Few writers in this country have a better poker face than C.P. Boyko. Since the success of his debut collection Blackouts in 2008, the Vancouver-based short-story writer has done his best to sever any obvious ties between the author and his work. Both 2012’s Psychology and Other Stories and his new collection, Novelists, are vivid and wickedly funny books that contain neither acknowledgments nor author photos. They’ve got fake blurbs on the covers and doctored quotes between them. A recent press release from his publisher – as likely ghostwritten by Boyko himself as not – notes that he is “not the easiest author to work with.” For that first book, Boyko went by his full name, Craig; these days he’s reduced himself down to initials.
The intent, presumably, is to force readers to better engage with the work at hand. So let’s get to it: Psychology and Other Stories was one of the most underrated books of 2012, and Novelists is nearly its equal. The two collections even have similar modi operandi, not just exposing the foibles and insecurities and outright derangements of each respective profession, but also demonstrating how psychologists and novelists alike can’t help but take their work home with them.
To be sure, Novelists does take the occasional shot that readers attuned to the premise will see coming. But Boyko seems to anticipate such guesswork, which is why he combines his skewering of creative-writing workshops and literary prize juries into one scathing story (The Prize Jury) and then sticks it way at the end of the collection. This frees him up to instead lampoon novelists as they attempt to camouflage themselves in the real world, doing everyday tasks while, unbeknownst to those around them, gathering material for new books and itemizing the ways the world has already screwed them over.
In Paddy Gercheszky, we meet a novelist who shines at parties but whose writing process involves rambling dictation to a string of frustrated secretaries. The Door in the Wall features a man who, smitten by a waitress, writes a book that begins as a blatant declaration of his love and accidentally morphs into a tale of international espionage. And The Hunting Party and The Undergoing present two variations on what happens when highfalutin would-be novelists are forcibly ejected from their cozy libraries into the messiness of the natural world. (The former also contains my favourite phrase in the book, when ultra-spoiled Lance is roughly awoken in the forest by his aboriginal guides, “prodded upright, stuffed with fish, irrigated with coffee.”)
Boyko is at his best when documenting the ways in which writers insulate themselves from reality by adopting the trappings and jargon of the publishing world into their everyday lives. When the protagonist of The Language Barrier sojourns around Italy in search of material for a new book, she is horrified when an Italian man makes an advance on her. “That was not the sort of novel she was interested in writing,” Boyko writes. “She was not that sort of novelist.” The chirpy narrator of Sympathetic, meanwhile, has a crisis of faith that gets framed in terms that are laughably – and yet perfectly – aloof: “For the first time, she had begun to doubt her own blurbs. It was a dark night of the soul indeed.”
It’s perhaps worth noting here that Boyko himself has never written a novel. But it would be foolish to interpret Novelists as a line drawn in the sand between practitioners of short- and long-form fiction. In these eight stories, writing of any kind is all part of the same self-inflicted madness – but the longer you submerge yourself in it, the more acute your condition becomes. Perhaps by confining himself to shorter dips in the pool, Boyko is trying to ensure that the disease that has claimed so many of his characters’ sanities and social lives doesn’t claim his, too.
Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.