Marjorie Celona’s debut novel sports a jaunty letter Y as its title. It turns out to be an unfortunate choice, and not only because it inevitably reduces even the most high-minded reviewer to a snarky “why, indeed” put-down. In 2011, TIME Magazine published a list of the top ten books with one letter titles, which included such celebrated authors as Thomas Pychon (V.), John Updike (S.), Booker winner John Berger (G.) and Booker shortlisted Tom McCarthy (C). It is a handy list to keep in mind for literary drinking games, and, the subjectivity of such lists aside, it is an illustrious peer group for any aspiring novelist to find themselves among.
As a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Marjorie Celona is no doubt familiar with the stakes she raised with her novel’s title. It was a bold move, but not one that pays off. The novel is weak enough on its own terms, but in comparison to the experimental work of Python and the high modernism of McCarthy (and even the steady workmanship of Updike), Celona’s novel utterly fails to impress.
An epigraph opens the book with a pretentious riff on the many meanings of the letter Y. Forks in the road and wishbones are invoked, as well as a rather self-consciously clever-clever assertion that prior to the inclusion of the letter Y in the Roman alphabet “no one was happy.” Despite a heavy handed approach to signs and motifs, the “why” of the title is never satisfactory answered, and ends up feeling arbitrary and contrived. The whole thing smacks of a writing school exercise indulged too far – a random letter of the alphabet, a mysterious newspaper article, a dramatic social issue to reel in the book group people and a clumsy structure that hamstrings the plot from the word go.
The novel tells the parallel tales of the protagonist Shannon, a foundling discovered on the steps of a YMCA, and Yula, her hapless mother in the years leading up to her abandonment of Shannon. It is a lopsided structure, not only because the converging stories are out of sync in time (both clock and story time), but also because Yula, flaws and all, is just much more likeable than Shannon. The novel is set on Vancouver Island and Yula’s story takes place in clammy, claustrophobic woods where ancient trees throw giant shadows over everything. Neighbours live in trailers, amongst the rusted skeletons of discarded trucks. On the question of whether bad parenting is down to nature or nurture, Celona politely picks both, and between Yula’s stunted beginning and her doomed choices the melodrama ratchets up, ending with a midnight car chase and (sigh) a choice a mother should never have to make. Shannon, in turn, is almost impossible to warm to, even though Celona tries every possible sympathy-inducing ploy. Her multiple foster homes, care homes, neglect and abuse is laid on thick, presumably to explain Shannon’s later inability to trust or form meaningful connections. A mix of vulnerability – “a little Marilyn Monroe” – and grunge “a bit like Curt Kobain’s kid”, her sense of alienation and displacement intensifies as she becomes a secretive, a self-harming loner given to truancy. The predictable reunion between Shannon and Yula, when it finally arrives to link the two plot strands, feels forced and flat (perhaps π would have been a better title).
As if the overwrought plotting and the humourless delivery are not enough, Celona taste for obtrusive detail is wearying in the extreme. Again reminiscent of a writing student’s notebook, the reader has no choice but to share this ambling gaze that takes in far too much insignificant detail (the contents of cupboards are frequently listed, without contributing to an understanding of either character or motivation). Even the most transient characters are given vivid physical descriptions, from the “small plump face with a rosebud mouth” of a nurse to the heart-shaped tattoo of a diner waitress. It is like being subjected to someone’s holiday photographs – no matter the skill with which each image is portrayed, after a while one sags under the insistent sensory input.
Y is a seriously flawed novel, but not entirely pointless. There is always the chance that at your next dinner party you’ll be put on the spot to name a novel starting with the second last letter of the alphabet. Let’s drink to that.