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Adjacentland

by Rabindranath Maharaj

Rabindranath Maharaj’s new novel, though flawed, is a fiercely imaginative, powerfully written meditation on storytelling, uncertainty, identity, and time. Maharaj, the Trinidadian-Canadian author of The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award and the Toronto Book Award), is a talented and at times poetic writer whose referential style is rooted in psychological realism but gleefully borrows from a range of forms including comic books, pulp-fiction novels, and low-budget cinema.

The story begins with a nameless narrator recalling the day he awoke in a strange room located within a series of buildings identified only as the Compound, with no memory of who he is or why he is there. His room is outfitted with an escritoire, cash, pens, a bamboo boomerang, and reams of onion-skin paper featuring charcoal drawings of scenes and characters that are simultaneously strange and vaguely familiar to the narrator. From there, we follow the narrator as he wanders the grounds of the Compound and documents the people and weird entities he encounters, characters that pervade Adjacentland’s Möbius strip of a plot.

The energetic story moves forward and then loops back on itself, never losing momentum or purpose but accumulating detail out of the novel’s grim landscape. We soon realize that the narrator is part of a network of extraordinary individuals who occupy various areas and buildings in and around the Compound. These individuals – including a thickly muscled man known as Balzac the Brute – are differentiated by exaggerations in the way they speak, the proportions of their bodies, or their ostentatious costumes. The narrative begins to resemble a graphic novel or storyboards for a film; the narrator’s descriptions mirror the strokes and shading of the charcoal sketches in his room at the Compound.

Adjacentland’s atmosphere is one of confinement, otherness, and even exile. The Compound’s architecture evokes mid-20th-century utilitarianism. Antiquities abound. The narrator explores old train station waiting rooms occupied by doomed men who await the next departure to oblivion. He views short films on a reel-to-reel projector in a railway carriage as mysterious men come and go. The world of the novel is bleak – as if its inhabitants have been lobotomized or had their imaginations sucked out.

Though the atmosphere is often austere and claustrophobic, the imagery Maharaj evokes can be breathtaking. His gift for creating sharp, poignant portraits is a useful counterpoint to the emotional pall that hangs over the characters. At one point, Maharaj breaks away from the narrator’s internal monologue to provide this stunning description: “The moon was full or close to full and the leaves, swaying gently, resembled a pendulum of coins.” There’s no question of Maharaj’s ability to provide flourishes throughout the narrative and the reader will be forgiven for wanting more of these.

Maharaj has written a novel that embraces and incorporates its influences with gusto. The themes, characters, and tone are drawn from a variety of sources. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the ragtag carnivalesque grandeur of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the diabolical uncertainty of John Fowles’s The Magus all serve as antecedents. Maharaj’s language is deployed with tonal elements similar to Patrick DeWitt’s weird fairy tale Undermajordomo Minor and at points it chimes with the atmospheric poetry that Jeanette Winterson brought to earlier novels like Art and Lies.

Adjacentland shares the same flaws as many of these influences, especially in the material drawn from the graphic novel and film worlds. This shows itself mainly in the sheer number of characters the narrator encounters and the absence of strong, fully realized, and believable female or non-binary figures. The very few who are not male perform little more than acts of exposition or appear as wise and alluring nymphs at the fringes of the story. Even in a fairy-tale environment like the one Maharaj has created, the sheer quantity of cast members does not cover up for a lack of depth. Many readers will require more from a character than a witty moniker and a steampunk costume.

Despite its flaws, Adjacentland is a good novel with flashes of true inspiration. Maharaj has an ambitious vision, though his plundering of different storytelling modes occasionally causes the narrative to overflow. The novel pushes hard to create a wide-angle synthesis of styles and while it doesn’t always succeed, the writing itself provides some beautiful moments.