Fall, by Colin McAdam

Purchased at Chapters.ca (click on cover for more info)

Purchased at Chapters.ca (click on cover for more info)

Noel is a slow developing, isolated eighteen-year old. A diplomat’s son (his father is Canadian consul in Sydney), he has been at tony St. Ebury private school in Ottawa for some years after biting a chunk out of a fellow student’s arm at his previous school. Noel has a “lazy eye” which led to his nickname (“Wink”), more or less constant teasing and bullying in the long-time practice of teenage persecution of physical disability and, most importantly, his isolation and repressed anger.

St. Ebury serves not just the elite of Ottawa but also the offspring of many of the diplomats assigned to Canada’s capital. One of those students is Julius, son of the U.S. ambassador (a former Vermont governor), whom Noel is lucky enough to have as a roommate in his final high school year. If Noel is angry, Julius is abstactly distant — certainly not engaged with his studies, good at sports but not really caring about them. Even acquiring Noel as a roommate (when as the “star” of the school he would have had his choice) came more by default than anything else.

giller avatarAnd then there is Fallon (the “Fall” of the title). While she is a boarder at the school, she is an Ottawa child, daughter of a divorced mother who lives in luxury in an Ottawa “high tech” suburb (for those who don’t know the city, the tech explosion has created a whole new set of up-scale neighborhoods, described by McAdam as the High Tech Hills). Males outnumber females by about a five-to-one ratio at St. Ebury’s and most of the males are entranced with Fall — it is no surprise therefore that she is Julius’ girlfriend. Noel — surprise, surprise — is obsessed with her. The closest he can come to developing a relationship of any kind is to serve as a go-between when Julius is confined to the dorm as the result of a prank.

That’s pretty much the story of Fall. Colin McAdam’s first novel, Some Great Thing (2004), attracted a lot of attention and won a number of prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The story of a developer and his struggles, both legal and not-so-legal, to create an Ottawa suburb, that novel looked into the business world in a way that few novelists have dared attempt. I quite liked it and was looking forward to this book — McAdam is a diplomat’s son, raised in cities around the world, so he promised to know whereof he speaks. Alas, for this reader, he has taken a long step backward with Fall, despite its selection to the 2009 Giller longlist.

Here’s a sample of “dialogue” that is a frequent style the author uses in the book — this is actually the first appearance, but the technique keeps popping up to the very end of the book:

When I arrived at St. Ebury everyone said:
“Her father’s an Italian count.”
“Fuck off.”
“They wear gloves when they eat dinner.”
“Her real name is Fallon.”
“Fallon Fitzgerald DeStaad.”
“DeStindt.”
“She’s cold.”
“She’s funny.”
“She’s a bitch.”
“She’s not a real blonde.”
“She’s smart.”
“She’s the smartest in the school.”
“Her father’s high tech.”
“Rich.”
“Filthrich.”
“Started IncoTel.”
“Is IncoTel.”
“Was IncoTel, he ditched and made a stinkload.”
“King’s ransom.”
“Mother took it all.”
“They’re divorced.”

That’s only half of the exchange in question, but there is a limit to how much I can ask visitors here to tolerate. McAdam shows no such compassion — while the device actually half works the first few times it shows up, by about page 50 I was dreading the prospect of turning the page and seeing him head off into the tactic yet again. The book alternates between Noel and Julius as the narrator (with occasional sections also from William, the U.S. ambassador’s chauffeur, used to fill in background gaps that the author can’t figure out how else to introduce) — all of Julius’ sections are in this “style”. It may be the first time I ever found myself hoping for a run-on sentence.

Next to the prose problems, the biggest weakness of the book is probably the near-total vapidness of the three central characters. While they have friends, none of those get developed — unusually for a “school” novel no teacher or master features in the book. Noel is confused and angry and comes closest to being fully realized, but even that isn’t much. Julius is just chilling along, not much concerned about what he might become. As for Fall, when Noel reads her notes to Julius in his role as go-between, even the enthralled would-be lover finds her amazingly shallow, although he assumes she will be a far fuller person when she falls in love with him.

So the book has to be about plot (or perhaps teenage sex). There is an event that occurs about halfway through the book that does make the latter half somewhat better than the first. To say anymore at all in the review is a true spoiler. I’ll be happy to discuss it in comments if anyone is interested.

I’ve said on this blog before that I am a sucker for “school” novels. Richard Yates’ The Good School and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace are two outstanding examples of the genre. A few months ago, I reviewed Christine Schutt’s All Souls and E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (usually categorized as a Young Adult book) with much enthusiasm. I admit now that I read the first few chapters of Fall then, thinking about a triple review — and put it down because it was simply not up to snuff compared to the other two. Having now read the entire book, that judgment is confirmed. If you like “school” novels, any of those four (and numerous others) is a better choice than Fall.

