Review: Brett Josef Grubisic’s This Location of Unknown Possibilities & Ed MacDonald’s Atomic Storybook
This fiction review first appeared in EVENT 43/2
Brett Josef Grubisic, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, Now or Never Publishing, 2014
Ed MacDonald, Atomic Storybook, Anvil Press, 2013
Ah, the pseudo-angst of the early 21st century. There is the feeling of being caught between the binary notions of good and evil we have inherited from simpler times and the way-too-complex non-canonical insistences of a postmodern world. Add a touch of social media replacing human emotions and interactions, and you’ve got the perfect mixture for some satiric fun and games.
Using 20- and 30-something protagonists for the most part (at least, that’s the vibe these characters give off no matter what their real-world age), both Brett Josef Grubisic and Ed MacDonald tackle aspects of this lethal brew in their latest novels. And both use a variety of points of view to stir the mix (Grubisic alternating; MacDonald grab-bagging). This, however, is where the similarity ends, with Grubisic keeping pretty much to the straight-and-narrow satiric surface (as befits the two-dimensionality of his filmic subject matter) while MacDonald takes us on a merry-go-round ride that includes alien abductions, explosions on the moon, and the previous lives of Owen, the painter-protagonist (in one, he’s a 12th-century monk; in another, he finds himself in a mental hospital conversing with Albert Einstein’s son, Eduard).
Grubisic’s novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, starts with a classic premise: What’s going to happen when Marta Spëk, a paid-up member of stiff-necked academe, decides on a lark to accept an invitation to ‘consult’ on a low-budget made-in-Canada film nominally about Lady Hester Stanhope, an 18th-century aristocratic adventurer who was the subject of Marta’s scholarly book?
Typically reflective and constantly questioning herself and her motives, English prof Marta is in for a rude awakening when she shows up at the Okanagan Valley shooting location for the movie tentatively titled The Prophet of Djoun (later hitting the little screen as Alien Assault). Marta finds herself at the bottom of the filmic totem pole. What was, in her mind, one of the key roles in any filmmaking process—historical accuracy through the appropriate use of an expert consultant—quickly devolves into coffee making, phoning supercilious casting agencies, and running around checking out sets that include a crashed spaceship. For a movie set in the 18th century. In her down time, she ‘goes native’ and has some half-hearted trysts with Chaz, one of the male production assistants. Her single important contribution turns out to be finding an on-the-spot replacement for one of the lead actresses who lands herself in cactus and decides it’s just one prick too many.
Meanwhile, the other half of the alternating POV is none other than the film’s producer, Jake Nugent. Cynical, practical and something of a sexual sleazebag, Jake casts a gloomy shadow over the proceedings. He comes across as an archetypal representative of that class of ‘creative types’ who pump dry ice through the Hollywood dream machine and its subsets across the world (in this case, Canada). Always on the prowl for his next pornographic encounter (male, female, whatever—it doesn’t seem to matter—the raunchier the better) and prepared to masturbate between calls to the film’s backers, Jake never warms the heart of the reader, being kept at an icky-don’t-touch distance. Yet, ironically, he feels strangely and frighteningly normal for our age, the anti-hero regressed from the likes of Camus and Robbe-Grillet.
In keeping with this distancing effect, Grubisic never really brings the two main characters together, allowing them instead to follow their own tangents. When they do cross paths, it’s as if they’re looking right through each other. Marta never quite gets over a feeling of being intimidated and manipulated; Jake just doesn’t care once he’s ruled her out as a potential object of his unnatural desires. Both, thoroughly postmodern, lack the kind of simpatico that makes the reader want to hug them and give them some motherly advice.
All in all, this is sharp satire on the state of minor-key filmmaking in the backwaters of Canada—the hype without the glamour—and an even sharper opening up of the state of relationships in the early 21st century: the obsessive Internet trolling for anonymous chat rooms, assignations via coded texting, and the blurring between holographic imagery and ‘real partners.’ As with all good satire, it’s hard to tell where spoofing ends and reality begins. Consider the couple of pages at the end where Grubisic includes ‘reviews’ of the film that eventually arises from the week in the valley:
Low expectations exceeded!!
