Scotiabank Giller Prize, Book 5

November 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Fall. Colin McAdam; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $32.00 cloth, 362 pp., 978-0-670-06720-6.

fall_coverPrevious Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award (Some Great Thing)

Governor General’s Literary Award (Some Great Thing, nominee)

Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (Some Great Thing, nominee)

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Some Great Thing, nominee)

John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (Some Great Thing, nominee)

From the publisher: “A disturbing and unforgettable story of guilt, memory, and confused identity, Colin McAdam’s second novel is a work of power, pitch-perfect observation, and searing ambition. It confirms his status as a unique talent, one of the few living novelists capable of taking the modern novel and forging from it something startling and wholly new.”

From reviews: “[W]hat saves Fall is McAdam’s ability to upend the reader’s expectations of his narrators. Noel goes from awkward underdog to suspect; Julius, he of the unexamined life, becomes more sympathetic as he experiences loss. In his take on the boarding-school novel, McAdam offers a portrait of male adolescence that’s both empathetic and stylistically daring.” – Kevin Chong, National Post

“Though McAdam dabbles with the conventions of a psychological thriller, he never seems very interested in motivation, repentance or punishment; what fascinates him most is the brutal and brutalising environment of St. Ebury. He has written a sensitive, honest and horrifying portrait of everyday life in an elite, expensive boarding school, describing the fear, violence, longings and loneliness of confused adolescents confined in a parentless prison.” – Josh Lacey, The Guardian

“McAdam pursues interesting literary techniques here, making frequent switches in time as well as points of view, but thanks to his undeniable talent, we are engaged, rather than confused, by this.” – William Kowalski, The Globe and Mail

My reaction: Set in a private Ottawa boarding school called St. Ebury, Fall tells the story of a kind of bizarre love triangle. Noel, the bookish, quiet boy with the lazy eye is obsessed with Fallon DeStindt, the most beautiful of the few female students at the school. Fallon, known as Fall, is in love with Julius, Noel’s roommate, one of St. Ebury’s most popular boys. The central event in the novel is Fall’s disappearance, which has repercussions for both Noel and Julius.

Although McAdam sets up his story as a psychological thriller, it can also be read as a kind of postmodern exercise in narrative perception. The events of the novel are filtered through the alternating first-person narrations of Noel and Julius, with a handful of short sections narrated by William, who served for a time as chauffeur for Julius’s father. The two dominant narrative strands stand in stark contrast to one another. As befitting his studious nature, Noel’s sections are contemplative and carefully crafted. Julius, on the other hand, is relatively inarticulate and concerns himself mostly with the prospect of having sex with Fall; his sections are presented in staccato bursts of unattributed dialogue that read like David Mamet suffering from Tourette’s. Moreover, Noel is narrating his story from a distance of 12 years: now 30 and a lawyer, he was 18 when the events of the novel transpired. Late in the novel, he says, “I am writing all of this down because I wish to be more than a lonely collection of other people’s perceptions.”

The result of this approach is that events in the novel are frequently presented twice, from wildly divergent viewpoints. The central mystery – what happened to Fall? – is never definitively solved, but no matter: the plot isn’t the real draw here. McAdam is most interested in presenting detailed psychological portraits of his two main characters, and it is to the author’s credit that these frequently flout our expectations. The popular, fun-loving student turns out to be an inveterate softie, hopelessly in love with Fall, and (at least in the novel’s early stages) friendly toward the relatively outcast Noel. By contrast, the serious, quiet student is shown to have a nascent sociopathic streak: his quiet introversion belies a pulsing rage and what turns into a dangerous obsession with Fall. “I’ve often thought that quiet people are the most interesting,” Noel writes, “not because they can have thoughtful responses but because the louder world has generally suppressed them into some sort of perversion.”

Not everything about Fall works equally well. McAdam displays a virtuosic flare for modulating tone: he is able to make readers laugh out loud one moment and shudder in discomfort the next. But he has a tendency to go overboard, particularly in the sections narrated by Julius. The idiosyncratic dialogue occasionally becomes overwhelming, and McAdam’s predilection for onomatopoeia can be distracting. (Sex, for example, is rendered thusly: “I’m gonna come already that’s so fuckin soft and warm and look … … Hoo. Hya. God. … HOOO. HOOOAA. Fuck.”)

Still, despite its evident flaws, Fall is easily the most entertaining and energetic of the five Giller shortlisted books this year. Not precisely a thriller, and not entirely a coming-of-age story, it is instead an intriguing hybrid novel: a story of memory and loss very different from the kind we’ve come to expect here in Canada.

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