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  • Title: There Has to Be a Knife
  • Author: Adnan Khan
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
  • Pages: 224

There was a time in my life, a few months after I lost a friend to suicide, when reading Julian Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot felt like the ring of a bell after a long silence. It’s hard to describe my mindset at the time, but I try to hold onto the memory of that feeling, of being raw to the elements and suddenly tuned to a different frequency than everyone around me. In Barnes’s book Flaubert is a cover for the novel’s real subject, the suicide of the narrator’s wife. I read, “The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist,” and I thought, “That’s it exactly.” So many of us stumble through the dark forest of taboo, our hands blindly reaching before us, because we don’t have the words to describe this grief. Language is social – it takes a society to make a language about suicide – but writers give us some clay to work with, to put in words what seems ineffable.

Adnan Khan’s There Has to Be a Knife is about a million miles away from Barnes’s style. Khan (who, full disclosure, is an acquaintance from university) writes with a noir sensibility, equal parts violence and tenderness, in a debut set mostly after dark in the restaurant kitchens and bars around Toronto’s College Street. Yet these two books access some fundamental truths of being the person left behind by a suicide death. Drinking only makes you drunk; work doesn’t bring sleep. And you will get through this, but not unchanged.

Khan’s protagonist is Omar, a chef at a struggling Italian-Korean restaurant who receives the news that his recent ex, Anna – on-again-off-again girlfriend of 10 years – has killed herself. Prescription meds. What follows is Omar’s self-destructive spiral: “an angry new urgency” unleashed on the new girl he’s seeing, in fantasies of slipping a seven-inch knife between his co-worker’s ribs, and in Reddit posts where he muses about fertilizer bombs and beheadings.

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Omar is an only partway reliable narrator, open (to the reader) about his misogyny and the buzz of both his new physical violence and Reddit posts (“I’m pleased with my disruption to the world, that I could still have an impact on another person”), but dishonest with himself about some aspects of his relationship with Anna, especially his feelings now that she’s gone. Even before Anna’s suicide, Omar was a spontaneous, small-time criminal, a fact that he often glosses over, like when he refers in passing to “a small, stupid thing” he did and you think, “Wait, the time you broke into a convenience store?” When his thefts ratchet up a notch after Anna’s death, he lands in the RCMP’s sights.

The cops don’t really care about Omar’s stealing, other than as leverage to get Omar to inform on a local mosque. They know about his Reddit activity, but let’s get this out of the way: This guy was never going to bomb Bay Street. Omar is baffled that Kevin, one of the officers hounding him, thinks he might have the wherewithal to undertake something so massive. Reddit is just an anonymous online outlet for Omar’s private hurt. “How could Kevin not see that? He’s trying to seduce me into thinking my words might be actions,” he thinks.

The narrator asks us to question not only the RCMP’s intentions in targeting this mosque, which they never really justify, but also their overestimation of Omar – the assumption that a non-practicing Muslim who has no clue what’s in the Quran and hasn’t attended prayer in 15 years can simply infiltrate this space. Add to this that Omar has no real moral code. As a brown man, he is very familiar with everyday Canadian racism, from his white girlfriends’ parents to police profiling, and has understandable compunctions about spying on people in God’s house. He becomes particularly taken with the image of many bodies moving as one in prayer. That doesn’t stop him from considering stealing the nicest pair of shoes left inside the door. A flawed person trying to make good – whatever “good” might be in their case – in a crooked system is the stuff of noir. For Omar, that good is to have the sense he is on a path: “I want so terrifyingly for my life to be on a path I recognize.”

A central character who so easily vacillates needs a goal to draw the reader through the story with him. In There Has to Be a Knife the narrative engine is Omar’s conviction there must be a note for him from Anna: “There has to be.” The book isn’t called “There Has to be a Note,” though. How does “note” transmogrify into “knife”? I think a clue is in how Omar describes Anna’s suicide as being “a grand, warm cut” (remember, Anna’s death had nothing to do with blades). Omar thinks at one point how you can cut yourself “and you don’t feel pain until you see blood or your girlfriend tells you that you should be in pain.” Well, he’s in pain now! It’s Omar that Anna sliced open, and he wants answers: Where’s that knife?

As I write this I learn that yet another student has taken their own life at the university Khan and I attended – the school’s third suicide on campus this calendar year. It’s beyond this review to address the structural forces causing students at the University of Toronto to despair, and no novel can make this situation better, nor should it be asked to. At the same time, I’m thinking about the people closest to this event and where it leaves them, about how when I was in a dark place where I might have lost my moral compass, it was a novel’s unsanitized honesty that likely saved me. A novel has to be judged first on its merits as a novel: I wanted a bigger punch from There Has to Be a Knife’s climax, but I found a lot in this story of Omar’s unwinding and his fraught quest for something that will help him pull it back together. I hope whoever needs this novel finds it.

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