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Stuart Ross (handout)
Stuart Ross (handout)

The Daily Review, Tue., June 21

Trapped in a Venn diagram Add to ...

Part Guy Maddin, part Marc Chagall, part Kurt Vonnegut, all Stuart Ross, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew follows the musings of antihero Ben. A performance artist raised in the 1960s along Toronto's dreary Bathurst Street, Ben muses, in a series of short, scene-like chapters, on the love, hate, kitsch, humour, violence and loss that is his biography.

While unreliable witness Ben is depressive and broods on the thin veil that separates life and death, the somberness is undercut by puns and Ross's trademark surrealism. The past is also as fluid and every bit as immediate as the present, making the work both nostalgic and anti-nostalgic.

Known mainly as a poet and as a small-press publisher, Ross previously collaborated on two novels, and has written short fiction. Both as novel and in its subject matter, this one might seem a departure for Ross, but his 2001 poetry collection Razovsky at Peace also featured a mourning Ben, Hebrew for "son," with grieving son being both Bens' primary roles.

Surrealist though Ross is, what seems a nonsensical title for the book is surprisingly apt. Ben is stuck in the middle of a Venn diagram: The three rings are ambivalent nature, played by dragonflies that both eat mosquitoes and claw into the young Ben's flesh; equally ambivalent humanity, as in Ben's Jewish family, who are all gone, in different ways; and violence and hatred.

Nature can be just as destructive as people: A friend's mother is limbless; Ben's parents both die of cancer; and his brother, Jake, suffers a case of amnesia straight out of Oliver Sacks. The title alludes to violence in the form of snowballs that anti-Semites threw at Ben's mother when she was 4, a violence in which both humanity and nature partake, though a cartoonish one. Yet the book is framed by Ben's mother - maybe - shooting an Ernst Zundel-like character. Hatred and violence … snowball.

The novel challenges our perceptions from the start, and also asks tough questions. It's one of Ross's endearing qualities that his humour carries moral authority, as in when Ben recalls playing with toy soldiers, then reflects, after watching battle coverage on CNN, "Real soldiers don't have plastic bases on their feet, which is why they fall down a lot."

So while loss is filtered through Ben and his family, it's part of a larger vision. And because in Ross's (and Ben's) universe, reality and fiction are blurred, loss is not irrevocable. The death of Kim Novak's character in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is every bit as real to Ben as that of his parents. Novak the actress is alive, but is it Novak or her dead character, Madeleine Elster, who meets Ben in a doughnut shop?

While the ending runs long - Ross goes on for several pages on how difference-making is the enemy of art - Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew succeeds not only because of Ross's distinctive style, but also because he can think and feel with the best of them, and shows maturity of vision without sacrificing the childish sense of play and absurdity his readers expect from him.

As a teenager, A.J. Levin, the Winnipeg-based author of Monks' Fruit, thought Bathurst Street was already several decades in the past.

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