Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

This year marks year sixteen of Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program. While Canada’s independent small publishing houses continue to introduce more debut novelists, it is heartening that the country’s largest house (with a number of imprints) remains committed to showcasing new authors. Random House also has an impressive record of success with this program — the first year, 1996, introduced us to Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Gail Anderson Dalgetz and Dionne Brand, all of whom have gone on to international fame. (Click here for a full list of NFoF titles — you’ll be suprised how impressive it is.)

There is no set number of titles each year; the publishers say quality is the determining factor (although one has to suspect economics also come into play). This year, there are only two: Kim Thúy’s Ru (reviewed here some months ago) and Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World.

The defining event of this novel is a suicide: a few months back, Maggie’s mother, who owned and ran a New Age shop selling candles, incense, crystals and the like in Toronto’s tony Queen West district, put some zircon rocks in her pockets, crossed town and walked into the Don River. Maggie, who has taken over the shop, is the book’s first person narrator and her inability to understand or cope with her mother’s act is the dominant narrative thread of the book.

As the novel opens, Maggie finds herself on Queen Street at the front door of the shop (she and her father live upstairs), two hours after she was supposed to open it. She has no memory of anything that happened since she went to bed the night before:

We called it the blackout, like we could have lit some candles and waited it out. The blackout. Your blackout. I wanted to know what had happened in the time I’d lost. I asked Andrew [her boyfriend] and my best friend, Wendy, if they had seen me or heard from me in the missing hours. I went by George’s Diner to ask George if I had come by that night. Wendy and I had been going to the same College Street diner since high school because of George, a handsome first-generation Greek with a perfect profile and short curls that we had both spent our freshmen lectures day-dreaming about. We were all friendly, though we’d never seen him outside the restaurant.

That quote supplies an excellent example of the flavor of the novel as a whole. While the story is told from inside Maggie’s head, there is a lot of Toronto in the novel — one of O’Connell’s strengths is her ability to capture aspects of Canada’s largest city. And the internal focus is not so pervasive Maggie is totally isolated — readers will meet an extensive cast of characters as the narrator struggles to relate to those around her.

The opening pages also obliquely introduce one of that cast who will become more important as the novel progresses:

I went upstairs to my room and closed the door. On the window sill was a card, just sitting there without an envelope. When I picked it up, it was slightly warm.

I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, it said. With love, Gil.

I didn’t remember putting the card there. I didn’t even remember a Gil — was he a customer? A friend of my father’s? It sounded like an old man’s name. Dozens of cards had arrived after my mother’s funeral, mostly politely worded watery-toned notes from my father’s colleagues at the university. This card looked no different except for the pained and jerky handwriting.

That quote introduces two more threads that will continue through the novel. Sometimes Maggie’s mind is completely there (the “upstairs” one) and sometimes (the “downstairs”) it is clouded and confusing — she only remembers distorted aspects of the “magnified world” in which she lives. And trying to fill in the gaps of her mother’s incomplete history (she arrived in Toronto as a young woman of the Vietnam War era from Georgia) will be an important part of Maggie’s journey. She keeps journals about that search, excerpts of which serve as a convenient device for the author to get into the back story.

All of this makes Magnified World a difficult book to review. At each stage, the reader needs to decide which of Maggie’s minds we are experiencing at that point in the narrative — the complete or the confused one. The blackouts continue, so there are gaps for both narrator and reader. We also meet two psychologists, one conventional and one an apparent charlatan (who has his own history with Maggie’s mother) who “professionally” explore Maggie’s confusion. And the reader has three options when it comes to placing the Gil of the mourning card in Maggie’s world when he shows up in person later: he may be real all the time, or sometimes real and sometimes an imagination in her mind (my favored interpretation) or completely a figment of her imagination.

I’ll confess that this did not work for me — indeed, by the midpoint of the book I was seriously wondering if I was simply too old to appreciate the novel. One problem with first person narrators is that the reader needs to feel comfortable inside the individual’s mind (since there is no external context) — I was never there with Maggie (too old? too male? too rational?) so I found much of her experience pointlessly muddled, not illuminating. Another issue is that we can only appreciate other characters as the narrator sees them — which, particularly when the narrator’s confusion is a central aspect of the book, inevitably makes them one dimensional.

I suspect that readers who are young enough that they are still trying to sort out their own current circumstances may find much more in the novel than I did. By way of contrast, I would offer the example of Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, a first person narrator of my own generation, looking back on his life, whose exploration of his history I had no trouble enrolling in. Many younger readers of Barnes’ novel are frustrated by the unresolved ambiguity of Tony’s memory (I certainly wasn’t — that was the point of the book, I thought); perhaps my problem with Maginified World is that I am simply too far removed in years to engage in her challenge.

I’ve read all the New Face of Fiction titles in the last few years and despite my struggles with this one will continue to do so in the future. The editors at Random House know their business well enough that readers can be confident that chosen books are well-written — and well-edited, a characteristic that too many first novels these days seem to lack. Even when I was experiencing frustration with aspects of Magnified World, I could appreciate that that might be more about me as a reader than it was about the book itself.

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6 Responses to “Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell”

  1. David Says:

    That frustration with the novel does come through in your review, Kevin, and it’s a frustration I shared. Whilst I appreciated that the story by necessity had to be somewhat disorienting and confusing in order to reflect Maggie’s state of mind, which I think it does very well, I also found this sometimes made it hard for me to latch onto and for a stretch in the middle (I thought the book was probably too long) I started to lose interest.

