illustration by Jordin Isip
AN ORDINARY MAN NAMED MICHAEL is awakened one morning and urged out of bed by his wife, who wants to send him to the corner store for bread. Michael obliges, albeit groggily, barely able to retrieve suitable socks and shoes for the cold winter weather. He goes out into the street, and the world is suddenly realigned:
Above him, the sky was clear and blue. Snow had fallen and done its worst; the earth would be white for days . . . And then, for no reason at all, Michael felt the presence of God. It was very nearly palpable, as though the trees might catch fire, or his soul disperse in all directions . . . It was interesting: Irene had woken him, saying:
— We're out of bread.
And now here he was: unmoored, out for bread in the hands of God. (It was thoughts like this that made you want to shop.)
So begins “Metaphysics of Morals,” from André Alexis' new collection, Despair and Other Stories. Set chiefly in Ottawa and other burgs in his adopted home of Canada, these eight stories are an engaging mix of sharp-eyed narrative, strange desires, startling epiphanies and full-throttle absurdism — part Chekhov, part Ellison and part phantasmagoria that is entirely the author's own. In his first book, the novel Childhood, Alexis contained the surrealism within the realism of a difficult coming-of-age tale; Despair sheds linear structure and lets fancy fly as high as it will. Though contemporary, there's a distinct fairy-tale quality to this book: Besides Michael, a recurring Everyman character who is always falling down one rabbit hole or another, it's populated by a mad scientist, a shadowy porn-film producer, a devout but lusty Catholic, a parakeet that makes odd pronouncements over dinner. Plots border on the outlandish. What makes everything work, what makes for real magic, is Alexis' consistently moderate tone and utter sincerity.
Consider a moment in “The Third Terrace,” in which the unnamed protagonist reflects in the aftermath of a revenge killing he has just committed, shooting a prostitute who had attacked him and left his hands, his one redeemable body part, mutilated:
The moment I fired into the closet, all of Nature turned away from me. The spirit went out of things around me. (I can't describe it any other way; the spirit of things receded, like the tide going out.) I was like a stranger to the world: The floor would take my steps, but no more; the walls supported my weight, but unwillingly; lights would illuminate and hinges turn, but despite me, not for me. I could have put my hand in flame without having it burn, or breathed underwater without drowning. The rules no longer applied to me, though instead of feeling liberated I longed for the old order. I wanted to drown.
The book is more emotionally far-ranging than its title suggests. In casually deconstructing despair, Alexis asks big questions: Is the nature of life, like that of man, essentially good or evil? Do we properly fear, or tragically reject, the enormity of possibility that life affords us? In his view, despair is not the ball and chain of the human condition so much as it is a point along the continuum of that condition — overwhelming, sure, but also as fleeting and preposterous as love or a sudden appetite for chocolate éclairs. This is part of the unimaginable possibility that he describes, positing along the way that it is not life, but our general denial of the true freakishness of human nature, that most accounts for despair: It is only when we slip the bonds of that denial — even for just minutes at a time — that we taste the full complement of experience.
Alexis' characters are continually searching for the ultimate expression of love or death, often both, though their searches tend to begin innocently enough — with Michael's trip to the store for bread, with a train car full of tourists headed for Spain, with one man's determination to clarify the origins of a puzzling letter sent by a stranger from his previous address, who also happens to have his name. The writer loves gray areas and axes of irresolution; for him, unanswered questions are the very essence of existence. Throughout the book, Alexis himself slips in and out as a character, reality loops around itself, and worlds exist within worlds — people are constantly recalling dreams, telling each other stories that are far more fleshed-out than the storytellers themselves. Clever coincidence abounds: Whether Alexis believes there is no such thing, or whether he believes every mundaneness has a greater, preordained significance, is one's guess in any given story.
Despair is therefore religious without being doctrinaire: Characters come to believe in a night-visiting succubus, in a talking parakeet, and occasionally in God (though the only God here, as Octavia Butler once postulated, is change). But all those oddities are in place to help us divine earthly life, not the other way around; what is truly mysterious is a young couple falling in lust after Michael's father's funeral, or the machinations of Dr. Pascal, who has concocted a recipe to separate a human body from its soul as undramatically as yolks are separated from whites. This latter tale, “Horse,” represents the collection at its most fantastic and malevolent, where it verges on pure comic pulp, but typically shows its heart: “How homely I was. I was thirty-five years old, five feet and seven inches tall (long), one hundred and fifty pounds,” confesses the mad doctor's hapless guinea pig, who finds himself riven in two. “Of course, I had realized some time before that I was a negro, but this 'niggerness' surprised me. My hair was like a cone of wool.” A page or so later, he confirms his repulsion:
I should have felt betrayed or angry, but I felt nothing like it. I felt longing for my body at the same time as my loathing for my physical self increased. (This seems confusing to me now, but it was as though I felt love for a large rat.) My brown eyes disgusted me. My flat nose was horrifying. My ears seemed like coils of abandoned snakeskin. As for the rest, the less said, et cetera.
There's a subtext of race, of dubious self-regard, here and elsewhere in the book, which would doubtless be the text were Alexis a black American author. He is not, and it is a blessed thing, from a literary standpoint, that his Canadian citizenship presumably affords him a drier and more circumspect view of the color divide. One is certain of his characters' Caribbean heritage in the wilds of Canada, but it is only part of the overall sense of displacement and disjointedness, not all of it; race is not ponderous so much as it is as absurdist as everything else, a vital element of story rather than the controlling treatise. A native Trinidadian who immigrated to Canada as a small child, Alexis the author does share certain traits with his counterparts throughout the black diaspora: a wariness of assimilation, an eternally fractured sense of belonging, an evolved middle-class ennui that is particularly bewildering to black folks who have aspired hard to such ennui their whole lives, only to find that material comfort is but a variation of poverty. Yet like Haitian writer Dany Laferriere or American novelist Cecil Brown (who penned the rare satire “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger” in a burst of '60s inspiration), he shows rather than tells of his indignation at the world, and that indignation shape-shifts into many forms, from the poetically sublime to the patently ridiculous.
In the end, the comic-book humor and fanciful premises are merely a way of getting at a deep humanism, the quickest route to enlightenment. We can mine great truths if only we give ourselves the chance, by fully acknowledging feelings of inadequacy, joy, dissatisfaction and, of course, despair. And they can all converge when least expected, as they do in “Metaphysics of Morals,” in which Michael has yet another revelation while wandering discontentedly down the street in search of his bread. He has picked up a glove that a woman dropped on the pavement and, after failing to return it to her, ruminates first on the psychology of theft, then on far more serious transgressions — rape, murder, maiming. “He discovered that it was not the pain others suffered that prevented him from doing them harm,” Alexis writes. “It was the pain of his own: It was the pain he imagined he would feel were he to commit any of these indignities. That's what kept him in line. It thus followed that he was only as 'good' as his imagination.” And on the heels of revelation, a devastating afterthought: “Were he suddenly unable to imagine pain, he would poke out eyes at will.” Life doesn't get much more possible than that.
DESPAIR AND OTHER STORIES
By ANDRÉ ALEXIS | Henry Holt and Co. | 212 pages | $23 hardcover