Interview: Colin McAdam, Fall

It’s tempting to describe the core conflict in Fall, the second novel from Montreal writer Colin McAdam, as a love triangle, but things are slightly more complicated than that. Can it still be called a triangle if two sides are barely aware of the third’s existence? And is it still love if the outsider’s idea of showing affection involves kidnapping and identity theft?

For the sporty Julius and his girlfriend Fall, their relationship couldn’t be clearer. They spend all day and night at their Ottawa boarding school obsessing over each other with the kind of fiery, all-consuming intensity that only teenagers can really commit to. Every second sentence out of their mouths is “I love you,” and they can’t seem to keep their hands off of each other—partly to feel those sexual firecrackers, partly to confirm that they didn’t just dream each other up.

“More than anything, I wanted a simple romance,” McAdam told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his home, “to try to depict what teenage love is really like, in the moment, without embellishment—and then to look at how it can be embellished later, especially by people who are outside it. One thing that definitely motivated me in terms of adolescence was trying to get some sort of excitement out of the banality of it, and trying to find a voice that felt a bit more true to me. I’ve read so many adolescent books that have voices that, to me, seem too knowing, too articulate, too savvy.”

Which brings us to Noel, the third wheel. He’s an awkward, relentlessly introspective student who’s recently taken up weightlifting to draw attention away from his lazy eye. By a stroke of luck, he and Julius are paired up as roommates, and even start to become friends, bonding over their shared interests: foreign relations (both of their fathers are diplomats) and Fall. At first, Julius opens up to Noel about his girlfriend, whom Noel has fantasized about for many years, stretching back to a time before Julius arrived at the school. But when she disappears one day near winter break, suddenly Noel’s level of interest in her seems to go far beyond cute.

In many ways, the school McAdam writes about mirrors the one he once attended in Ottawa, beside a neighbourhood where foreign diplomats’ houses are clustered together like a United Nations–sponsored slumber party. He also makes a point of upending what he sees as an increasingly restrictive stereotype about what really goes on at boarding schools.

“I had a good time there,” he said. “My experience just wasn’t like what the fictional experience of boarding school so often is, a combination of sodomy and social engineering. For me, it was a place where teenage life happened. Some parts of it were definitely not like other people’s experience of high school—dressing up and all these rituals—but what I took from it was that at some point even the most cloistered institution fades into the background when you consider your own role in life.

“Institutions can become a perfect excuse—as can a nation—as something to hide behind,” he continued, “something to make yourself think you have an identity. Boarding school can be that for many people. But what I wanted to get at was that when something difficult happens, how you deal with it has a great deal to do with how you find your place within the four walls around you.”

One main way that McAdam explores this notion of individuality is in the novel’s alternating narration. Noel and Julius swap chapters in the first person, sometimes replaying the same events, although with drastically different styles: Noel has the cerebral, detached tone of your standard literary narrator, while Julius’s passages are often nothing but long strings of his immediate thoughts, desires, and sensory reactions. The latter’s sections seem to be broadcast directly from his id, though McAdam argues that this is actually the more realistic approach.

“I am frustrated by literary language and the dishonesty of so many literary novels in terms of what characters are presented and how they speak,” he said. “What interests me—not just as a writer, but as a reader and human being—is trying to find words for that inarticulate emotional core that everyone has. What appeals is trying to get emotions across as quickly as I can, in some sort of fresh way. My idea with Noel was to ask, ‘What kind of characters truly speak like a literary character?’ I think it’s the creepy, dishonest ones.”

Hamish Hamilton, 368 pp, $32, hardcover

(interview originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 26, 2009)

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