Based on a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, André Alexis’ new novel, The Hidden Keys (Coach House Books), is the follow-up to his Giller-winning Fifteen Dogs and the fourth installment in what he’s called a “quincunx” of novels. In it, a heroin addict and potential heiress named Willow Azarian enlists the help of Tancred Palmieri, an erudite thief, in solving the clues her recently deceased father left to the whereabouts of his large inheritance.
Brad deRoo: Are reading and writing at all like treasure hunts? (If so, what coordinates and pitfalls do they share? What about their quests diverges?)
André Alexis: Hmmm … Yes and no. You begin a book with the hope it will take you somewhere marvellous or unexpected. Most of the time, you end a book either satisfied by your travels or disappointed. But the readerly discovery of something precious — something that will be buried within you — is relatively rare, in my experience. Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Bark Tree, War and Peace, Mansfield Park, The Master and Margarita, [Ernest Becker’s] The Denial of Death, [Harry Mathews’] Cigarettes, Michael Ondaatje’s Long Poem Anthology, Eunoia, Short Journey Upriver to Oishida, Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein, Beckett’s Trilogy … out of the thousands of books I’ve read in my life, these and, maybe, fifty more are permanently lodged within me. The difference between these books and physical treasure is, of course, that the books I love can never be lost or taken from me.
BdR: How do literary prizes fit into the search? (Are they treasure that keep you digging for? Do they ever weigh down the investigation?)
AA: Literary prizes are … interesting. They’re maps of a certain kind of terrain, I guess. When I was beginning my life as a writer, I read a book – or excerpt of some sort – from everyone who’d won a Nobel Prize. This was a good way to quickly discover some great writers – Camus, Kawabata, Montale, Lagerlöf, Undset, Pasternak. It also taught me a valuable lesson. Prize committees are human and fallible. Sully Prudhomme, and Theodor Momssen, the first two winners, are dreadful writers. I knew that even as a beginner. Today, it seems willfully perverse that either should have won such an award ahead of Leo Tolstoy – who was eligible. So, you could say — if you’re determined to stick with the analogy — that literary prizes are maps that mislead the unwary.
BdR: Your protagonist in The Hidden Keys, Tancred, is described as an honourable thief. This strikes me as a compelling way to describe an artist in general, and a writer in particular. Does honourable thievery (in terms of pickpocketing influence, taking other’s experiences, swiping and recasting turns of everyday phrase etc.) at all capture the tricks of your trade?
AA: You’ve asked this so well, the only answer I can think of is “yes.” I mean, yes, honourable thievery perfectly describes what happens when one commits Art.
BdR: Your book dramatizes the complicated friendship of Tancred the thief and the ambivalent detective Daniel. This fraught relationship seems to me a modern archetype in literature, television, and film. Do you have any favourite representations of this archetype? What about such a relationship intrigues you?
AA: As you say, there are so many versions of the archetype … the first that comes to mind are the brothers from Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner. I haven’t seen it for some time, but I remember being moved by David Morse’s character more than Viggo Mortensen’s. Then again, I’m always fascinated by the one who has to show restraint, though he (or she) is also plagued by demons. In my novel, I’m intrigued by Daniel Mandelshtam, but The Hidden Keys is Tancred’s novel. So, I had to follow him – the so-called “bad” one – more than I did Daniel. As a writer, what fascinates me about “the good brother” or the “good sister” is the tension within them that comes from struggling with a belief or a code of ethics. It’s in the good characters – if they’re well crafted — that you feel the struggle between nature and nurture. The bad ones find release in interesting ways. They’re more showy, and they’re easier to write. That said, in The Hidden Keys, the tension between a code of conduct and the desire to hurt someone is also exemplified by Tancred.
BdR: Do you read much crime fiction or true crime?
AA: No, not for some time. But when I was teaching myself to write, I read a lot of crime fiction. As I had with the list of Nobel Prize winners, I took the list of Edgar Award winners – the Edgar’s are for best crime fiction – and read the novels that had won it. That’s how I first read Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons, Donald Westlake, Maj Sjowall, and Per Wahloo, Tony Hillerman … the list is long. And some of the work is brilliant. I mean, if I were to teach a course in plotting – rhythm, misdirection, characterization through voice and action – I’d make Gregory MacDonald’s first Fletch novels (Fletch and Confess, Fletch) mandatory reading. It isn’t that I ever wanted to be a writer of crime fiction. The writers that got to me first we’re all literary and none, except maybe Dostoevsky, were crime writers. But the best crime fiction offers up such interesting aspects of storytelling that, when I wanted to write a book that had a puzzle to it, I almost instinctively went back to the detective fiction I’ve loved.
BdR: Artifacts of various time periods and types are described in precise detail. Do you spend many of your free moments in art galleries and museums? Do you ever think of your own books as artifacts to be collected or displayed?
