8 x 10

8 x 10
By Michael Turner

The title of Michael Turner’s new novel has a double meaning. In the first place it refers to the size of a standard studio photo portrait: 8 x 10 inches. In narrative terms the connection lies in the way the story takes the form of a series of brief snapshots. But the title also refers to structure, with the book, according to the author, having eight main characters and ten “events” that the chapter headings illustrate as shaded squares moving regularly down the files of an 8 x 10 grid (though one square in the early going is skipped).

One has to appeal to Turner’s own explanation of the structure because the eight characters and ten events are not readily apparent even on repeated readings. This is mainly because none of the characters are given names, forcing the reader to recognize in the various he’s and she’s suggestions of the Old Man, the Tailor, the Poet, the Veteran, or the Girl With a Chipped Tooth. Such identification is not always easy. Nor is it clear where or when the events described are occurring, or if they are taking place in any chronological order. There are certain recurrent themes (injury, immigration) and images (especially a view of “seven tree-lined ridges”), but how the separate pieces fit together, and they are all supposed to be interrelated, is left up to the reader to figure out. Puzzle-solving is the order of the day.

Obviously this is experimental fiction, and its method is typical of the genre: Making the reader do the work of discerning patterns and connections in material that at first seems only randomly organized – randomness and organization not being contradictory states, since the principle of organization itself may be as inherently meaningless as the numbers 8 and 10. In this regard Turner’s turn at a concept book resembles such recent Canadian works as Paul Glennon’s Oulipan exercise The Dodecahedron and Struan Sinclair’s Automatic World, only with the pattern being evoked even more arbitrary and vague. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, open to interpretation.

It doesn’t really work. The individual episodes are too brief and vaguely rendered to be very compelling on their own, and the search for connections is frustrating to the point of making solving that puzzle the novel’s entire purpose. Turner seems to have had in mind a literary analogy to abstract painting, but with the visual arts abstraction and condensation can be pushed further because it’s easier for the eye to freelance and impose its own sense of form and meaning on merely suggestive stuff. We do it all the time with clouds and stains, consciously or not. But language is too loaded a medium to be turned into the equivalent of shapes and blobs of colour. And with a novel the given constraints are even greater. 8 x 10 simply jettisons too much, and despite tantalizing hints of cloudy forms, finally comes to seem more of an empty vessel than an open text.

Notes:
Review first published November 28, 2009.