canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999



The Syllabus

by Mike Barnes
The Porcupineís Quill, 2002

Reviewed by Keith Ebsary

Mike Barnesí The Syllabus could best be described as a journey of discovery where nothing is discovered and nothing is learned. Written as a series of narratives and exchanges, The Syllabus traces the narrator Mís attempts to reconstruct his life from blocks of his past. Through Mís fantasies, recollections, digressions, and impressions, we witness the life events of a character who, in the final analysis, amounts to very little.

This being said, The Syllabus is a thoroughly engaging book. It flows with a vibrant energy and loose, meandering style marked by the authorís talent for description and finding meaning or beauty in all of his charactersí experiences. It also accomplishes the rare feat of doing justice, if a little heavy handedly, to the strange characters that inhabit oneís childhood.

After a slow start, The Syllabus takes flight as M imagines and reconstructs his past, delving into the details of his life. Barnes excels at investing these details with a hidden significance and sly wit.

his strong, dirty fingers reminded me of norman allison, the backyard farmer who had given me a cecropia moth, shifting colours in a glass jar. the tips of the middle two fingers on mr feverís left hand had been sliced off, his only feature that we could all agree was Ďneatí. the accident gave his hand a curiously compact and assured symmetry, extruding pieces shaved off, like a block of wood with one end cut at a forty-five-degree angle, from index to baby finger.

Barnes also has a keen sense of humour that at times recalls the starvation-fueled obsessions in Hamsunís Hunger.

Garbage spoke as me. I defined garbage, I analysed it, I planned for it, I worried about it...I railed at garbage, I called it my friend, I cursed and apologized to it...I sang the garbage electric, mechanical, organic, inanimate and spiritual, personal, social and universal.

What is most curious about M is his commitment to mediocrity. Though M is a gifted student for whom school comes easily, he is loathe to apply himself in any way, preferring instead the shadows of fourth and fifth place finishes. Coupled with his frail, gangly body that is prone to joint dislocations, M comes across as pathetic, a true avatar of mediocrity. The perplexing thing is that this is exactly what M wants.

The paradox of The Syllabus is that intelligence is counterproductive. Only the mediocre thrive, which is something M realizes early on. Unfortunately, Barnes does not do a good job of fully establishing why mediocrity is such an attractive choice for M. Barnes comes close when describing Mís drug taking.

I donít think I ever imagined I was in search of enlightenment, though of course I sometimes believed Iíd found it. I was keenly aware of searching for removal, difference, and-something I intuited without remotely comprehending-confirmation.

Mís mediocrity simply is. It exists without any real justification or cause and is somehow a condition natural to the character like eczema or small feet. M chooses mediocrity because he cannot choose anything else.

Underlying Mís quest to escape notice is an indifference that borders on sociopathy. M seems entirely immune to other charactersí feelings, needs, or wants. In Mís universe, there is only M. A particularly unsettling example is when he steals five dollars from a woman who has just died feigning orgasm in front of him. There is no conscience, no remorse. As the book progresses, one ends up feeling that M is empty and shallow, that there is only an idea of an M, and not an actual person. M may try to reconstruct or repair aspects of his life, but this will never happen as he is incapable of forming any real attachments and thereby learning where he stands in relation to himself and to those around him. The Syllabus then becomes a study in futility.

The main weakness of The Syllabus is its women. The bookís perspective is relentlessly male; when women do appear, they are little more than beautiful, foreign creatures hidden behind inscrutable Mona Lisa smiles and self-possession. Mís description of his seduction at the hands of a schoolmatesí mother is telling.

(Her eyes...remind me now of the glass fish that Neela bought when she was first stocking her aquarium...these preposterously translucent creatures, a grey tracery of organs visible beneath flesh that took its only colour, a faint algae green, from the water of the dusty tank...

While the character is reminiscing on a period in his life when women were as foreign as strange planets, this habit of framing women as the beautiful other appears elsewhere in the book. Even Desina Van, the one female character that stands out as a creature of flesh and blood, seems to exist in a universe parallel to Mís. Appropriately, they never consummate their relationship-M never physically enters her and so she remains "other." Though he gropes and sucks her, Mís participation in her pleasure (or his pleasure, for that matter) is an unfortunate side effect. Like the rest of The Syllabusí women, she needs no one except herself and reigns supreme in a private universe in which she is the only resident.

The Syllabus is a well-written, enjoyable book that holds your attention with chains of powerful images and digressions that suggest a vibrant mind keenly aware of its surroundings. Beneath this veneer, however, is a cold, empty world in which characters drift meaninglessly through one personís meaningless life.

Keith Ebsary lives in Quebec City and translates all sorts of French wordstuffs. His fiction has appeared in TDR.

 

 

 

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TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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