The epigraph to André Alexis’s novella, “A,” first published in 2013, is by Margaret Laurence: “Then things become all at once strange.” It’s a fitting sentiment given Alexis’s penchant to allow his fiction to drift into the dreamlike, bizarre, or uncanny. The last word crops up a number of times in the author’s collected stories, as though highlighting for the reader an affinity with Freud’s unheimlich: “an area in which one person was unsure of his way around.”
The Austrian psychoanalyst’s formula would certainly apply to Alexander Baddeley, the Canadian literary critic at the centre of “A,” whose obsession with the poet Avery Andrews leads him on an increasingly outlandish journey to the heart of literary inspiration – which, the story suggests, is to be found in an otherworldly version of a ward inside Toronto Western Hospital. The novella brings together a number of Alexis’s core strengths. It is a corrosive satire of fame and the pettiness of literary careerists and poseurs while also managing to get a number of well-placed shots in at reviewers whose most reified ability is to “seductively express the fixity of [their] angle on things.”
But the story is also a deeply felt and intellectually rich exploration of the wellspring of literary talent, something that appears in the final analysis to be mysterious and outside even the writer’s ability to grasp. As Baddeley journeys from mediocre reviewer to celebrated novelist, he becomes the toast of CanLit, realizing too late that the accoutrements of renown – the book launches, festivals, lavish dinners, and awards – are meaningless and that it is only the words on the page that matter. Baddeley’s problem is that even once he’s granted access to those words, he is unable to rationalize their provenance in any way that allows him to retain his grip on reality.
This element of mystery – of something plainly and unabashedly inexplicable – resides at the heart of Alexis’s short fiction, collected here in a single volume that spans the author’s entire career, from his 1994 debut, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, to the present. The collection begins with a prologue titled “Wilderness,” about a traveller to Canada who, having forgotten her passport, is made to strap a porcupine to her waist in order to gain access to the country. Alexis begins with what is a quintessential CanLit trope – the rugged outdoors – and immediately overturns it, dropping the reader into the realm of the absurd with outsized abandon.
The rest of the book is structured carefully, as if in counterpoint to the oddity of the individual pieces within it. The volume is bookended by a series of microfictions devoted to the two urban centres that provide Alexis with the mainstays of his literary imagination: Ottawa and Toronto. In between, the first part takes up, more or less, the contents of Despair, while parts two and three become more self-consciously literary, including selections from the 2010 volume Beauty and Sadness and the stand-alone novella “A.” The latter half of The Night Piece thus includes jubilant riffs on the work of Jean Cocteau, the ghost stories of Henry James, and the tales of fraud and thievery of Guy de Maupassant, though the stories from Despair include one, “The Road to Santiago de Compostela,” modelled on Boccaccio and Chaucer, in which a group of travellers through Spain amuse themselves on a dull train ride by telling each other fantastical stories.
That Alexis is supremely well versed in literary history and able to mimic the styles and subjects of his preferred authorial ancestors is unsurprising; what The Night Piece clearly demonstrates is the author’s playfulness, a quality that too often goes missing in commentaries about his work. In “Quim Monzó,” which originally appeared as a one-off in the Globe and Mail, the author of a vicious email that might have driven a writer to suicide is named Peter Bhave (say it out loud). The dead author’s most recent book is Termagant: A Love Story. In “My Anabasis,” a man named André Alexis travels from Ottawa, Ontario, to Ottawa, New York, to confront another man, also named André Alexis, whom he suspects has cuckolded him with his wife, Andrée. (Alexis also makes a cameo appearance in “A,” where he is described as gregarious and “slightly unwashed.”)
The postmodern flourishes, jocular wordplay, and metaphysical curiosity (the nature of consciousness is a pervasive theme, and in the story “Horse,” the mind/body duality is literalized in a dream featuring a group of men in a bar whose severed heads sit on tables in front of them) coalesce in stories that combine literary allusion, Gothic tropes, and absurdist comedy. “I don’t make things up,” says André Alexis in “My Anabasis.” “I haven’t got a creative bone in my body.” The Night Piece puts the lie to this self-effacing effrontery in a manner that is as consistently entertaining as it is philosophically invigorating.