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Then Again

by Elyse Friedman

This comic first novel by Toronto writer Elyse Friedman is the literary equivalent of a garage band gig: what it lacks in subtlety, it gains in energy, velocity, and sheer rude exuberance. Admittedly, these are not qualities normally associated with the story of an agoraphobic bookstore owner laid low by tragic family circumstances and the loss of her one true love. But Friedman’s novel is hardly dreary and earnest.

Narrator Michelle Shafer is a 30-ish depressive, hiding from life in her closed Winnipeg bookstore. She is finally enticed into the outside world by an invitation to a mysterious “Blast from the Past” party taking place at the site of her ignominious youth in suburban Toronto. The occasion is being orchestrated by Michelle’s younger brother, Joel, a Hollywood screenwriter given to playing out elaborate personal fantasies with his riches. As Michelle and her sister Marla discover, Joel has purchased and meticulously recreated the suburban home of their childhood: from the contents of the avocado kitchen appliances to a set of look-alike parents. Given that the original Schafer mother and father expired some 20 years previously – cancer and suicide respectively – after years of communal misery, the rekindled family memories are not exactly sepia-toned. The situation is further complicated by the siblings’ numerous emotional problems: Michelle’s melancholy and panic attacks, Marla’s eating disorder and paranoid rages, and Joel’s arrested development and sadistic tendencies. Inevitably, the reunion grows incendiary.

With its poo and sex jokes, museum-quality 1970s setting, and ironic treatment of dark psychological subjects, Then Again seems very much of the current cultural zeitgeist – a quality that will attract some readers and repel others. (At this stage of the trend, I found it a little tired.) Still, Friedman acquits herself as a fluid, entertaining stylist with a gift for zippy but believable dialogue. She also finds an emotional heart to her irreverent tale in Michelle’s ruined romance with an etymologist named Frank McCollum. A little self-consciously quirky, their thwarted love nonetheless keeps us intrigued with its strange, sad contours. Friedman’s writing here is fast and fun, but when she slows the wisecracking and delves into the sources of her characters’ grief, she is capable of resonant writing.