Last November, not long after winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize, André Alexis fled Toronto.
In addition to $100,000, as the recipient of the career-making literary award, he was offered a three-week residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta. "The first thing that I did was I said, 'I'm leaving.' And I left."
His escape was, in part, to avoid the potentially endless requests and obligations that come with winning the prize, but mostly it was to get back to work, and soon. Sean Michaels, who won the Giller in 2014, told Alexis that in the year after winning the prize, he hardly wrote at all. Alexis couldn't risk the same thing happening to him. He didn't have the time.
Less than a year later, Alexis has returned with a brand-new novel, The Hidden Keys, which arrived in bookstores this week. A twisting, playful adventure about a principled thief, it is the third chapter – technically the fourth, but we'll explain later – in the literary project that will likely define Alexis's career: the quincunx, a series of five interlocking novels that investigate the idea of faith, of community, of morality, of humanity.
It is a wonderfully ambitious suite of books that, if Alexis pulls it off, might come to rank among the most unusual, and most important, works of literature this country has ever produced.
"I think that the feeling is that I'm being not necessarily prolix, but at least prolific," Alexis says.
"For me, I'm not. I'm accomplishing one project that's taking me forever."
The morning I first sat down with Alexis, earlier this month, the long list for this year's Giller Prize had just been revealed. We were sitting in the noisy back room of a café on King Street in Toronto, and I asked him if he had seen the list of nominees.
"No," he said cautiously. "Am I on it?"
Delicately, I told him that The Hidden Keys was missing from the list.
At the time, I couldn't tell if he was upset; in retrospect, I think he may have been slightly relieved. Winning the Giller Prize for his novel Fifteen Dogs, he says, "changed my life a lot."
"I wasn't ready for it. It wasn't something that I expected. And so I had to think of myself, and my work, in a different way." Alexis speaks rather slowly, softly, with a baritone that seems to have been designed in a lab for radio. (He's a former broadcaster with the CBC.) "I'm not naturally a happy person. The way my unhappiness works is by pulling at the strings of everything. And so I'm thinking: 'What does this mean? Is it going to change how I feel about myself? Is it going to change how people feel about me?' It just brings up a lot of questions. And so in forcing me to reconsider who I am, and what I'm doing, that's how it changed me."
Alexis underwent a similar experience when Childhood, his first novel, was published in 1998. It was among the buzziest books that season, and there were major profiles, an international book tour, deals with foreign publishers. The novel, a roman à clef about a young Trinidadian boy growing up in the care of his grandmother in rural Ontario and, after her death, with his errant mother in Ottawa, won numerous awards and was a finalist for the Giller Prize. (He lost to Alice Munro, so shouldn't feel too bad about it.)
"Emotionally, it was hard," he says of Childhood's publication. "It was nice to be appreciated, but I'm not good with a lot of people. That's why I'm a writer, on some level. Emotionally, you're okay being by yourself for long periods of time. And I am. The opposite of that is I'm not okay being with a lot of people for even short periods of time."
Alexis had a feeling the attention wouldn't last. He was right. His second novel, Asylum, in which a man reflects on his life in Brian Mulroney-era Ottawa, was published in 2008. It did not do well. For the next several years, Alexis bounced between publishers. Then, in the spring of 2014, Alexis published Pastoral, about a young priest who takes over a parish in the bucolic village of Barrow in Southwestern Ontario. The book concluded with an enigmatic endnote: "Quincunx 1."
The novel – the entire project – is a response to the work of Italian artist, writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and specifically his film Teorema, about a stranger's effect on an upper-class family. "What I imagined at once was five completely different possibilities of doing Teorema," he says. (A playwright, too, the first part in his planned "Decalogue," ten plays examining the commandments, premiered in 2011; Alexis obviously has a thing for multi-part projects.)
He had actually finished a draft of the novel in 2009, but found no willing publisher. "I was going to just shelve it," he says. "My mom and my sister forced me to keep sending it out, because they both loved it." He rewrote it, "just to appease them," and, in a nice bit of symmetry, it was acquired by Coach House Books, which in 1994 published his first short-story collection, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa.
A year later, Alexis published Fifteen Dogs.
The novel begins with two boisterous Greek gods, Hermes and Apollo, arguing in a downtown Toronto pub. The former feels that animals would lead happier lives if imbued with human consciousness; the latter feels it will have the opposite effect. Stumbling home, they release a pack of dogs from a veterinary clinic, and the novel follows the titular canines as they come to terms with the gifts granted by the gods.
