Slim volume stunning read of a first novel

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A Description of the Blazing World

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/05/2011 (4269 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A Description of the Blazing World

By Michael Murphy

Freehand Books, 234 pages, $22

IN his first novel, Halifax’s Michael Murphy has crafted a slim volume that conceals a stunning read. The book’s official description, with all its talk of looming apocalypse and mysterious missives, hints at magical realism: but as we soon learn, that is not the blazing world the novel describes.

Instead, Murphy delivers a wry love letter to a smouldering Toronto, told through two discrete but parallel narratives. In the first, we meet a lonely teenage boy, his fertile imagination driven by the mutable fatalism of Choose Your Own Adventure books; in the second, we meet a forlorn man named Morgan Wells, whose life comes unhinged after his wife walks out.

Their stories, at first, are separate: Wells’ is told in the third-person, the boy’s in the first. But both are searching for an anchor in a city that swallows up so many; and through a series of coincidences, both find the catalyst that will pry their fingers loose from the past.

For the boy, it comes when he discovers an old book, Margaret Cavendish’s 1668 surreal utopian novel The Blazing-World wedged in his brother’s kitchen cabinet. To the boy, its fanciful and fantastical descriptions seem a code to a looming apocalypse, a holocaust he sees heralded in the 2003 Toronto blackout.

For Wells, who drifts through his job as a humble paper-shredder, epiphany comes when a mysterious postcard from Paris arrives at his empty post-divorce apartment.

It is made out to Morgan Wells, but not the one who received it: and so, Wells sets off on a mission to unravel the truths of his Toronto namesake.

These characters could not be more disparate, though their motives and inner monologues both come unglued; but Murphy gives both their loving due.

Through the boy’s eyes, he perfectly recreates the explosive mind of adolescence, steeped in fantasy and struggling against the dawning awareness of a more humdrum adult world: all the work meetings, small talk and ennui.

While the effect of all this is poignant and sometimes dark, it is also sharply funny. Murphy has a gift for injecting a subtext of uproarious wit without betraying his characters’ own furious commitment to their cause. In one memorable scene, the teen boy stands in awe of a “prophet” of the looming apocalypse in the grocery store, perhaps a terrorist who will end the world — until, that is, the man calls his wife to ask if she wants baguettes or rye bread.

A twist in the story leads to a surprising — and frankly, somewhat deflated — close. But everything that comes before is a lush and easily gripping narrative, a classic tale of growing up (or giving up) in a cavernous city, searching for connections in coincidence and heroic meaning in the humble everyday.

Melissa Martin is a Free Press reporter.

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Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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