canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

All My Friends Are Superheroes
by Andrew Kaufman
Coach House Books, 2003

Reviewed By JC Bellringer

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes recently. "You'll like it," he said. "It's a cute little book." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. In my experience, if overheard, such comments would lead most writers to contemplate a cute little suicide.

And even though it proved to be both cute and little (a brisk 106 pages in full), in the interest of public safety let's instead call it a sweet and funny book. At times disarming for both its humour and its honesty, All My Friends Are Superheroes is the kind of book that inspires readers to share passages out loud to anyone within earshot at regular intervals.

The novella tells the tale of Tom, a relatable if underdrawn protagonist, who has just the length of a flight from Toronto to Vancouver to break a spell that has been put on his wife. Under it, his wife, known both affectionately and bitterly as "The Perfectionist," has lost the ability to see Tom. The mischievous and malicious Hypno, The Perfectionist's ex-boyfriend, cast the spell on her shortly after she married Tom. It seems all of Tom's enemies are superheroes as well.

The story is told largely through flashback as Tom (invisibly) accompanies his wife to Vancouver, and is interspersed with laugh-out-loud funny descriptions of some of the 249 superheroes who make the Greater Toronto Area their home. ("None of them have secret identities. Very few of them wear costumes.") The passages describing these superheroes, while completely tangential and generally unrelated to the plot of the book, are among the sharpest in it. While Kaufman's superheroes do not possess traditional (or even useful) superpowers, most are surprisingly clever abstractions that are instantly recognizable, if not enviable. They range from the strictly comedic (The Copycat, who possesses "the ability to mimic anyone's personal style," and The Seeker, who "knows how to get anywhere from any place, even if he's never been there before") to the unexpectedly poignant (Mistress Cleanasyougo: "At the end of every day she folds her clothes. She never leaves scissors on the table, pens with no ink are thrown in the trash, wet towels are always hung up, dishes are washed directly and nothing is left unsaid"). There's something undeniably charming about writing that is so unnecessarily clever.

But for all its knowing wit and comedic originality, All My Friends Are Superheroes is, in truth, a sweet urban love story. Kaufman deftly locates the emotional centre of the story in Tom's suffering; somehow, using the metaphor of invisibility to illustrate Tom's sense of alienation and estrangement from his partner never becomes the obvious contrivance or one-note joke that it might in the hands of a less sensitive writer. Kaufman's lively, snappy prose is perfectly paced - just when the story verges on the intolerably cute Kaufman engineers a sudden but welcome turn either cynical or sad; and when the narrative threatens to turn maudlin or melodramatic, Kaufman's quick wit and honest sentiment keep the writing from going anywhere predictable.

And while the book is uncomplicated in its tender and gentle approach to love, delightful ambiguities exist in lines like "Tom and The Perfectionist circulated through the hot room. The Perfectionist was sweating (perfectly)." At times like these, it's hard to tell if Tom resents or admires his wife, if he's speaking out of bitterness or infatuation. It's this kind of subtle touch that gives All My Friends Are Superheroes a kind of depth that you don't expect to find in such a cute and little book.

JC Bellringer is a writer living in London, Ontario.






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