From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself. Novels where form dominates, and ones where the graphic design element is strong, can be exciting, but they are also easily met with a challenge—do you have more to offer me or are you just a pretty object, a chair that looks nice in the corner, but not recommended as a reading chair?
Besides risking form over substance, Wigrum is also immediately quirky—a culturally-loaded term that for some is ever-appealing, for others, an easy and lazy dismissal (the fear that it is simply a gimmick), with the middle ground needing the full context of the book or film. We aren’t in Wes Anderson territory here, but Canty does want to charm the reader with fantasy, with claims of authenticity that no one is falling for or being confused by. The references to books, stories, and films abound, from the most indirect, to obvious, to direct statements (“Faulkner’s Hankie” is one of the objects). All of this, the dominance of form, the quirk, the seeming dependence on referents, are aspects of a book that make me cross my arms, dig my heels in, and look for ways to dislike a work. I caught myself doing this, promised to reset myself—and just as I am working on this, Canty presents a backbone. He lets us see what happens when Wigrum seeks and finds an object in the wreckage of a World War II London bombing:
Those imaginative enough will leave with their pockets stuffed with stones, metal bits, shards of crockery. They will tell their friends what it is and the things will transform before their eyes. In a hidden recess of themselves, even those who say they don’t believe will believe. Wigrum knows that out of a beloved story he is left, at times, with only a few phrases, an image, an impression. Can a whole world, a man’s life be reconstructed out of what remains? The allusion is inevitable. Saves us from having to shoulder all the weight of our presence. To pick up the thread of a story, retain only what’s left of it, and invent the rest.
Immediately after this, Wigrum finds his object, but importantly, there are others looking in the rubble, weepers, the wretched, and children. Canty and Wigrum are asking this from us. This admission of the lie, or at least of the fractured truth, is followed by a brief, detailed history of a spoon Wigrum finds and we are expected to believe. We should forget doubts, see what pieces we can find, and then see what we can do with those pieces ourselves, after someone else has found the story. Objects, people, stories, and allusions are all threads that can be picked up and then invented off of. With a backbone set, Wigrum again opens up, early resentments eased.
Though ideas, recurring characters, themes, references (Pynchon, Melville, and Vonnegut make varied appearances), and ghostly links asking for a revisit connect some of the “inventories” to each other, for the most part they stand alone. Though purposively incomplete, they don’t lack for insight, keen phrases, or emotional insight. Their brevity—they generally run from a half-page to three pages—and the way this small scope is meant to evoke something more in the reader calls to mind Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories or Walser’s Microscripts, though not as fine-tuned or accomplished. On the sentence level, Canty, through Oana Avasilichioaei’s translation, has the occasional clunker, with at least some seeming to come from hewing close to the original, though a couple are awkward phrasings that could likely be smoother without straying from the French. The vision differs too, while Canty’s inventories are gestures toward larger stories, missing stories, Kawabata and Walser focus on the microscopic. Their works are satisfying as individual short, short pieces; Canty’s need their context, their framework, and play off of each other rather than separate.
His own sense of detail is based most strongly on ideas, the ideas that drift through Wigrum. The flights of fancy are some of the successful quirky moments, ones that make you smile, but aren’t suggestive of importance that isn’t there, as when describing books that the object “Blank Page” came from: “The books, elegantly typeset in octavo signature according to the golden ratio, were printed on India paper, hand-sewn and bound in colourful cloth.” There’s no meaning behind the use of the golden ratio, we aren’t supposed to make anything of it, but if dreamy, lost books are being invented, why not invoke such a beautiful concept? Canty is also skillful at letting the stories come close to the world we know, then, just when we feel normalized, launching the story and the ambition outwards with. In “Blooming Handbook, 1968” he begins by drawing us in with a historical figure like Buckminster Fuller, moves on to an invented work, returns to our reality by citing Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but ends with another sudden change, “Moreover, some of his philosophy’s followers claim that his dome, once fitted with solar panels, could be transformed into an interstellar spaceship, a flying garden that would leave the earth to begin the world afresh.”
The inventories vary in tone, which helps keep one after another compelling, and quality, which means the brevity of each is fortunate. Some are forgettable, easy to pass over on the way to a more interesting object, but those probably vary from reader to reader. Some objects are more than forgettable and you look forward to the start of the next. There is no particular tone that suits Canty best—some have dark, violent twists (“Arab String, 1949”), others are hysterical. “Holden’s Hat” comes out with the pleasantly absurd premise that Holden Caulfield did exist, does wear the famous hunting hat, and when he becomes a college professor, develops the habit of “When annoyed by a student’s vanity, he would pull down the earflaps of his hunting hat to stop hearing anything.” A few are heartbreaking, as with “Chinese Fortunes,” the story of a man who finds a bottle of twenty fortunes that instead of “deal[ing] in vaguely exotic generalities that can easily apply to anyone’s life, other than the most unlikely,” tell the fate of truly unique and specific deaths.