I don’t know what this year’s Giller jury saw in this book to include it in the longlist — it is not that it is a bad book, it is just that it certainly is not a good one. As I indicated above, McAdam showed significant promise with his first novel. I do hope this one is just a temporary retreat from that.

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22 Responses to “Fall, by Colin McAdam”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That dialogue’s shocking, it doesn’t even make sense as adolescent speech. My patience would wear, very quickly, thin.

    It opens with an I, are we supposed to believe that anyone speaks like that? That kind of unbroken list, with no interruptions? It’s so obviously authorial, I struggle to see why it’s ostensibly in a character’s voice.

    I’m aware of your fondness for school novels (on a vaguely related note, I can’t remember if you read the Molesworth stuff), but while I definitely plan to read the Yates I think this one I’ll leave to you with thanks for having written such a clear review.

    In any event, at risk of sweeping generalisation, if a novel depends on plot to deliver then I tend to expect more plot than this sounds like it has. Frankly though, I prefer novels that don’t simply rely on plot.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I probably should have explained that the “I” is Noel and the “conversation” is overheard. And you are quite right with “obviously authorial” as an observation — that’s how it reads through the entire book.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s a useful clarification Kevin, but it still doesn’t sound to me remotely like natural dialogue, overheard or otherwise.

    Through the entire book, well done for finishing it.

  4. bookermt Says:

    Uk reviews were not that great from what I remember but I’ll give it a go anyway.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I try to never discourage someone from reading a book, so I’ll bite my tongue, bookermt.

  6. Kerry Says:

    I have to agree with Max who agreed with you, Kevin. That excerpt is eliciting sympathy pains on my end. Kudos for finishing. I recently had an example that I simply abandoned on page 20. Of course, I did not have the responsibility you have.

    But, really, thanks for such an honest (and well supported) review. Great job.

  7. Blithe Spirit Says:

    It’s a strange Giller list and I’m grateful to the Shadow Jury and these reviews you are posting as I’ve only read 3 on the list, none of which really blew me away. This doesn’t sound like my cup of tea either, although like you, I love school stories when they are done well – Old School by Tobias Wolff is a favourite. I’m curious about some of the books from the small presses like The Incident Report and The Factory Voice which sound like interesting reads – I look forward to reading the reviews on those.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Halfway through the list, I am finding it a strange Giller as well, Blithe Spirit. And I do have Old School on hand for reading later this fall.

  9. David Says:

    Your assessment of the book very much tallies with my own reading of it, Kevin. I wasn’t a big fan of “Some Great Thing” but I agree that it was certainly a promising debut, one that this novel doesn’t really build on, though I see it less as a backwards step than as a failed experiment. The one thing “Fall” does have going for it is that it is a very easy and quick read so you don’t have to waste too long on it!
    The lengthy passages of dialogue that you mention in your review didn’t bother me too much – it was an effective way of showing how Julius thinks (or doesn’t!) – but I did find myself often loosing the thread of who was speaking. And as Max Cairnduff comments, a lot of it didn’t read as believable adolescent speech – more a misremembered version of how we spoke as teenagers, as wrong in its way as when you read novels written from a child’s perspective that use vocabulary and phrases that are too advanced for the narrator’s age. Actually, that passage you quote above sounds (if you added lots of exclamation marks and maybe put some of it in capitals) like Joyce Carol Oates at her most feverish.
    It was an okay book, one I enjoyed whilst reading it, but not one that has stuck in my mind very much, and certainly not one I would’ve expected to see on the longlist.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Fall was one of those “quick-read” books that took me quite a long time to read. I’d get annoyed, set it aside and then find many excuses not to go back to it. It is a bad habit that I must learn how to break.

    I too am not unhappy that I read it. I do wonder what the jury saw that I obviously missed.

  11. bookermt Says:

    Kevin I finished this about a week ago and overall I wasn’t too impressed. The passages of dialogue are especially irritating and the sheer vacuousness of the three main characters is a real weakness for me. I do feel he captures the tone of teenage boys in private schools quite well though both are stereotypes to a degree.
    I agree with you that the “event” half way through does change things for the better especially in the way it ultimately changes the dynamics of the relationship between Noel and Julius.
    Like you I’m not sure what the judges see in this that I don’t but I suppose it is always a matter of personal taste at the end of the day.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bookermt, that now makes three of us who read a fair bit of Canadian fiction who can’t figure out what the judges see in this book — now promoted to the shortlist. All my going in biases were positive (I like school novels, liked McAdam’s previous book, etc.) and it took only a few pages to have me wondering what it was I had been looking forward to. I will be very interested in Trevor’s opinion when he gets to it — like me, he is a fan of “school” novels and perhaps may find something that I have missed.

