Tuesday, August 27, 2013

7th Challenge - 1st review - Nikolski

As explained briefly in the other post, I happened across this book -- Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) -- in the Toronto Library book sale and scooped it up for $1. So this is a somewhat random pick for my first review of the 7th Canadian Challenge, which seems appropriate given that the novel celebrates randomness and chance. (Dickner is perhaps attempting to be the French-Canadian version of Paul Auster).

The plot, such as it is, involves three main characters -- an unidentified character (probably male) who works in a used bookstore (S.W. Gam) in Montreal, a half-brother Noah who comes to Montreal to learn anthropology (or was it archaeology?), and Joyce, who is vaguely tied into the others through her Uncle Jonas.  The structure of the novel has some surface similarities to Rene Clair's Le Million or Orphuls' La Ronde in the sense that every character meets at least once and this odd three-part book is passed along from one character to the next.  Where it is a bit different is that the meetings are generally brief and for the most part don't have lasting consequences.  However, there are a few secondary characters that also link the characters, and the interactions between these characters and other main three characters are more life-changing.  I'll go into a few of these, but that will require detailing the plot, such as it is, so I'll mention a few other things before going into spoiler mode.

I thought this novel was going to remain mostly set in 1989 or the early 90s, and I think I would have preferred that.  This novel ended up stretching over a much longer period, and most of the characters would drop out in the meantime while the novel followed Noah or Joyce (but mostly Noah).  It ended up feeling pretty episodic, and it became hard to care about most of the characters, particularly Joyce.  The novel skates on the edge of magic realism, and I've come around to the idea that this generally doesn't work for novels written by Americans nor Canadians.  Dickner thinks he is pretty clever fellow, but some of his conceits aren't really that clever: Joyce's family tree has some pirates and she joins up with hackers/software pirates, for example.  The one that really takes the cake is that the bookstore clerk is semi-frightened by his furnace, which he names The Beast.  This ancient oil furnace was built by the New England firm of Levi Athan.  So if you think that is particularly clever, you will probably like the novel.  If you think that kind of thing is over-the-top, you won't.  It really wasn't my cup of tea, which is too bad, as it had the makings of a really good novel had it more or less confined itself to the three characters exploring Montreal of the late 80s and early 90s and finding their way in the city.  That would have been a book I would have enjoyed a lot more...


I think the most unrealistic aspect of the novel was that Joyce and Noah apparently lived on the same street (and probably in the same building) but had almost no interaction, except perhaps after she had already fled Montreal ahead of the RCMP.*  Given how gregarious her boss, Maelo, was (manager of a fish shop) throwing these big parties every weekend, he would have more or less insisted she show up at least a few times (and Noah would have encountered her).  Instead, Joyce spent nearly all her free time dumpster diving, first for computer equipment (tipped off by the anthropologist Thomas Saint-Laurent (Noah's advisor)) and then for access cards and work IDs.  I do think Dickner sort of wrote himself into a corner here.  He doesn't want to give up the computer pirate angle, but he never really explains what it is that Joyce is up to with this obsessive hacking into corporate accounts.  She passes along passwords to others in her pirate networks, and some of them must be making money off this.  (Dickner does show one time when Joyce doesn't steal the credit card digits off some awful yuppie, so she still has some kind of moral compass.)  He simply can't give a coherent and internally consistent picture of what she was up to (or at least not without risking antagonizing those readers who don't want to empathize with common criminals), so she largely drops out of the novel, despite being the most interesting character.

Noah meets up with his future partner Arizna Lorenzo in the library, where she is doing some compulsive studying of native rights.  She was particularly taken by Maelo's parties and then sort of fell into Noah's life.  While it might have been interesting had her backstory of having a wealthy grandfather backing her research (and later small publishing company) been a total fabrication (sort of a parallel to Joyce's double life), it actually checked out.  After she gets pregnant (and disappears from Montreal back to Venezuela), she eventually clues him in, and he moves down there for several years.  (This chapter (or two) is really not very interesting.)  Finally, a huge storm displaces Noah and his son Simon, and they return to Montreal, while Arizna stays behind.  Actually it is in the Newark Airport (rather than Montreal) that he crosses paths with Joyce, who wants wait it out with Maelo's relatives in the Dominican Republic until things cool off and she can return. Joyce's flight inspires the bookstore clerk to finally travel, but it is unclear where he (or she) will go first, or at least I cannot remember.

The theme of migration and instability runs deep in the novel, with a secondary theme of how random one's parentage really is (taken to extremes here). All the characters seem a bit drawn to atlases and maps (and it is a bit heart-breaking how Noah keeps sending these postcards off to his mother at various places where he thinks she'll be, but never seeming to ever connect). There is a bit of a sense that these characters are salmon that head out and return to some mythical spawning ground (though this is more metaphoric than literal in most cases).  Even the most settled figure decides to uproot (at least temporarily).  However, it is not at all clear why Montreal would be the lodestar rather than further east where the family seemed to get its start.  There are things that I did like about the novel where it tackles these big ideas, but on the whole I didn't think it quite lived up to its promise.

* Actually, this is only the second most unrealistic aspect of Nikolski.  The most unrealistic aspect is that both Noah, who was totally haphazardly educated by his mother as they drove endlessly through the Western Provinces, and Joyce, who was from the Maritimes and also somewhat undereducated, apparently speak sufficient French to get by in Montreal.  There is no hint that they are living in an Anglo enclave.  For instance, Noah might well have gone to McGill, which would have been far more plausible (fees aside).  I can't believe that Dickner fails to address this even once.


  1. 'Nikolski' was a novel study choice for my son's Grade 11 English Lit class, and though he ultimately chose another book (I believe it was Lawrence Hill's 'The Book of Negroes') I was intrigued enough by the description and cover of 'Nikolski' that I read it myself.

    I have to say that my reaction was similar to yours; I was expecting more than the author was able to deliver. He had some promising themes going, and some interesting characters created, but it didn't quite work.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn't hate the book, but it didn't live up to its promise. But it was a fairly early work.

    Down the road, I may give Apocalypse for Beginners, his more recent novel, a shot.