Nikolski: Nicolas Dickner

Here is a mysterious thing about this book that has nothing to do with the mysterious story it contains: I do not know how I happened to have a copy of it in my possession. More mysterious still, the copy I have in my possession is signed by the author. One day, I was looking at the shelves of unread books (it used to just be one shelf. sigh) and there it was. How did it get there and why is it signed? Am I sleepwalking to book signings now? I have been known to do some fairly ludicrous things in my sleep (including turning on all electrical appliances, watching Dynasty re-runs, and being stuck in the entryway of my house when the locked door prevented my escape to the outside), but attending literary events had so far not made the list.

However it got to my shelf, I’m glad it did. For one thing, I don’t read enough Canadian fiction, and I definitely don’t read enough fiction out of Québec. Which alone is not enough to be satisfied with a book, of course. But Dickner brings the fun with Nikolski (an aside: since, after an incident involving liquid and my keyboard, the ‘k’ no longer works and I am forced to type control-l to make a ‘k’ now, I will hereafter refer to this book as Niolsi to make my typing life slightly easier). And Niolsi also feeds my obsession with relationships and how two people can see the same thing in two totally different ways, featuring as it does three criss-crossing points of view. 

We meet a nameless narrator first, in 1989 on the morning he has finished emptying out the house he shared with his mother until her death a couple weeks before. And this is when I started to expect good things: “There are exactly thirty bags”, the narrator tells us in reference to the number of garbage bags full of an old life waiting for the garbagemen to take them away. I love details like this. I love the odd precision. Does it matter to the story how many garbage bags there are? Not in the slightest. But it does matter to this character, and that tells me so much about who am I getting involved with on the page. And I get this on the second page of the book. Just this one line and I feel like I know this guy.

Then nomadic Noah comes along, miles and miles and miles away from the garbage bags in Montréal, in the prairies of Western Canada. He’s spent his entire life rolling around Western Canada with his mother in an 1966 Bonneville station wagon named “Grampa”, never crossing the Rockies, never heading further east than Manitoba. They just drove and drove, through every small town in the Prairies, sleeping in a trailer hitched behind them. He learned to read from road maps, and ends up homeschooling himself, getting his high school equivalency and going to university in Montréal.

And finally there’s Joyce from the small town of Tête-à-la-Baleine who wants to be a pirate like her ancestors, but is stuck cleaning up after the herds of relatives who are always at her house. She comes across an article about a computer pirate, a woman with the same last name as her, and decides to follow in the footsteps of this lost relative. So she hitches her way south to Montréal to start her new life of crime.

At this point, you expect their stories to come together or their lives to intersect in significant ways. But they don’t. Dickner doesn’t take the easy way out. Instead, Joyce ends up working at the fish store below the apartment Noah ends up sharing, around the corner from the bookstore where our anonymous narrator works. Their lives just brush up against each other, even though they all have some really interesting things in common and you keep expecting them to come together for some kind of big adventure.

It’s this brushing up that fascinates me, the idea that an incident could be so important to one person involved, while another person barely registers the event as even having happened. The way all the life we have lived before now affects how we actually perceive “now” and what we choose to take with us into the future, what we choose to bring with us from the past, how the past is shaped by the very act of remembering it, so that none of our impressions are ever stable, even though they seem that way to us; these thoughts can drown me from time to time. Especially in connection with human relationships because dang! You are trying to connect with another human being while both of you are standing on shifting ground.

Niolsi explores this shifting ground and the way people manage to connect despite it, and also the ways in which people reinvent themselves. There’s a lot going on here, story-wise and otherwise, and I won’t ruin it for you by discussing just where these crazy kids end up. But garbage archaeology is involved. And Dickson crafts some perfect lines that are well worth reading, such as “Grampa’s glove compartment enclosed the entire known universe, carefully folded and turned in on itself.” And the man knows the value of the written word: “… one can’t surrender books for fifty cents. It would be irresponsible.”

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