Toronto’s Matthew J. Trafford has an obvious penchant for the fantastic. And in his debut story collection, The Divinity Gene, he transfers that love to his characters, who keep falling for figures both mythic and unattainable—Helen of Troy, a dead mermaid, and a clone of Jesus Christ Himself, to name a few. Several stories involve devils and angels working their celestial magic on Earth; “The Grimpils”, on the other hand, features a legion of gay men trekking to Paris in search of the Author, a godlike figure who’s also a thinly veiled version of beloved essayist David Sedaris.
Needless to say, Trafford is resolutely unafraid of dropping these far-fetched elements into his fiction, which is otherwise concerned with the nuts and bolts of basic human interaction. Sure, he’ll introduce an undead character (in “Camping at Dead Man’s Point”), but only to show how the corpse—just like the story’s gay narrator—handles offensive comments from supposedly enlightened friends. And the camaraderie between minorities is far from automatic: it turns out that the undead guy is himself a raving homophobe.
When these fantastic details are dropped in for such obvious purposes, Trafford’s stories can fall into something of a formula—especially when they take the form of stock supernatural creatures. You find yourself checking your watch, wondering when the werewolf is going to show up.
But in those stories where Trafford makes use of the fantastic more generally, not to mention more subtly, he’s able to whip up something special. This is most evident in “Forgetting Helen”, where the trick is that our narrator has spent literally his entire life inside a public library, wandering the stacks with his bespectacled parents. He even learned to read while breast-feeding.
“[B]y the time I was two,” the man says, “and my mother had written SESQUI- above one nipple and PEDALIAN over the other, we knew it was time for me to be weaned and read on my own.”
The reader is never sure exactly how this premise affects the otherwise familiar world it exists in, so the ensuing story is one of slow, tentative discovery—something that’s nicely mirrored in the narrator’s growing restlessness at the home he’s never left.
And his jitters are understandable. After all, how long would you want to hang around a motherly custodian who keeps a bag of powder made from your own afterbirth? You’d also probably be pretty pale.
Douglas & McIntyre, 192 pp, $22.95, softcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, February 17, 2011)Feb 17, 2011