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review: first fiction

Ian Orti

Is Henry dreaming, or is he dreamt? In this tale of a lovelorn hubby, Ian Orti offers hallucinatory riffs to make you wonder. Owner of an urban café where the furniture gets aggressive and the decor changes itself overnight, Henry has taken an upstairs tenant named L in a half-conscious effort to find someone to love again. Home life has become a gauntlet of disdain. At dinner parties, he's humiliated in front of guests who double as his wife's lovers.

The café is on a narrow street that makes it extra gloomy. When it rains, water dribbles onto customers from leaky drainpipes that line the ceiling. On good days, things are enlivened somewhat by the familiar grousing of regulars Laplante and Lachaise, or the vintage cartoons playing on Henry's old black-and-white TV. Best is the fresh presence of L, who likes to lower the volume on news reports and insert her own irreverent dialogue for pundits and prime ministers. Meanwhile, Laplante might be trying to put his latest batch of manuscript pages, found in the street, into coherent order, while Lachaise mutters into his drink and ponders his inner calendar of "thirteen equal months," aligned with the constellations and forming "empirical evidence of God."

Orti's world has a consistent absurdist tilt, a kind of Ionesco lite. L makes little skyscrapers out of teabag paper, burning them on the palm of her hand. A construction contractor comes by regularly, updating Henry on the mysterious overnight completion of reno jobs he has barely started. An artist reports a woolly mammoth wandering the streets. Henry later sees a phalanx of the beasts marching with a crowd of striking workers. In a surreal sequence, L gets Henry drunk and makes him face the naked truth under his comb-over, shaving his head bare as he drifts between this present indignity and vivid memories of his wife's mental cruelties. Orti rounds it off with a literally heart-felt climax: "L sank her fingers into his chest, deep below the flesh, cutting through the tissue, and with soft hands she pulled out his heart." Together they stare at Henry's life force pulsing in her bloody palms. "Everything dies," she tells him. "Even love."

We return often to the first-chapter dinner party at Henry's house, and a mysterious woman guest in whose eyes he sees himself, the two of them isolated figures yet sharing a bond: "two solitary notes of the same score."

Violence erupts: an enraged assailant, brandishing a sheaf of papers. He commits a gruesome murder in L's apartment with a pair of metal shears. Badly burned by L's counterattack with hot coals, he manages to pursue her to her attempted refuge in a church tower. In her hands are the murderer's papers, by now bristling with writerly meaning: "In this city of vagrants and butchers ... she was free to cheat and steal. She was free to cheat even the story, and release herself from the pages that trapped her."

We flash back to Henry on his way to the dinner party. He finds a sheet of paper in the street, covered in elaborate lines forming the image of a woman. "Black lines on white paper. If he projected anything onto the image it was a reflection of his own self ... and others who happened upon the same lines would likely impose their own interpretation ... a stark projection of their own image and their own misconceptions, their own hatred, their own love." It's made clear that these players are meant to be seen as exactly that: dramatic vessels bound in service to their author, ready to be filled with any reader's particular insights.

Orti, who writes on music for Montreal's Matrix magazine, is described in a bio as being not "really based anywhere at all," and the novel too is fuelled by a kind of eerie nowhereness in its inner lives and urban spaces. The final messaging that these characters and their readers are bound up in the usual dance of fiction - real people finding meanings in imagined people - pulls the magic rug from under Orti's weirdly seductive, sharply rendered dream world. Happily, his surging imagination mostly outpaces his impulse to lecture. This strange city and its lost souls don't easily leave the mind.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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