Throughout this variety, Wigrum maintains a consistency of ideas, or beliefs. Though the aspiration is not a grand one, no fresh achievement in a book, there is a special, and rare accomplishment: form, content, and style align to make a complete work, with the loose ends being purposeful, or in the case of weaker inventories, unnecessary. An early hint of this alignment is in “Bartlebrick” where the story of an object, a brick, and its association with a Wall Street bookkeeper, Stipes, who responds to all requests with “I’d rather not.” At the end of this obvious allusion to Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivner,” we are told that this predates Melville, that he likely got wind of this through connections from his time at the working near the Dead Letter Office. Canty’s story, instead of being influenced by Melville, is presented as the origin of, cause and effect are switched, and a continual loop is ignited. It is a fragment of a tale that Melville comes across, which leads to his own tale (with the expression changed, and the time at the Dead Letter Office coming after Wall Street instead of before), which leads to Canty’s . . . but Canty’s came first . . . This looping is reflected in phrases showing up in different inventories, apparently detached, but in the frame of the book, caught in endless repetitions that lead to fracturing of new stories (though at times I wished the repetition had a little more variation—I was sorely tempted to count how many times he used a variation of “sibylline” and wished that Avasilichioaei had found another way to translate it).
Canty is obviously aware of and confident in these loops, daring in his Afterword (attributed to him in the table of contents), when questioning the relationship between the collector Wigrum and his curator Stepniac, to tempt us with “Assumed names or looping loop of correspondences?” The effect of a book that lives so entirely within its scope, where the style reflects the concepts and conception, lets the reader move within that world, almost like taking on the mindset of a hero in a fantasy novel or an explorer in an alien culture in a sci-fi novel. I found myself enveloped by the references, seeking them out almost in a paranoid state. Something sounds familiar and I begin to wrack my brain, trying to get at the reference. This is where the finalized index comes in handy for readers. The index was something I forgot entirely about, so easy to dismiss in the beginning (does this author really expect me to read an index? to care about his pet references enough to try to pin them down?), until a footnote telling of a rubber baron and his boat Klauski, found on top of a mountain, sent me to the index, and sure enough I found Fitzcarraldo. Eventually, I became jealous of anyone with a final edition, with the set index. Instead, when glancing at it and finding a reference to Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, likely the book I’ve read the most times in my life, I revisit the entire book, trying to find out where this reference I missed was (“Atlantean Flag, 1978” has a reference to both 42 and a game of scrabble that ends in a fight; it must be it). We can buy in so much that when he cheekily, backhandedly admits the base reality of what an object is, we dismiss it with him. The description of “Ectoplasmic Sponge” opens with “This solid and spongy body, easily confused with an aquatic sponge, is the residue of an ectoplasm vomited by Ashley Atalanta, the Irish medium born Virginia Sexton.” Why not admit what something is at the same time you deny it, and offer a more interesting reality instead? It becomes enough that you don’t know whether to be embarrassed for Canty, or feel like you are missing something, when he puts forth a historical anachronism like P. T. Barnum meeting Ben Franklin.
This excited collection of objects, of invention, is not necessarily an exercise in positive thinking, though we are called on to join in, as when we see whole other stories bursting out of one that is shared with us, and as that early invocation would make us think. Objects and people begin to show little difference from each other. Both are repeatedly lost, burnt, disappear, die, and leave barely a trace, only enough for another story to begin, which itself will then inevitably be lost again. In the very beginning, we’re told how similar people and objects are: people are “nothing more than ourselves” and the objects in the collection have “nothing in particular other than the aura their story bestows upon them.” The encouragement of story, faith in the fantastic, is not a risk-free endeavor, more than one character loses his place in the world or his life simply be believing in his story or encouraging another’s: “If a moral was at work in the automaton’s ruse, it is that fiction seems to be a game and, if a game, it can definitely be won or lost.”
In the final sections, Canty begins what he started by returning to the underlying structure of Wigrum, a collector of objects, the woman tied to him and rebirthing in name in various women throughout, the curator of his works, Stepniac, and the story of how Canty himself came to these texts. The connections between all of them are only hinted at, and like in so many of the stories, we have no original, core text, only remainders, so as Canty writes that Wigrum “commenced ceasing to exist,” the ending, and the disconnections, are opportunities to take our own risks, creating the rest of the stories, linking what we are able, and letting be lost what must be lost.