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André Alexis Biography

stories canadian self novel

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Trinidad, 1957. Career: Playwright, radio writer, poet, and writer of fiction. Awards: Trillium Book Award, 1999. Agent: c/o McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 481 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5G 2E9 Canada.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Childhood: A Novel. New York, Henry Holt, 1998.

Short Stories

Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1994; published as Despair and Other Stories, New York, Henry Holt, 1999

Other

Lambton Kent: A Play. Toronto, Gutter Press, 1999.

* * *

Inclined towards experimental and avant-garde modes in his plays and performance-art collaborations, André Alexis in his fiction both represents and disturbs the familiar surfaces of banal, quotidian reality. His prose is emotionally cool but vivid and surprising in its images; his narrative world alternates—often in the same paragraph—between the mundanely recognizable and the outrageously, nightmarishly fantastical. Describing his fictional terrain as "the shifting ground between the imagined life and the life that you live in from day to day," he invites readers to question their assumptions about the normal and the abnormal, the real and the unreal, the remembered and the lived.

His début book, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, is an unsettling collection of macabre tales set mostly in the placidly prosperous Canadian capital where Alexis grew up, having moved to Canada from Trinidad at age three. Beneath Ottawa's apparently dull, institutional exterior Alexis reveals dream-worlds of flesh-biting "Soucouyants," bar patrons holding their own severed heads in their laps, and worms that, when swallowed, cause a boy and his father to write fine poetry until the burgeoning annelids destroy them. At times nauseating, at times darkly humorous, Alexis's playful stories wallow in the grotesque, but the weirdly degenerative physical conditions and lurid sexual scenarios they describe seem not so much comments on bodily vulnerabilities and (im)possibilities as mental and aesthetic exercises—discomfiting workouts for the writer's (and the reader's) imagination. More cerebral than referential, more performative than political, Alexis's narratives are often deliberately solipsistic and self-reflexive; when the street addresses mentioned in diverse stories all include the number 128, or when one story's characters are all named either André Alexis or Andrée Alexis, the author's role as presiding consciousness and metaphysical provocateur becomes as important a subject as anything actually "happening" in the stories.

Much the same can be said of Alexis's meditative first novel, Childhood, though it sheds the stories' outré preoccupations in favor of a firmer grounding in the psychologically and ontologically familiar. Addressing themes of loss, absence, the meaning of love, and the slipperiness of memory, the novel depicts 40-year-old Thomas MacMillan's search for knowledge and understanding of some fascinating but puzzling others, especially the mother who abandoned him at birth. But his introspective narrative of childhood relations turns out to be primarily a quest for the self; "The way to Katarina and Henry [his mother and her lover] is through me," he writes, but the reverse is also true. Having experienced as a child a variety of bewildering deceptions, dislocations, and power struggles, Thomas attempts to reconstruct his memories and order his life; his narrative activity is often displaced by his list-making habit and penchant for diagrams, graphs, and footnotes, all of which rather endearingly, if absurdly, endeavor to explain his world to himself and the enigmatic "you" to whom the novel is addressed. His four section titles—"History," "Geography," "The Sciences," and "Housecleaning"—and his relentlessly analytical cast of mind reinforce the impression of an idiosyncratic man struggling nobly to gather the loose strands of his self into a coherent pattern.

One of Alexis's points in this quietly lyrical novel is that the search to make sense of the past and the self that has emerged from it—a well-worn theme of Canadian and international literature—is unavoidably subjective; any construct that results is but one of an infinite number of possible variations. The past is always framed and contaminated by present conditions, and the same story told a year later will be a different one. As Alexis has said in an interview, "all versions of the self are provisional, time-based, and evanescent, but all of these versions are also true, however briefly." In its muted attentiveness to place (Petrolia, Ontario, and Ottawa), to daily minutiae and to delicate maneuverings in intricate relationships, Childhood paints a compelling, if rather narrow, fictional portrait. And although it shares the first book's even, unflashy prose and tone of controlled detachment, it nonetheless resonates emotionally to a degree that the stories do not (nor seem to want to do).

Alexis rejects fashionable labels such as "magic realist," "sur-realist," or "postmodern" that might seem to describe his work. And while his Trinidadian roots could place him within West Indian and African-Canadian literary traditions, he accepts these affiliations reluctantly, noting that such writing was not formative to his artistic and intellectual development. As literary influences he cites a diverse group that includes Samuel Beckett, Jorge-Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Leo Tolstoy, and Marcel Proust, along with the Canadian writers Norman Levine, bpNichol and Margaret Avison. His sensibility is often described as "cosmopolitan," which may be code for "European"; it is notable that the issues of race and racism, exile and displacement that vex so many African-Canadian and African-American writers are virtually absent from Alexis's work. Trinidadian origins, when they are mentioned at all, are typically treated as simple facts of a character's background rather than as sources of anxiety or conflict; their visible difference from the Canadian mainstream goes unnoticed or unremarked by most of Alexis's characters. Whether this represents a denial or a transcendence of the racialized consciousness that his peers' writing so often reflects, Alexis's quirky fiction seems destined to follow its own singular path through the contemporary literary landscape.

—John Clement Ball

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over 1 year ago

West Indian and African-Canadian literary traditions, he accepts these affiliations reluctantly, noting that such writing was not formative