THE AMAZING ABSORBING BOY
By Rabindranath Maharaj
To those long-established metaphors of immigrant identity the patchwork quilt and the melting pot, we have now to add the comic book. It is no coincidence that two recent explorations of immigrant life – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican-born Junot Diaz (winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize) and now The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Trinidad-born Rabindranath Maharaj – begin with epigraphs drawn from comics. Comic books, with their superheroes passing as mild-mannered citizens dwelling among us, gifted orphans never fully adopting, or adopted into, the cultural mainstream, place questions of difference and identity front and centre. And the fact that comics are such an important part of the fantasy lives of today’s adolescent males – as anyone who has gaped at a gang of twenty-somethings cavorting about a workplace pretending to spin webs like Spidey or sprout Wolverine’s claws has been forced to recognize – helps make their mythologies particularly effective paradigms for an early twenty-first century bildungsroman.
When seventeen-year-old Samuel’s mother dies he leaves his home in Trinidad to live with his “nowhereian” father in Toronto’s Regent Park (a glossary of Trinidadian vocabulary at the back of the book defines a nowhereian as “a wanderer”). What Samuel finds in Canada is very much a comic book world, in large part because, as an erstwhile fanboy, that is the way he is primed to understand it. Seeing Toronto’s proles as subterranean mole men is one way of coming to grips with his new reality, as is his imagining the vast Canadian geography as a series of comic-book scenes, miles and miles of ice and snow, trappers and lumberjacks, stretching “panel by panel” into infinity. But those panels are not all in Samuel’s head. Life, to give Wilde’s dictum its essential corollary, likes to imitate cheap and popular forms of art. There is, in fact, something more than a little cartoonish about the characters Samuel meets – people like Dr. Bat, Dr. Tulip, and Dr. Fang, Billy Bilkim Barbarossa, Cherry Xalvat, Toktok Magboo, and Latanya Lemptinski (trying his best to fit in, Samuel comes up with his own nom de Marvel, Roti Ramirez). And the appearance of these eccentrics is every bit as bizarre as their names, with Barbarossa looking “as if he might have been drawn by Jack Kirby,” and the Amazing Absorbing Boy himself being victim of a skin disease that makes him seem like a lizard-man or the ever-lovin’ Thing.
The author of such an adventure seems less like Joyce’s God of the creation than Jack Kirby’s babyfaced Watcher (first appearance: Fantastic Four #13, April 1963), spinning out bizarre alternate-universe narratives while remaining within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork.
With his ambiguous hair and skin colour, Samuel is a figure able to “pass” as nearly anything – like the shape-shifting Metamorpho he can be “so many people. Nearly anyone I chose.” His is a fluid identity that absorbs something from his environment and is in turn absorbed by it. The communities he remains on the fringe of are both patchwork enclaves and melting pots, in a constant state of flux symbolized by the tearing down of his Regent Park housing unit and the eventual fate of the Absorbing Boy. Samuel is also an outsider (or Outsider, to borrow the name of Metamorpho’s gang), with an outsider’s special insight into the Canadian identity, finally coming to see the “typical Canadian” as a similarly unsettled figure, “someone who fussed all the time.”
A novel as sharply observed and entertaining as this is obviously a lot more fun than the latest entry in CanLit’s Giller-bait sweepstakes. Maharaj tells the story of Samuel’s inaugural year in Canada at a brisk pace, with a lean, episodic structure that only carries over a handful of essential characters between chapters. The language has a charming, natural ease, casually dropping articles and prepositions in a colloquial rhythm and delivering comic punchlines with dry, understated effect. But it is also a novel with deeper layers. At heart it is a rich exploration of the immigrant psychodrama of attraction and repulsion, welcome and paranoia, perception and misunderstanding. Like the nameless, forgotten hero of the epigraph, we marvel at Samuel’s dramatic change, and wonder what such a transformation says about who we are and what we may become.
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 24, 2010.