Friday, August 15, 2008


Beyond the uttering of superlatives, this is not an easy book to write about briefly. It’s a knotty postmodern tale in which a bookstore clerk in Montreal refers to his unborn self as “an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.”

Later he acquires a “three-headed book” composed of fragments from three separate works that are as self-referential as the toy compass he wears around his neck. As he himself says, “I refrain from specifying that my compass did not point north but toward Nikolski—the story is already convoluted enough, thank you.”

Proof occurs on the last page when the reader cannot help but exclaim, “WHAT!” and immediately start flipping happily through the pages again. Happily, because the writing is playful and imaginative, full of marine imagery that is apt and entertaining: a high school career counselor named Mr. Barrier, a poissonnerie that sells sea horses in Cajun sauce, a cloud of phosphorescent plankton swirling around a street light.

In short, this is a nautical yarn set on dry land with three strange fish as protagonists. Noah, who never knew his father, was raised on the prairies by his aboriginal mother. They led a nomadic existence, living in a trailer with ancestral ghosts. Noah leaves for Montreal to study archeology, and falls under the influence of a prof who specializes in trash.

Joyce, who was abandoned by her mother, grew up in Tete-a-la-Baleine. She is a descendant of Acadian buccaneers and niece of Jonas Doucet, father of Noah and the aforementioned bookclerk. Joyce runs away to Montreal, takes up dumpster diving, and fulfills a childlhood dream of becoming a pirate.

Noah's and Joyce's stories are told in the third person and alternate throughout the book, while (in a brilliant conceit) the nameless bookclerk's story surfaces haphazardly and is told in the first person.

There are many more plot elements, most but not all neatly dovetailed together. The tantalizing loose ends simply add to the manifold pleasures of this book.

But enough already. (Though if you'd like to know more, I recommend this review.)

Nikolski was first published in Quebec in 2005 and won a slew of awards. In 2007 it was translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler. It’s a beautifully designed book, right down to the typographic fish used to indicate section breaks. The cover is gorgeous.

Another Whopper

Nikolski reminded me of another postmodern fish story that I read recently, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan. You can read my review here.