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January 19, 2011

Canada Reads Indies 2: Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

I’ve developed an aversion for any book described as “gritty”, mainly because “gritty” has lately been synonymous with “badly written stories about troubled girls who exchange blow jobs for heroin”. As though addressing sex, drugs and self-harming is merit enough that the writing itself doesn’t have to be good, the book doesn’t have to be interesting. This whole approach also failing to address the reason why so many fictional girls are exchanging blow jobs for heroin, because, frankly, this is troubling, but I digress.

So I was relieved to find that Stacey May Fowles’ first novel Be Good had more going for it than sheer grittiness. The book is about two friends who struggle with their feelings for one another, and end up on opposite sides of the country in unsatisfying relationships. Hannah has just left Montreal to follow her boyfriend Finn to Vancouver, while Morgan has been traveling Europe on the dime of her older lover Mr. Templeton. The novel comprises a series of flashbacks and snapshots which culminate to the story from a variety of perspectives– Hannah’s, Morgan’s, her roommate Estella’s, Finn’s and Mr. Templeton’s, as well as that of disembodied narrative voice that seems to be curating the collection.

The propensity towards falsehood and self-delusion (the latter never as effective as the former) on the part of Hannah and Morgan, as well as the fragmented nature of the narrative, ensures that “what really happened” is never clear, nor does it need to be, and that it’s what characters think happened which is more important (and always fluid). Ambiguity, embellishment, storytelling and outright lies are narrative methods as valid as truth, and perhaps even more valid for their unwillingness to adhere to the limits that truth imposes.

Hannah and Morgan are trying on various to guises to discover what’s at their core, chasing after different fantasies of the kind of women they might actually be. They pose drinking on fire escapes, imagining the world throwing them admiring glances, enacting magazine shoots, an impression of unreality. They dress up in costumes, imagine that the self is composed of details like grape bubblicious, see themselves from the outside and work that image down to the smallest detail. They see their friends as accessories, every new scene a set-up, that the world can be so deftly manipulated, that the people are so plastic.

Be Good is a coming of age story, the turning point occurring with Hannah’s line, “Perhaps the issue is not what people see in me but rather what I see in them.” Which is a revelation from a woman of any age, really. To step out of gaze and take stock of where you are. Though of course the conclusion is not so simple– it’s never clear whether each of the separate perspectives are actually different narrators, as there is a sameness to the voices. And though Hannah is the wordsmith of the two, Morgan is a famous fabricator, and so it’s possible that the whole book was hatched in the head of either of them, imagining the self as seen through the eyes of others. This last point being what makes Fowles’ book more interesting than other grit-lit– with all that ambiguity, this story is solipsistic with a twist.

Which is in constrast with Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, whose narrator is entirely self-effacing, but the two books share much else in common. Both are coming of age stories in with the protagonist’s relationship to the story isn’t always clear, in which he or she knows more or less than he/she lets on. Both books play with ideas of superficial poses, the natives playing up their culture on Indian Days not so far removed from the girls on the fire escape. Both books also have an ambiguous relationship to truth and fact, and choose to overlook these items in favour of a good story. Truth and Bright Water is also quite gritty, also with lesbians, suicide, sex, drink, drugs and destruction, and both skim a facile narrative surface belying darker stories underneath.

It’s just that in King’s book, however, we know that the darker stories are certainly true, and no longer are these poses anymore. His story wedded to a long, long history, whereas Fowles’ book and their characters seem to exist outside of time. King’s subtext more substantial too, unsurprisingly as insubstantiality is Fowles’ preoccupation here, but if we’re comparing books (which we are), King’s comes out the richer. If we weren’t comparing books, however, these two would stand side-by-side, drawing fascinating connections from one another.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:

1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

2) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

3 thoughts on “Canada Reads Indies 2: Be Good by Stacey May Fowles”

  1. Nathalie says:

    I agree with you about the book’s strengths (and about wanting to avoid anything described as gritty). The plot and the characters did not engage me as much as the form, but this has mostly to do with the fact that the book made me feel old and very far away from the disaffected twenty-somethings and their revolving doors of bedmates. I loved the epigraphs, which all have to do with the science and literature of memory and how faulty it is. They worked wonderfully to cast doubt on whose voice it was we were actually reading. Rotating narrators keep things fresh, and their narratives have a wonderful way of folding over onto each other, repeating and copying each other. I love that mirroring and dialogue. The cities that the characters live in also take turns narrating, which is a wonderful touch. Cities *are* characters, and who better to serve as the omniscient narrator than the place that observes and houses us? Lovely touch, that.

  2. Like Nathalie, I felt quite removed from the characters, but, nonetheless, they were credible creations to my mind, so it didn’t detract from the book even if it didn’t naturally draw me into it either. And the playful elements in terms of style and structure took some of the sharpness out of the grit for me. I read it in a few hours but I also noted a few pages of quotes which seemed disproportionate (but later I was glad, although saying why would be a spoiler) and I’ve thought back to the characters a few times when I’ve been moving through the city streets since.

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