Winnipeg-based author Struan Sinclair’s daring and accomplished debut novel is that rare type of book that sets out to be deliberately difficult. Take the book’s puzzle-like structure, which comprises four disparate narratives nested inside one another like Russian dolls (a technique also used in another intentionally abstruse novel, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). On the surface, the stories have very little in common: a father and son, perversely linked through the elder’s serial suicide attempts; a grieving widow, struggling to come to terms with a childhood trauma; and the downfall of a brilliant though decrepit Victorian inventor, as told through the eyes of his hapless domestic “drudge.”
The framing story – interrupted mid-thought, only to be taken up again some 200 pages later – involves an unnamed first-person narrator, a coma patient recovering from severe brain trauma whose ability for processing “story logic” has been impaired. The interior narratives could be his attempts at piecing together a semblance of reality from the bits of information that filter into his cracked consciousness. Still, Automatic World is a puzzle without a solution – even on second reading the book is genuinely disorienting – and the thrill of it derives from the uncanny, almost hallucinatory, ways the different stories connect through buried structural similarities, flashes of imagery, even the repetition of a single term (the word “Grapple!,” for instance).
Woven into each individual narrative is the recurring motif of a train wreck (or of a series of train wrecks), and the inconclusive set of facts that led up to the disasters. However, while the trains provide a kind of metaphorical scaffolding for some of Sinclair’s theoretical concerns, these sections, in which the author addresses the reader directly, feel intrusive and didactic, the prose cold and mechanical.
Automatic World isn’t rewriting the rules of fiction, as some of the overblown promotional copy claims; like most successful experimental novels, its author has mastered the conventions that make fiction work in the first place. The book manages to wrestle uncommon pleasures from the novel’s tired form, if you’re willing to stick with it. It’s a challenging read, but you sense there’s a conductor on board even when the juggernaut appears to be careening off course.