Jules, the protagonist of Toronto poet Evie Christie’s debut novel, is a successful lawyer with a wife and kids, but he’s also lonely, bored, and saddled with a porn addiction. To make matters worse, his marriage is on the rocks and he’s falling in love with a 15-year-old girl named Charlie. As Jules descends deeper into depression, he becomes more and more detached from his life and family.
Closer to American Beauty than Lolita, The Bourgeois Empire examines unsatisfied middle-class urbanites struggling with the shame and emptiness that are byproducts of their distorted values. This is a well-worn theme, which Christie attempts to rejuvenate by experimenting with narration and structure. The book is narrated in the second person and jumps back and forth in time. Unfortunately, these devices are insufficient to rise above the story’s essentially clichéd nature.
Christie’s use of the second person is at first jarring, but it does serve a purpose: as a result of this narrative intimacy, Jules comes off as even more dislikable. However, he remains for the most part one-dimensional, whining repeatedly about the state of his life. This is especially unfortunate given that he is the most fully realized character; everyone else is a type. Jules’s yuppie wife wears couture-yoga clothing. Jules barely acknowledges his almost non-existent children. Even Charlie, Jules’s obsession, is little more than an off-kilter pixie dream girl.
There are scenes that work nicely. A chapter detailing Jules’s shameful, secret porn stash is sympathetically rendered. And during an encounter between Jules, his wife, and the couple’s dying dog, Christie takes us, briefly, beneath the veneer of Jules’s superficial surface.
The best feature of the book is the writing. Christie’s prose is precise, propulsive, and often funny. In an early chapter Jules wonders what would happen if his house caught fire while he was hidden in his office gorging on Internet porn. Would he make it out in time or remain shackled to his computer? “Do you hope your robe abides, drape yourself over the screen? Hope a testicle doesn’t drop aside.…” Such sequences show that Christie is talented, but her talent needs a subject worthy of it.