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July 24, 2012

The Vicious Circle reads This All Happened by Michael Winter

Oooh, summer nights with the Vicious Circle are the very best. Last evening, we assembled on one of our favourite West End porches as the night fell, trains rumbled by, lightning flashed, and a storm threatened to arrive. It never did. We ate ice cream sandwiches and delighted in our ever-excellent conversation.

And speaking of ever, we were once again a book club divided, this time on Michael Winter’s 2000 novel This All Happened. Apparently Gabriel English is meant to be a heartthrob, one of us pointed out, but another disagreed, remembering the Gabriel English from Winter’s previous story collection One Last Good Look. She said, “That Gabriel English is better than this.”

Half of us liked the book, the vignettes, an entry a day for a year about ordinary life. Others found it boring, weren’t pressed to care about anything that happened. (“What all happened?”) And all of us were weirded out by punctuation, the inconsistencies less than the strange choices. No one could give an explanation for the near-omission of apostrophes. One of us pointed out that it was strange that the punctuation was so experimental when the rest of the book decidedly… wasn’t.

But no, we disagreed from the other side of the table, the other side of the bowl of Magnum ice cream bars. It was experimental in particular in relation to his other books, that it was a character from a previous book who was writing a book that Winter himself would actually go on to publish. And it is experimental to write a novel composed of mundanities. A novel in which nothing happens.

The people in this book are annoying, we complained, the main character in particular. We liked the peripheral characters best. We liked Boyd Coady. We weren’t sure what the drippy Gabriel saw in Lydia though perhaps her problem was that we only ever saw her from his point of view. Aspects of her personality seemed contradictory, but then maybe it was just his failure to see her properly.

We remarked upon absurd details going by unremarked upon admist the mundanities, like Max who pokes a hole in a condom to get his girlfriend pregnant. The rest of us realize how awful it is that we hadn’t really considered how awful that was. That Max and Daphne are held up as the great example of love in this book, which is kind of horrifying to consider.

The one moment that gripped us all was the canoe trip, when the pregnant Daphne is thrown out of the boat. This event stands out so much from the rest of the novel. We note that Gabriel English is so passive, that he has these ideals of how things should be and seems content to live on these instead of reality. That nobody has a job in this book– the arts council grants seem very generous. We loved the names, that Craig Regular was never just called by his first name. And Maisie Pye! How remarkable in CanLit that a character with the name of Pye should be good and like-able. We thought about how immature these characters were, what it meant that Gabriel English had lived a whole life until this book begins and yet this sorry love is his most significant.

“Any resemblance to people living or dead is intentional and encouraged…” Winter tells us before his story begins, and we do spend time trying to map his fictions onto reality. The edges don’t quite line-up exactly, however, which is frustrating, interesting, and fascinating. We wonder if this novel of true stories is actually more interesting in theory than execution. Though it definitely succeeds in creating a sense of place, of community. Of arts communities in small towns (and we laugh about the scene in which the erotic poetry reading upstairs from the curling club is broadcast into the curling club by mistake). It’s a novel about ways of seeing, someone remarks, notions of cameras, film, Gabriel’s window which he refers to as the eyes of the city. How the ruggedness of Newfoundland creeps into this novel about a city, in the seasons, how the women are as game to the outdoors as the men are, the fish, the fish.

We think about autobiographical novels, which there is a recent trend for. It makes us think of the reader as being in a position of the only sober person at a table full of drunks. But yes, we think. This novel was intriguing enough. It left us with questions, and that is something.

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