A Rollercoaster Read of A Free Man

A Free Man or, #6ix
By Michel Basilières
ECW Press
215 pages
2015

A Free Man is pretty close to an indescribable blend of way-post postmodernist art. At its most frameable, the structure is a whirling literary dervish that slips descriptors beyond such PoMo nomenclature as: Chinese puzzlebox; deep collection of nested narratives; onion with multiple layers of meaning; text of infinite regression, etc. etc. etc. But it’s also pretty fresh and fun.

The basic outline is conventional. A writer recounts a friend’s everyday travails that are filled with comic and sexual misadventures. The entertainment, however, is all in the dizzying execution that marks the book as a riddle wrapped in an enigma slapped silly.

The skeletal plot is based on the anti-picaresque adventures, as told to the narrator, of one “Skid Roe”. These involve a variety from garden to scifi, and include, more specifically: failed romance; the 9 to 5 working grind; internet porn addiction; a robot from the future named Lem; and time travel. And none of which are really to the benefit the aforementioned Mr. Roe.

The beauty here is in the anarchic entanglement of genre, intertextual references and dry humour, especially when primary recounter Michel Basilières fluffs the language up to describe the mundane, everyday activities that make up our social and commercial interactions. For example, Skid’s purchase of drugs at the pharmacy becomes a more profound sensory experience:

“I slipped my card into the slot under the keypad on the counter. I entered my number, pressed buttons. Machines communicated with each other, made a decision. The register let out a joyful chime, the cashier handed me my prize, and we waited while the keypad transcribed a record of its conversation with my bank’s computer and printed it. She tore it out of the slot like an old-fashioned tickertape stock quote and handed it to me.”

Such imagery strengthens the novel’s main discernable theme: an exploration of existential alienation in an increasingly connected yet disconnecting world.

Well, probably.

Basilières draws on pastiche, parody and wiseacrey from fellow literary piss-takers – such as when the footnotes take the story hostage from the main narrative à la Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Everything is just slightly off-kilter from the real world: “Toronto” becomes “toronto”; “America” is “Amerika”. One of Basilières’ antecedents in the literary-self-destruction genre even makes a cameo appearance, when former author/publisher/street-vendor Crad (here Krad) Kilodney shows up to add a little extra pontificatorial madness.

Whether you want to make sense of it or not is your decision, but A Free Man is an enjoyable literary wild-ride.

Line-up here for departure.

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