we all know how important 'categorization' is in the era of diminished attention spans) and his debut is equally hard to pin down. One thing that does comes through with flying colours is fresh, energetic prose from an acute, socially/politically-engaged mind. Two stories interconnect. In one, a stand-up comic named Ty Bergen has just scored his big break voicing a hit cartoon. The only problem is that his Hollywood days are numbered since he got the gig by replacing beloved (Canadian) actor Al Sampson who's recuperating from a near fatal car accident. Everyone wants Al back asap (his producer, colleagues, and fans), and Ty has the sense that he is, at worst, an immoral lowlife (for taking advantage of someone else's misery) or at best, a place-holder, counterfeit, a cheap replica of the original, in work and in life. The irony is that it is precisely Ty's cosmopolitan talent mimicking multiple ethnic accents (a 'Canadian' talent - think Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and for older folks like myself Ottawa-born impersonator legend Rich Little) that snagged him the California gig. Ty ('tie') may be a sell-out, and Demers weaves through the text a critique of our uneasy relationship with US mass-market culture.

The main, and more substantial narrative, is voiced by Daniel, an obsessive-compulsive engaged in a Marxist medical research project (you'll have to read the book to understand what that means) and whose cousin Sara's girlfriend has published a children's book about lesbian turtles that some groups are fighting to ban. Daniel is caught up in his own thoughts and anxieties, working in dead-end jobs, and ensconced in the dark basement of a university library perusing medical journals. A description of Daniel's job washing the floors of a car parkade yields a sampling of Demers's gift for apt, spicy description: "You might think that every oil stain or wad of discarded gum ground into molecular bond with the pavement through the pressures of time and the wheels of SUVs would bear its own unique imprint, each an urban snowflake in a postmodern, post-climate winterscape, say. No."

Only Sara's son Robeson, whom Daniel babysits, seems to bring him out of himself (his shell). The bond between Daniel, who lost his mother to illness when he was a child, and Robeson, who has an abundance of mothers, is a touching one. The choice to name a small white boy
after Paul Robeson - a mountain of a black man, a man's man, an accomplished athlete, intellectual and artist, one of the last century's great renaissance figures - telegraphs Demers's desire to explore themes of racism, homophobia, the mind-body problem, art vs. politics and censorship among others. But it's the portrait he paints of Vancouver's rich ethnic cosmopolitanism that is memorable, as typified by Daniel's relationship with a 6'4" turban-wearing Sikh named Baljinder or 'Bo' with whom he smokes weed, goes to comedy clubs and stargazes.

The recent novel this one most reminds me of is Andy Brown's The Mole Chronicles. I don't think it's coincidental that both Brown and Demers have Montreal-Vancouver pedigrees - the former is Vancouver-born and now lives in La Belle Province, while the latter is a Vancouverite who has his roots in Quebec. Nor is it happenstance that both their novels are published by Insomniac. Like many first novels The Prescription Errors suffers from being overly ambitious and dense. Firsttime novelists are typically in a major rush to say what they have to say, and they pile it all into too narrow a container. Demers doesn't quite manage to balance the Ty and Daniel sides of the narrative equation, and his multiple thematic strands are foreground when they should be background. Nevertheless, it's enjoyable to watch him try to pull it all together, like a young stand-up performer whose got great material, is rough around the edges when it come to overall execution, but who you know is destined to make his mark.

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