The new novel by Montreal writer and French literature professor Alain Farah is less a book than an experience, a series of reactions shifting from confusion to frustration to a gradually dawning understanding and, ultimately, a rich state of emotional and cerebral satisfaction.
Ravenscrag beggars simple summary. It reads, in part, like a memoir, with the narrator, a contemporary academic, slowly going insane. The narrator’s mental state is either assisted or hindered – it varies – by a regimen of capsules prescribed by a Dr. Cameron, who practices out of the eponymous location, once a luxurious mansion, now a psychiatric facility. There are betrayals and hallucinations, conspiracies and paranoia – all exploding, rather than unfolding, in a deliberately fragmented style that eschews linear continuity, consistency, or chronology. The narrative slips back and forth in time, in and out of reality, fantasy, and dreams. But it’s more complicated than that.
The narrator introduces himself as Alain Farah, immediately positioning the novel on a level of metatextuality. Farah describes the complexities of writing the book we seem to be reading, a position later complicated by revelations that incorporate historical and contemporary events, including student riots and the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control experiments of the 1960s.
Fashioned from fragments of narrative, philosophy, history, and pop culture (including overt references to Fellini and a wonderful nod to The Godfather that will please any film fan), Ravenscrag feeds on itself. As Farah writes, “I work simultaneously on the specific and general levels. Here, I’ve tried to conserve the character and spirit of 1962 while projecting myself into 2012. Or vice versa, I’m not quite sure.”
Ravenscrag works not despite these complexities, but because of them. It is a challenging read, to say the least, requiring a degree of surrender unusual in most fiction. The narrative may not ultimately cohere, but, as Farah himself suggests, that is not critical to the success of the work. The author quotes studio notes to Ridley Scott regarding Blade Runner: “But can’t the emotion felt be just as important as understanding the plot?” The answer the producers provide is no, but readers of Ravenscrag will disagree, and rightly so. – Robert J. Wiersema, author of Bedtime Story