Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Christian McPherson's The Cube People

I picked up Christian McPherson's 2010 novel The Cube People on the recommendation of separate entries by two reviewers whose opinions I respect. And the first chapter didn't disappoint. The protagonist Colin MacDonald -- aspiring father and writer, and computer coding geek at an Ottawa tax office -- begins his first-person relating with, "I'm waiting to masturbate into a cup." Now since most editors apparently stop reading the manuscripts of aspiring novelists after the first turgid, generic and/or overblown sentence, this is terrific stuff. If we conflate the author with the character, perhaps Colin will have his day in the sun with his own novel. The humour of having to wank to a one-copy-only overabused Penthouse while also maintaining hygenically-considered physical contortions in the small booth is entertaining fare. The satirical character pokes are also well done: the chatty, "sympathetic" and intrusive waiting room lady as well as the Nurse Ratchett-lite holder of the semen vial. The fertility clinic could also double as a positive metaphor for authorial invention.

At chapter two, the book sinks and never resurfaces. We're immediately thrust into Colin's bleakly boring, somewhat manic though subdued, workaday world. Everyone knows that there aren't many hockey players, stunt doubles, espionage agents, or cabinet ministers writing novels, so the "write what you know" crowd, if it leaves academia, often moves to the white-collar desk where, between long breaks and downtime, one has the resources (desk, pen, paper or computer) to churn out that money-making potboiler (in fact, Colin proceeds to let us know that his first novel has been partly composed in such a fashion -- it may be interesting for some to speculate on how much was strictly autobiographical here, but not to me). And because offices are usually mind-numbingly absent of entertainment possibilities (not always, I've been in one that was always entertaining), the usual procedure is to inject "frenzied" characters into peculiar storylines. And this is what happens in The Cube People. The characters at Colin's quad -- the bitter and angry fem-warrior, the obsessive-compulsive germ neurotic, the tale-dragging physically afflicted sad sack -- are interesting for the time it takes to meet them. After that, they fill their roles but have no contour or, indeed, surprise. Their development, through plot, is inevitable and uninteresting, and worse, has little to do with other components of the story (in the office) or the stories (at home or in Colin's fictional world -- and yes, I get the various meanings of "hungry hole", but connections need more than cheesy metaphors in shock lit ).

In fact, this, along with the mediocre writing, is the biggest fault of the novel (I'll get to the writing in a bit, though the two problems conjoin). Frequent and long stretches of the book are covered with boring diary-filler, which in the case of life on the domestic front serve, I suppose, to endear us to the tribulations of the family dilemmas and emergencies which many or most can relate to (more on this later, too), but which instead just turn off at least this reader with this-happened-so-it's-important reportage.

"I wait with them at the train station until they board. I kiss Sarah and a sleeping Sammy goodbye. Sarah's on autopilot, as if she's sleepwalking. I remind her to call me day or night if she has any problems" (p.179).

Sarah's not the only one is that condition.

"Sarah is holding her belly, still laughing."

Not only is this a cliche, but it's surprising that the phrase reached that status. Has anyone ever seen anyone else actually holding her belly while laughing?

Colin's best friend Phil is employed as "wild" foil to our lusty though respectable hero. This was a wonderful opportunity to set any number of contrasting off-the-deep-end to stay-the-course adventures among the two pals. But all we get is Phil's ogling and flirting with a new "hot" hair clipper (who he then marries -- we can't even have the "wild" ones remain so in this novel of the housebroken), and their later debaucherie of pizza, choice weed, and "Blade Runner" home viewing. A Jamaican pizza deliverer appears, but it's all surface mood, no palpable effect, savvy dialogue, or cutting commentary..

There are quite a few set pieces which try for humour by slapstick/heightened emotion through emergency. One brutally unfunny scene has faithful Colin spring for chemical cheese pourings from the corner store for the rabid cravings of pregnant Sarah. Though the preamble is witty -- Colin asking for, and getting back, his loonie from the homeless man he'd just given it to -- the in-store humiliation is as funny as slipping a rubber crutch under the emaciated arm of a one-legged man. The author, through Colin, tries for elucidation towards the end: "People are giving me the eye. They likely think I'm stoned and have the munchies -- who else would eat this stuff? Undernourished pregnant women, that's who." We sympathize, Colin. We do.

And that leads to the other problem. In the few other reviews I've seen of the book, it's repeatedly praised in the "I can relate" hossannah terms. But novels, like any other artistic genre or form, have to transcend the familiar. This is a book one reads with comfy slippers and a hot toddy (only one, mind you). For all its hysterical predicaments and relatable emotions, it's a book which emits a certain stamp of recognition for those who look at the exasperated and faintly bland faces of bureaucrats treading the downtown sidewalks at 8:30 a.m. of a cloudy Monday morn. Not just recognition, but a mild pang of sympathy. But it's a world which lays out the middle-class virtues (the ending, in particular, is predictable) in a complacent,   atta-boy lifestyle excursion.

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