AA: No, these days, I don’t go to galleries nearly as often as I’d like. Then again, I was in love with a visual artist for ten years. Hers is the single most important living influence on my aesthetic. She taught me what to look for in a painting or statue, taught me to understand and appreciate what was going on in a painting by Piero Della Francesca, for instance. That influence has left its mark on my writing, in that whenever I write about Japanese screens or works of art, I’m doing so from a place within where I’m still learning about them for the first time, still amazed that we do things like The Legend of the True Cross or Fallingwater.
BdR: I can’t help but note that you are working on a quincunx of novels (this is listed as #4) and that this book features five mysterious objects. Is this coincidence? Symbolic proliferation? Formal symmetry?
AA: I’m not sure if we mean the same thing by “symbolic proliferation” but if you mean that patterns have a way of repeating themselves inside literary works — as if writing were a way of making fractals — I’d say, yes, it’s all about symbolic proliferation. But, really, it’s formal symmetry. Having chosen a quincunx, a pattern of five, I’ve been consciously playing with pattern and symmetry throughout this series of novels. I think it’s only now, though, three novels into the project, that readers who are interested in such things can see them clearly. Then again, I think of the formal play as something meant for me more that for the reader. It’s part of the architecture of the series and of each novel. So, other writers and critics tend to notice. But the average reader shouldn’t feel he or she is missing anything if they don’t notice. The ideas and emotions are what I’m trying to intensify by using symmetry and pattern. So, I’m happy if the reader interacts with those things more than with the architecture, to be honest.
BdR: This penchant for formal play seems to enter into your reinterpretation and hybridization of genres. Are there any genres you would especially like to play around with or combine?
AA: I’d like to write speculative fiction. I loved the work of Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney, James Tiptree, Ursula Leguin. Basically, I read and enjoyed the earlier guys – Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke – but I was bowled over by the writers in the various Dangerous Visions anthologies. I can still remember the feeling of reading “Riders of the Purple Wage” by Philip José Farmer (or “Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers”) and thinking “This is what I’d like to do.” But, again, my mind was colonized by so-called “literary fiction” early on and it took me a long time to realize you could at least try both.
BdR: Characters like Colby, Willow, and Ollie confront and play with some common stereotypes about race, class, and criminality. In effect, we learn a lot about their motivations and individuality by how they react to these outside presumptions. Do you ever find it tricky to find this rich balance between satire (or critique) and well-individuated characterization? Or are these identifying aspects simply parts of human nature asking to dramatized?
AA: These are good questions but they’re a little beyond me. Some of what I do is consciously done. But just as much – if not more – is unconscious. I knew, while I was writing The Hidden Keys that the issue was morality, the search for the good. And the biggest point to the novel – aside telling a story – was that it’s difficult to find “the good” when we have no idea what effects our actions will have: what causes they’ll stimulate, who they’ll influence, etc. So, I wanted characters who are not quite clear, who are difficult to judge. All the “speaking parts,” in the novel, have ramifications and complications that make it difficult to judge them. Not just for readers, either. Tancred almost certainly misjudges Colby, as Alton Azarian misjudges Tancred. I ended up using genre stereotypes and then bending them, playing against them, and so on. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I started with an idea – “the good is difficult to know” — and then instinctively took on its implications.
BdR: Fifteen Dogs was also concerned with examining aspects of what it means to be Good. Would you say that this ancient philosophical question is an ongoing literary concern of yours?
AA: No, not really. It’s one of a number of questions that interest me. But it’s not major. In Fifteen Dogs, in fact, the question of death – our recognition of it and how that recognition affects our thinking — was much more significant. In any case, these kinds of questions – philosophical questions — are my pretexts for stories. They’re not important in themselves when I’m writing fiction.
BdR: Toronto is a real and actively imagined presence in this book and your previous one (Fifteen Dogs). Here it is described (to paraphrase) as millions of places to millions of people. Since there are so many possible experiences of it, how do you decide which sides or interpretations to highlight in your fiction? What ramifications does this omni-diverse view or do these incredibly individuated views of the city have for the much vaunted concept of multiculturalism?
AA: I used and highlighted those parts of the city that my characters needed: Alexandra Park, Parkdale, Rosedale, etc. I’m not sure my choices have much to do with multiculturalism. Or, rather, you’re better equipped to tell me what the implications of my choices are, because you’re more objective. In the novel, Toronto is a reflection of the character thinking about Toronto. I’m sure something deeper is going on, but I can’t know what without the help of a good psychotherapist.
BdR: Are you deep into any projects at the moment?
AA: Yes, I am. I’m writing my version of a travel narrative. A very strange travel narrative that has poetry, botanical illustrations, and a god. Now that I think of it, maybe I am interested in combining genres. Sometimes. Despite my better nature.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, September 2016