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The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis

by Aaron Peck

“While on a residency at the Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts on Toronto Island in June 2004, an archivist named Bernard Willis disappeared.” Thus begins the introduction to Vancouver author Aaron Peck’s debut novel. Both the introduction and epilogue are penned by a pair of nameless editors, who, in fine metafictional fashion, explain how they discovered Willis’s unpublished manuscript entirely by accident.

The Bewilderments is framed as a mystery. “What happened to Willis? Why?” ask the editors. Their introduction reveals nothing, offering only the caveat that “the narrative fails to cohere, and, perhaps more frustratingly, Willis’s disappearance remains unsolved.” In lieu of analysis of the novel’s content, the introduction provides only a description of its form. Willis’s manuscript consists of four chapters, or “folios,” each comprised of four sections without paragraph breaks, and prefaced by a prose poem originating on a Post-it Note. The folios, which document the musings of Willis and his sophisticated friends, are not ordered chronologically, complicating any attempt to make sense of clues as to Willis’s present whereabouts.

The eschewal of regular paragraph breaks is only one of the ways in which the novel resembles those of the late W. G. Sebald. Much like that of Sebald’s nameless narrators, Willis’s prose draws on extensive erudition, and tends to meander.    

Attaining a state of bewilderment, write the editors, was the aim of Willis’s manuscript – was the aim, indeed, of his life. But Willis’s manuscript constitutes an attempt at understanding the connections between its characters and the places they inhabit, as well as the histories – social, aesthetic, and intellectual – from which those characters emerge and into which they disappear. As erudite prose oddity, Peck’s debut novel entertains. However, as narrative, just as the editors warn, Willis’s Bewilderments confounds.