By Timothy Taylor
The most significant thing about the building at 55 East Mary Street – the “first thing” those with an eye for such details notice when they look around – is that it doesn’t have a kitchen. This is important because 55 East Mary is a location loaded with symbolic meaning: a shabby structure of uncertain origin and authenticity, divided against itself, with a double-helix DNA stairway tying together its three floors. Everything about the place is there to make a point, you can be sure. Which makes the nonexistent kitchen very much a present absence. At the heart of this book’s elaborate design and impressive narrative architecture something is missing.
Structure creates space. When 55 East Mary Street is redesigned for a reality TV show on architecture the idea is to open it like a book to reveal that space, to make the inner outer. Story House is full of such conceits about form and what goes in it. Take the example of a triangle. This novel is in love with triangles, and they are introduced relentlessly into the plot. But is a triangle three lines connected at three points, or is it the space between? Or is it both? The two halves of the three things, to borrow the koan-like language of the novel’s conclusion.
This may all seem terribly abstract, but it’s one way of getting at the oddity of this book. From the outside it has an impressive design, structure, and formal construction. But inside there is an awful lot of dead space, it is a warren of invisible rooms, emptiness, and lack of functionality. Beautiful food, but no kitchen.
The story deals with two half-brothers, sons of the famous Vancouver architect Packer Gordon. The older son, Elliot, has been born out of wedlock to one of Packer’s mistresses and grows up, rather predictably, to be an importer of fake merchandise. The younger son, Graham, is the child of Packer’s wife, and he follows in his father’s footsteps in becoming an architect. The relationship between the two brothers is a total mystery. They fight, but don’t seem to really hate each other. In a nutshell, they just don’t get along. Both are married, but these relationships also mysteriously falter. All of this positioning is further complicated when the brothers join together to resurrect 55 East Mary Street, one of their father’s earliest creations, for a TV show produced by one Avi Zweigler, a figure who, like everyone else, is strangely obsessed with the memory of Packer Gordon.
It is the points (the characters) and the lines between them (their relationships) that form the complicated design of the plot. But for all its stylish architecture, it’s a design with a strange emptiness. It’s frequently difficult to understand why the characters are behaving the way they behave, saying what they say, or doing what they do. Initially we are made to believe that there may be a key in the brothers’ search for a film of the two of them boxing when they were kids. This film is their Rosebud, but, like Rosebud, when it is revealed it doesn’t explain anything.
And after all, what could it reveal? It would only be a copy of an event. It might be authentic – Story House has a lot to say about the invisible line between the real and the fake and how they depend on one another – but only in terms of what it shows. Which is in keeping with how the book works. An emphasis on design and externalities is fundamental to Taylor’s style. The way he tells the story highlights elements of narrative construction, making heavy use of techniques like delayed revelation and parenthetic backfill. Which is, in turn, a big part of why the book is so long. The writing comes at you in many short, lapping waves of detail and information that are part of its effect but individually of no importance at all.
Example: When Elliot goes looking for a certain hard-to-find apartment he starts off in the building’s unused basement. “Here were boxes, cobwebs, a broken soft drink machine, exposed beams and cables originally laid in the 1920s, rodent spoor.” He then goes to the first floor. “Here the numbers began counting at 101, 102, 103 and did not look back.” This is a sort of stating-the-obvious wordiness that appears throughout the book (as in, to take another example, lines like “The grey spiral of stairs rising airily above, and dropping with contrary heaviness below”). Elliot then returns to the basement and follows “a faint but distinctive odour (dog, tobacco, takeout Chinese and urinal cakes)” to a set of stairs. This he climbs until he comes to a pair of Rottweilers, past their prime but dangerous to anybody “in any kind of uniform – policeman, fireman, mailman or pizza delivery guy.”
It’s quite a showy bit of writing, full of items like the fact that the stairs were originally intended to serve as a fire escape and so are enclosed “inside a shaft of heavy wire mesh that had been welded in place some time later.” And of course there’s nothing wrong with having an eye for significant (if it is significant) detail. But it reflects the book’s obsessive attention to surfaces, matters of quick observation or public record. And it really piles up.
What threatens this magnificent structure is the Void that finally swallows 55 East Mary Street and both of the brothers. It is the same heady yet empty geometric space that threatens to absorb Avi Zweigler as he masturbates while imagining yet another sexually and symbolically loaded triangle formed by the novel’s three main female characters, the “equilateral through the heart of which he dreamed of flying. He wanted to find the dead heart of empty space between them and wormhole right out of this universe and into his next one.” Here is chaos and creation, the womb of nature and perhaps her grave.
That dead heart of empty space is also the house without the kitchen, the mystifying absence at the center of this book. An accomplished, intricately designed work with some wonderful set-piece passages, Story House is also a novel without a clear sense of what it’s all about, or any fully realized characters we can relate to. The result is a portrait both intimate and detached. The lights are on, but it’s hard to tell if anyone is at home.
Review first published June 3, 2006.