At the centre of the debut novel by Guelph, Ontario’s Nicholas Ruddock is a highfalutin philosophy trumpeted by a (fictional) group of Mexican poets circa 1975. Parabolism, as defined by one of its most prominent members, a recent émigré to Toronto named Roberto Moreno, is a particularly explosive form of poetry—“like focusing the heat of the sun through a magnifying glass upon the palm of your hand”.
While not everyone in The Parabolist subscribes to Moreno’s particular aesthetics, they all love poetry as a medium. In fact, most of Ruddock’s characters—from middle-aged housewives to the proprietor of a covert gay bathhouse—have the uncanny ability to toss off Yeats quotes at will. Thus, what begins as simple wish fulfillment on the author’s part soon transforms into surrealism: are we meant to recognize this backward world, where poetry is the lingua franca of the young, and the only person seen watching TV is a cataract-ridden octogenarian?
Sadly, the answer is yes, though in other areas Ruddock is keenly aware of the off-kilter world he conjures. The Parabolist contains several plot strands, all sharing characters with one another, even when their genres don’t sync up. There’s Jasper Glass, a girl-crazy med student who ends up being naked in public on three separate occasions; a world-weary detective working on a rape-murder case wherein the only clue is a smear of Crisco found at the scene of the crime; and Moreno, the sensuous, long-haired Mexican who shoplifts poetry books and is inevitably lauded by the Canadians as a sagelike figure.
In terms of structure, the book is disarmingly clever. Ruddock’s simple prose does a good job of concealing all of the string pulling he does behind the scenes. But while he obviously worships at the altar of the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, Ruddock can’t come close to matching the hydra-headed splendour of The Savage Detectives (from which the book’s epigraph is taken).
Instead, The Parabolist too often contorts its own logic to make the story pretzel into the desired shape. Here’s the bathhouse owner justifying why he specifically needs a med student to be his bouncer: “because just as in medicine, you understand, all transactions here are private and confidential”.
Only the most forgiving of readers can make it through passages like these without having their feathers ruffled something fierce.
Doubleday, 400 pp, $29.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 4, 2010)