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Book Reviews Diane Schoemperlen’s By The Book is a poetic journey lead by a skilled craftsperson

Title
By The Book
Author
Diane Schoemperlen
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Biblioasis
Pages
218 pages

In 1998, Thunder Bay-born novelist and short story writer Diane Schoemperlen published Forms of Devotion. It was her seventh book, a work in "stories and pictures," and it broke not only from her own mode of storytelling, but also from the standard in mainstream Canadian literature. With near-obsessive sourcing, Schoemperlen mined the past to produce a quirky and kitschy collection, cobbled together from a whimsical assortment of bygone-era illustrations, myth and fact. Perhaps the book's greatest strength was it uniquely took romantic love seriously in a culture that so often dismisses it as frivolous subject matter.

Some of the nostalgic imagery found in Forms of Devotion appeared as originally intended, while others were cut apart and collaged by the author's own hand. The text included comical instructional tales like How To Write A Serious Novel About Love ("First of all, your man and woman will need names…") and On Looking Further Into the Bodies of Men ("Many male chests have a little recession in the middle, where, if you cry long enough, your tears will collect in a salty pool…") The end result was lush and humourous, innovative yet historical, and it struck a chord with readers yearning for the sensual escapist pleasures of a lyrical, lovely read.

The highly successful Forms of Devotion won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and now, over 15 years and a handful of books later, Schoemperlen has produced a follow-up. It's as if she couldn't stay away from the compulsion to cut and paste, the meticulous practice of assembling words and pictures appearing to be where she feels most at home. By The Book reveals with even more vibrancy Schoemperlen's reconstructive impulse, this time in full glossy colour, with a more sophisticated hand and more depth of source materials. Culling the contents of long-forgotten encyclopedias, handbooks and hilariously dated how-tos, there is less of Schoemperlen's own voice here and more of a virtuoso performance in found text and visual poetry.

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In some ways Schoemperlen's full surrender to her technique makes this new book less accessible than the last. The "stories," though beautiful, fascinating and fun, are less coherent than those found in Forms of Devotion. They're dependent more on aesthetic construct and its archaic texts than that whimsical, irreverent tone of hers that readers have come to love. This is an author who, for example, wrote a novel about the Virgin Mary appearing in the protagonist's living room wearing a blue trench coat and Nike running shoes, and that more obvious kind of imaginativeness seems to be missing here. Yet Schoemperlen's intent is not narrative, and what a reader loses in coherency is gained in an artist mastering her chosen craft.

With each section, Schoemperlen lets you know the liberties she has taken with the source text she's surgically altered. Sometimes her intervention is minimal, and in other cases it is fascinatingly and exhaustingly complex. "From this massive volume of 1454 pages, I have selected the events that interested me and rearranged them in new sections with my own titles," she informs us of her reorganization of a book of historical dates from 1900. In a section titled A Body Like a Little Nut, she draws on a 1897 high school botany text book, arranging its staccato sentences into alphabetical sections to produce something all together erotic: "Ovaries in a ring. Ovaries united in one berry. Ovary bursting soon after the flowering." Or: "Plant but little aromatic. Plant erect, hairy (but green.) Plant more or less hairy, erect. Plant poisonous to the touch." She goes to work on the obvious absurdity of 1920s health and hygiene guides, and creates what is essentially a long poem from a 1946 Ontario public-school geography text. In doing so, she reveals herself to be a curator of both juxtaposition and connection, luxuriating in the way language works and what feelings it can conjure when laid on the page.

"What is a hat? Is it not extremely beautiful? Where does it come from? Is it not very useful as well as amusing? Was not her lover surprised when he saw it? What did she mean? Who was he?"

The words and phrases Schoemperlen meticulously sources teach us about universality, and how little humanity – its desires, fears and foibles – have shifted over time. Paradoxically, she breaks her readers out of the present to give them more insight into who they are and how they live. Though the escalation of her experiment runs the risk of sinking into monotony, it's hard not to admire her skill and arduous dedication to the project she's developed for herself. Those who expect a galloping narrative clip will not find it here, but if a meditative, poetic journey lead by a skilled craftsperson is sought, it's easy to look to this book as the literary paradigm.

Stacey May Fowles is the author of Infidelity, a novel.

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