“Days by Moonlight is not a work of realism. It’s not a work that uses the imagination to show the real, but one that uses the real to show the imagination.” So writes André Alexis in a note that closes his seventh novel, the fourth book in a five-part sequence – or “quincunx,” as dubbed by the author.
Interrogations of the threshold between reality and fiction have characterized Alexis’s books since his first novel, 1997’s Childhood. This postmodern playfulness extends to the first three novels in the quincunx: Pastoral (2014), which follows a priest experiencing a crisis of faith; the multiple-award-winning Fifteen Dogs (2015), an apologue in which dogs are gifted with human consciousness; and The Hidden Keys (2016), a quest novel that follows the exploits of a thief.
Days by Moonlight is told from the perspective of Alfred Homer, a botanist who embarks on a road trip with his parents’ friend, Professor Bruno. Homer decides to accompany Bruno, a “farm boy turned literary scholar,” to investigate the story of John Skennen, a poet who has disappeared and whose ghost is said to haunt a few souls throughout southern Ontario.
In a mash-up that is part fabulism, part faux biography, and part satire, Days by Moonlight conveys the experience of grief, managing to transform its inarticulable and symbolic weight into a finely wrought literary work. This is done broadly through the mechanism of a road novel, spiriting Bruno and Homer off to the homes of those who knew Skennen.
These encounters, often tender and humorous, are also highly critical of issues surrounding Canadian identity. Consider a scene in which Homer visits Coulson’s Hill, a town that holds a parade that allows Indigenous Canadians to throw tomatoes and soft fruits at people dressed as John A. Macdonald and Adams George Archibald. When some do indulge, “this cause[s] anger among the white people dressed as natives.” It is hard not to laugh at this burlesque of symbolic restitution conceived – and subsequently objected to – by liberal white settlers. It is a timely illustration of the frustration many marginalized groups feel when empathy and compassion are suggested as easy fixes for the longstanding pain and anger that is a legacy of colonialism.
Sprinkled throughout the novel are Homer’s realistic drawings of herbs and plants. These not only comment on the paradoxes of representation and reality but also add another layer to Homer’s nerdy character and provide him with the reason to return home. In a town called Feversham, Homer has a mystical experience that serves as a bridge between the mind and the physical world.
Alexis includes metatextual elements in his novel, as when Homer makes reference to Pastoral and to other Canadian writers (such as Karen Solie). These self-aware gestures signal the novel approaching the threshold of its artifice, but they do so only to make it new again, to build yet another world.