Novelist and playwright André Alexis caused a considerable stir in 2010 with an essay in his collection Beauty & Sadness that tore the skin off Canadian book reviewing and the state of literary culture in general. These same concerns recur, this time in a fictional context, in A, a wondrous piece (long story? novella?) that deftly plays with the conventions of satire, polemic, and magic realism.
Alexis’s protagonist, Alexander Baddeley, calls to mind the down-at-the-heels figure in George Orwell’s “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” the essay often quoted as the only proof of Orwell’s sense of humour. Baddeley is a sad and nearly destitute resident of a Toronto rooming house who exists at the ragged fringes of the city’s literary world. He may not have ambition, but at least he has an obsession: he is writing a book on the “almost glacially perfect work” of the mysterious and secretive poet Avery Andrews.
Once Baddeley actually meets his hero (“a forlorn, psychologically damaged man in reddish shoes”), reality slips away in the enveloping fog of Andrews’ pseudo-psychotic spirituality, which may or may not be genuine but is nonetheless contagious. As Andrews says to Baddeley: “You’re only worried about what you call reality. A negligible matter, Alexander.”
Sophisticated readers will enjoy watching the author perform incredible linguistic feats that perfectly convey his view that Toronto’s literary scene is more of a literary screen, imposing itself between serious writing and serious reading. Of Baddeley he writes: “How could a man who had for so long studied the ends of creativity (books and paintings and such) be anything but thrilled by his (admittedly strange) experience of creativity’s origin?” How indeed.
Once enlightened, Baddeley graduates to hollow literary respectability, such as it is. With a novel entitled Home Is the Parakeet, he joins “the mid-listers trying desperately to keep afloat [and] the poets just this side of insane nursing their childhood grudges.” That is to say, Baddeley never achieves the success of any of the people whose familiar surnames crop up in this tale: Laurence, Atwood, Gibson, Ondaatje, Gowdy, and so on. Nor does he attain the level of the fictionalized novelist called Gil Davidoff who has “the face of a blowsy concierge” and has turned to non-fiction, “writing about all the great television I’m making my son watch.”