Nicholas Ruddock’s debut novel, The Parabolist, is told through interlacing narratives that pivot around a group of University of Toronto medical students in 1975, taught by Roberto Moreno. Moreno is a recently immigrated Mexican poet and member of the (fictional) parabolist movement, a group which “arranges words and ideas in such a way that the energy input burns. Then it explodes in the gut and the chest, where feelings are the deepest, where you can hardly breathe.” Combining sex, murder, medicine, vigilante justice, and poetry, the book is surprising, fast-paced, and inexplicably enjoyable.
The twisting narratives centre upon a midsummer night’s murder. A woman is raped in the street and her attacker is found dead around the corner. The only clue found at the scene of the crime? Crisco. The drunk vigilantes responsible for the death? Moreno and Jasper Glass, a med student in Moreno’s poetry class.
The entire case is complexly intertwined, which adds elements of both realism and confusion. Jasper Glass is in love with Valerie Anderson, who is sleeping with Roberto Moreno. Roberto lives with his aunt and uncle, whose neighbours are June and Bill Glass, Jasper’s parents. June Glass and Valerie have an over-the-fence friendship. There’s also a feminist poet, a professor writing a book of idioms, and a violent psychiatrist – all tumbled together in Ruddock’s landscape of aesthetic, moral, and physical contemplation.
The most consistent character is the cadaver that undergoes a full dissection over the course of the novel, creating a vein that flows through the discussion of poetic aesthetics. The anatomy class dissection provides clever grounds for examining the physical aspect of the mind-body relationship, while leaving the parabolist aesthetic to deal with the abstract. As skin and organs are stripped away, they reveal that for all the higher-level philosophy, in the end it all comes down to biology. Pornographic scenes, murder, and ultimately, the climax, are also rendered in clinical language that reduces the events to a mere recitation of body parts, albeit a poetic one.
However, Ruddock sensationalizes where sensationalization isn’t really necessary, which cheapens otherwise strong characters and situations. A child prostitute, a pimp, and a rape-happy psychiatrist add unnecessary trauma to a book that already centres around a murder. And while the ending is cleverly executed on many levels, it’s also alienating. Despite the fact that the initial rape and murder centres the action, the resulting investigation has little to do with the rest of the novel.
The style of the book is alternately distracting and engrossing. There are no quotations marks and little punctuation, and it’s easy to skip over the excerpts of poetry that seem to appear on every other page – charming at first, but increasingly non-essential. Nevertheless, a certain unique variety of English lit major will probably find them utterly engrossing.
In some ways, The Parabolist is a murder mystery to which readers will already know the solution from the very beginning; in other ways, it’s an introduction to dissection, of both bodies and minds. And in other ways still, it’s a manifesto of art.