Mundane Absurdities

Harvey Knight’s Odyssey

A review of Harvey Knight's Odyssey by Nick Maandag

Published on March 16, 2023

In the title story of Nick Maandag’s new collection, Harvey Knight is Assistant-to-the-Master of the Solarists, a religious sect founded on the premise of light versus dark, sun versus moon. Solarists walk about the streets of Toronto in nothing but black g-strings, attend church meetings before sharing communal sunbeds, and vow to murder any “Shadowmen” they come across. Harvey, bobble-skulled and ostensibly loyal to the cause, harbours plans to replace the Master. So begins his “odyssey,” an erratic tour through Maandag’s alternative world where owls – creatures of the dreaded night – are eaten at the dinner table, and the musical Harvey and the Amazingly Multi-Hued Human Flesh Coat, is played to an audience of hundreds. 

Nick Maandag Harvey Knight's Odyssey

Harvey Knight’s Odyssey
Nick Maandag

Drawn & Quarterly
$25.95
168pp
9781770466326

Peppered throughout “Harvey Knight’s Odyssey” are perfectly timed, deadpan punchlines. In one exchange between Harvey and the Master – who are questioning church members about a stolen sunbed – they see that interrogation is not working. “No,” says Harvey, “and consequently I think it will be necessary to…” The Master finishes his sentence: “Conduct a cavity search?” “Unfortunately yes. We can’t leave any stone unturned.” As with his previous book, The Follies of Richard Wadsworth, one of Maandag’s talents is for delivering cartoon absurdity with as straight a face as possible. In a later scene, Harvey sits in a fellow Solarist’s apartment, one filled with spiders and their webs. “So what line of work are you in?” Harvey asks. “Why,” replies the Solarist, “I harvest spider silk.” “Oh, I see. I thought maybe you hadn’t dusted in a while.”

Harvey Knight’s tale is, however, arguably the least successful sequence of the collection. In “The Plunge,” for example, the absurdities build up against a mundane office backdrop. Following a fictionalized Nick Maandag after he decides to buy himself a French coffee press to use at work, “The Plunge” is a fantastic play on daily anxieties. “I wonder if people will think this is pretentious,” Nick wonders, on his first day using the press at the office. But after convincing himself that nobody will in fact care, everybody does. The plunge of the coffee press eventually develops into an office ritual, in which every single employee fills into Nick’s cubicle to watch. Here, no panel or close-up of a bemused character’s expression is wasted.

The trouble with “Harvey Knight’s Odyssey” is not that the jokes and sight gags aren’t funny, but that they’re executed in an entirely absurd world. By the end of the book, Harvey’s egoistic, murderous tendencies seem less strange than the ritualized coffee plunge. The last story, “Full Day,” returns to Maandag, who finds himself caught up in an endless series of irritations, each one funnier than the last. It is in these quiet, uncomfortable stories that Maandag’s natural comedic timing, and his ear for dialogue that is both true to life and completely disarming, have the space to breathe.mRb

Connor Harrison's work has appeared in The Evergreen Review, The Moth Magazine, and Literary Review, among others. He lives in Montreal.

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