canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Originals
by L.E. Vollick
Livres DC Books, 2002

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

"What the fuck is your problem?" is something of a catch phrase in L.E. Vollick’s debut novel, The Originals, about 17-year-old Mary Margaret "Magpie" Smith’s urban adventures and her attempts to deal with the (to quote the press release) "street-level zeitgeist of fatalism in the early 1990s." Magpie’s problems? Poverty, absentee father, dysfunctional family, no future, existential malaise…Magpie’s solution? Live life to the fullest, seizing the day (or night, at least) with parties and binges of various alcoholic and narcotic cocktails at the local nightclub, The Underground, with a select group of street punks and equally disenfranchised youth, all looking to fill that ever-present void inherent to late 20th century existence.

This is setting of the primary narrative. The secondary narrative deals with Magpie’s Reagan-era childhood and her fears of nuclear apocalypse. This narrative is intertwined with the Samantha Smith story, the young girl who wrote letters to various world letters pleading with them not to destroy the world. Samantha temporarily provides Magpie with some sense of security…although since most readers know that Samantha met an unpleasant end, the dramatic tension of this secondary narrative -- and its seepage into and disturbance of the primary narrative -- is perhaps not as taut as Vollick may have wanted it to be.

This was one of my problems with The Originals. I had a few problems with The Originals, and they hindered my enjoyment of what would otherwise have been a decently written, entertaining novel. For one, the underground club-life novel is almost as problematic a genre as the rock ‘n’ roll novel, if only in terms of characterization. Largely because it’s hard to shake the idea that what one is reading is not an extended fantasy of someone’s unrealized dreams. Of course, one shouldn’t conflate character (a 17 year old street punk) with author (a PhD student in Literature) but there are times when Magpie’s persona, or at least level of education, seems inconsistent. For example: Magpie’s best friend Peek starts in on his continual rant re the modern malaise; "I’m talking about the existential dilemma…We’re alone, we’re going to die alone and miserable…There’s nothing left but to smoke the crackpipe at this point. Our culture is at the point of extinction" (p.151). To which Magpie responds, "For Christ’s sake, Peek, speak English." Yet on the very next page Magpie starts talking about the collective unconsciousness. She doesn’t understand phrases like ‘existential dilemma’ but she can grasp concepts like the collective unconsciousness?

My other main problem had to do with inconsistencies with the time-frame. The Originals is supposed to be set in the early 90s but throughout the course of the novel there are various references that suggest otherwise. For one, some of the slang the kids use seems more late 90s than early 90s. The Underground plays music by The Smiths. Magpie listens to Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper as a child. At one point Magpie calls a headshop ‘old school’ for carrying SNFU and Skinny Puppy t-shirts (and both of these bands were still actively touring in the early 90s). Sometimes Magpie seemed older than 17; other times younger; regardless, the discrepancies bothered me. Eventually, using Samantha Smith’s history, I was able to pin-point the time frame of the principal narrative as 1987. And 1987 is not (culturally speaking, never mind temporally) the early ‘90s. This may seem superficial, but if one is specifically trying to capture the "zeitgeist of fatalism in the early 1990s", perhaps one should be more chronologically consistent.

Perhaps my problems with The Originals are trivial. But nagging problems, none-the-less. And nagging problems get in the way of enjoyable reading.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The Columbia Review. His poetry was earlier featured in The Danforth Review.






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