Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Mythical Realism of Touch, by Alexi Zentner

I recently have been reading Touch, by Alexi Zentner. It is a marvelous novel. Zentner's prose is crisp and evocative. He is the master of images. He says just enough so you can imagine the scene, but then he still leaves things up to the reader's imagination. It is the perfect mix.

Touch was originally a short story that I marveled at when I read it as an assignment in the fiction class I took for my Masters. That short story became the first chapter of the novel, with some revisions.

The most notable revision, at least for me, is how Touch has become a novel of magical realism. Initially I thought that this addition was an interesting choice, but now it totally makes sense to me. I say magical realism because that is what I would have called it, until I read some reviews of Zenter's work. In the National Post, in 2011, they interviewed Zenter and he called his work a piece of "mythical" realism. He said, "When does a belief become a myth? When does something you believe in become just a story?" And while I am not terribly far in the novel, I believe that it does a good job of exploring this idea.

Touch is set in the wintery, Canadian, logging village of Sawmaget. And that cold, harsh environment lends itself so well to the mythical realism that Zentner has infused into it. As stated in the Washington Post, again in 2011, "Spectral beings haunt the pages of Alexi Zentner's eerie, beautifully written first novel, Touch, set in the remote woods of Canada. There's the shapeshifting ijirait; the adlet, which feeds on human blood; the mahaha and wehtiko and qallupilluit, corpselike demons rumored to pursue men who have eaten human flesh. Yet an even more powerful and terrifying force in this story is the northern winter, which over 60 or so years, spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consumes not just individuals but much of the gold rush town of Sawgament." This ultra realistic setting is such a perfect backdrop for all of the mythical realism because the wintery setting is so real that it gets to the point where you could believe that these being actually exist. Why wouldn't monsters and spirits haunt these woods. It takes you back to an ancient time, when forests where sacred and frightening.

At any rate, I will continue reading and tracking these ideas. Really, it is just a joy to read such fresh prose. And I really wish I had the cover pictured above rather than the blue cover that I have.

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