Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon
Love and the Mess We’re In
By Stephen Marche
Gaspereau Press, 272 pages, $29
THIS Canadian experimental novel tells the curious love story of Tim and
Viv and Clive and Viv and the enduring friendship of Tim and Clive.
Toronto author Stephen Marche tells it in fragments and asides and
lyrical bursts. It reveals, for instance, both sides of a dinner
conversation, the spoken and the unspoken, between (journalist) Clive
and (novelist) Viv just before they embark on an affair: "Lying on the
bed full of Tim / Clive steak guilt flight adultery / money rain."
It describes (ornithologist) Tim’s life in a mental institution after
a sudden breakdown and Viv and Clive’s separate grieving of his loss.
But that’s only the story. The design of the book, its typography, is an entirely different kettle of fish.
The text is sometimes laid out sideways on the page. It occasionally
undulates. It periodically runs in a circle. In one instance, it is
interspersed with drawings of constellations.
All of which suggests a book of poetry, right down to the publisher’s
choice of creamy, subtly textured paper of the kind often used by
But Marche writes novels. This is his third. So it must be approached
as a novel as well as a book that is lovely to look at and hold.
Now its publisher, Nova Scotiabased Gaspereau Press, is already known
for producing beautiful books, but Love and the Mess We’re In was a
particular labour of love for Marche and his collaborator Andrew
Steeves, Gaspereau’s publisher and an award-winning typographer.
Marche reputedly wrote the book in a year and then turned it over to
Steeves, who spent two years laying it out in consultation with Marche.
This is not a typical production schedule. But neither Steeves nor Marche are known for being strictly conventional.
Take Marche’s first book, 2005’s Raymond and Hannah (Random House),
an erotically charged story of a troubled relationship divided by faith
and geography where the point of view shifts from paragraph to
paragraph. Its marginal notes are often the only clue to who is
Steeves earned notoriety when Gaspereau was unable — or unwilling —
to print enough books to meet the demand for Johanna Skibsrud’s The
Sentimentalists after it won the 2010 Giller Prize.
But no matter how many conventions Love and Mess We’re In subverts,
the real test is whether or not it works as art. Is the whole is greater
than the sum of its parts? Do the design and typography add to the
power of the story or are they just elaborate window-dressing?
Well, mostly, yes.
Though the novel runs 272 pages, it lacks the nuance and the
exhaustive examination of two people and their relationship that Marche
specializes in. (Likely the word count would put it more in the novella
range, which is a smaller canvas than March usually employs.) And while
Tim, Viv and Clive are all compelling characters with an original
tragedy to share between them, the fact that Clive and Viv are writers
means that both our leads are excruciating articulate.
Also, Tim’s mental illness often seems like more of a plot device than real, lived experience.
But make no mistake. Love and the Mess We’re In is not a failure (or, if it is, it’s as grand failure as you’ll ever read).
It is a book and a book-making project that should appeal to visual
artists, anyone interested in the book-as-fetish-object, readers of
experimental fiction and poetry, and fans of both Steeves (and the rest
of the crew at Gaspereau) and Marche.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and poet.