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February 15, 2011

Canada Reads Independently 4: Still Life With June by Darren Greer

The connections between the four books I’ve read so far for Canada Reads Independently are really quite remarkable: each is a book constructed of fragments, truth is always a construction, the truth-teller functions as a creator, and these are books that test the limits of fiction (even Mavis Gallant’s, who calls the Linnet Muir stories “as close to autobiography as fiction can be”).

None of the others do any of these things, however, with quite as much unbridled nerve as Darren Greer’s novel Still Life With June. Greer’s narrator Cameron Dodds is an unsuccessful writer (“a loser who knows he’s a loser”: do note how such an admission clears a guy of so much responsibility) who publishes under a variety of pen names, including “Darren Greer”. Cameron works nights at a Salvation Army Treatment Centre (where he’s carved out a niche for himself– he’s the gay guy who breaks up brawls by standing in the middle and screeching songs from “Annie”), whose clients he mines for their stories. He attends a writers group at a local bookstore where he never speaks, and certainly the other writers’ stories are of no use to him, but the stories of the writers themselves are gold to him, these poor pathetic people wasting their time.

He’s a story vampire, so desperate for his next fix that he breaks into the file of a client, Darrel Greene, a former addict who recently committed suicide, and discovers that he had a sister, institutionalized with Down’s Syndrome, who Darrel felt guilty about never taking care of. Cameron decides to pretend to be Darrel, connects with the sister, June, and discovers depth to his character in the process. At the same time, he also forms a relationship with a woman from his writing group who has a few aliases of her own, and a troubled relationship with her brother (who is Cameron’s upstairs neighbour).

There are weaknesses in the plot, but Greer has structured his book to escape all scrutiny. For example, Cameron reports that he’s “not really sure why” he decides to go and meet Darrel’s sister June, which is the sort of flimsy construction I can’t stand, but events transpire at end of the story to reveal that there’s more to the story than that. This happens several times in the text actually, when I thought the plot was lost, and then Greer revealed another trick up his sleeve.

June’s character also remains decidedly two-dimensional, though Cameron is upfront about his/Darrel’s inability to imagine the world through her eyes– to show her as anything more than this would be a violation of Cameron’s perspective. She’s two-dimensional for a reason, but yes, that two-dimensionality has a purpose, but sometimes I wonder if we’re letting the book get away with too much.

I was also uncomfortable with the language here, the use of the word “retard”, and it all got a bit Huck Finn on me. And yes, those of us with purely literary intentions can argue context, but I sometimes wonder if those to whom these words are personal have something to teach the rest of us. That there is more to life than literature, perhaps, and that some of us who love words best are blissfully ignorant as to their power, to how they work. So yes, I was uncomfortable, but I also think that I was supposed to be, and that Greer draws parallels between “retard” and “faggot” that made me thing the term wasn’t flung as randomly as Cameron Dodds presented it as being. I think the whole book was an exercise in uncomfortable-making anyway.

Anyway, the whole thing came together marvelously for me in the end, and though much about the book remained ambiguous, I was satisfied– all the right questions were answered, and I was content to let the others go in a way I wasn’t as happy with in Truth and Bright Water. It was a bleak book, but with passages of levity (whose big box bookstore setting also made me think of a very different book, Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey, which I also enjoyed). And it was a book that surprised me time and time again, and always just when I thought it couldn’t surprise me anymore.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:

1) Still Life With June by Darren Greer

2) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

3) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

4) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

3 thoughts on “Canada Reads Independently 4: Still Life With June by Darren Greer”

  1. Chad Pelley says:

    I’m glad you saw the merit in this novel. It stands out. That’s my biggest demand of a novel. That it is raw, honest, and memorable. And daringly and convincingly true to the life of the character, if not of life itself. And sometimes that means going down some bleak (but honest)paths.

    I agree with the language use, but it felt in keeping with character and context. The charatcer always seemed to acknowledge it in a way that felt like levity and not deragatory statements. Whereas some books are just nasty for the sake of it, and that’s a fault in the writing: a lazy way to grab attention.

  2. “…but sometimes I wonder if we’re letting the book get away with too much.”

    I understand what you mean, and I wonder that sometimes too. But when it reaches the point –as it did with this book, for me — where I just don’t care to wonder about that anymore.

    When I’ve been so hooked into the story and its telling that I’ve turned off my inner editor — and I feel like the author has transformed the reading experience so completely that I simply have to set aside the questioning.

    Maybe that’s the authenticity of the work? I’m not sure what it is exactly — or how much of it is rooted in the teller and how much of it is rooted in my ability to engage with the work as a reader at that exact time — but I love it when it happens.

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