On Sept. 21, I advocated for Struan Sinclair’s novel Automatic WorldAutomatic World at the Winnipeg Writers Festival during the “Manitoba Reads” event. I see now that Struan ended up in last place! Sorry, Struan. If it’s any consolation, here are my opening and closing speeches concerning the novel.
Before we begin, I have to confess something: that I don’t quite know what I’m doing here, out in society. At a social event, discussing a book. To me, books remain a sort of ANTI-social media. They may be the only anti-social media that remains to us, and we should treasure them for this.
I should also confess another quirk: I never know what to say when someone talks about relaxing with a book. If you can relax with a book, it seems to me that the book is broken. What’s valuable in books is what unsettles us. Whenever I find myself relaxing with a book, I throw that very book across the room.
Struan’s book did not relax me. It’s a book about books, about trains. About books that are trains. That crash into us, scramble our brains, make us relearn our knowledge of stories. It’s a book that seems simple in structure: it begins with a train and it ends with a train, in between there are trains, and in between those trains there are some stories. We’re told stories, and we’re told that we’re told stories, but soon those stories seem like they are telling each other instead.
They’re wonderful stories, wonderful and strange. There’s a child’s town made of magnets. There’s a mad inventor, who crafts many wonders, including metal dragonflies. There’s a man struggling to kill himself, and a murder, and an orchard of worms. There’s a film about the future, with cars that don’t crash, and of course there’s a train crash. Even a day in the life of a dime. There are artificial limbs, a revenge plot. People that look like rain, rainpeople.
They’re our stories. Of our fathers, who kill themselves over and over again. Of our mothers, who strain away from us. People we cannot understand, like ourselves, who we cannot understand. Who build machines that they hope to understand instead, that will understand for us. But they don’t understand.
In an older novel, Moby-Dick, we’re told in one moment that the whale has no face. Ishmael tries to describe the whale’s face to us, but in doing so he realizes that the whale has no face. He’s tried to understand something, the biggest thing, the thing that should be easiest to understand, Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick has no face. There’s nothing there to understand.
In Automatic World, because of a brain injury, the main character is stuck in the present tense. He needs to enter the future and the past. He has a need to make stories. These are medical needs (his brain must rewire itself), but they are also emotional needs.
He needs to understand. But he’s making the stories, so what is there to hold? Just the stories. They are here in this book. You should read it. Thank you.
It was once said of the novel Tristram Shandy that “nothing odd can last,” meaning that it would be forgotten for its strangeness, as the world’s train shuttled down its winding track.
But what we find as we shuttle forward is that ONLY the odd things last, while other things are discarded and forgotten as our conventions and our cultures die.
Only the odd things last, and so we should commend Struan for producing this odd thing. It’s not so odd that we can’t take time to appreciate it now. It contains the things we love best in Canada: rich language, fascinating characters, a myth that we mistake for history.
It contains these things but it contains far more and so we should grapple with it as we grapple life. Thank you.