Back in 1939, Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” One might use the same words to describe Peterborough, Ontario, author Devon Code’s complex, sometimes brilliant, often frustrating debut novel.
Involuntary Bliss contains no conventional plot. Rather, the book proffers a series of events in the life of a self-absorbed young man named James, who is mourning his dead friend, Warren. Some events happen in real time, while others take the form of James’s memories. As well, James reveals his innermost thoughts to an unnamed male friend as they traipse around a contemporary Montreal inhabited by bohemian characters similar to those found in Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.
James’s life has been heavily influenced by “the Peruvian novella” (no specific title is offered), which he encounters in a university class in Cyclopean Studies. Code defines this genre of literature only by its tendency to focus on perverse sexual practices (a “one-eyed monster” is a euphemism for the penis). All the students in James’s Cyclopean Studies class understand the events described in the novella “were nothing other than an obscene thought experiment based on an unfathomable hypothesis conducted only in the author’s mind.” Likewise, “the notion of involuntary bliss as depicted in the Peruvian novella had no practical application.”
These passages may well be the key to understanding Code’s heavily coded novel: it’s a riddle with no solution, a game with no end, a work of literature akin to an abstract painting with no singular meaning. Code does not provide answers to the many brainteasers in the novel, though he does pepper the book with phrases such as “depthless bi-opticism” and “the hegemony of arborescent thinking.” It’s as if he’s trying to one-up the loquaciousness of Conrad Black or Rex Murphy.
James himself is an enigma – or at least he does not seem to have himself figured out. He has a girlfriend for awhile, yet he seems to be a repressed homosexual; his mourning for Warren resembles the kind reserved for a
romantic partner. As well, certain erotic events – one of which involves a serpent that symbolizes the dead Warren – have as their focus James’s backside.
Some readers may find the novel’s mysteries annoying. Others (especially those who seek enlightenment by reading, preferably while stoned, works by the German-Swiss author Herman Hesse) may find the imprecision devilishly clever. Code has been dubbed an author to watch; his short story “Uncle Oscar” won the 2010 Journey Prize. Involuntary Bliss doesn’t quite elevate its author to a higher category – frankly, it’s too esoteric. But it’s an intriguing experiment.