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Review: Michael Helm’s After James is entertaining, apocalyptic and complex

In After James, Michael Helm takes the reader on a tour of what one character calls ‘current anxieties over the smooth fictions of government, media, even fiction itself.’

After James
Michael Helm
McClelland & Stewart

The end of truth is now, as they say, a thing. Think pieces abound, lamenting how technology has eroded the authority of fact in journalism and politics. For fiction, which is a lie by definition, the consequences are not as grave as for, say, national sovereignty. But what's causing the end of truth in the real world affects a key ingredient of the novel: the understanding of a self.

After James, Michael Helm's entrancing new book, has three selves. The narrative is composed of three parts, each featuring a different protagonist and embroidered with genre-specific elements. The first leans toward rural horror in the Cormac McCarthy mode; the second, baroque literary thriller; and the third, a kind of surreal, art house sci-fi. They tell the stories of Alice, a whistle-blowing scientist in pharmaceuticals, who retreats to the woods; James, an obsessive reader hired to track a mysterious Internet poet; and Celia, a researcher, also in pharmaceuticals, caught up in an art project that may portend the end of days.

With impressive knowledge and great skill in crafting a mood, Helm, whose book The Projectionist was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 1997, juxtaposes, recombines and rewires the three stories, taking us on a tour of what one character calls "current anxieties over the smooth fictions of government, media, even fiction itself." There is identity theft, an epidemic, bizarre weather, mass human displacement. Meanwhile, gallery shows happen. A cryptic online poem cycle gains a cult following. Bombs explode. People go missing.

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The resulting work is a puzzle, presenting several possibilities. It might be quantum, everything happening at once. It might be a David Mitchell-esque Russian doll, everything happening within everything else. It could be genetic, expressed in mutating helixes of narrative code. It might be psychedelic, an altered state – perhaps a trip on the "creativity drug" that appears in the first part, "Alice After James" (and maybe later on, too). It may just be a case of arch literary fabulism; an epigraph to Part 2, "Decor," makes a case for all of this taking place within an essay by Jorge Luis Borges. As James puts it, in the novel and the world it reflects, "Implausibility is no longer a measure of anything."

The book contains a reference to hylozoism, the idea that all matter in the universe is alive and conscious. Maybe this is the best metaphor: perhaps the text is alive. Part of the discussion about the end of truth is how a proliferation of platforms and transformative technologies has led to instability in narrative. Everyone now has their own version of a story, algorithmically, even as social media creates twitchy hive minds. Like the characters in After James, immersed in information, we can't be certain what we know and what we don't, or which would-be conspiracies – no matter how fantastical they sound – are grounded in reality, or about to be. (Donald Trump is a Marvel-sized iteration of this: I've had more than one friend suggest that he must be a plant, that Hillary Clinton is paying him to run in order to destroy the Republican Party. Surely that's not true. Surely it could be.)

In After James, as in the headlines, the narrative is volatile, permeable, quaking with imminent collapse along with the rest of us, the glaciers and bees, markets and antibodies.

So, if the big picture does not become clear – and some readers will feel this way – it's not for lack of rigour on Helm's part, nor slack pacing or an absence of beauty. In its own way, each of the echoing stories feels contemporary, urgent. The book is ambitious and all encompassing in a good way. The writing is intense and evocative. There are passages that stop you and fill your body with warmth. Take this one: "Dreams are ours alone. Never to be spied on, stolen, and never really to be shared, even when we try. If we're lucky something in the waking world, some artifice, roof of wet cedar shingles, sail of meringue on a passing dessert plate, poem, maybe a poem about a dream of a dog in a port slum street, will seem to have the impress of the dream, and for a short time we can set the secret inside the found shape, and imagine that we are known."

Because it's readable and steeped in genre, Helm's novel makes you want to get it – to understand, find one final answer. Yet, while it comes to a lovely, dreamlike conclusion, it resonates with uncertainty. The unavailability of a clear ending is part of its DNA. Entertaining, apocalyptic and complex, After James will end with us.

It bears mentioning that this is one of the last books that the late and celebrated editor Ellen Seligman helped to shape at McClelland & Stewart. As an exemplary work – think Fugitive Pieces or The English Patient – it illustrates how she mattered to Canadian literature, and why she will be missed.

J.R. McConvey was recently named a finalist for the Journey Prize.

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