A Review of Michael Helm's After James
Review by Steven W. Beattie
In cooking, one of the most deceptive recipe instructions is “flavour to taste.” The immediate question presents itself: whose taste? The chef’s? The presumed diner’s? How much cayenne is sufficient to provide a bit of tang, and how much will overwhelm the other elements? How much Worcestershire sauce is too much? (The obvious answer: one can never have too much Worcestershire sauce.)
The same uncertainty crops up in the matter of mixing literary genres. If an avowedly literary writer decides to dabble in, let’s say, speculative fiction, to what extent do the tropes and tactics of the chosen genre enhance the author’s literary sensibility, and to what extent do they simply get in the way? Get the recipe right, and it is possible to explode the boundaries of genre convention while also taming the perceived condescension of a supposedly high-literary attitude. Get the ratio wrong, and both aspects become diluted and distasteful.
Michael Helm is an overtly literary writer. His approach favours philosophical rumination and linguistic nuance over more prosaic matters such as plot or character development. Which makes his latest novel something of a curiosity. After James troubles the very idea of generic classification on every level, macro and micro. It is even possible to argue that what Helm presents as a novel is actually a trio of interconnected, but ultimately separate novellas, each with a different subject, set of characters, and generic underpinning.
The first, “Alice After James,” takes the form of a suspense tale with tinges of Gothic horror. The protagonist, Ali, works for a pharmaceutical company and has taken refuge in a remote cabin after deciding to expose the defects of a supposed miracle drug known as Claritas .4, or Alph. The second and longest section of the novel, “Decor,” features a Canadian who is persuaded to travel to Europe to participate in a literary detective hunt for an anonymous Internet poet. And the final section, “The Boy in the Water,” focuses on Celia, a woman who has recently lost a child and must now deal with her father’s conversion to a pseudo-religion promoted by an artist who has also been accused of spearheading a kind of ad hoc doomsday cult.
The most successful of these stories – by some measure – is the middle one, which is itself broken into three parts. The triptych-within-a-triptych structure is typical of Helm’s method in After James, which relies on patterns of repetition and symbol (mirrors crop up repeatedly throughout the book), and has as its central metaphor the image of a snake eating its tail. This is appropriate for a book that interrogates the notion of literary structure so assiduously: each section, for instance, includes figures named James, who may or may not appear on the page (Celia’s baby, lost to her while still in utero, was named James, and Ali makes reference to the literary brothers James, William and Henry). Celia is a virologist by training, but is employed by big pharma, as is Ali. A designer drug in the second novella is described as being “rectangular, bevelled, yellow” – the same physical properties as Alph.
These cascading interconnections between and among the parts are apparent to any attentive reader, but it’s not clear what, if anything, they add up to, beyond an ongoing game of “spot the reference.” What makes “Decor” so striking, relative to the other sections of the novel, is that the noir tropes the author deploys here are more deeply felt than either the horror elements in the beginning or the apocalyptic undertones of the conclusion. The reason for this is in the mixture of recipe elements: the ersatz detective story finds a solid balance between its genre appropriations and its literary ambition. It is also – and perhaps not incidentally – the section in which Helm most consistently restrains his more esoteric tendencies and simply allows his story to unfold.
A spelunking sequence in the final novella provides some solid suspense, as does the arrival of a storm and a river overflowing its banks in the first. But in these bookending sections, the recipes are out of balance: too much literary flavouring, not nearly enough genre base.
Editor's Note: After James has been shortlisted for the 2016 Writers' Trust Fiction Award.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine, and the short-fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.