Aug 14, 2009

Monkey Droppings - ManBug by George K. Ilsley

Today, we go subterannean to underearth a hidden Canadian gem.

By George K. Ilsley
Sebastian, along with so many others, was a geek before geek was chic.
Also at that point in the history of the development of human culture, it must be acknowledged, frankly, that “gay geeks” were yet to be identified as a niche market.
Sebastian was ahead of the geek chic curve, and ahead of the gay geek curve, and to this day, has never even heard of a gay geek chic curve, or square, or whatever form such a thing would take.
In his own personal freak show, Sebastian was doing gay geek chic before anyone had even heard of such a thing. Sebastian was part of an important minor trend in human development in his own lifetime, without even knowing it at the time.
How many ways can the same story be told? If, as the mystic seers of storytelling have it, there are only seven (give or take) stories in the universe, and every story is only a variation of one of these themes, it would stand to reason that sooner or later the well is going to run dry.

I direct you to your local multiplex as proof positive that such a thing has already occurred, at least as far as major Hollywood productions is concerned.

Well, then, thank the literary god—an ethereal being I imagine as a multi-headed deity displaying the visages of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Chandler, Austen, and P.K. Dick, with the stout torso of Hemingway and powerful legs of Margaret Laurence supporting the heads, and Atwood’s batwings lending it the power flight—thank s/he for the gift of authors like George K. Ilsley, who manage the not insubstantial task of presenting the world in an almost entirely new light, shining beams of illumination into rarely observed corners of our world.

Yes, that’s a little hyperbolic, but my point is, I really love ManBug.

Sebastian is an entomologist with Asperger’s Syndrome, and consequently views the cultural and societal interactions of humankind with the same scientific dispassion and curiosity that he examines the insect world. His life has been one of constant observation and assimilation, a continuous examination of his actions and reactions to external stimuli. Tom is a Buddhist bisexual dyslexic who innocently gives Sebastian the nickname ManBug rather than his intended moniker BugMan. As the two commence a confused yet endearing relationship,

This quick and dirty plot summary makes the whole of ManBug seem precariously twee, an exercise in quirks and idiosyncrasies, and indeed the duo are spectacularly unique in oddball ways, in particular Sebastian’s additional experiencing of synesthesia, a condition wherein he sees colours in reaction to sounds or words. It’s to Ilsley’s immense credit that ManBug, a novel without a noticeable plot, reads not as overly-precocious experimental fiction, but rather as a funny, sexy, and surprisingly profound experience.

Much of this comes from Ilsley’s concise understanding of the way Sebastian’s mind works, as perfect and as unique a voice as Jonathan Lethem’s Tourette’s sufferer in Motherless Brooklyn and Mark Haddon’s autistic child in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. These are explorations into heretofore unseen ways of understanding our world, and Ilsley’s evocation is often a joy. Sebastian perceives the world as inherently segmented, and his confusion at the new element of Tom entering his perception is delightfully funny in its depiction.

Sebastian’s brain used to focus almost entirely on Sebastian and matters directly related to his own care and feeding.
Now he thinks about Tom so much it is like his brain has been rewired.
Being in love is not easily indistinguishable from what it must be like to be totally taken over by an alien life form.
Sebastian’s rule of life is to approach life as he approaches his work, as a series of inter-related phenomena to be dissected. Yet his new relationship/interplay with Tom, a deeply emotional and sexual being, finds Sebastian searching for new rules to understand.
Was seduction really just a social formula? Was friendship entirely a matter of programming and subroutines?
Through Sebastian’s singular view of the world, Ilsley dissects the human heart much as Sebastian would dissect a bed bug. Human sexual interaction is as complicated a phenomenon as the colonies of lard worms that haunt our faces and nipples (Ilsley’s simile, not mine). We are all strange animals, but it is the inability for humans to follow norms of mating rituals that vexes Sebastian so. He lacks an inner vocabulary for love, and his scrutiny of his compulsions only makes his orderly life seem that much more chaotic.

Like life, there are no easy answers in Ilsley's novel, only moments of happiness, frustration, regret, and love. The author has created something truly special, a jewel amidst the dreary plains of Canadian literature (again, hyperbole for the sake of expression). ManBug is a joy of a read, to be read over and over.


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