Saturday, May 02, 2009

This'll Kill You: A Globe & Mail Take on Terry Griggs's Thought You Were Dead

Globe and Mail Update

In the opening voiceover of the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, the Stranger calls the Dude, the film's hapless stoner hero, "the man for his time and place." Chellis Beith, hero of Terry Griggs's slacker cozy Thought You Were Dead, is just such a man.

Like a word-drunk Dude, a lazy man's Everyman, Chellis stumbles into a mystery at least as twisty and interesting as his own pithy observations on his ludicrous life in the pastoral Southern Ontario town of Farclas.

Chellis Beith, stock boy turned literary researcher, works for Athena Havlock (Alfred Hitchcock's initials), a successful author of series mystery novels and the occasional lauded literary tome. Chellis is in unrequited love with girl next-door Elaine, inventor of domestic products such as the Comedo Vac and SuckZitUp, and now happily married to Vaughan (The Perfect Man) Champion. With his birth mother vanished and his beloved, permissive adoptive mother dead, Chellis is living in Dude-esque stasis in his childhood home.

As he is about to receive his latest assignment from Mrs. H., a book reviewer is murdered in nearby Claymore. "Who would want to kill a lowly book reviewer?" Chellis wonders, rightly. Then Mrs. H. disappears and Chellis spots her driving around with his high-school rival, Dick Major. For strength and courage, Chellis draws upon the moves of Marcel Lazar, one of Athena's series detectives (perhaps based, as Elaine believes, on Chellis in the first place), as he bumbles deeper into this wild plot, fielding inventions, pining for Elaine and gathering clues.

Midway through the novel, Chellis asks: "What would propel a writer to commit an actual murder? Serious plagiarism found out? A vicious rejection (editorial boards being the favoured haunt of sadists)? The extremes of publicity? Sinister, out-of-control research?"


Chockablock with winks and digs at the literary set, Thought You Were Dead is a gleeful Russian doll of novel. Reading it, one trips along, revelling in its wordplay: "What would an epiphanic hour be like, he wondered. Or a whole day?"; its wit: "Publicly [Athena Havlock] was known for her philosophical and linguistically challenging works, and consequently was not much in demand. Just the way she liked it"; its puns and allusions: "Zephyrus on wheels," Pnin's variety store, Hitchcock Crescent, MacAbre Street; and its jokes: "[He] spotted two Beware of Dog signs, and one Beware of Human. Beware of Wag, more like, although some jokes did constitute useful advice."

Then there are the characters, the inventors, writers, realtors and reputation-management specialists who people this antic "sleepy town." Chellis's observations, his relentless verbal riffs, hit not only on words but on the bigger questions of mother love, fear of change, marriage and death. It is a testament to Griggs's skill that this story is equal parts comic murder mystery, hero's journey and layered intellectual puzzle, with nods to many (Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a couple), and that it satisfies on every level.

Thought You Were Dead is Terry Griggs's first adult novel since being awarded the 2003 Marian Engel Award in recognition of her distinguished body of work. She has published two previous novels, including Rogues' Wedding, short-listed for the Rogers Fiction Prize, and the short-story collection Quickening, nominated for the Governor-General's Award. Her children's book Cat's Eye Corner, the first in a series, has also been short-listed for multiple children's writing awards.

Though figuratively rich and linguistically tortuous, Thought You Were Dead wears its mystery tropes on its sleeve. Elaine names her cat Noir while Chellis considers films such as Dial M for Murder, Montenegro and Pulp Fiction as he mulls over each unsettling event. At one point, he refers to a "McGuffin," the term Hitchcock famously used to mean an object in a caper about crooks or spies that impels villains and heroes alike to pursue each other.

In a chapter called Mallaise, Chellis is helping Elaine with market research when he comes upon a mall-chain bookstore. He reacts with relief, despite its "unreality," dubbing it "a literary oasis." Griggs's wordplay is as much about giving the bird to the staid and WASPy as it is her method of enhancing awareness of the role of fiction and truth in reality. As Chellis muses while sorting through clues, "Fiction filtered so surreptitiously into everyday life that you had to keep your eye on it. But not banish it altogether. That would be too too boring. Besides, it was so useful."

Thought You Were Dead pokes and pokes and pokes — at over-achieving neighbours, Killexed lawns, Protestant work ethics, the Perfect Man and, most deliciously, writers, readers and the life literary. Nothing in Griggs's world is just what it is, making Thought You Were Dead as pleasing and barbed-wire affirmative to read as Alice in Wonderland — but with an even better plot.

Sally Cooper courts the dark side of fiction in her novel Tell Everything.

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