October 23, 2020

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Little to love in sci-fi screwups

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/6/2015 (1945 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth came out in 1969. It was purposefully crude and screamy, outrageously explicit and sexual -- in some ways even by today's standards.

It was undeniably and inexcusably misogynistic. It was also searingly smart and outrageously funny. Some of it was awful, and some of it broke real ground.

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A Free Man by Montreal-born, Toronto-based Michel Basilières shares all of the above qualities with Portnoy's Complaint with the unfortunate exceptions of "funny" "smart" and "groundbreaking."

The book's story is largely a plot-within-a-plot. The unnamed narrator (implied to be Basilières) opens the door one evening to find his old drinking buddy Skid Roe on his steps, whom he hasn't seen in a decade. Skid holds up some cheap wine and a sack of weed and invites himself in, and begins to tell the strange tale of where he's been all these years.

Mostly, where he's been is working retail at a Chapters-like book chain, smoking fair amounts of green, watching large amounts of porn, and lusting after a startlingly young co-worker, whom we are to understand is a ditzy, oversexed shrew.

However, Skid's story starts getting interesting when an all-powerful robot named Lem becomes increasingly ensnared in his life. Lem attempts to convince Skid to time travel to a nearly human-less future and help Lem repopulate the human race.

Initially Skid resists, but after some hijinks -- which include government forces surrounding his house -- eventually he goes to the future, with the promise of drugs and sex forever.

It turns out, however, the future isn't so great. The book, which has dabbled in the lightly ruminative so far ("The essential problem of life is to deal with the outside world... How much do we have to sacrifice to its demands?") veers into the completely existential by the end, and Skid opts to come home.

Is there a takeaway as we get to morning, when the unnamed narrator finds himself dazzled by Skid's story? Not much. This is uncharitable, but the fact that the book ends with two stoned dudes on a couch saying, in essence, "We just gotta, like, live, man!" is a fair representation of what's on offer.

If a reader is in search of an accurate window into the unadorned thoughts and feelings of the modern smelly porn-guzzling man who doesn't particularly like women -- and nothing else (save an unemotional time-travelling robot) -- then A Free Man may be the book for them.

Basilières also wrote the novel Black Bird, which won a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year award.

Certainly there is space in our literature for despicable narrators; coupled with incisive writing and sharp prose, this can make for some beautifully complicated books. Raymond Carver wrote men who were largely sad and mean alcoholics, and his stories are full of gorgeous, empathetic prose about the destruction of working-class America that holds up decades later.

And that is precisely how A Free Man fails: There is little empathy, the prose is not gorgeous. There just isn't much behind the curtain. Readers should look elsewhere.

 

Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and has as much fondness for unlovable boors as the next profane whiskey-drinking transsexual, but she has standards too.

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