Review by Frank Moher
Brett Josef Grubisic’s first novel, The Age of Cities (Arsenal Pulp Press, 240 pp., $19.95), is going to be terrific once he finishes it. For now, we’re offered this odd case of narrative interruptus.
For nearly all of its length, The Age of Cities is charming, droll, and absorbing. In unassuming but graceful prose, it tells the story of a young school librarian, Winston, in 1950s British Columbia, who is not so much closeted as happily oblivious to the piquancies of sexuality. Like his Orwellian namesake (though I don’t expect Grubisic intends the connection), Winston lives sub-rosa, in a small town in the Fraser Valley, but unlike that other Winston, he has no longing to join the “brotherhood”; his introduction to a small fraternity of homosexuals in Vancouver is the result of a chance meeting with one “Dickie” in a hotel bar, while on a trip to the big city to see a podiatrist. Dickie may have his own reasons for being in the bar, but Winston is strictly there for the beer.
Grubisic’s handling of their meeting is deliciously understated, but no less funny for all that. “The conversation between the two men progressed with a sporadic rhythm,” he writes. “Dickie asked elaborate questions laced in suggestion. Winston offered terse answers, occasionally wondering with mild alarm whether Dickie was some kind of con man who planned to bilk him.” Dickie eventually gets to the point, pre-Stonewall style:
“Are you a friend of the Queen?”
“Am I a monarchist?”
“No, that’s not exactly what I mean.”
And so it goes for most of the rest of the novel, as Grubisic offers a nicely period-hued portrait of Friends of the Queen in one of the Queen’s farthest outposts, without even much of a demi-monde to be part of. Something stirring deep in his libido, Winston arranges another visit to Vancouver, though he takes his sweet odd-duck of a mother, Alberta, with him. He meets Dickie and his “eccentric” friends in a Chinese restaurant, but remains sublimely cluless; later, having declined their offer to join in some post-prandial adventures, he imagines them “staying up late into the night — mixing drinks, squabbling, gossiping, and listening to music — and then leaving for work in wrinkled clothing without having slept a wink.”
Grubisic’s treatment of his befuddled central character is sly without being cruel, and he has as good an eye for the filaments of small-town life as for the industrial drabness of mid-century Vancouver. By the time Winston finally experiences his first blow-job on a night-time visit to Stanley Park, The Age of Cities is well on its way to helping close a significant lacunae in Canadian literature — the lives of gay men and women in our country before the 1960s. It’s the sort of novel Sinclair Ross might have written but, of course, never did.
Then, after 245 pages, something very like disaster strikes. Grubisic decides to stop telling his story, and shifts instead into a bizarre and tired po-mo deconstruction of the novel we’ve just been reading. Written in impeccable acadamese (Grubisic’s slyness, at least, does not desert him here), this dog-wagging tail even praises the putatively anonymous text for “[prising] a passageway open to an altogether obscure moment of the past.” No kidding. The afterword is supposedly written by a certain “A.X. Palios”; I’ll leave it to those of you who enjoy this sort of literary games-playing to decide whether that’s an anagram or allusion to something.
What was going on in Grubisic’s mind? Was it some failure of creative nerve? Some concern that the boys and girls in the English Department lounge (he teaches at Simon Fraser University) wouldn’t find his novel sufficiently meta? Does he really think he finished it? (It’s hard to imagine anyone able to construct a narrative at once leisurely and taut wouldn’t know how to put an ending on it.) The final answer is: who knows? All we really know is that a significant literary opportunity has been squandered — at least for now. There’s no reason Grubisic couldn’t go back and finish The Age of Cities properly, and then republish it.
I hope he does.