If asked to describe a typical contemporary Canadian novel, the words witty, cosmopolitan, and erotic are unlikely to fly to the lips of most readers. That Neil Bissoondath’s The Soul of All Great Designs contains those three qualities in abundance makes it a welcome addition to the fall season.
Bissoondath has been challenging the comfortable pieties of identity politics and state multiculturalism throughout his career, so it should be no surprise that his compact new novel finds him returning to the cultural battlefield for another acerbic look at how the personal can never quite conform to the political.
Narrating one half of this very dark comedy of manners is a man known to the reader only as “Alec.” Growing up in suburban Toronto – though the city is never named, it is still recognizable – as an only child to a pair of loving but desperately average parents, Alec eventually surmises that the quickest way to escape the dreariness of home and his job at a hardware outlet is to play off his gentle manner and almost feminine good looks.
This is where Bissoondath begins to set the reader up for an obvious (but still very funny) extended joke. Gay men find the heterosexual Alec very attractive, and women treat him as an unthreatening friend, with both parties assuming that he is gay. So when Alec discovers he has a flair for decorating and starts taking jobs as an interior designer, it’s only natural that he does nothing to dispel his clients’ expectations that he is an openly gay man. Client satisfaction is the cornerstone of any business, and Alec’s clients want a gay interior designer: why not give them what they want?
Alec keeps his libidinous side sated by way of discreet liaisons with professional escorts, allowing him to comfortably settle into his fabricated but remarkably successful public self. Reflecting on the truism that happiness is possible only through the cultivation of a single, authentic self, Alec counters sardonically: “These selves of ours we’re supposed to be true to are constructions – the roles we play, roles that are either given to us or that we invent ourselves. More useful advice would be: Be true to the role you’re stuck with.”
A little drunk on the success of his elaborate identity game, Alec takes a dangerous step toward true intimacy when he meets Sumintra (“Sue”), a recently graduated English major who helps out with her father’s catering business. Sue is trapped in the role of dutiful daughter to her hard-working Indian immigrant parents, neither of whom understand her passive but persistent resistance to a string of arranged-marriage proposals from the families of suitable Hindu-Canadian men.
Sue has been taught since birth to please her parents, but university has left her with a taste for independence and a tangle of erotic yearnings at odds with a traditional Indian courtship and marriage. She is instantly taken with the confident, soft-spoken Alec, whose obvious reciprocal attraction gives the lie to his studied “gay” exterior, and the two throw themselves into a clandestine relationship after a couple of dinner dates.
Despite all the heat the two generate, the reader suspects that things will end badly when Alec shows little interest in surrendering the perks afforded by his public persona. Alec has so fanatically trained his outer and inner selves that the intrusion of another person’s needs feels like a viral threat, leaving him vulnerable for the first time since childhood.
Bissoondath draws out the tension of Alec’s impending breakdown in a series of understated but evocative scenes bookended and distorted by Alec’s self-serving confessions and cynical appeals to the reader’s sympathy. Sue, the reluctant but hopeless romantic, is equally compelling, and the domestic scenes capture the dynamics of an utterly ordinary Indian immigrant family without resorting to clichés of character or ethnic type.
Bissoondath excels at coolly mapping his dual protagonists’ private and converging erotic landscapes, granting each of them a unique catalogue of gestures performed before bathroom mirrors, secrets spoken in the confines of the mind, and cherished personal totems tucked away on mantelpieces and bedside night tables. Particularly good are Sue’s subversive sexual fantasies that transform the attentions of leering, racist men into adventures in anonymous – but safe – sex.
Unfortunately, Bissoondath’s almost seamless and tightly structured edifice strains under the weight of a macabre ending that complements the novel’s central comic conceit but may leave readers feeling a little bludgeoned by the message. Bissoondath may want us to walk away from his elegant romance pondering the costs of surrendering to cultural conformity in an age that values above all else the outward signs of an authentic identity. But the first 200 pages were so good that we didn’t need the extra nudge on the way out.