"I knew that it was going to be [special]," says his editor, Alana Wilcox. "The emotions are so interesting and profound that I had a hard time imagining anyone could read it and not be affected by it." Also, she adds a bit sheepishly, "people like dogs, so I hoped that would be a way in for people to then enjoy the broader scope of the book."
Indeed, the set-up is a sort of Trojan horse; once the dogs are unleashed, Alexis unleashes a profound investigation of what it means to be human. It's like giving someone a ticket to the latest Michael Bay movie, then screening one by Michael Haneke.
The book not only won the Giller Prize, but the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, for which he had been a bridesmaid the previous year with Pastoral. It was a mainstay on bestseller lists for most of the past year, and there are 130,000 copies in the market, making it Coach House's best-selling title ever. People do like dogs, it turns out.
Yet, even now, Alexis wants to go back and rewrite a portion of the novel for a future edition.
"The doubt, and the self-laceration, is just part of the process," he says. "I can't imagine what it would be like to be satisfied with your work. I remember, once, reading about Ray Bradbury. He said that he would go down to his library if he couldn't sleep, pull out one of his works, and read it, think, 'That was good,' then put it back and be able to go back to bed. That man is the luckiest bastard imaginable! To be able to be satisfied with what you've done in that way!"
The Hidden Keys tells the story of a twentysomething thief, Tancred Palmieri, who lives in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. He befriends an aging heroin addict, Willow Azarian, heir to a vast – i.e., billions – family fortune. When her father dies, he bequeaths an item to each of his five children – a poem, a Japanese screen, a bottle of aquavit, a painting and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Willow is convinced that these are not just inheritances, but clues – her father was fond of treasure hunts and she believes that together they lead to a missing portion of his fortune. Her siblings think that she's nuts, so she hires Tancred, who is also skeptical at first, to steal the items. He calls it "the single most difficult thing I've ever written in my life, and I hope never to do it again."
Each novel in the quincunx plays with a specific genre – Fifteen Dogs was an apologue, for instance. The Hidden Keys is his take on an adventure story, and was inspired by Treasure Island.
"It's like a tremendous little moral tract disguised as a pirate story," he says of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic. "It's a relentlessly moral book. It's a book that makes you think about what is good and what is evil."
Much like Fifteen Dogs, it is also novel – deeply – about Toronto. He maps the city's neighbourhoods in his prose, showing specific tenderness for Parkdale, where he lives. He is admittedly surprised by this. Alexis, who was born in Trinidad, moved to Canada when he was four years old. (He grew up, mostly, in Ottawa and Petrolia, near Sarnia, Ont.) Although he moved to Toronto in 1987, he long felt like a tourist.
"It looks like Toronto has become my city, which I never thought would happen," he says. "I just thought that I would be here for a while, and then I would go back to Ottawa. But Ottawa no longer feels like home. And I can't really imagine, now, living anywhere else."
The Hidden Keys is actually the fourth book in the quincunx. Alexis explains it like this: Imagine the project like the number five on a dice – a dot in each corner, and one in the middle. The third book is the one in the middle, but it must include elements of the other four, so it must be written last. Once the fifth novel is finished, he wants to collect them in an omnibus edition.
"It's such an ambitious undertaking," Wilcox said. "Where does it stand? I don't know. It's hard, in the middle of it, to see that. But to me, it's a singular accomplishment. I can't imagine another writer being able to bring such diversity of form, and character, and thought, to such different things, and still have them be, very clearly, a whole."
Alexis has been gone much of the year; in addition to Banff, he wintered in Florida, and spent a month, in late summer, in New York. He will spend the upcoming academic year as the Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor at the University of Toronto, where he plans to finish the next book in the quincunx, Days By Moonlight, which he describes as "a ghost story where God is the ghost." (The fifth novel is based on a Harlequin romance.) He is also working on a libretto for Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop, and is already openly discussing the book he wants to write after the quincunx is complete: a version of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Says the writer Judy Fong Bates, a long-time friend: "When it comes to writing, he's totally obsessive."
He is pleased with where he currently finds himself in life. He will turn 60 next year: "Maybe, in a sense, 60 is a rebirth, in that it's the time when I can accept my life." It has been more than two decades since he published his first book, but, maybe, finally, André Alexis is happy.
"This is exactly the life I wanted to live," he says. He pauses, apparently second-guessing himself. "Now, of course, I'm going to die. The confluence of so many good things means, I'm sure, I've got something horrible right around the corner. I'm just so superstitious about things going well. But, briefly, yes. Briefly, it's nice."