    I didn’t know what to make of the final section – all that stuff with the glowing jade angel and the river. It was heavy with symbolism but a lot of it seemed to be of precisely the ‘new age-y mumbo jumbo’ kind that Maggie had been sceptical of for the past 300 pages, and there was a hint of ‘with one bound she was free’ about it too. I may have to read that last chapter again, because I’m not sure I understood what happened. I still haven’t worked out if everything after Wooster House wasn’t all in Maggie’s mind – Gil getting in through a window that we’re told can’t be opened is one thing, but Maggie leaving through it is another altogether (though an unopenable window that leads to the fire escape would I’m sure contravene all kinds of regulations, so perhaps I misunderstood that part).

    The writing I thought was a mixed bag: overall it was good and there were flashes of brilliance (where Maggie talks about love being like a blanket thrown over the person so that eventually your attachment is to the feel of the blanket – the person underneath could be anyone – I thought that was a wonderful insight), and some of her descriptions are great (the streetcar that sounds like bone scraping against bone – can’t you just hear that, and isn’t it perfect?). But then there were other descriptions that were less successful – she describes a plastic curtain as smelling “like cheap tennis shoes”: that doesn’t conjure anything in my mind, and had me wondering if cheap tennis shoes smell different to expensive tennis shoes, and are we talking new or used? Not to mention that it adds nothing to that scene, other than to get me puzzling about athletic footwear.

    Often when I was reading this novel the thought came to me that O’Connell probably writes short stories – a lot of the chapters and journal entries have that feel about them – so when I read the author bio on the back flap and saw that she had work published in a number of magazines, I searched online, and it turns out she does. I read her story ‘Noisemakers’ in The Walrus this morning (http://walrusmagazine.com/articles/2011.06-fiction-noisemakers/) and liked it a lot. I really hope her next book is a collection as I think that would be something worth reading. As a novelist I think she shows promise and I’d read more by her, but I don’t think ‘The Magnified World’ is a book that will stay in my mind for very long.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: My struggles with the novel probably began about one-third of the way through. O’Connell does quite a good job of setting things up in the opening (in some ways, I think that is where her writing talent shows best) and she did have me interested in knowing more about the characters. But it was about one-third of the way through that I first thought “I’m not sure this is rewarding the effort” of continually having to step back and wonder “is this real or is she off on some imaginary trip in this section”.

    That attitude had pretty much taken over by the time she got to Wooster House. A good example of how I was feeling then was that I did notice the apparent contradiction about the window that you outline — it didn’t seem worth the effort to take a step back and build an explanation for it.

    In some ways, that made the post-Wooster House section a little easier for me, I think, because I know longer was trying to figure out what parts of Maggie’s experience (or Gil, for that matter) were real and what were not. I sort of regarded it as a perfect storm kind of thing that randomly mixed the two as part of the process of purging that allowed her to return to rationality. Unfortunately by then I didn’t care about her very much so I wasn’t really enrolled in the outcome.

    The review and comments are probably giving a more negative impression than I intend. O’Connell is an MFA graduate and, in Canada at least, that tends to mean that she has spent more time with the short story than with novel writing at this point, so I am not surprised you found her story a better example of her work. I noted also in her acknowledgements at the end of the book that an unusual number of published authors were included. I wonder if perhaps there were too many people offering help on the book — parts of it did read like they were “over-advised” rather than springly cleanly from the author’s mind. Certainly, O’Connell is someone worth keeping an eye on in the future.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Is this a mystery? Sounded ok until the memory lapse thing and then I was reminded of Before I go to Sleep. Terrfic buidl up in the one but I couldn’t buy the ending at all.

    Had to laugh about the cheap tennis shoes–funny how something like that can trip up the reading and work as a distraction

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Definitely not a mystery. I have not read Before I Go To Sleep, but from my understanding of it that would be an appropriate comparison: a lost soul, not sure what is real and what is not.

    As for cheap tennis shoes, that reference landed a little differently with me. In my experience, old-fashioned, single-layer canvas tennis shoes tend to acquire smells from both the outside and inside that multi-layer, wicking new trainers don’t. You are right though — when a novel has not engaged your attention little distractions tend to grow into major ones.

  5. anokatony Says:

    AS I looked through the list of previous Random House NFofF winners, I realized that I haven’t been keeping up with Canadian literature recently. I still seem to go back to the old reliables like Guy Vanderhaeghe and Alice Munro. I’d be interested in a post from you on the best up and coming Canadian writers.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: Two years ago when a friend who was then the director of the Calgary authors’ festival and I were watching the Giller Awards we both concluded that Canada was well along in moving from a small A list (Alice and Guy for sure; some like Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields who have already passed on) to a much larger one of new “established” faces (if you can see what I mean by that awkward phrasing). It is a testimony to the NFoF that all four authors from that first year would now be in that group 16 years on.

    I wouldn’t want to try to do a post, simply because the list would be too long to be useful and I’d still feel guilty about all the names that I left off. My friend and I did observe that in this newer world there are a lot more names — and a much broader swath of “type” — even if none are yet as well known as the “old” lions. I would point to the Giller longlists and reviews that you can access from the sidebar as a good starting point (here’s a link to their website of shortlists and winners — the Giller is only one year older than the NFoF so both are part of this newer world). The Giller has been consistently strong — and its lists have been a good mix of those older, well-known names (Munro, Vassanji, Richler and Atwood have all won) and younger ones (Bergen, Skibsrud, McIntyre).

    All of which gives me an opening to say that the KfC blog will again be hosting a Shadow Giller this year. They are announcing the longlist Aug. 28 — I’ll put up a post on this year’s Shadow Giller plans sometime in mid-August, once the Booker longlist is out and the 2012 prize season is underway.

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