A REVIEW OF ALIX OHLIN'S
SIGNS AND WONDERS
& INSIDE BY
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 4 | February 15, 2013
Read enough of Alix Ohlin’s new novel and the word “inside” becomes conspicuous, begins to assume invisible italics everywhere you spy it. For example, in the following sentence: By this point, it’s impossible to review either of Alix Ohlin’s new books inside a vacuum.
Ohlin’s novel, titled Inside, was nominated for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and even endorsed by Oprah. On the flipside of all the hype, both Inside and Ohlin’s short story collection Signs And Wonders were the subject of a spectacularly nasty review in the New York Times, critic William Giraldi declaring Ohlin’s use of language to be “intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep.” Borrowing the “immortal coinages” of a few dead men and employing clichés of his own, Giraldi takes care to define Literature proper and situates Inside far outside its bounds. (I will cease with the italics now, but you see what I mean.)
So the reviewer encounters these books now with an awkward self-consciousness, and, though Inside and Signs and Wonders both deserve to be considered in their own rights, each book as a self-contained universe, the world beyond can’t help creeping in. Creeping with the message that Alix Ohlin is something remarkable, mostly because everybody has already said so, and also that William Giraldi is probably onto something, certainly not about either Literature proper, but about where Ohlin’s work goes weird.
Of course, Giraldi’s main problem begins with the start of his first sentence: “There are two species of novelist...” But are there really? What if there were infinite species, or even just three? What if Alix Ohlin was trying to push the novel to be more than or different from what the immortal coinages of dead men could properly represent? Is it possible that a critic convinced that the novel can only ever be one thing (which “lives and dies by its language”) might be missing out on the broader view?
With Ohlin and Inside, the clue lies in the second sentence: “In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire...” With a character confused for a piece of debris, there is more at work here than fictional people who simply fail in their lifelikeness.
The world Ohlin creates in Inside is one in which randomness is so omnipresent that it creates its own pattern, one which every major incident fits into like a string of paper dolls. This is a world not modelled on life itself, but one which instead is conspicuously book-like, and its characters encounter their world much as a reader encounters a book, at a similar distance. When Grace stumbles upon that shape in the woods which could have been a log or a tire, but who in fact is a man who has just failed to commit suicide, she follows the ambulance to the hospital, not sure why she feels so invested in a stranger’s fate except: “Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what happened.”
But Grace will never really know what happened. Fundamentally, Inside is about the unknowability of others, its characters spread out through place and time and all at a peculiar distance from each other and the world around them. These are people who “like to stay within [their] own borders,” not hesitating to cross national borders or go to other extremes in order to maintain their own autonomy.
We encounter Grace in Montreal in 1998, a therapist whose life is her work, listening at a remove to the problems of others. In the book’s next section, we meet Grace’s young client Annie who has gone on to reinvent herself as an actress in a post 9/11 New York City. Annie discovers a young homeless girl in a stairwell, and invites the girl into her home with the same detached curiosity that had led Grace had followed the ambulance. Following this, we’re introduced to Grace’s ex-husband Mitch, also a therapist, and it’s now 2006. Mitch has just escaped a dispassionate romance for a work-placement in Iqaluit where he finds his failures to make human connections are of as dire consequence in his work-life as in his personal one. And then we’re back to Grace and Montreal in 1998, Grace obsessed with connecting with the broken man she found in the woods, determined to make a place for herself inside his world.
The connections between the characters in Inside are deliberately haphazard and superficial. These are characters that might as well be branches, logs, or tires; each exists as an object for another to stumble over, to get tripped up on. When Annie engages in a one-night-stand, it’s not connection she’s looking for, but rather “the bruise and crash of another body against her own, a collision that made her feel real.”
And this is the problem with Inside. While Ohlin is conducting an interesting experiment in narrative and character—what is a novel in which life stories refuse to be tangled?—ultimately it tends to be not collision but connection that makes a character seem real. Part way through Inside, we’re permitted a short glimpse beyond the main characters into the lives of a couple selecting wedding invitations in a stationary store:
“I think I should ask my mom what she thinks,” [the woman] was saying.
With those few short lines of dialogue, the couple is gone, but they’re actually two of the most realized characters in the book. Their connection (and where it falters) is enormously telling of who these characters are and where they’re sure to be going once their invitations are chosen. Whereas with the others—Grace, Annie, Mitch in their respective solitudes—we have to be told who they are, to have their selves explained. Of Grace: “Getting to the roots of human behaviour, the mind laid bare in all its frailties and contradictions, fascinated her.” It’s Annie who “liked to stay within her own borders.” We’re provided a list of all the unspoken things which remain between Mitch and the girlfriend he abandons for Iqaluit, instead of being given a chance to figure it out for ourselves. The structure of Ohlin’s novel does not allow readers to witness these characters being who we’re told they are over and over again.
Inside also suffers from a supposedly deliberate affliction in which everything happens for no reason. Grace “isn’t even sure why” she follows the ambulance to the hospital. When Annie examines her decision to let a homeless girl stay at her apartment, “She couldn’t even remember what was going through her mind: it was as if she had blacked out and come to after the choice had been made.” Which is fine, except that a novel whose major plot-points hinge on blackouts and inexplicability has an inherent weakness. If everything happens for no reason, then what compels the reader to care what happens next?
But there is still plenty that compels the reader to care. Although Inside as a novel has the strangest shape, it is impressive the way these characters’ very different stories have been strung together, the commonalities ultimately shown in such disparate lives. The sections of the novel taking place in Iqaluit and Kigali, Rwanda give the novel a broadness in approach and greater resonance, taking on issues of war, genocide, poverty, suicide and alcohol abuse. And Ohlin exercises a narrative sleight of hand so that even with all the telling, her people still have mystery at their core, and they surprise us. Her ending too, ambiguous but revealing just enough to provide some satisfaction, that finally here (we hope?) is the connection we and the characters have been seeking for 258 pages.
Inside actually demonstrates Ohlin’s talent for the short story, being essentially structured as four of them strung together, and this talent is confirmed with Signs and Wonders, a much stronger work. “The world’s about connections, you know,” says a character in “The Only Child”, and while he means this in a tacky, networking, resume-padding way, the entire book proves that he’s right. “Signs and Wonders” is the story of an unhappily-married couple whose long-awaited plans for divorce are upset when the husband is critically injured in an accident. In “Robbing the Cradle,” a woman whose husband’s sperm are ineffective resorts to extreme and dangerous means in order to conceive a child. In a crisis, the protagonist in “The Stepmother’s Story” has her outsider status in the family confirmed.
And so they go, these stories in which characters’ connections are fast, messy and complicated, nothing between them ever quite meeting expectations, and so it is for these stories’ reader too—they rarely take you where you think you’re going. Characters betray themselves and redeem themselves not according to any formula, and when the plot twists it is never for no reason, but because there is no way that these characters could have made it happen any differently. We’re shown them from inside and outside and we know exactly who they are.
KERRY CLARE reads and writes in Toronto. She is editor of 49thShelf.com and blogs about books and reading at PickleMeThis. Her essay "Love is a Let-Down" was shortlisted for a 2011 National Magazine Award, and appears in the anthology Best Canadian Essays 2011. She's currently at work editing a collection of essays entitled (M)Other Stories: Dispatches from the Limits of Maternity.