THIS Canadian experimental novel is the curious love story of Tim and Viv and Clive and Viv and the enduring friendship of Tim and Clive.
Toronto author Stephen Marche tells it in fragments and asides and lyrical bursts. It reveals, for instance, both sides of a dinner conversation, the spoken and the unspoken, between (journalist) Clive and (novelist) Viv just before they embark on an affair: "Lying on the bed full of Tim / Clive steak guilt flight adultery / money rain."
It describes (ornithologist) Tim’s life in a mental institution after a sudden breakdown and Viv and Clive’s separate grieving of his loss.
But that’s only the story. The design of the book, its typography, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
The text is sometimes laid out sideways on the page. It occasionally undulates. It periodically runs in a circle. In one instance, it is interspersed with drawings of constellations.
All of which suggests a book of poetry, right down to the publisher’s choice of creamy, subtly textured paper of the kind often used by poetry presses.
But Marche writes novels. This is his third. So it must be approached as a novel as well as a book that is lovely to look at and hold.
Now its publisher, Nova Scotiabased Gaspereau Press, is already known for producing beautiful books, but Love and the Mess We’re In was a particular labour of love for Marche and his collaborator Andrew Steeves, Gaspereau’s publisher and an award-winning typographer.
Marche reputedly wrote the book in a year and then turned it over to Steeves, who spent two years laying it out in consultation with Marche.
This is not a typical production schedule. But neither Steeves nor Marche are known for being strictly conventional.
Take Marche’s first book, 2005’s Raymond and Hannah (Random House), an erotically charged story of a troubled relationship divided by faith and geography where the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph. Its marginal notes are often the only clue to who is speaking.
Steeves earned notoriety when Gaspereau was unable — or unwilling — to print enough books to meet the demand for Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists after it won the 2010 Giller Prize.
But no matter how many conventions Love and Mess We’re In subverts, the real test is whether or not it works as art. Is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? Do the design and typography add to the power of the story or are they just elaborate window-dressing?
Well, mostly, yes.
Though the novel runs 272 pages, it lacks the nuance and the exhaustive examination of two people and their relationship that Marche specializes in. (Likely the word count would put it more in the novella range, which is a smaller canvas than March usually employs.) And while Tim, Viv and Clive are all compelling characters with an original tragedy to share between them, the fact that Clive and Viv are writers means that both our leads are excruciating articulate.
Also, Tim’s mental illness often seems like more of a plot device than real, lived experience.
But make no mistake. Love and the Mess We’re In is not a failure (or, if it is, it’s as grand failure as you’ll ever read).
It is a book and a book-making project that should appeal to visual artists, anyone interested in the book-as-fetish-object, readers of experimental fiction and poetry, and fans of both Steeves (and the rest of the crew at Gaspereau) and Marche.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and poet.