canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Christian Bök
Coach House Books, 2001

Reviewed by Michel Basilieres 

Form is everything in Christian Bök’s second book, Eunoia. The shortest word in English using all five vowels, eunoia means “beautiful thinking”. The book comprises five chapters, in each of which only a single vowel is permitted. It’s more a lipogram than a novel and each chapter is more a prose poem than a story. There are even more constraints imposed on the author by his ambition, many of which he briefly explains at the end of the book. But unmentioned is the one imposed on the design of the text: each paragraph is a square block on its own page.

Bök is obviously inspired by the French avant-garde. The overriding conceit of using only a single vowel in each chapter complements George Perec’s famous A Void, a novel written entirely without e’s. Chapter U treats us to more adventures of Alfred Jarry’s character Ubu, while the individual chapter dedications recall Jarry’s novel Dr. Faustroll. The cover image is described as “a polychromatic transcription of the sonnet Voyelle by Arthur Rimbaud.”

For many readers the privileging of such formalist games will signal emptiness, dryness, and solemnity. They will be wrong. Eunoia is surprisingly sprightly, humourous and bawdy. Bök’s constant repetition of a single vowel, while at the same time employing the widest possible vocabulary, results in a kind of aural echoing that sets rhythms and patterns moving of their own momentum:

“Whenever Helen needs effervescent refreshments, she tells her expert brewer: ‘brew me the best beer ever brewed.’ Whenever she lets her fermenters ferment the perfect beer, revellers wreck the kegs, then feed themselves the lees. Retchers retch; belchers belch. Jesters express extreme glee. Wenches then sell these lewd perverts sex.”

It’s a kind of singing; this is a book to be read aloud or, even better, to hear the author read aloud. It recalls, so aptly in this instance, the original aural tradition of Homer and the song of Troy.

In another chapter, Bök self-consciously mocks the delicate balance of shame and desire:

“Blond trollops who don go-go boots flop pompoms nonstop to do promos for floorshows. Wow! Hot blonds who doff cotton frocks show off soft bosoms. Hot to trot, two blonds who smooch now romp on cold wood floors for crowds of morons, most of whom hoot or howl: whoop, whoop.”

The seven years of effort Bök poured into Eunoia have paid off. It’s not merely technical virtuosity, for which a computer program would have sufficed. There’s a real narrative drive to the chapters; they’re alive with humour and the unexpected. It’s earthy and funny, it repays close reading right up to its end, and it rightfully takes its own place beside its predecessors and influences. It will certainly command attention amongst lovers of the avant-garde, but it deserves wider attention. It’s not only one of the best books of the year; it’s quite simply a masterpiece.

Michel Basilieres has written for Faux Pas, Way Station and other journals, and radio drama for the CBC. He's just completed a novel and now lives in Toronto, where he misses the food culture of Montreal - especially the bread.






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