Automatic World

By Struan Sinclair

Mechanism and modernism have always been close traveling companions. At the dawn of the modern age first the cosmos and then man himself (l’homme machine in La Mettrie’s phrase) were transformed into the products of a divine craftsman. Today we consider these truths, and more, to be self evident. What is mind itself but the firing of neurons, an electro-chemical information-processing grid? What is memory but an organic hard drive? And what the products of our imagination but more mechanical constructions? As William Carlos Williams famously declared, even a poem is but a machine made of words.

Winnipeg author Struan Sinclair’s challenging debut novel Automatic World takes this idea of the mechanical universe and runs with it. In the first place the world it describes is automatic: the dominant metaphor being that embodiment of industrialism the railway. The people in this automatic world are, in turn, themselves industrial products, their bodies capable of being dis- and re-assembled in various combinations with prosthetic parts. And finally the book itself is a machine, transparently playing with its own narrative and plot as plastic forms.

It is easy to outline Automatic World thematically like this, but explaining how it works is another question. Its structure is reminiscent of books by Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell – concentric rings of stories, each with a different time signature, revolving around a train crash (or series of crashes). The outer ring belongs to the narrator, a survivor of some kind of accident who may be imagining or remembering everything else. Moving inward, and backward in time, we meet a young man whose father is a serial suicide, a hospice-worker who has been involved in a kind of mercy-killing, and the companion of a batty amateur scientist in the nineteenth century who builds miniature mechanical worlds. Including models of train wrecks.

Needless to say, this is all very complicated. Along with his character’s bodies, Sinclair disassembles the notion of narrative time, exploding the deterministic linearity of railway time that keeps everything on schedule, “story laws, with their distinctive causality and effect.” There are certain recurring elements, leitmotifs, and rhythms, but there is no coherent plot. The mechanical world is provisional. The purpose of the divine craftsman, or author, hides behind the creation.

As with a lot of experimental fiction, the result is a puzzle book that is sometimes cold as well as obscure. And at least one reader will confess to some confusion, even after a second reading, as to just what was going on. There is a real intelligence at work, however, that goes beyond the usual postmodern cleverness, as well as a fresh, inventive eye for detail, rendered in a fittingly abrupt, essentialist style. A novel full of trains that never get where they’re going, it announces that Struan Sinclair has arrived.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 5, 2009.