A Free Man

By Michel Basilières

Relationships are hard. They take a lot of work, and even then often don’t work out. This has led to a remarkable demographic shift: at the beginning of this century married people became a minority in Canada for the first time. More of us than ever are living alone, despite statistics telling us that this shortens our lifespans and makes us unhappier.

The shift to the single life is clearly a choice, and yet at the same time we keep trying to make romantic connections. Modern life has made us sufficient to stand alone, but free to fall in love, over and over again. Samuel Johnson called it the triumph of hope over experience.

Michel Basilières’ A Free Man is an exuberant sketch entertainment on this timely theme. It takes the form of a story told, over much wine and marijuana, by a man named Skid Roe to his novelist friend. Skid has gone through an experience that encapsulates, in a fantastic way, the fate of the middle-aged single man. Stuck in a not-very-good job as a clerk at a big-box bookstore, his breeding years now behind him, he lives invisible, alone, and isolated. He feels “the essential problem of life is to deal with the outside world,” and he’s not doing a great job coping with that. He prefers the life of (his own) mind: a cocktail of dreams, drugs, cybersex, and literature.

Then along comes a girl. And not just any girl, but an obliging amateur porn star named NaNa (the repetitive syllables tell a tale). Sadly, however, Skid cannot perform. He is, after all, a middle-aged man. Furthermore, like too many such creatures, he doesn’t learn from the past so that he can move on, but is instead driven by a desperate desire for a do-over with NaNa. Given another chance, he’s sure he’ll be able to get it right. Because people can get it right, can’t they?

Despite the laws of physics, he’s given this chance. Access to an alternative fate takes the form of a time-traveling robot named Lem (a nod to a writer with a thing for hallucinatory SF stories dealing with people stuck inside their own heads). With Lem’s assistance, Skid is, again, a free man.

Except he isn’t, really. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, only without the happy ending, our romantic Sisyphus is someone stuck in a loop. The laws of physics may be flexible, but those of human nature are not. We reproduce and consume in an endless cycle, driven by the ineluctable instincts of the pleasure principle. The book’s cover illustration is a perfect representation: is the figure pulling himself out of trouble or falling into another hole? Both.

This could all be pretty grim stuff, but Basilières pulls it off with a light touch. It’s the kind of story that asks that we not take it, or any story, all that seriously. Skid’s happiest moments are spent in time travel, when he steps outside of reality entirely and the outer world is erased. Only then does he feel truly free from pain, responsibility, and need. The message seems to be that since nothing you can do will change your destination, you might as well embrace your fate and enjoy the ride.

Review first published online January 18, 2016.

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