canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Penny Dreadful
by Gustave Morin
Insomniac Press, 2003. 

Reviewed by A.E.M.

Gustave Morinís A Penny Dreadful is a book of revealings. Morinís work may be free of fiction, but it is certainly not free of the time for fiction. Meanings accrete through association I make as I sort the pages. Symbols appear and then reappear, forging and forming centricities, themes that I resurrect from materials I have already scene. Morin orchestrates a visual anamorphosis of signs from the real world, recalling hundreds, if not thousands of visual errata. The penny, for Morin (I mean, of course, for me) is both the cinematic lens and the overruling archetype with which all things are viewed and compared. The cover of the book explodes a 1972 penny to pieces. 1972 is the year Paul Henderson scored the winning goal for Team Canada against the Soviets. í72 is the year of the authorís birth. No doubt Morin was oblivious of Hockeyís obnoxious supremacy. I draw the association, not only because it is one that Iím free to draw, but because Morinís book attacks just this sort of frivolity. The penny, the cover image seems to claim, truly is a dreadful object. The word "Canada" remains intact, the year survives, but the bulk of the coin is decimated (donít forgive any of my puns), scattered across a page of boundaries, bound by a hazardous, inverted triangle. Morin is attacking the little things, blowing them apart to reveal edges the rotund completeness designers of pennies and other objects compel us to forget. To reiterate, A Penny Dreadful is a book of revealings.

The first page following the cover of A Penny Dreadful we discover a wood panel adorned with an antiquated "Pull" handle. We are invited in the door. Verso and recto, "push" and "pull." Here Morinís anamorphosis begins (allow me to misuse that word at times). Upon closer examination I feel that the grains of the wood are actually the textures of a penny bent on the tracks of a train. A microscopic analysis. Pressures bend, stretch, nip, tuck; the copper tone of the pages threaten to blacken my fingers, transform me into a cashier at the till. The ticket that admits me into the theatre of Morinís book "ADMIT[s] ONE." The number 9 appears in the circle of a cinematic countdown. Carved into the four quadrants of a square frame, the preference for the circular, like the penny on the cover, struggles for primacy. We must reappraise the circle in the context of the square, prevent it from the "black boxing" of the sociologists and anthropologists. But we know that social scientists arenít exactly welcome here. Morin bends their world into the logic of his own imagery. A city landscape takes on the contours of a rainbow, a trashcan is composed of the same materials as of shingles, as of brick.

A camera films the innards of an umbrella. City officials noose a victim. Following that, a camera threatens to shoot me, its vacuous lens resembling the orbital nightmares proposed by the skulls distributed throughout the text. The juxtapositions occur within individual images, alongside one another, illuminating as well as corrupting successive images. "Bewilderness" bewilders; "Disturbia" disturbs. I recall Mormonism, the prison safety of instructional classroom films. Grotesque hair burst from the scientific ciphers of a disappointed cow. We see the circle, the shadow of the penny everywhere. Morin rehearses its surfaces, invents new ways of examining its exterior. But there doesnít seem to be a way to look directly within. An image titled "Some Dangers are Clearly Visible to the Naked Eye" features a penny spiraling down the ovaline surface of siphon into the eye socket of an innocent young patient/victim. We cannot see the passage into the eye, we cannot see within the circle itself. The following image explores this problem in multiple ways. At the base of a suburban/Tibetan staircase, a cowboy composed of rope Ė a spaghetti hero Ė fails to serve the substanceless interior of his lasso to a coiled rattler. This image of tautological impossibility exchanges diagonally with a flying squirrel whose linear syntax allows him to traverse the staircase, to approach the promise of home and hearth located at the top of the stairs. 

And yet the straight line is also the "Entrance to Hell!" The unswerving fur of tarantulas creates anxiety. A pipe spits octothorpes and barbed tobacco corns at its owner. Bridges, railway tracks, walls, the trunks of trees coalesce, formulate delimiting "BOUNDARY LINE[s]." A ladder provides passage for a sacrificial victim. Railway ties bursting from the "blood & thunder" of an old typewriter reveal a premixed jumble of debased alphabet. Relief is not forthcoming. A vibrating field of rectilinear staple lines (but not quite that) dictate "NO COMPARTMENTS." We experience a closing off as a result of a world that favors the line. Morin disrupts an overhead shot of an old oak stump with the antenna tower of a cartoon trumpeter. The image suggests that the broadcastings of the bourgeois fragment and abstract the possibilities of the curve as it appears uninhibited by nature. The figure of the broadcast tower abounds in A Penny Farthing, mirrored by the essentially circular flow of audio records, self-interfering fisherman knots, rollercoaster technologies. Enlightenment lies in the circular, but at the same time, elucidation entails an investigation of toilet bowls, the agonies of slavery, the degradation of objects in the world achieved by massive doses of anthropomorphism. Morin recalls Daliís clock only to drape it across circles enslaved in a mathematicianís trance. 

Iíve done nothing more than trace into words a few concepts from a book comprised of words and images. Iíve shamelessly played a poetic game with A Penny Dreadful, but I suspect this is what the book invites everyone to do. The only way to misuse this book is to ignore it. I want to resist a laudatory review, forgo an academic analysis. But it has to be said that Morinís book is a symbolic mechanism that both unlocks and requires unlocking. The scalpel, the lens, the chemical identity of the hazardous entities harbored within take claim full residency in the hands of Morinís readers. This book can be read, this book is a novel. The syntactical combination of signs lead to multiple revealings. I claim that A Penny Dreadful is a novel of time, a novel of a hundred thousand plots, a lustrous example of truly moveable type. Copper is not the first thing I think of when I think of emotional intimacy. But the zeal of Morinís A Penny Dreadful forces me to communicate with the borders and barriers that kill my world. I donít claim that Morinís book provides a key that will solve the problems A Penny Dreadful poses. There are, in fact, more than youíll ever need. 

a.e.m. is Anthony Metivier, TDR's fiction reviews editor.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.