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Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life

by Trevor Cole

The eponymous protagonist of Trevor Cole’s first novel is a theatre actor who never slips out of character. With others, he performs; when alone, he rehearses. He has a bewildering capacity to view his life from without and within at once, as both star performer and adoring spectator.

Norman hasn’t had a successful run in over a decade, and he’s just lost his one remaining gig as the voice of Timmy Taxi, the hero of a moderately popular children’s program. He faces foreclosure on the house he inherited from his common-law wife, who died in a car accident a few years earlier. Norman has little time for such trivialities as mortgage payments, but now he must emerge from his delusional bubble and make some real money or face destitution.

Cole deftly manipulates tone, diction, and point of view to create a brilliant study of Norman’s persecuted artist persona and the peculiarly endearing person who hides behind it. The narrative voice is agile and witty. In keeping with Norman’s carefully cultivated persona, words occasionally seem too perfectly chosen, the prose verging on overwrought.

Norman Bray is a picaresque in miniature. The novel is as much the study of a single character’s obstinacy as a novel can be while still retaining forward momentum. Every other element of the story – the other characters, the plot, the dreary Toronto setting – seems flat and underdeveloped next to the gaudy egotism of this infuriating man. But Cole accomplishes something extraordinary in revealing his central character without sacrificing the unrelenting self-absorption that makes Norman so unique. The novel’s narrow scope and uncomplicated structure take on interesting depth when filtered through its skewed and unforgettable protagonist.