5 Sept. 2012 | by Amit-Chanakyapuri (India)—See all my reviews
The plot=weird, the acting=so-so, the science=huh?!? You could drive a bus thru the plot holes!
The author of Spat the Dummy (which should have taken a prize for its title alone), Ed MacDonald creates a multilayered universe—at times exotic, at others mundane—in Atomic Storybook. It has room for an eclectic mix of characters (some famous, some ordinary), plot lines (some realistic, some fantastic), cruel but somehow well-meaning alien abductors, discussions ranging from Joyce’s Ulysses to quantum mechanics, and multiple POVs that go from first person to omniscient and back without a hint of embarrassment or suspension of disbelief—all marshalled to tell a tale that keeps insisting there may not be anything out there beyond the telling of that tale.
Identifying a ‘main’ protagonist is difficult, but wannabe painter, wannabe writer, wannabe Everyman Owen comes closest, at least judging from the POV allotment he’s been given. Not a particularly bad or obnoxious character (unlike Jake from Grubisic’s novel), Owen meanders through life in what appears to be a prescription drug-induced state, little ‘red pills’ given to him as part of an unauthorized experiment. Under their influence (or perhaps he only uses that as an excuse for his present ennui), Owen recalls previous lives, suffers the indignity of experiments by those green-blooded aliens, and participates (mostly through sidelong glances) in the slow collapse of both his marriage and his closest friendships. He also hands out the pills to his friend Mark, who then proceeds to violently flip out.
Aside from the intermittent aliens, 12th-century monks and Albert Einstein’s institutionalized son, the supporting cast features Owen’s on-again, off-again wife Iris; friend-with-benefits Mizuki, filled with reasonable calm and coolness; Marcello, who feels he could have prevented the suicide of Iris’s brother and suffers the pangs of having abandoned his partner, Lou; the aforementioned Mark who goes from ordinary guy to killer; and mentor Chesley, a mad Irish physicist and cynic who claims to be Einstein’s grandson.
Combined, they form a circle of discontent that radiates to the far reaches of the book’s universe before imploding upon itself in a mix of irony and deadly seriousness. They take turns hurting each other, either intentionally or through collateral damage. They delight in back-stabbing, screwing their best friends’ partners, and then putting up a front dripping with camaraderie. They force open the doors to self-knowledge, only to admit they can’t descend into such murky depths. At one point, Owen sets out to describe this state of affairs, using the aliens as a very thinly veiled distancing metaphor:
The space pricks have no idols. No beliefs, no philosophy, no ideas. All of the ideas have been had in their world, change has long ago become an aberration. The artists among them are pariahs, slumming it around backwater worlds.
Or, like me, they are just characters in a story. They live in the place where the Real and the Unreal go to slap each other to death.
MacDonald does a bang-up job of keeping the circle jerk going and bringing it all to a crashing halt. He delights in exposing the intertwined and often horribly twisted relationships that seem to litter the early 21st-century landscape, making it vapid and barren. You want to shout, ‘Wise up! Learn something!’ But then he undermines that with the kind of serious statement that feels too much like tongue-in-cheek. Owen again:
I make an attempt at writing a story about Chesley going to visit his grandfather, Albert Einstein. I try, but it’s pointless. I conclude that writing is for anti-social losers who have resigned themselves to misery and obscurity. Thirty minutes into my attempt, I have nine ugly sentences. I think about it as a movie and it gets a little easier. Act One is easy. It’s easy to begin. It’s easy to end, because you can just kill everybody. So Act Three is a cakewalk. The middle is torture. Life is Act Two.
The question then becomes: How is he going to end something that includes such statements within it? What sort of ending makes sense? In a metaphor that resembles in some ways the reverse of Plato’s cave, MacDonald concludes with the only ending possible:
Chesley takes the shade from the desk lamp and the walls are brighter. I go to the switch and turn on the overhead light. The walls glow and the house is quiet. Neither of us speaks. There is a long, silent surge and the lights get brighter. We’re perfectly still as it consumes the office. The faint people in the walls fade in the brilliance until they and we are light: the shadow of the real, the shadow of all things unknowable, lost between senses.