A Review of Rabindranath Maharaj's Adjacentland
Review by Shazia Hafiz Ramji
“Gaps and inconsistencies are constitutive of what we are,” writes Mark Fisher, the late British writer and critic, in his collection of essays, The Weird and the Eerie. “Memory is already a story, and when there are gaps in memory, new stories must be confabulated to fill in the holes.”
These sentences may as well be dictums for the amnesiac protagonist of Rabindranath Maharaj’s sixth novel, Adjacentland. Though Maharaj is known for genre-bending fiction that delves into the immigrant experience, Adjacentland takes up memory itself as the material of fiction when a man with no memory of his past finds himself in an institution called the Compound and endeavours to discover his identity.
As in his 2010 novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, which received the Trillium Book Award, Maharaj returns to comic book conventions to challenge stereotypical characters and create a world that is childlike in its imaginative scope and lack of inhibition. In doing so, Maharaj hedges further into a world that is both writerly and universal, where memory and storytelling are essential constructions that speak to the need for the imagination in a world that does everything to quell it.
Adjacentland unravels in five stages and twenty chapters that follow the protagonist who must decide which stories to trust at each turn as he reconstructs himself from sketches and notes found in his room. In addition to various metafictional layers seamlessly woven into the text, Maharaj presents a cast of archetypal characters such as the antagonist, “Balzac the Brute,” whose questioning and aggressive manner of speech matches his muscular build, and the amphibious “Cake,” an “impish” interrogator at the Compound.
Written in a deliberately self-aware and formal style reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, Maharaj’s lucid powers of description and dedication to wonder transcend any heavy-handedness. Consider the description of “Cake”:
… [he] was fleshier than his companions and in the gloom, this made him seem more important. His features were flatter and when he popped something into his mouth and swallowed, he resembled a picture of a basking amphibian I had seen somewhere or the other. (18-19)
The description is nuanced and arresting in its comparison of Cake to a basking amphibian – unlike descriptions of characters in popular comic books, which are often simplified and hyperbolic, if and when they make an appearance. As well, Maharaj’s masterful control of narration relays an awareness of the labored language and prevents a collapse into tropes associated with its formality; the protagonist is “aware that this formal account might be as stilted and whinging to you as it is to me,” but the offhand intimacy of tone invites the reader to follow along, despite the glaring unreliability of the narrator. This is someone who is not only unsure of who to trust (including himself), but who also hallucinates and has imaginary friends — some of which are characters who bubble into an imaginative story within a story, then pop into a world that is entirely different from that of the previous chapter, or page.
Adjacentland is an experience in being unmoored with only the imagination as your guide. “You” as the reader are addressed consistently, becoming complicit in creating and rejecting the narratives as the story progresses, but these metafictional layers are rarely intrusive. Instead, they are the fabric of storytelling itself: the careful reconstruction of artifice upon artifice – as playful and wonder-drunk as a child – to forge the self out of the imagination, which is the last and only companion to be trusted.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s first book, Port of Being, received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, judged by Wayde Compton, and is forthcoming from Invisible Publishing in fall 2018. Her short fiction received an honourable mention for The Humber Literary Review's 2018 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, judged by Cherie Dimaline and Ayelet Tsabari, where it is forthcoming. She is the author of the chapbook, Prosopopoeia (Anstruther Press, 2017), and her poetry is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry 2018. Shazia is an editor for Metatron Press, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, and the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.