By Steve Noyes
November’s Radio begins in the aftermath of a break-up. Wendy has gone to China, leaving her partner Gary in Victoria. Their separation established, the novel then proceeds to run on dual tracks, alternating between storylines that remain separate and distinct.
Such an approach raises basic technical difficulties. Chief among these is how the two narratives connect. What makes this even more problematic in November’s Radio is that the two protagonists aren’t even in contact with one another throughout most of the novel, and their adventures seem totally unrelated. Wendy is involved in the creation of a next-generation form of holographic performance art with an odd Chinese couple (the project is being funded by Chen, the son of one of China’s shady new plutocrats). Meanwhile, Gary works in B.C.’s Ministry of Wellness as a cubicle drone, doing research into pharmaceuticals.
What’s the connection? There is a bit of plot crossover at the very end, but up till that point it’s hard work finding common ground. The reader may note, for example, that Gary and Wendy both run afoul of government corruption, with Chen being caught up in a party trial and Gary pressured to provide support for a happy pill of little proven effectiveness and potentially dangerous side effects.
More substantial than this is a thematic connection drawn out in the way both stories emphasize failures of language. The Ministry is a hive buzzing with acronyms, doubletalk, bureaucratese and therapy-speak. Reports are written but need interpretation. When something important needs to be said it’s done in code.
Code is also a preferred mode of communication in China, being the way Chen’s father sends messages to him. Meanwhile, Wendy does not know Chinese and her conversations with her friends are often awkward, at times collapsing entirely into babble. Things breaking down is thus a connecting motif, between lovers and in the language of love.
Another difficulty with the split-narrative approach is that it can get into trouble when one of the two stories moves at a different pace, or is just more interesting than the other. The book can then develop an awkward gait, as though moving forward with a limp.
This is a problem November’s Radio isn’t entirely successful at avoiding. The Gary sections have a much clearer story to tell, as well as one with a brisker pace and a more conventional pattern of rising action and resolution. Wendy’s story is both more complicated and less coherent, with individual episodes that don’t always seem connected to a larger narrative arc. Adding to the weakness of her section is the fact that she is a stranger to China, doesn’t speak the language, and doesn’t always seem to know what’s going on. She is a mostly passive partner in the holograph collaboration, and less a real protagonist than Gary.
November’s Radio is a subtly comic, fragmented, understated and dynamic novel, with episodes that often seem in the process of shifting about and forming different patterns. There may be no proper way they are meant to fit together, but interpreting their code is part of the challenge Noyes has set.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2015.