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Book Reviews

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FLAT
by Mark Macdonald
(Arsenal Pulp Press) $14.95

Lostness, classic anomie, and the odd continuum between buildings and humans permeate Mark Macdonald's first novel. Flat occurs after the fact of a suicide, which forces a post-trauma stillness into the narrative. It falls to Macdonald's unnamed narrator to clean up his acquaintance's apartment with its plethora of notebooks and stuff inhabited by the aura of this dead friend, known only as "J." As the narrator makes cremation arrangements and sorts through the morass of J's frantic, cryptic writings, various bric-a-brac, and pills, he drops into a state of withdrawal, a solipsistic freak-out, and doubt about existence, a claustrophobia whose edges and surfaces rhyme with the omnipresent high-rise apartment buildings around him in Vancouver, BC's West End. Flat explores ideas of identity, immanence of being, and presence after death, though its writing and presentation don't have the intensity that the narrative is describing.

Still, readers will like this subtly designed little volume, with its large margins surrounding each page's columns of type, and photographs of anonymous-looking buildings purportedly housing legions of urbanites, though the novel deliberately refrains from describing urban hordes. The frantic, colloquial narrator, fueled by alcohol and the antidepressants he finds among J's belongings, teeters on the brink of hysteria as he sinks into a realm between the honeycomb apartment buildings and the bodies of men who live in them, the ways the apartment dwellers watch one another across the silence between their high-altitude windows, and the types of human connections there. The book sports a number of bright, superfocused spots, too, including one about the glories of the right angle:

"The brilliance of the side meeting the corner, the box inside the box.... It's all such utter genius! I have tried for so long to reproduce in draughting the perfection of the right angle, and I think now that it cannot be done. The right angle insinuates itself, it is not produced. Instead of marveling at it, we embrace it blindly, and only later discover that we cannot survive within it. The single, unique enemy of the right angle is love. And now I love the right angle."

This paradoxical material, which the narrator finds in J's notebooks, characterizes the kind of metaphysical entrapment that Flat cleverly hints at. The narrator is stuck between his life and the dead man's disappeared state, it seems, feeling J's presence in the dirty apartment's space; he is atomized, too, by the geographical layout of life in the West End and its boxes of stacked apartments. He is surrounded by the right angle, and by the intersecting angle between death and life. Macdonald takes the standard trope of hyperurban isolation in a nonclichéd direction by complicating it with the unexplained suicide and with drugs; and in an odd sense, the city around him is rendered empty, for Flat is sparsely peopled and the narrator's few friends are written deliberately murkily. Wisely, the author doesn't offer any sort of equation or easy metaphoric scheme, and even the right angle as a symbol or literal artifact is both particular and abstract enough to make it a smart, subtle, and evocative literary device.

Another interesting area of the book is a section that suddenly delves into the narrator's family's moribund history. He describes, rather suddenly, how every one of his relatives has died in some odd, traumatic, or accidental way--the uncle inexplicably crushed under a falling tree, cousins falling down wells, being mauled by birds, and enduring general madness make for a brutally comic passage, and the narrator uses these points from his history to help illustrate his current state of entrapment. The hyperbolic-sounding deaths, and the great number of them, help ready the reader for the metaphysical turns the book will take and form a string of clear, expository particulars in contrast to most of the rest of the book, which isn't as colorful.

Flat achieves a degree of eeriness, even with its sophomoric-sounding passages about coming down from hangovers, as if drinking in the party circuit until horrendous sickness takes over is some ineffable fate. Readers will see through this posturing and may not care for the lack of tightness in the loose, conversational prose, but Flat's strength is its ghostly and rearranged version of the West End, its blank-faced drifters and cement buildings all funneled into a vision of disembodiment and philosophical terror.