I’m thrilled to welcome another guest book reviewer to the Bookgaga blog. Braydon Beaulieu is a graduate student in English (Creative Writing) at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. He’s not just a keen observer and examiner of the potential of creative writing in all its forms, but he’s an engaged and talented wordsmith himself. Follow his lively Twitter feed @BraydonBeaulieu to see where words will take him next.
I finished Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros and immediately thought to myself, “How in the world am I going to review this novel without simply gushing uncontrollably?”
Monoceros is magical. Amazing. Any number of happy, shiny adjectives I could think up. It gallops out of the gates from first line, “Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker,” and doesn’t slow down until the last. This is a novel about ripples spreading through a fictionalised Calgary after the suicide of Patrick Furey, a gay teenager at a Catholic school. It is furious, it is in shock, it is in tears, it doesn’t care – won’t care – about Patrick Furey and his empty desk in English class. “So he killed himself,” thinks Petra, the girlfriend of Patrick’s secret boyfriend, Ginger. “So sad. Too bad. Now he’ll stop molesting her boyfriend. So glad. All she did was say she was going to rip his dick off.”
For a novel whose subject matter predisposes melodrama and didacticism, Monoceros remains unsentimental. The first chapter, “The End,” details the becauses of Patrick’s suicide, culminating in his death. For the rest of the novel, he’s gone. This is not a novel about teen suicide, not really. This is a novel about the people who live on. Maureen Mochinski (née Rule)’s inability to pry her mind from her divorce, to remember the dead student’s name. Faraday Michaels’s regret over having not struck up a conversation over iced cappuccinos and her wish that her parents would stop “fornicating all over the house.” Ginger lying in bed as he “noses his fingers for just one ghost of Furey’s perfume.” Walter, the school guidance counsellor, and Max, the principal who’s also Walter’s secret lover. Patrick’s parents. Classmates. These characters who constitute the novel – they are Mayr’s focus, rather than plot. Monoceros is about people colliding and breaking against each other in the wake of tragedy, and learning about themselves as they glue the pieces together.
The novel successfully navigates the way Patrick’s suicide washes over the school. Walter, for example, knows he could have done something to help, could have given the boy an attentive ear: “Walter snared by another circle, layers and layers of concentric circles, till they touch each harsh point on the curve. He didn’t do his job. He failed that dead boy.” Walter’s reaction to Patrick’s suicide speaks to his feelings about his own sexuality. The tension of the novel hinges on the secrecy in which people who identify as homosexual are forced to live and love in a poisonously Catholic environment (not that each and every Catholic environment is poisonous; I’m speaking specifically of the one in this novel). The relationship between Max and Walter mirrors that of Patrick and Ginger: they have kept it secret for seventeen years, terrified of losing their jobs because of their sexuality. This theme, of course, questions the demonising of non-heterosexuality. Ginger unable to come out publicly, his head guidance counsellor and principal obligated to hide their relationship for nearly two decades. Secrecy is what tears at their skin, clamps down on their lungs. Secrecy forced by an environment that views them as sinners for a choice that isn’t a choice. Patrick’s suicide shoves those around him into confrontation with their secrets. The multiple characters that Monoceros follows demonstrate how people inscribe others’ deaths onto their own lives. Walter, regretful. Max, thankful it didn’t happen on school property. Petra wants her sweater back, the one she gave Ginger and then Ginger gave Patrick. Faraday, hopeful, believing unicorns can unleash happiness for the people who surround her, heal the hurt with their alicorns. But for the whole novel, she waits for their arrival in vain. Monoceros does not give its characters a way out; life is about moving up and in, or laying on the couch smoking pot and watching Sector Six, like Patrick’s parents end up.
The detail with which Mayr explores her characters is astounding. Her use of language is poetic and affecting, and it cuts to visceral details. One particularly effective stylistic maneuver is the obituary column – Mayr establishes the familiar form of the newspaper obituary as a method of detailing characters’ opinions of Patrick and each other. By the end of the novel this gets resignified because the form of the obit is applied to regular narrative; Mayr recasts her characters’ narratives as post-mortem flashbacks. This resignification works well because it serves as a reminder, through blending previously distinct forms, that death is inevitable (sorry for the cliché phrase), and narrative continues after death. Words live on. This continuation resonates with the characters of Monoceros, who continue to live out their stories after the suicide of Patrick Furey, in the best way they know how. Some of them stumble. Some of them gallop free. But all of them will stay with you long after you’ve tucked away the book.