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L (and things come apart)

by Ian Orti

There isn’t a pronounced anti-realist tradition in CanLit, despite isolated offerings from writers as diverse as Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers) and Stephen Marche (Shining at the Bottom of the Sea). For most fiction writers in this country, a stark naturalism is the default setting. Which makes Ian Orti’s debut novel something of an anomaly.

The book starts off straightforwardly enough: Henry, the protagonist, is attending a dinner party with his wife who, we learn, has a “fondness for the salty taste of one of her colleagues.” To counteract the distance that has developed between Henry and his wife, he retreats to the café he owns in the unnamed city where he lives. There, he spends his days bantering with customers like Lachaise and Laplante, the latter of whom is compiling a stack of pages he scavenges from around the city, trying to put them into some sort of logical order. One day, a woman identified only as L appears in Henry’s café, wanting to rent the empty room upstairs. Henry accepts L as a tenant, and as the two start to interact, the novel begins to jettison its realist trappings in favour of a kind of absurdist approach.

There are indications early on that Orti’s novel exists outside the realm of mimetic naturalism. “Like anyone,” we are told, Lachaise “marked his days on a calendar of thirteen equal months of four weeks and seven days.” L is being stalked by a malevolent stranger who bears a sheaf of papers that mirror the unending story Laplante is compiling. A painter shows up in Henry’s café claiming to have just seen a mammoth lumbering through the streets of the city. In her apartment, L makes miniature cities out of tea bags that she sets alight; her imagined destruction has real-world consequences.

Or does it? Henry, we come to understand, suffers from a brand of dementia, and it is unclear how much of what transpires in the novel actually occurs and how much of it is in Henry’s head.

There are readers who will enjoy trying to puzzle out where reality ends and Henry’s delusion begins, and Orti writes with a grace that at least ensures his brief novel is consistently engaging. However, the distancing devices – characters who share names with physical objects, characters and settings that have no names whatsoever – are almost too effective, disallowing any kind of substantial connection between the reader and the events of the story.

Once the end has been reached, and Orti’s circular structure becomes apparent, there remains a nagging sense that what has transpired is largely smoke and mirrors, an authorial special effect without much behind or beneath it. At one point, Laplante says of his growing stack of papers, “It’s a patchy story so far, painfully vague, ambiguous to a flaw.” In this regard, Orti’s novel may contain its own best critique.


Reviewer: Steven W. Beattie

Publisher: Invisible Publishing


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 140 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-92674-305-9

Released: April

Issue Date: 2010-6

Categories: Fiction: Novels