Apr 5, 2010

Monkey Droppings - The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj: "This was the age of improvisation."

The Monkey wonders what, exactly, makes a Canadian 'Canadian.'

A love of donuts and beer?

A superior ability to withstand cold?

Facial hair?

The Monkey has come up with a theory on what it is to be Canadian, but he's far too polite to bother you with the details.

The Amazing Absorbing Boy
by Rabindranath Maharaj (2010)
A typical Canadian - or at least those I had met - was someone who fussed all the time. About everything. Toronto was getting too modern and ugly. Toronto was stuck in the past. Too many immigrants. Too few. Foreign people were living all by themselves. Foreign people were walking bold-bold in places that shouldn't concern them. Too many American shows. Too few. Too much hockey violence. Too little. Too hot. Too cold.
For a seventeen-year-old, Samuel has had a far more interesting life than most boys his age in Canada. That, of course, is because he's not from Canada, but from the island of Trinidad; Mayaro, specifically, a place where "nothing really changed: people lived and died in the same house and arguments between neighbours lasted for years." Consequently, despite living a life alien to most teens in his new northern home, Samuel is often boggled by a land where "it seemed that every week something new was added."

Rabindranath Maharaj knows whereof he writes; the author emigrated to Canada from Trinidad, and has published several novels and collections that revolve around the themes of immigration and refugees. I'm not wholly familiar with his canon, but I can assure you that his short-story release The Book of Its and Buts is a sterling collection and well worthy of your attention.

In The Amazing Absorbing Boy, Maharaj takes a look at immigration from the POV of a young man, forced into moving to Canada after the death of his mother. His father had moved to Canada years previously, and now Samuel finds himself in a small Regent Park apartment in Toronto with a stranger who could charitably be described as 'cold.' Samuel is the prototypical stranger in a strange land, fish out of water hero; alone, frightened, resourceful, and very confused as to what a typical Canadian might be.

As Samuel navigates the new terrain, he comes to better grips with his situation through interactions with a wide variety of colourful individuals such as women poets, pawn shop owners, video rental enthusiasts, and borderline paranoid schizophrenics. Each has a story, each is quirky and eccentric, but the sum total of Absorbing Boy is not nearly as memorable as it should be. Despite some sterling writing - I particularly love the 'chimera fella' who works in the library and complains, "Everything has changed. Now the entire staff is beholden to lists. Horrible memoirs bursting with frivolous grief. I feel sometimes as if I am a custodian of misery" - Maharaj's tale never really connects. Hardly any character lasts more than a chapter or two, and the overall episodic nature of the storytelling halts any forward momentum in Samuel's bildungsroman.

I understand why Maharaj sets his novel up in this manner; Canada is a brave new world, to Samuel's eyes a constantly evolving universe that threatens to overwhelm him at every turn. Other than Sam, there are practically no recurring characters; his father is so distant as to be a ghost in the apartment, his family is back in Trinidad, and every person he meets disappears within a few pages. Keeping him disorientated is crucial to his triumph over the odds, but it also disorients the reader, and only past the halfway point (when Samuel makes a few crucial life decisions) does the narrative move beyond being a parade of random absurdities and encounters and become a full story. The surreal encounters play well to Samuel's bewilderment, but Maharaj's decision sacrifices any true empathy the reader may have for Samuel, crucial in a novel such as this. I cannot adequately explain (to myself, anyway) why this should be, as some of my favourite books of late have been exquisitely episodic in nature; Martha Baillie's The Incident Report springs to mind as a supremely episodic work that effortlessly caught me by the heartstrings. Nevertheless, Samuel's dilemma never fully engaged me.

There is also a comic superhero sub-theme (played up in the blurbs and book cover prose) that does not amount to nearly as much as supposed. While Samuel laments that "there was nothing better than comic-book English with the gulping and sighing and constant threatening," his lapsing into comic-book metaphors and analogies never amounts to anything more than a ploy to catch reader's attention, and could easily have been excised.

The Amazing Absorbing Boy is a work easier to admire than to like. I found myself wishing I enjoyed it more, as there is some fine writing on display, and some scenes have stuck with me. But the overall piece is hardly, well, absorbing. Sorry to end on a pun.


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