- Jordan Tannahill
- House of Anansi Press
An interesting question to ask of fiction is whether its art derives from discretion or disclosure. There's a particular pleasure in prose that seems to withhold nothing, that wears its braininess on its sleeve and turns critical and creative writing into one and the same endeavour. This prose typically prefers the slack pace of real life to the forced momentum of teleology. It craves depth at every sentence, to the extent that calling it a "page-turner" suggests moving in the wrong direction. You don't want to get to the end of this type of book; you'd rather drill down to its spine.
This book is having a moment; authors such as Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others, are showing their exhaustion with plot, opting to be candid, probing, philosophical and discursive at a micro-level on the page. Toronto playwright Jordan Tannahill's lushly intelligent debut novel, Liminal, is an exciting addition to this school.
Funnily, you could still use the sort of big praise typically reserved for story-heavy sagas to describe Tannahill's debut. Liminal captures something illuminating and undefinable about the present moment; it speaks in the code and cadences of the late 2010s and paints an incisive portrait of the demographic we call millennials. It's no panorama – the characters here are all devastatingly articulate artists, activists and academics, often queer and always eccentric, the generation hitting their 30s in the age of Trump and trying to redeem the world from baby-boomer ravages. The novel sweeps across countries and eras, with snapshots of the East London modern dance scene in the 1980s and hippies in the Nevada desert in the early 2010s. It covers friendship, sex, growing up and growing old – and yet, from the actual point of narration to the ending, it covers no more than a few minutes.
Tannahill uses a simple framing device to make his retrospective leaps in time and theme. The novel opens on the morning of the Women's March in Ottawa (a little more than a year ago, which also gives you a sense of how quickly Tannahill brought this book into the world).
The protagonist, who's also named Jordan and shares many autobiographical details with the author, is visiting his mom, who's been recently diagnosed with a condition we don't get much detail about, except to know she could die from a stroke in her sleep. When Jordan steps into her bedroom, he's struck by the fear, or premonition, that she's no longer alive.
Staring at her shape under the sheets, he starts to contemplate the "liminal" space between life and death, between what it means to be a person and what it means to just be flesh. With that comes all the related mysteries about consciousness and individuality, science and religion, brain chemicals and physiology – namely, about what it means to be human at all.
This philosophical question is at the novel's heart, and Tannahill's ability to revisit it in so many varied, sophisticated and unstrained incarnations is a real jaw-dropping intellectual feat. Tannahill takes us from discourses on Descartes's mind/body split, to the story behind Augustine's confessions, to sex clubs in modern-day Rome. The theme is most poignant in its original motif: Jordan's mother is a neuroscientist who believes in God, while Jordan is a playwright and an atheist.
I've expressed my frustrations with plot – what we have instead is a rich and unusual story about a brilliant, principled middle-class woman raising a son on her own.
In one scene, she explains quantum physics to her curious and precocious tween. In another, she knocks on the door of his rundown Toronto apartment and furiously demands to know all the details about why he's acting in gay porn. In a third, she leaves a play he's written in tears, convinced he's turned her into a monster.
The world of theatre opens up another way for Tannahill to explore the juncture between body and self. It also makes for some of the novel's most fascinating passages.
Tannahill operated a performance space called Videofag in Kensington Market for several years; it appears in the book much as it did in real life, a converted hair salon where Jordan and his boyfriend put on shows, throw parties and live. Part theatre, part gallery, part crash pad for itinerant artists, it's at Videofag, dancing with his boyfriend, that Jordan has a moving, spiritual experience of the mind-body split.
"…I understood the word ecstatic. To feel my body emptied of self and filled with sound and sensation." Suddenly, the idea of abdicating his "autonomy and self-hood through this temporary death" doesn't seem so terrifying.
As a playwright, Tannahill makes work that relies on its present-ness and contingency. He's obsessed with figuring out what theatre can do, what its limits are, whether those limits should be broken.
The novel seems to have offered him the opportunity to stop challenging form and just go, letting his mind run wild, but scrupulously, through whatever interests it. It's a different sort of pleasure, but it's a great one.
Globe and Mail dance critic and arts contributor Martha Schabas is the author of the novel Various Positions.