A Week of This

A WEEK OF THIS
By Nathan Whitlock

The title of Toronto author Nathan Whitlock’s debut novel grounds us firmly in the quotidian. A week is an economic unit, the work week that defines the lives of the employed and which used to give a special meaning to the weekend. Unlike the seasons, each week is pretty much the same as any other. There is no cycle, they simply repeat. As for the “this” . . . well, you know. The anagram suggests itself: A week of the same crap with seven different labels. Manda, the novel’s center, is aware of this at least on a subconscious level:

The day had escaped her, she’d done nothing with it. She used to feel as though every minute went by left its mark on her, cut her as it ticked over, but now it was as though days and weeks were just a muddy flow.

So yes, a week of that. And since Manda’s husband runs his own business and everyone else works adjustable hours and schedules, there’s no time off for good behaviour. In fact the book begins and ends on a Wednesday, the traditional hump day, but this has almost no significance. Not only does Sunday no longer belong to the Lord – and it passes here without anyone having a thought of church – it’s indistinguishable from any other day of the week. Everybody’s working on the weekend.

And yet for all of its kitchen-sink documentation of life among the endangered working class, sinking into tar pits of debt on easy credit and native laziness and generosity, A Week of This is not a dull read. Whitlock shuffles the lives of a family of thirty-somethings in Dunbridge, Ontario with a lively hand. In a rarity for Canadian fiction the main characters are shown doing those anonymous jobs we don’t hear much about but encounter nearly every day. Manda works at a call centre and her husband Patrick owns and operates a failing sporting goods store in the mall. Manda’s brother Ken is slow-witted but has employment stocking shelves at the local discount superstore. Her brother-in-law Marcus is a grown-up slacker who coaches hockey part-time, does a bit of warehouse work (which naturally leads to constant whining about his sore back) and otherwise acts as a sponge.

What is most impressive about the book is its sense of control. Whitlock wisely avoids trying to do too much with his material. His epigraph is borrowed from Howards End and refers to Forster’s “tragedy of preparedness,” the waste of everyday life spent anticipating crises that never come. The novel has many moments of dramatic intensity, but nothing particularly important or transformative happens. This lack of resolution in the plot is not open-endedness. The tragedy of these lives is that they are both so limited and so complete. Having experienced a week, we know all the rest. Manda isn’t having a baby. Patrick isn’t going to give up the store. Marcus isn’t going to settle down. And nobody, not even Ken, is getting out of Dunbridge.

Whitlock doesn’t sentimentalize or condescend to his characters or make them seem more important than they are. But they are brought sharply into focus through everything from their patterns of speech (“How does it stink so bad in here?”) to their unhealthy, high-starch diets (even thanking the cook when the spaghetti turns out right). Though the concept requires a bit of backtracking to fill in family history, this is handled with a minimum of awkwardness. The pace is well maintained and the days pass quickly. Not, however, without making a powerful impact.

Notes:
Review first published May 10, 2008.