Culture & Conversation

Can you be a comfortable outsider?


Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, by Mark Anthony Jarman, Goose Lane

I’d like to begin this review by humbly acknowledging a factual error: in “10 Books to Read in 2015,” I identified Mark Anthony Jarman as a “well-known New Brunswick writer.” Jarman is actually a native of Alberta—not New Brunswick. A New Brunswicker myself, I suppose I tried to appropriate him for the province. That being said, Jarman did make New Brunswick his “home” in 1998. As he put it in a recent interview with The Malahat Review, “I’ve grown to really like Fredericton and the East Coast; I still feel a bit of an outsider, but a very comfortable outsider.”

I like the way he puts that: comfortable outsider. The characters in Jarman’s newest collection of stories, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, express a similar sentiment, and they seem more comfortable being away. Or better yet, always on the move. As the unnamed narrator puts it in “Butterfly on a Mountain,” “Travel can be that balance between control and letting go.” Throughout these twelve interlinked stories, all narrated by the same first-person narrator, relationships come and go, flare up and fizzle out—most of the time, in the fever-dream landscape of humid and sensual Italy, which, in its very architecture, writes the history of our transient human civilization. The narrator—a typical Jarman blend of bohemian, gourmand, and philosopher—witnesses other outsiders, comfortable and uncomfortable, as we follow him on a journey, not just geographically, back and forth between Canada and Italy, but emotionally, back and forth between memories of his various relationships.

Mixed in are reflections (from this ever-wandering, ever-eager mind) on both large- and small-scale events in Italy’s long history. Minor—though no less violent—events in the present involve a deadly knife fight (“Knife Party”), a tragic drowning of three unidentified refugees (“Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning”), and a no less tragic road accident that kills two beautiful young lovers (“Pompeii Book of the Dead”). There is the sense that the “ribald riotous” and oppressively warm Italy requires the frequent, if brief, return to the “quiet, spooky silence” of snow-covered Canada (“Pompeii Über Alles”). Indeed, “Hallway Snowstorm,” in which we are transported to Canada for an entire episode (the only time this happens), functions as the collection’s unofficial interlude.

But this is a collection of many interludes—sensual, violent, comic, morose—rather than a strictly linear narrative. In a frenzy of horniness, after hearing a couple’s passionate love-making through his hotel room walls, the narrator exclaims, in one of many Joycean moments: “the amazing skin my eyes take in around this mammose mammering holy city!” (“Pompeii Book of the Dead”). A passage from “Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning,” which might be the best story (or tied with “Pompeii Book of the Dead”), exemplifies Jarman’s weird retooling of Donnean astronomical conceits. A lustful and earthy meditation turns metaphorical and morbid: “I am a measly planet struck by passing worlds and haunted chords and fragments of silver moons, […] My pocked outer casing, dusty craters, but a smooth child buried inside, strange weather inside and furnished rooms and a rat inside us reading Proust (such memorable pastry!) and perhaps a rat nesting inside your inner rat.” A “memorable pastry” indeed!

A sense of transience haunts all the stories and is implied in the narrator’s most “ribald” moments: grab flesh while you can, because tomorrow you die. But the sense of urgency might be stronger, given the Roma woman’s threat in the very first story: “Today, you die!” Death, whether literal or metaphorical, hovers over the collection—and yet the narrator continues to stress the importance of mobility, of being comfortable with that transient, outsider status. At the conclusion of a collection that never really properly ends, we have this typical Jarmanian sentence, where commas (in their spliced glory) illustrate the narrator’s nomadic mindset: “We move, we sin, we confess, we fly to and fro, we are on earth, then we are in the heavens, then we are not, we are on earth, then we are flung through the heavens, then we are not in the heavens.” This perfectly captures how so many characters pass through the scenery of the story, take a part in the plot, then leave just as abruptly as they arrived.

The narrator—who, like Jarman, is the ski-bum and canoe-loving resident of no place and traveller of many—offers a final parting admonishment of those who complain or sleep away the beauty of the world rather than rejoice in it: “In the name of heaven, why do we not swoon and scream, why do we orphans in the orchard not high-five over and over, why do we not laugh and dance in the aisles of the plane? Though I can’t actually dance, but you know, um, just a suggestion.”

Yes, Jarman: you really can, um, dance; it’s just not a dance that we can easily put a name on. I’d like to call it “The Comfortable Outsider.”

Adam Lawrence is a writer and lives in Montreal. His work has appeared in Quills: Canadian Poetry and in Vallum: Contemporary Poetry (forthcoming in 2015).

– photo: Efilpera, Flickr Creative Commons

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