canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Double
by Philip Quinn
Gutter Press, 2003

Reviewed by Matthew Firth

To label Philip Quinn’s fiction as enigmatic makes me immediately guilty of two things: simplifying and leaping to the obvious. But ­ damn it ­ the dude’s work is just so downright weird at times. Plus I think it’s necessary to address this head-on before going any further. 

Quinn’s new novel, The Double, is a wonderful book but it does not lend itself to review very easily. And it’s not just my current caffeine-deprived headache; it’s the weirdness of the whole thing. 

The question is, then, is Quinn’s weirdness the genuine product of a fruitful imagination run wild or is it contrived posturing of some sort? An attempt at a plot summary answers that question in favour of the former. 

The Double is a character-driven novel, centring on the interplay between Augustus Pollard and Emily Carr Black. Pollard is an orphan who was raised by monks and nuns with a thing for wearing woman’s undies. He’s also an ex-psychiatric patient. And believes he’s the son of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin. Ray fled Memphis for Toronto and was later arrested in London, England. In the novel, Ray may have fathered a son while in Toronto: Pollard. 

Emily Carr Black is a Toronto writer who is also a bit loopy. She’s got a thing for seeing double, especially when it comes to people. Each person has a double, according to Black. Pollard also thinks she might just be his mother. Pollard’s on a quest to sort out his identity. Quinn plays Pollard’s madness off the Black character quite well. In the second half of the novel, the insanity is upped with some missing children thrown into the fray amidst a dash of Halloween shenanigans. It all becomes rather dense the deeper you get into the book. And this is before mentioning the food counter at Woolworth’s, the Muslim homosexual, Elvis, the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, prostitutes, the polluted waters of the Don River in Toronto, and other stuff that Quinn somehow weaves into the narrative. His weirdness and convolution are genuine; of this I have little doubt. 

In one sense, what Quinn has done here with The Double is import William S. Burroughs’ Interzone to Toronto, transforming Canada’s largest city into a hallucinatory subterranean landscape, complete with brown-skinned, hash-smoking queers, hangings, assassins, and a healthy dose of paranoia. For example, check out these passages:

Illegal immigrants live in Toronto sewers. They come up at night for the restaurant waste. Rahman told me this. We’ll be walking downtown, and Rahman takes a sniff and knows it’s a member of the underground tribe though I can’t see anybody. He insists it’s one of them, he says. One of the sewer people.

I visit the Eaton Centre shopping mall, shaped like an Indian long house, the shoppers hunting and gathering, loaded down with their bags of kill. 

Fake decorative Thanksgiving corn hangs from the knickknack shops. Shellacked grains. The blé, the blessé, the blessings. Assassins of the maize moving on, the soil exhausted. 

These have the scent of Burroughs all over them. And like him, Quinn is satirizing. In Quinn’s case, though, it’s Toronto that falls prey to the poison pen. Quinn paints Toronto as ­ not the good, hell no ­ rather a city teeming with depravity, deprivation, obsession and the delusional meanderings of dislocated characters. This is Quinn’s trump card ­ his characters. Despite the convoluted, nearly-impossible-to-summarize plotlines, the characters are what rule the roost in The Double. Pollard and Black, in particular, are vivid, palpable characters, despite what goes on in their muddled heads. Quinn makes the reader embrace his characters’ insanity and become comfortable with it. The Double can be maddening. But it can also be very provocative and gratifying. 

This all makes Quinn a rare breed in these parts: an imaginative, challenging Canadian fiction writer producing surreal and macabre works. I can only come up with Tony Burgess and perhaps Derek McCormack, to a certain extent, as company for him. So many other fiction writers ­ especially those who base their tales in Toronto ­ maunder in comfy, middle class quasi-problems. Quinn, though, is a horse of a different colour. He bites at the ugliness of Toronto. He embraces the perversity of the contemporary. He perspicaciously shows that madness is everywhere, at least everywhere we chose to look. And thankfully Quinn does not turn his gaze away, does not restrict his vision to boring characterizations of the privileged classes who are so tediously ubiquitous in so many other books set in Toronto. 

Quinn’s The Double is weird, sure, but it’s also a determined and deadly serious piece of work. 

Matthew Firth is the author of two short story collections ­ Fresh Meat and Can You Take Me There, Now?. He is also editor/publisher of Black Bile Press chapbooks and Front&Centre. Originally from Hamilton, he now lives in Ottawa. 







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