Pockets (Stuart Ross)

“It is marvellous how everything is connected,” says the narrator of Pockets, and that statement operates as a mini-review of the novel itself. The story unfolds in short, poetic paragraphs that offer surreal snapshots. In this way, Ross develops a fragmentary, dreamlike novel that is startling, sometimes silly, and marbled with melancholy.

“I stood in my bedroom, at the foot of my unmade bed. I turned on a lamp and my shadow was thrown across the floor. With effort, it pulled itself to its feet and lurched toward the window. . . . I scooped up palmfuls of my own shadow from the floor and filled my pockets with them.”

The story unfolds in this shadowy manner, with metaphors taking on literal meanings. The shadow “thrown across the floor” is, like a person, tossed there forcefully by the lamp’s light. It has to recover from the assault and pick itself up in order to try to escape this aggressive light. The narrator, trying to keep his shadow, thrusts what he can grab into lightless pockets.

It’s a simple trick, but one Ross uses exceptionally well. Another core technique Ross uses to powerful effect is separating sentences that, in a more conventional novel, would follow each other. “On the television, a president got shot in the head,” writes Ross on page 24, a startling conclusion to that page’s small scene, and it’s not until page 48 that Ross follows with “The president’s head was a puddle, a mess” — a line disconnected from the rest of that page’s scene.

The result is a novel about a family falling apart, over time — as age, death, and tragedy mysteriously claim its members — one that reads both like a dream and like a series of displaced memories. As strange and mystical as the novel seems at times, it also more simply captures the narrator’s attempts to reclaim and make sense of a disconnected, distressing childhood.

The novel’s atmosphere captures that odd unreality, of trying as an adult to reconstruct and make sense of childhood. Ross captures a certain childlike wonder: the way that children cannot truly understand the world around them, and as a result have strange, often endearingly skewed perspectives.

It’s easy to forget our own childhood when smiling at the cute kid that does not quite get it — we forget how often “not quite getting it” was a nightmarish, terrifying experience.

The blank way Ross presents startling images nicely captures this tone: “On the basement steps, on a piece of paper, I drew a guy getting shot by an arrow. Blood spurted out of his chest and gradually filled up the whole piece of paper.” Using “filled up” here allows for a wonderful ambiguity — is this blood drawn by the child or drawn out from the wound?

At one point, the narrator visits a grave: “The headstone stood in front of me. . . . It saw my lips moving and heard sounds come out, but it didn’t understand language. My eyes were red and filled with tears. The headstone just stood there, waiting for me to leave.”

Pockets nicely captures that strange sense of being an adult but not feeling like a grown-up, alongside a sad sense that the world is just there, mystified by your presence, waiting for you to leave.

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