Monday, March 29, 2010

Mapping Nikolski

Nikolski is a remarkable little book. It's a quick, easy read. It's funny.

I can only hope that it was grasping at straws, during the Canada Reads debates, when it was argued that Nikolski was disjointed and hard to follow, that it was unconventional, that it was too much work. That's ridiculous! It hardly stretches the bounds of traditional narrative structure; it certainly doesn't qualify as experimental. What you have is two strong threads and one much thinner one intertwined, but they're pulled out straight from start to finish — the story is completely chronological, and it's always clear which thread is being followed in any given chapter.

Cartography is a running theme, not least how we map family.

Joyce spontaneously proclaims cartography as her intended profession to her high school counselor, but I don't think she means it seriously. Within a few years, however, she is mapping Montreal for the type and quality of its trash, associating it with businesses, financial records, receipts. Then she maps computer circuits.

The narrator lives by his own map:

The work is not as simple as it may appear; the S. W. Gam Bookshop is one of those places in the universe where humans long ago relinquished any control over matter. Every shelf holds three layers of books, and the floorboards would vanish altogether under the dozens of cardboard boxes, but for the narrow, serpentine paths designed to let customers move about. The slightest cranny is put to use: under the percolator, between the furniture and the walls, inside the toilet tank, under the staircase, even the dusty closeness of the attic. Our classification system is strewn with microclimates, invisible boundaries, strata, refuse dumps, messy hellholes, broad plains with no visible landmarks — a complex cartography that depends essentially on visual memory, a faculty without which one won't last very long in this trade.

But it takes more than a good pair of eyes and a few ounces of memory to work here. It's crucial to develop a particular perception of time. [...]

Noah, meanwhile, was raised on roadmaps:

The deliveryman's job, which he initially viewed as dreary, suddenly seems to him like an ideal way to map out the neighbourhood. Riding his bike, he constructs an aerial view of the territory — squares, alleyways, wall, graffiti, schoolyards, stairways, variety stores and snack bars — and when he talks with the customers, he gathers intelligence on accents, clothing, physical traits, kitchen smells and bits of music. Added together, the two catalogues make up a complex map of the area, at once physical and cultural.

All three characters are breaking with their past, stepping out of the lives they were raised in, even while desperately hanging on to them (mementoes, newsclippings, letters "home" that never reach their destination), and in so doing they are, ironically, fulfilling their nomadic, pirateering, scavenging destinies.

It's all written with a light touch, and there's a marvellous sense of the interconnectedness of our lives, what a small world it is, even while we are insular and don't talk to our neighbours.

There are also some wonderful thoughts on the archeology of garbage.

According to Nicolas Dickner, Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" was something of an inspiration for and distillation of all he hoped to achieve in this novel. (I haven't entirely figured out what the song is about, but I started skimming Beautiful Losers a few weeks ago and I'm thinking I should soon read is concertedly.)

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