This is a bittersweet moment for me. Well, not this exact moment. More like three hours ago, when I finished reading the book. That was a bittersweet moment. You see, Michael Helm has only written two novels. On the one hand, I just finished reading a second spectacular novel by Michael Helm; on the other hand, there are no more Michael Helm novels left for me to read. I can guarantee you, that should I compile a list at the end of this year as I did at the end of last year, a list describing those books that I enjoyed reading the most in that year, both of Helm’s novels would be on it. In fact, I think it’s safe to declare Helm my favourite living Canadian author, supplanting the still wonderful Sheila Heti. Actually, come to think of it, all three of my favourite (living) Canadian writers of prose fiction have only two books to their name (Helm, Heti, and André Alexis*).
Okay, okay, the book itself. The Projectionist was actually Helm’s first novel, and while I regret reading them out of order, it was actually In the Place of Last Things that was first recommended to me, so I felt obligated to try that one out first. Helm’s prose style is already fully developed, as though somewhere there are a dozen practice novels that were discarded before he arrived at this level of craft. Though his sentences have a slower, more rural pace to them, Helm pays attention to word choice and syntax and all the wonderful mechanics of language in much the same way as J.M. Villaverde (whose work, it now occurs to me, I have already compared to Helm’s on this site). Every word and sentence seems to be in the right place at the right time, performing the right tasks. Recently, Steven Beattie commented on what he perceives as a disconnect between technique and subject matter in Canadian fiction:
The problem with all these novels (and the above certainly does not constitute an exhaustive list) is that the form and the content of the works seem extricable, when they should not be. As Mark Schorer writes in his seminal essay, “Technique as Discovery”: “The novel is still read as though its content has some value in itself, as though the subject matter of fiction has greater or lesser value in itself, and as though technique were not a primary but a supplementary element, capable perhaps of not unattractive embellishments upon the surface of the subject, but hardly its essence.”
Readers who are looking for writing that recognizes the essential coherence of subject and technique, of form and content, would be advised to steer clear of the above-mentioned novels […]
I disgree on some of his examples (Douglas Coupland doing much of anything to worthwhile effect is news to me, and I felt no disengagement at all between the form and content of Shields’ The Stone Diaries—quite the opposite, actually—and I’ll grant him Leon Rooke with no argument) but the point itself is well made. Too often Canadian writers focus on either honing their prose or their plot, as though an excess of attention to one will compensate for lack of it in the other. I also admit that I can be kept interested in a bad plot if the sentences are good enough, but poorly written prose will often leave me cold to an otherwise excellent plot. I suppose the point I’m trying to get at is that Helm doesn’t suffer from this problem. Style and substance are here married as equals, and it was no shotgun wedding. Helm does for the Canadian northwest what Faulkner and others have done for the American south. He’s given rural life a language and dignity of its own, in a way that not even Margaret Laurence did, although she came damned close (I like to think of her as the Grand Old Dame of Canadian letters, being much more deserving than Iron Maggie). My only real complaint is that I didn’t get to do it first.
The preoccupation with memory that I noted about In the Place of Last Things is present in this novel, although in a less developed form. The narrator of this novel, a man of questionable reputation in his home town, is also a kind of rough-draft for Russ Littlebury, though I somehow doubt either character would see themselves as particularly similar. If there is any problem with this book, it only emerges when looking at it side by side with his other novel, and even then, it’s not a problem with this book so much as it is with the other (which was actually better). That problem, which I have hinted at, is that the characters are too similar, and certain themes and plot elements repeat themselves perhaps too vigorously. It’s a small thing, when placed against how just flat-out good both books were. I’m gushing, seriously.
Next: A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor.
*It came to my attention immediately after posting this review that André Alexis published a second novel (his third book of fiction) yesterday. Hooray!