An experimental novel published by Doubleday Canada is certainly an anomaly in book-review world. Without Michael Turner's name, I have no doubt 8X10 would be published by smaller presses willing to push for innovation over sales. And no doubt Doubleday put aside the safety of CanLit historical narratives, cookbooks and commercial fiction because the successful Vancouver screenwriter, poet and novelist has fans who will have been waiting a fair number of years for this book, myself among them. Turner is known for his multimedia approach to literature, pasting together scripts, diaries, poems and various forms into his fiction, resulting in inventive puzzle-piece narratives.
8X10 is indeed a puzzle, but a different sort. The book is described as a series of snapshots, and each section, rarely more than a few pages, is narrated in the third person. Characters do not have proper names, specific towns and cities are avoided, though one gets a very Canadian feel from their descriptions, and things like race are not mentioned explicitly. Class ends up being strikingly apparent, although readers are given carte blanche to imagine these characters the way they want to, making the book more of a co-operative process between reader and writer. Despite screwing with these literary conventions, the writing is startlingly straightforward and minimalist.
The result is a bit of a hallucinogenic read, and not just because descriptions of drug use abound. The language is clear and precise, and the bits of plot move fast to crescendos and bursts of conflict. Just as you are drawn into the story of a girl giving the high-school valedictorian oral sex to ensure he keeps his speech short - so she can shoot up without rudely leaving the other cap and gowns - you are transported into a senior's residence, with a paralyzed patient drooling onto his good shirt while someone helps him dress.
Each segment is preceded by a tiny grid, with one square coloured in. The grid represents each character. Reading 8X10 is sort of like standing on a rooftop with the most precise camera in the world, zooming in on moments in people's lives where you are momentarily allowed access to their inner thoughts, and then moving along to the next person. What surprised me most was how fast I could become emotionally involved with these nameless people who aren't anchored in time or place, because Turner has a gift for touching down at the exact moment in the storyline of their lives, at moral turning points, where moments of certainty are derailed and bombs often literally blow up. Perhaps this is indicative of Turner's scriptwriter's eye for economical precision and emotional acuity.
Hints of some characters show up on the sidelines of others' stories, and the overlapping conversations result in a beautiful messy collage of anxieties. The speed-skater child in the first segment reappears later as the shadowy son of a worried father. Turner shows moments of ordinary life at various stages, and ordinary lives in the midst of violence. The perspective can shift from character to character within the same segment, and that character can appear later at another moment, dropping clues for continuity of a larger story about war. The segments are gritty and often gruesome. One starts like this: "It was a difficult assignment. Kidnap the daughter of a local businessman, cut off her head and impale it on a fence post outside her father's girlfriend's home. Easy enough, but he only had forty-eight hours to do it."
Later, that daughter's head appears in another segment as a backdrop. The narratives circle each other, so that instead of feeling like they are tiny, barely related short stories, they become like threads of yarn knitting together a frighteningly stark look at terror and aging, purpose and family.
It is nearly impossible to hold up this book and answer the question What happens? Because so many things happen, and the moments layer each other, so in the end you're left scanning backward to make connections. It's a rich book that almost requires a second reading to get the full effect.
Turner deserves props for his ability to tell complicated stories in an equally complicated way, without the use of gimmicks, purposely obscuring language, or talking down to his readers. He takes apart the novel and asks you to read it with him as he puts it together backward. 8X10 is an unsettling and daring work, a tangible symbol of our anxious world and the stark emotional devastation of war. I hope Turner starts a trend in Canadian literature, because Canada needs more writers like him.
Zoe Whittall is the staff writer for Quill & Quire magazine and her second novel, Holding Still For As Long As Possible, is just released.