'Thursday 23 September, 8:22 a.m., Assiniboine Universtiy. On a benign September morning, strangers converge on a bricked quadrangle -- and at a perilous edge none could anticipate.'
So begins this surprisingly readable collaborative novel, the brainchild of two Winnipeg editors and penned by 16 writers, most of whom are Canadian but not well-known.
The first chapter establishes the novel's main setting, the campus of Assiniboine University, which seems a stand-in for the University of Winnipeg.
Peace and order have been disturbed on campus, thanks in part to a massive hole in the ground that was left by construction workers. A kind of dangerous chaos ensues, which neatly sets up the rest of the novel.
The gaping hole is a none-too-subtle metaphor for the fall from grace that looms for each character in the stories that follow.
Although on the surface they don't seem to be related in any way, it soon becomes obvious that these are all people "at the edge."
Prof. Beata Novak, on the verge of retirement, grapples with the idea that she may be losing her memory.
Raymond's poor choices as a young man leave him alone and barely existing on the fringes of society.
Jin Oh finds himself on the edge of an unsettling discovery about a past romantic relationship, and an impulsive act leaves Souzan teetering on the brink of criminality.
Group-written novels have a long history, from the 1931 British detective mystery The Floating Admiral, featuring Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, to the 1969 American spoof Naked Came the Stranger, banged out by 24 Newsday scribes.
At the Edge began with a call for chapter submissions by Winnipeg writers Marjorie Anderson and Deborah Schnitzer, who also acted as project co-ordinators and publishers. Anderson, a retired University of Manitoba professor, is best known for co-editing the Dropped Threads anthologies with her friend and colleague the late Carol Shields.
Schnitzer, who teaches English at the University of Winnipeg, has published her own literary fiction.
More than 60 writers from across Canada responded to the all, as well as the U.S., Europe and Australia. Each chapter of the book is composed by a different author, including Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Ingeborg Boyens, Arwen Brenneman, Ophelia Celine, K.W. Dyer, Katherin Edwards, Elissa Frittaion, Ryder Hawkins, Elaine Hayes, Jack Hodgins, Matthew Hooton, Blanche Howard, Heather Jessup and Sarah Selecky.
The authors' names do not appear on the chapters they have written, but whoever they are, they are clearly at the top of their game.
With so many writers on-board, the project might easily have ended up choppy and disjointed, like a nonsensical game of Mad Lib.
Yet the results here are surprisingly coherent and in fact, virtually seamless in terms of tone and style.
Readers will delight in the vivid images that appear throughout. One character has a "turkey neck basted with indignation." A man's voice rolls "like waves over his vowels, lapping at the icy shores of Ida's heart."
The main characters all end up at the edge of the construction hole, and one of them must fall. Which character is it? Despite top-notch writing, the mystery element seems tacked on.
There are two possible endings -- a device that seems a bit simplistic, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, and doesn't exactly work here.
The first ending is straightforward and believable and meshes well with the rest of the novel. But it still strikes one as unnecessary. Each of the chapters is a well-conceived entity of its own, and certainly good enough to be a stand-alone story.
The second ending is ambiguous -- perhaps purposely so -- and superfluous, a mash-up of fantasy and philosophical ramblings. It strikes a discordant note and seems a bit of a cop-out as a way to wrap up an otherwise well-crafted novel.
Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.