  13. Steph Says:

    I just finished this book and…wasn’t sure what to think. That’s why I found this page–I was interested to read other reviews.

    I agree with you on most points…I don’t like stream-of-consciousness writing like Julius’ point of view, and I found the really long sex scenes annoying, as I’m not a prude, but don’t like sex scenes like that if they’re not necessary. I get that Julius is sex-obsessed with the many references to his masturbation throughout the novel. The only thing I can figure is that McAdam was trying to show that they were in love? I don’t know.

    I think what kept me reading was knowing that Noel was slowly turning out to be a lot different than I thought at the beginning of the novel–the pseudo-transformation (or true revelation of character, I guess) was intriguing to me. And I still wonder what really happened on the beach with Meg.

    I hated the ending, though, with no resolution, just kind of a ‘some people are bad, and boarding schools can breed bad people’ kind of moral.

    Anyway, I would not recommend the book to anyone. It didn’t take me long to read, but I don’t feel edified in any way by it. I think I’ll try out a couple of those other books you mentioned.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Steph: Fall has not got any better for me with the passage of time. And I would certainly now add Wolff’s Old School to my list of better school novels — it is quite special.

  15. Trevor Says:

    I think Steph has hit what made the book compelling for me too: that Noel was changing and we want to see what type of monster he will become, or is. However, I also think she nailed it when she called it a pseudo-transformation. In the end, it didn’t add up. Thanks for saying what I knew I was feeling but couldn’t figure out, Steph!

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    SPOILER ALERT

    Steph’s comment has opened the door on something I wanted to say in the original review and have been biting my tongue on (no longer, however) ever since.

    As my comments on the dialogue indicate, I was already rather grumpy about the book when the “incident” took place — Noel’s advance on Fall, throwing away her crutches and abandoning her. Oh boy, I thought, now we have a direct comparison with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and I don’t think McAdam is up to that at all.

    He proves that he isn’t. While Tartt did a great job at exploring the descent and angst of her protagonists after the murder, Fall does little but wander in confusion. Noel does go through a transformation (I’m inclined to agree with Steph’s “pseudo” addition), but it is both incomplete and unconvincing. And while I am quite happy with books that have ambiguous endings, this one is not ambiguous — it is simply unresolved.

    The Secret History is normally regarded as more popular than literary, but for any reader contemplating a book about “young person descends into evil” it wins on every count — better written, better story, better reading experience.

  17. Lisa Says:

    Hi,
    I feel so stupid, but I can’t figure out the ending. I read you last comment, and it seems as if you were not positive either. DId Noel abandon her with a hurt foot and no crutches–and then she ran away? was killed? drowned? Or did he kill her and lie to himself? Please tell me. It’s driving me crazy.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    SPOILER ALERT

    Lisa: Don’t feel stupid — the book doesn’t actually say what happens to Fall. However, McAdam did say in a Giller panel that I saw that he “had killed off one of his characters”, so I think we can safely presume she froze to death on the banks of the river. It hadn’t occured to me that he might have killed her and then lied to himself — the way the book reads, he just abandoned her after throwing her crutches away.

  19. Robert Wills Says:

    Well, I certainly am glad to have read these comments. I just finished the book today. I was totally left mystified at the end. More than mystified – angry! Like I had been cheated out of something. I don’t mind being baffled, if that’s the author’s purpose, but I have the feeling that wasn’t what Mr. McAdam was after. It was like the destination meant nothing to him, The journey meant everything. I don’t mind making a journey, but I sure hope that the destination iw somewhere worth going to. Here I didn’t feel that way. I did enjoy some of the prose, but those long passages of juvenile dialogue were very boring for me. I hope Mr. McAdam has a better book inside him.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Robert: The only observation that I would offer is that if you are that upset with the ending, the rest of the book must have worked :-). I will admit to not liking this book when I read it and it has faded rather than grown in memory. I hope you found something worthwhile in my thoughts.

    • kweiks Says:

      I think that he did kill her and couldn’t admit it to himself. Even though she was on crutches, didn’t the book say it was only a 20 min walk? And it was just one ankle – she would have had to have been hurt pretty badly not to be able to be able to return and in that event she would have tried and at least her body would have been found. So I’m going with that he killed her and the river swept her body away.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I was inclined to think that he had just abandoned her and she died — although I admit the absence of a body is a problem with that scenario. Whatever — I don’t think she is with us any longer in the last part of the book.

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