The World Absurd

Reviewed in this essay: Look Down, This is Where It Must Have Happened by Hal Niedzviecki. City Lights Books, 2011.

Hal Niedzviecki’s Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened, will perturb you if you like to think the world is mostly a predictable place if you play your cards right. In each of the book’s twelve stories, Niedzviecki plunks well-meaning, conscientious people — mostly well-adapted Jews from Toronto — into hyperbolic scenarios in which they barely cope.

In “Displacement,” an internment camp survivor and cream cheese maker becomes depressed as he starts developing cream cheese flavours that appeal to non-Jews. In “Doing God’s Work,” God’s personal assistant devises an assassination plot in which he makes God feel inadequate for his constant need for human attention. In “Special Topic: Terrorism,” a wayward university student smashes and burns cars for a school project but largely because he’s in love with the popular, aloof girl in his group.

Niedzviecki’s descriptions are deeply cartoonish. Details tend to be described generically, like they were painted in a single, pastel brush stroke. People go to “work,” to “their cubicle,” they eat at the “the deli”, as if no deli is distinct from any other deli. What’s important about the deli is not where it is or what it looks like, but that Paul goes there every night for a week while his girlfriend is out of town and orders a Reuben sandwich with all the fixings. He never goes anywhere else, or stays in, and he never orders anything but the Reuben. The deli obsession parallels his obsession with watching online broadcasts of funerals.

The cartoon feeling also comes from Niedzviecki’s tendency to communicate dark sentiments through absurd scenarios. As if the more morbid the sentiment the more necessary it might be for a clown to deliver it.

For example, in “Holiday,” a husband continues to love his wife and admire her body, imperfect as it is, while she bombards him with criticism and rigidities, like insisting he wash his feet before bed or she’s sleeping on the couch. These scenes are spliced with the husband’s visits to the home of an elderly dying woman under the guise of someone who works for Meals on Wheels. He brings her food and watches TV with her all day. The tension between the husband and wife comes to a head when he is caught and arrested. Even as the wife breaks down, “I’ve got an idiot for a husband,” he’s admiring her body: “I follow the curve of her back to the place where she swells out.” What might otherwise be a tragic scenario, of a man married to someone who is not satisfied by him, is neutralized to some degree through the fact that he is also, bizarrely, a Meals on Wheels volunteer impersonator.

Or, there’s the story of the overachieving grade 10-student, Charlie, whose precocious fetus is trying to convince her to have an abortion. “‘And if I want you to do it, then you have to do it,’ says the fetus. ‘It’s my decision isn’t it Charlie?’ Charlie closes her eyes. She should be doing her homework. But the fetus won’t stop.” Later, when Charlie is watching TV, model shows and Idol shows, the fetus points out that all those girls have done it; they’ve all had abortions. “Only 40% of teenage mothers graduate high school,” the fetus lectures, knowing how focused Charlie is on academic achievement. In the end, the fetus loses its case and Charlie doesn’t abort, though anxieties about motherhood make it hard for her to study for final exams.

That none of us has our shit together is perhaps the book’s overarching theme. In the title story, “Look Down, This is Where It Must Have Happened,” we meet Bradley:

“A guy named Bradley quits his job because it’s too much like a job. After that, there’s a futon couch and a quilt bundled up over him. Don’t worry about Bradley: he can take care of himself.”

The question, “Did you hear about Bradley?” comes shortly afterwards. The reader learns that no, actually, he couldn’t take care of himself, he’s jumped from the bridge.

In fact no one in the story can take care of themselves. The narrator is aggressive with a bullying tendency that he can’t really explain. But he also says things like, “I’ve been with Shauna for four years. Literally with her. Following her around, trying to get her not to go where she is planning to without me.”

Mickers, who is being tracked by Shauna’s boyfriend when he won’t return anyone’s calls, has soiled himself in the night. He is broke. There’s evidence he’s been in love with Shauna too but could never get a hold of his feelings well enough to do anything about it. The story ends with him in a pair of shiny new deck shoes standing on the bridge in the same place from where Bradley jumped, looking down.

Niedzviecki’s stories are more than successful at making the reader feel the way the characters do: isolated, embarrassed and defenseless, but somehow still able to appreciate a knock-knock joke. Like Santa Clause smoking cigarettes on a beach after a tsunami has washed away everyone else. It’s easy to imagine the reader who might not prefer this, the reader who would be drawn to a slower, more straightforward, more serious prodding of the human condition.

But for those of us for whom the world can seem most loveable in its most overwhelming moments, and for whom the goal is not to straighten out the kinks but to work with them, Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened feels relevant and resonant.

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