Field Notes: Nikolski, Men And Cartoons


SYNOPSIS: Nicolas Dickner’s multiple-award-winning 2005 debut novel (translated by Lazer Lederhendler in 2008), about dumpster divers, pirate legacies, and other strings of unlikely coincidence in the multicultural Montreal of the 1990s.

CONDITION: Borrowed from my pal Tej, who didn’t like it much at all.

THOUGHTS: At the heart of this breezy novel is a unicum—a book of which there’s only one copy. It has no cover, and gets passed around from character to character as they wander Montreal at the twilight of the last century. But what makes this book so unique is that it’s actually comprised of bits from three different texts: “a study of treasure hunting,” “a historical treatise on the pirates of the Caribbean,” and “a biography of Alexander Selkirk, who was shipwrecked on a Pacific island.”

This is actually a decent lens through which to read Nikolski itself, since it, too, has three different storylines that overlap mostly due to proximity. The treasure hunting segment belongs to Noah, a university student specializing in the archaeology of garbage; the Caribbean segment to Joyce, who becomes obsessed with her many pirate ancestors; and the shipwrecked segment to the unnamed narrator, who retreats into his job at a bookstore following the death of his mother.

Or maybe Joyce is the treasure hunter, since she becomes an expert at rooting around in dumpsters for stray computer parts—which would make Noah the shipwreck victim, since he winds up living on an island just off the coast of Venezuela—and then the narrator would really be the subject of the historical treatise, since he has a collection of travel guides he’s never used…

You can see how this goes. One of Nikolski's strengths is how fluid and malleable each of the segments is, and how easily the elements of the fantastic allow the one to bleed into the other and back again. Dickner isn't much for muscular sentences or dense imagery, but he is a gifted storyteller—which, by the way, is just as hard.

The three pieces are subtle, and able to talk to the others without shouting. There are well-placed nods to families in exile, governmental displacement, and how often our deepest secrets are on perfect display in our trash. True, Dickner isn’t able to stick the landing, and things only get messier and more convoluted as the page count increases, but there are plenty of worse ways to spend a few afternoons. This one gets a pass on Quebecois charm alone.

* * * * * 


SYNOPSIS: Jonathan Lethem’s 2004 story collection, a mix of sci-fi throwbacks, romantic entanglements, and tales of culture-soaked men growing up in New York City.

CONDITION: Bought new from the remainder table at Chapters, sometime in 2008.

THOUGHTS: Reading This Shape We’re In a few weeks back reminded me that I’ve had this collection sitting on my shelves for the past couple of years. (It was also borne of some brief buyer’s remorse, when I thought that that novella was actually included here, and that I’d been tricked into buying the same story over again because of a pretty McSweeney’s cover [which turned out to be true—but only in the paperback].) And I actually had a similar reaction to the two books: plenty of fun to read, with ideas and energy to burn, but nothing that really connected. It makes me wonder if I just don’t like the way Lethem handles the short form.

As usual, though, he displays the most fine-tuned ear for film, music, and pop culture references of any writer I know of. When I realized the first story, “The Vision,” is about the Marvel Comics character, I believe I fist-pumped at my kitchen table. Whatever complaints I may have about his work, I remain a Lethem completist-in-training—it’s almost time for me to dig into his early sci-fi stuff.

How does the collection’s title factor in? I think it relates to preconceptions—the static, dumbed-down versions of people we keep in our minds. Sometimes these memories can be harmlessly pleasant, but at others they’re more nagging, even dangerous.

"The Vision" shows what happens when a man is determined to embarrass his grown-up former classmate by reminding him of the superhero costume he used to wear to school every day. "Planet Big Zero" and "The Dystopianist, Thinking Of His Rival, Is Interrupted By A Knock On The Door" are explicitly about living vicariously through old relationships. And "Vivian Relf" is all about a single chance encounter, held onto and even repeated in different variations over the two characters’ lives. In all cases it’s about not being able to let go of that first impression—just like how no matter how successful a youngest brother becomes, he’ll always get noogies when he goes home for Christmas.

The epistolary “The National Anthem” hits it square on the head, in a man’s letter to his departed friend: “Let me be more honest. I don’t spend all that much time imagining Japan. However much you and I speak of our contemporary lives, I picture you as I left you: eighteen years old.”

Present and past, men and cartoons.

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