canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mark Macdonald. 
Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver

Reviewed by Lori Hahnel 

Flat is Vancouver writer Mark Macdonald's first novel. Having lately slogged through a couple of weighty tomes by a couple of the biggest stars in the CanLit firmament, reading this book was a change of pace, I must say . It's a story that reaches out and grabs your attention right on page one, like this: 

Lit by this impossibly golden glow is the body of J. He is lying like a porn star on the living room futon, legs spread, genitals exposed to the voyeurs across the street. They would think he is asleep until their sticky binoculars passed over the table beside him, picking out the details of spilled pills, and journals and pads filled with frantic notes, sketches an d diagrams. 

Well, <that> got my attention. Right then, I wanted to know what was going on. 

Set in the apartment buildings of Vancouver's West End, Flat is the story of how a casual acquaintance of J's finds himself having to go through the effects of this man he hardly knows, and in the process finds himself becoming an unwilling voyeur of sorts. Piece by piece, he discovers J's strange life and obsession with West End architecture, then finds himself becoming drawn into it. 

The story unfolds through multiple narrators in multiple apartment buildings. While this technique certainly enhances the collage theme, small pieces forming a picture of J, it also serves to chop up the narrative flow of this short work rather badly. Unfortunately, the novel too quickly loses it's steam because of it. 

Another problem was the narrators not always seeming distinct from one another, possibly because most of them added little to what we find out about J. The brief excerpts from his diary are the most illuminating and interesting sections; I would have liked more of them. In spite of these flaws, Macdonald's wit kept me reading. His descriptions of partying and its after-effects are right on the mark: 

I'm not a puker, and that's something to be proud of in certain circles, but there's always a price. On a scale of one to ten this hangover is definitely an eight. I only reached ten once, and that was a near-death experience in Mexico. 

One narrator recalls a lover who had a collection of books by "some really good writers"; it turns out he only had them to masturbate over the author photographs. "Wow. Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Maeve Binchy, Iris Murdoch , Anne Tyler, even Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Laurence. 'Everyone but Atwood', he used to say." 

In the end, I wanted to like this novel, I really did. I was ready to read something different, witty, engaging, and the first chapter did not disappoint. I laughed out loud in quite a few places in this novel, and fro m the first I wanted to find out more about J. But I donšt think the multiple narrator thing really worked as well as it might have in a longer piece of fiction. 

Flat was an uneven effort, though not without its moments. Having said that, I'll be interested in what this author produces in the future.

Lori Hahnel lives in Alberta.