Michael Helm has spent his career probing the relationship between the intellectual and the physical. He tackled the subject in his first two novels, The Projectionist and In the Place of Last Things, by exploring two contradictory versions of traditional masculinity at war within a single character, flavouring that exploration with a moral tension intensified by plot points lifted from crime and road novels. It was there again, though less directly, in 2010’s sprawling Cities of Refuge, which moved more slowly, but saw Helm broadening his interests to include the crossing paths of characters from diverse backgrounds, each coping with the aftermath of personal cataclysm. He combines all these notions in his latest, and most subtle, novel.
After James is a triptych of stories related in ways that are by turns obvious and oblique. Each section focuses on a character who has been immersed in the life of the mind. The first section, “Alice After James,” follows a whistle-blowing neuroscientist named Ali who is hiding in a cabin in the American midwest as both a swollen river and a mysterious neighbour pose looming threats. The longest section, “Decor,” is narrated by James, a failed poet brought to Rome by an eccentric benefactor to track down the author of mysterious poems posted online – poems that also seem to hold the key to understanding violent events in the lives of certain readers. The final section, “The Boy in the Water,” traces virologist Lia, who is coping with her father’s quasi-religious transformation. The father’s character shift is the consequence of his relationship with an enigmatic artist, who also takes an unsettling interest in Lia. Each protagonist finds that, like it or not, he or she must confront the limits of the intellect and the fullness of physicality – the terrible reality that some things can only ever be learned through the body.
While wonderfully engaging and quite elegant when one is immersed in the novel, the interconnected narratives are so complex that discussing them in detail makes one sound like a conspiracy nut. Is the mysterious and threatening artist in the third section the same person as either of the mysterious and threatening artists in the first and second? The evidence would suggest not, but he knows things he wouldn’t know otherwise. And then we’re off, trying to trace connections that might not be there at all. Most of the plot points are best expressed as questions: Is James’s benefactor in the second section really Ali’s father? Do Ali and Lia work for the same drug company? Did the Russian bride who lived next door to Ali’s cabin actually exist, and if so, what happened to her?
The key to After James is its structure, and the key to understanding that structure lies in the discussion of “chiasma” and “chiasmus” in the middle section. Chiasma is a point during cellular meiosis when genetic material is exchanged between paired DNA strands; on a metaphorical level, this is similar to chiasmus, a rhetorical figure that uses a mirroring structure to express its point. There are images and motifs – lenses, old trucks, fire and ash, apocalyptic visions, father figures undergoing changes, among others – in every section that don’t repeat or echo so much as rhyme. This is Helm enacting chiasma/chiasmus within the world of the novel, mirroring scenes and characters here, seeding a situation with images and metaphors from earlier sections there. It sounds artificial but never feels so; after all, people the world over are connected, but those connections aren’t necessarily obvious or direct, and rarely are they comprehensible to us or even to impartial outsiders. I spent days reaching for connections in After James that Helm seemed to be pointing to, but that were always just beyond my grasp. In other hands this would be frustrating, but Helm’s execution is so masterful that it made for one of the most satisfying reading experiences I’ve had in years.
As a stylist, Helm’s full powers are on display in After James. Though on the surface the two seem to share little in common, Helm’s prose reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Gilead. Both writers craft rich, complex sentences with sophisticated and often unusual diction that nevertheless feel very direct, because both have a gift for choosing the absolute best word in any given circumstance. Helm uses context to undermine and play with connotations and metaphors; words that normally signal austerity might suddenly present as playful, or vice versa.
After James is new high-water mark in Helm’s already remarkable oeuvre, and solidifies him as one of Canada’s most interesting and challenging novelists.