Thursday, February 17, 2011
Nikolski, by Nicholas Dickner: A Final Defense
Trussed up in his army-surplus sleeping bag, with his flashlight wedged under his chin, Noah examines the old map. He watches the mist rising from his mouth and thinks of Leonard, a classmate who at this very moment is busy stirring the venerable dust in Hydra in the Saronic Gulf. Noah has the feeling he is on the wrong island. He has thought several times of dropping out of university, but without a satisfactory alternative he could not bring himself to face the real world. And yet, here he is, stretched out on a bed of lichen, looking at an old map of the Caribbean, shivering (Nikolski, 163).
In 1991 I owned a portable word-processor. It was roughly twice the size of a laptop, and its unique storage cartridge could hold up to a half-kilobyte of information. I composed my final year’s worth of university papers on it, and one or two stories, then printed those out on the clattering daisy-wheel printer that came with it.
That printer broke down, time and again. There was an office equipment store across the street from where I lived, so I walked the item over for repair, and discussed matters with the store owner. It was a very small business, run from a bungalow house. We talked the trade. “Over 99% of my business is out there,” he said, with a vague wave. “You’re the only one who comes in.” After a few exchanges with the man, he looked me over and said, “I need a sales/customer service person to look after clients north of the 401. You interested?”
I thanked him, and said, “I’m afraid I don’t own a car.”
That exchange seemed to sum up too much of where I was coming from, and where I was — and wasn’t — going. I’d left the prairies for the big city, but what now? My brother was on the west coast, farming salmon. My sister was studying in England. I had friends studying in Paris, others teaching English in Tokyo, Seoul, and the newly liberated Prague and Berlin. Toronto was . . . well, the only certain thing I could say for it was it was expensive. The whole business of “what next?” had me in an abysmal state of mind.
A car — hell, it was a struggle scraping together enough coins for the self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that were returning my submissions with the usual rejection slips. And now I’d racked up a debt of a few thousand dollars to finish a degree that didn’t promise any sort of professional recompense upon completion. Was this really a good time to take out an additional loan to buy a car and apply myself to a trade whose future seemed increasingly dubious?
Instead I applied for, and got, a job at the city’s oldest bookstore. It seemed like a reasonable compromise. History would have to play itself out on television screens, while I settled in amongst the books to pay off my debts and contemplate my next move.
I should mention that I’ve always found it hard to establish ties to people. It seems I’m too withdrawn, too much of a homebody. None of my very few lovers was ever able to understand why I was content to make a living selling books. Sooner or later they would end up asking themselves — and, inevitably, asking me — why I didn’t want to travel, study, pursue a career, earn a better salary. There are no simple answers to these questions. Most people have clearly defined opinions on the subject of free will: Fate (no matter what you call it) either exists or does not exist. There can be no approximations, no in-betweens. I find this hypothesis reductive. In my view, fate is like intelligence, or beauty, or type z+ lymphocytes — some individuals have a greater supply than others. I, for one, suffer from a deficiency; I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own (147).
Friendships formed, most of them with a profundity that continually catches me off-guard. We coupled up, disbanded, re-coupled. Children were born and raised, occasionally released to another's care. The lightness of it all was almost to be expected — the world is changing, who can keep up? — but the emotional depth and weight that haunted us all was the inevitable surprise. There are friends my wife and I see every two years or so, and in those rare meetings the relief we feel when we first catch sight of each other is palpable.
And now the bookstores are closing. There are more television screens than ever, and they are once again filled with crowds of people demanding change. Our children travel to distant countries, then return to the family table for supper. Their own social and sexual congress seems at once lighter and more haunted than what we remember from our early adult years. And is there any trade or profession they can rely on for provision?
This fingernail clipping of personal history is all I can offer by way of literary criticism to defend my attraction to Nicolas Dickner’s novel, Nikolski. Our personal stories have a shape and continuity to them that will not be denied, but these shapes elide. Late revelations are always forthcoming, and like the novel’s late revelations they confuse as much as they clarify.
Still, there is an appeal to this book that is almost musical. Like so many of Dylan’s marathon songs (“Brownsville Girl,” “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts”) this novel introduces people with passions that defy both summary and satisfaction. Dickner has said that, after hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” for the first time, he threw the manuscript for this novel into the trash, and fled his apartment. I’m grateful he retrieved it and pressed on. This is a novel with a fade-out “conclusion,” suggesting the song carries on even after the listener moves on to the next bit of entertainment. It is as humane and optimistic a conclusion as literature can offer.
My earlier Nikolski ruminations are here.