Valley Of Fire
John Munin provides that eye on the world. Sharp, humourless, preferring to speak analytically than to be socially accommodating, he questions and dissects everything -like Mr. Spock, but without the endearing quirks.
A resident of Montreal, Munin finds himself a fish out of water during a conference in Las Vegas, giving Manners more than enough opportunity to play with life-as-gambling imagery. Munin has been invited there to present his findings on a drug targeting Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Trouble is, his sample – that crucial experimental element – consists of one, and only one, trial participant: Penelope, a germ phobic woman who hoards newspapers. Yet the drug czars who manufacture the pill remain interested enough in his findings to pave his way with gold. Their only problem seems to be the limited market: OCD isn’t common enough. Out there in the world, they imagine, lies “a plague of obsessions and compulsions waiting for a smart marketer to declare a pandemic.”
The strongest scenes involve drug companies, and psychiatry itself. The scathing observations offered by the narrator, or Munin, or other characters are smart, witty, and bang-on. The conference, a spectacle of excess and smugness, feels especially authentic. The criteria for success are as reductionist as the science behind the pills themselves – human lives be damned.
A love story told in flashback breaks up the central tale, but it is comparably anemic, and only serves to prove how stiff the main character is. Munin (his name means “memory,” after one of the Norse god Odin’s two ravens) is yet another in a long parade of phlegmatic protagonists in English literature on both sides of the pond. In addition, since he lacks a stand-out sidekick or love interest, there is little or no escape from his narrative bubble.
In addition to having a man-without-qualities as a main character (neither hero nor villain), Manners’ plot could be stronger. Perhaps a “novel of ideas” (which this might be called) does not have to emphasize plot quite so much. Far more annoying is the diction: either rapid-fire short sentences, unwieldy longer ones with idiosyncratic comma use, or connected independent clauses, e.g., “Hughes coughs, it’s hard to breathe.” Here and there we find smoothly written passages, but most feel rushed. Perhaps Manners is trying, consciously or not, to reflect the pace of the professions he depicts, not to mention the surreal desert setting.
Munin is staring out at the Strip: tourists with cameras, gamblers with plastic cups mostly half-filled with coins, car jockeys and casino workers before their shifts. An endless parade of back-and-forth. Everyone in America was in a constant state of migration: they quit jobs, swapped spouses, got on the interstate. Everyone looking for a second chance and Vegas was there to give it to them.
Even if Manners intended this resonance, some variation would be fitting.
Caveats aside, Manners – who was a finalist for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction for his story collection, Wound Ballistics in 2002 – is an insightful novelist. As the author of a non-fiction book on pharmacology, he is well equipped to critique our chemical-based Zeitgeist. Let’s hope the prosody comes next time he chooses fiction. mRb