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Couchwarmer: A Laundromat Adventure

by Greg Kramer

Couchwarmer, the second novel by Toronto writer Greg Kramer, builds on many of the obsessions of its predecessor, The Pursemonger of Fugu: A Bathroom Mystery. Like Fugu, this novel gleefully scratches at the underbelly of the urban postmodern to teach us two things: the emperor wears women’s clothing, and a shadowland of gender ambiguity and slackerly anti-ambition is alive and well and living in Canada.

Forget Thomas Pynchon. Forget Last Exit to Brooklyn. Kramer mythologizes a new nation of anti-heroes and, if nothing else, he deserves a (dis)Order of Canada for proving we can harbour disaffection as well as any-
one else. His pageantry of geeks and freaks may strike some readers as de trop – where in this book, the reader may ask, are the Norm and Norma Normals we encounter in our everyday real lives? But, one might counter wistfully: where are the lovable, transgendered people and wise-talking, gas-sniffing lesbians of this book in our own comparatively drab existences?

There is much pomp to this pageantry, as befits a book whose chief narrator is an inept hermaphrodite mechanic with a fondness for drink and the more brazen of fashion statements. Cherry Beach is an improvement over Kramer’s last narrator (Adelaide Simcoe), who gave up upper-middle-class suburbia to join the misfits of Kramer’s imaginary Toronto. By contrast, Beach comes very much from the middle of this tale of intersexuality and narcotic conspiracies, drawing the reader archly, gleefully, into events we might reassess as repulsive only in hindsight. This is Kramer’s gift: the logic of each character appears weirdly unassailable and whole, only to be smashed apart by the next one who takes up the narrative.

Kramer builds sympathetic characters who perform decidedly unsympathetic acts. He peoples his novel the way drag queens lip synch: a suggestion of tragedy or an allusion to world-weary depth underscores otherwise hysteric hyperbole. One-liners and puns abound: “The girl has hair so badly teased it could almost be described as taunted.”

Beneath the artifice of Kramer’s writing and the lacquered bravado of his characters, the reader catches glimpses of a yearning for connection, for substance. In an introspective moment, Beach laments that “there is no room in the modern world for ambiguity…. We no longer venerate our variables. They must seek their own rewards.” Couchwarmer’s plot is all about scratch ’n’ wins and laundromats – little rewards reminding us that humanity comes bearing all kinds of labels.