The National Post reviews Monoceros

By Brett Josef Grubisic
National Post
May 6 2011

Suzette Mayr stomps all over cherished myths about the innate niceness and world-class tolerance of Canadians in her spellbinding and playful tragicomic novel Monoceros. A stylistic tour de force that depicts fuming volcanic emotions — rage, grief, regret — Monoceros is unsettling and harsh, a compelling dark vision of human nature that nevertheless tentatively points to the possibility of redemption.

The multicultural Peyton Place of Mayr’s fourth novel is St. Aloysius, a Catholic senior high school in suburban Calgary. A prof at the University of Calgary, Mayr altogether rejects her hometown’s stereotype as Dallas North. There’s no oil money evident here, no cowboy boots, no Stampede cookouts. In fact, besides the shopworn school, there’s a doughnut franchise, a drag revue bar, a budget Ethiopian restaurant, and cookie-cutter houses from which TVs blare old episodes of Sector Six (Mayr’s fictional example of a “well-run organization,” one led by fearless but sexy Colonel Shakira, who guides the Starship Monoceros on intergalactic adventures).

With “The End,” the novel’s harrowing opening chapter, Mayr commands immediate attention. Between the first sentence (“Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker”) and the last (“Because he wants to be in charge of his own ending”), she illustrates the various reasons why bullied, heartbroken, and ignored Grade 12 student Patrick Furey decides to end his life a few months short of graduation.

Over the remaining sixty brief chapters, Mayr charts the ripple effects of Furey’s suicide. For his school peers — Petra Mai, Furey’s mean-girl tormentor, her boyfriend (and Furey’s secret boyfriend), Tomas Ginger, and unicorn-obsessed loner Faraday Michaels — the death breeds chaotic despair, wild acting out and profound introspection.

While the teens are anguished and unmoored, the middle-aged adults — who are already too conscious of lost opportunities and halfhearted efforts — become despondent and infuriated in turn. Not only have they have failed in their responsibility to protect the young but they have been forced to acknowledge — again — the numerous ways they’ve not really lived up to their potential.

There’s the dead student’s bitter failed writer of an English teacher, Mrs. Mochinski (“She’s a gerbil in a wheel, running and running, spinning, thinking she’s running a marathon, running to paradise, when really she’s headed nowhere at all”) and his rampaging but guilt-stricken mother, Gretta (“Your Pilates instructor asks how you can go on. You go on because you go on. Because your son is dead, but you are alive, and killing yourself is not an option”).

The teen’s bingeing, overweight, and closeted guidance counselor Walter (“Spring is overrated, but a winter that never ends, like this one, feels like it’s pushing him closer to lunacy. If he could, he would fall to his hands and knees and drag the green from the ground, yank out blooms from frozen tulip bulbs; the time for spring is now. Now.”) and his secret husband of more than a decade, Principal Max Applegate (“The ripe-vegetable men they once were. Now freeze-dried”) are more pathetic yet.

The best-adjusted of the lot is Faraday’s Uncle Suzie (a.k.a. Clement Michaels, a waiter by day; aka Crepe Suzette, drag performer by night), a wise maternal figure with a fierce tongue.

All these oddly endearing adult characters feel the immense depth their follies, and one of unexpected pleasures of Monoceros is Mayr’s accounts of their frequent (sometimes funny, sometimes devastating) expletive-saturated raging at the world, the cosmos, other people, and, of course, themselves. And though their eventual realizations about personal truths suggest future chances for transformation, they’re wary enough to understand that they are flawed and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Readers looking for a graceful narrative arc over the course of the plot’s two weeks may find the novel lacking. It’s not. “This is real life,” one of the character states glumly, and as though to underscore that fact, the characters’ actions and reactions are messy, unsure, and unpredictable. Yes, they’re moving forward and working through their grief, but like the rest of us they’re less confident about where they’re going and why.

Brett Josef Grubisic is the author of The Age of Cities. He teaches at the University of British Columbia.

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