Wednesday, February 28, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 15th review - The Amazing Absorbing Boy

A while back, I had thought I would write a post about the literature of immigration.  That's still a good idea, but probably more work than I really want to take on, particularly now that I have finally started getting more serious about my own creative writing.  If I ever do tackle it, then Rabindranath Maharaj's The Amazing Absorbing Boy will definitely need to be mentioned.  It is a good, though not great, novel about a young immigrant coming to Toronto from Trinidad.  I'd say it did exceed my expectations a bit, since it was better than Maharaj's earlier novel Homer in Flight. That said, Maharaj still doesn't really have a solid handle on plotting or pacing novels, and his novels sort of peter out rather than conclude with a satisfactory ending.

In terms of some basic comparisons between the two, Samuel, the protagonist of The Amazing Absorbing Boy, is much younger than Homer when he first sets foot in Canada.  He doesn't actually apply for any sort of landed immigrant papers.  However, his father is in Canada, apparently legally.  Samuel first just overstays his tourist visa, but then his situation is finally straightened out, after his uncle comes up to Canada to see how things are going and forces Samuel's father to begin the process to sponsor Samuel legally.

To say that the relationship between Samuel and his father is not healthy is an understatement.  His father clearly doesn't want anything to do with him and only takes him in, unwillingly, after Samuel's mother dies.  Samuel's father does nothing to try to show Samuel around the city and show him the ropes (quite a contrast from Homer who had a fair bit of good advice from his relatives).  He lets Samuel fend for himself and is negative and sarcastic when Samuel somewhat amazingly finds work as a gas station attendant (being paid under the counter naturally).

While Samuel longs for his father's approval or even just basic recognition from him, he ends up being fairly resourceful. After a few missteps, he learns how to use the transit system.  Indeed, he starts exploring the city on his days off, particularly before he starts taking classes at a community college of some sort.  He appears to be working towards the equivalent of a GED, so that he can enroll in university.  All of this hinges upon his getting permanent residency of course, as he certainly cannot afford out-of-state tuition, even with his uncle helping out.  Samuel even learns about the GO trains and GO buses.  When his uncle visits, he takes him on a trip from Oshawa to Burlington, which is certainly further than most tourists would ever think to go.


There are a few quirky things about the novel.  Basically, two years pass in the novel, but Maharaj mostly only talks about the weather when it is winter, which I suppose is something that would really stand out to Samuel.  Also, Samuel encounters a large number of people that he interacts with for a while, and then they drift apart for one reason or another: a language school was a sham and the students have gotten in trouble, Samuel stops going to a particular coffee shop (or even this poetry reading series!), Samuel stops working at a store and so forth.  It's a little unsatisfying to have so many dropped threads.  In particular, I was wondering whether there would be any resolution to the near-dating that Samuel and Carmen (the sister of one of his classmates) engage in.  Instead, the novel shifts back in time to focus on Samuel's growing friendship with a boy in his hometown.  This boy, Loykie, had a terrible skin condition and more or less lived in a swamp with his mother.  Many of the townspeople had never even seen him; he was almost a myth.  Samuel and Loykie bonded over their love of comic book heroes, and together they dreamed up a new hero, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, who takes on the properties of everything he touches (basically like Rogue from the X-Men, but this applies even to inanimate objects like wood or water).  It's a fairly obvious metaphor that new immigrants, such as Samuel, rapidly absorb everything around them, and it isn't too long before they change to better fit their environment.  Indeed, eventually they blend in and can even show others around, as Samuel does with his uncle.  The novel ends with Samuel undergoing an exam to gain his permanent residency, which may indeed be no easy matter to gain, since his father has actually finally thrown in the towel on Canada and has returned to Trinidad.  I suppose until his future is settled, Samuel can't get too serious about Carmen.

Samuel definitely had some new takes on Toronto.  He lived in Regent Park, and the gentrification of the area and displacement of existing residents was a running thread through the second part of the novel.  But Samuel was fascinated by the way different cultures lived together.  He arrived at a time when Toronto truly had become more of a mosaic (compared to Homer who was arriving in a substantially whiter city).  Winters aside, he was pretty enthusiastic about the city and wanted to stay, even after his father left.  (It's a bit of a cliche, but Toronto was probably the second most important character in the book after Samuel.)  He clearly felt fairly confident that he could succeed where Canada had beaten his father, and indeed he seems to have more drive and was more open to new experiences and frankly was nicer to other people, all of which would generally contribute to his success.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favourite book of his so far; I understand what you're saying about the pacing, that his novels do not have the kind of arc we're used to in this kind of story, but I feel like it suits the characters, in that they really do not have a strong sense of resolution or conclusion themselves, they are simply in one phase now and maybe moving into another phase (or, maybe not) as they continue to shift and change and transform and settle and grow restless and and and... just on and on and still on and on even after there aren't any more pages for us to read...