‘Parataxis … gone wild’

The Apple in the Orchard,
by Brian Dedora 

Gananoque: Guernica Editions, 2024
$22.95 / 9781771838603

Reviewed by Peter Babiak

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One of the truths the great modernists like Flaubert, Pound, Eliot, and Blanchot set out to show us is that novels and poems are imaginative constructions about words more than the phenomenal reality to which we blithely assume language simply refers. A literary text is a formal aesthetic object whose reality is its imaginative use of language, in other words, it’s sheer writtenness or, in the case of experimental poetry, it’s spokenness. 

This reality consists of new combinations of words as well as their rhythmic properties or “poetics,” oddities in syntax, conscious use of metaphor and simile, and all the other innovative linguistic phenomena that average readers tend to bypass in favour of simpler matters of content, like relatable characters or coherence in action and plot. 

I do admire contemporary writers who follow the modernist lesson of shaking readers out of the stupor of believing that language is simply a transparent tool that give us access to pre-existing things. We need to be reminded now and again that we’re linguistic animals, that “all truth and realness,” as George Steiner puts it, are “housed inside the walls of language.”

But I struggle when writers are so fixed on experimentation that they disregard content, especially novelists, since the novel has always been the genre attached to realism. Having read Vernon-born Torontonian Brian Deodora’s The Apple in the Orchard, I can’t quite decide whether my admiration for his obvious artistry outweighs my frustration at not finding an orientational point so that I can answer basic questions like—What’s this novel about? Who is acting here or thinking here? Why is the language so unconventional? 

I’ll start with the criticism.

The Apple in the Orchard, which identifies itself as a “novel” on the beautifully designed front cover but is so inventive that it might also be classified as a novella-length prose poem, is less than ninety-pages but it took a long, long time to read. The reason for this is that Deodora is one of those clever meta-writers who withholds meaning so that readers can never forget the linguistic processes through which all meaning is made. Snippets from the three marketing blurbs on the fetching back cover warn prospective readers of this: “sentences crackling with simultaneity, liquidity (ever-pouring)” and “master of the incomplete sentence.” There’s “hold tight” too.   

This is not to say that there are no orienting landing strips that provide readers with something to hold on to—facts of the narrative, some consistencies in characterization, defining themes—while trying to follow Dedora’s signature creative flights with grammar and syntax. 

There’s an unnamed “you” around which most of the narrative is built. The intense inwardness of the narration, it’s dreamy rhetoric and associative leaps, indicates that the narrator is speaking of himself in the unusual second-person. Plus, the narrative is bookended at a tony Toronto restaurant, though there are multiple other settings in between, some historical and social and some private and familial, from which readers might infer everything in between is an intensely private trip into the cerebral contours of narrator’s memory.

And it’s this memory that provides us with the security of consistent themes: the private truths of a gay man and a recurrent homoerotic tenor throughout, a family struck by some sense of tension, the Canadian myths of Grew Owl and Black Robe along with other voyageurs and frontier types, the colonial history of sexual abuse, an unveiled critique of Catholicism, curious Canadian and international intertext, and the fragmented story about some unnamed “Her” who is the subject of the those parts of the narrative that break with the layout of conventional prose and offer literal verbal pictures modelled on photographic aesthetics. 

 Putting this narrator’s experiences and memories (as well as the characters and themes that come to him) into some fixed order for readers is clearly not as important to the narrative as underscoring the exuberant form and style through which memories and experiences are mediated. That exuberance, which Dedora (Paper Poems) writes in firmly in the stream of consciousness tradition of Woolf and Plath, is marked by a compulsion to incomplete sentences or sentences that are so long that they refuse attempts at parsing them for their propositional content. 

It’s this anarchy in sentences that is the source of my frustration with this novel, and certainly the reason it took me forever to read. 

Here, for example, are a few lines from the second page, where the solidity of reading about the “you” to whom readers have just been introduced, a character in an identifiable setting that takes place around Christmas, suddenly melts into something else, with little apparent reason: 

A waiter passes with another fur coat folded ever so gently over his arm, 
to be hung with care in the hopes that St Nicholas—
Goddammit, pay attention! 
In the special cloakroom far away from the protesters in the street, who, 
with spray bombs and chants concerning the rights of animals to wear their 
skins…

Is the italicized interjection the narrator’s voice, someone else’s, or is the narrator directly addressing the reader? I’m not sure. The previous sentence just stops in the middle of a thought, though I don’t know why it does this other than, yes, our memories work in fits and starts. As for the sentence I clipped with the ellipsis, the disorientation abounds because that one goes on for one hundred and fourteen words. Nor can tell you anything about the “special cloakroom” because the grammar doesn’t resolve the prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence. What I can say is that the sentence unfolds a scattershot of dependent clauses mostly focused on the protest outside but a few directed inside the restaurant. Confronted with this kind of sentence art, you can forget about fishing around for the subject, verb, and object; it’s slivers of clauses flitting by in a kind of stream of consciousness on steroids aimed at performing a linguistic experience more than an interpretation. 

Here’s the beginning of another, shorter sentence, only ninety-nine words, near the end of the novel, under the chapter heading “Familiar plans”:  

And then the plan, the exercise, the two to tango where one + one = any 
number, engine and driver of the dynamic, the action, known places …

What’s before the conjunction “And”? What “plan”? We don’t know, or at least I don’t. I can’t see a connection to the photographic insertion about that mysterious girl on the previous page, or how it relates to the passage before the verbal photo, which ended with a reference to “a roll of dice for the return to the women-who-wait for their knuckles and knee bones.” And how so is this “plan,” which is supposed to be “Familiar,” an “exercise” and a “two to tango”? How are all they equal to “any number” and what’s a “driver of the dynamic”? This is parataxis—or is it hypotaxis?—gone wild, and again, I have no idea how it all hangs together, or what modicum of characterization or action, if any, I’m supposed to take away from it, apart from remembering that this is how memory probably happens when the neurons fire up in our mental dictionaries and we start attaching words and phrases to stuff we experience or remember. 

Author Brian Dedora

It takes a lot of mental discipline to grammatically parse a sentence, but it takes a lot more to parse a sentence that, by the writer’s intention, resists parsing. And Dedora gives us plenty of these sentences. 

I suspect many of them will frustrate readers who aren’t down with the verbal whimsies of literary experimentalism, or those who just like their novels to follow the three classical unities of action, time, and place. Yes, Virginia Woolf broke with convention by writing some sentences well over a hundred words, but as confusing as the incomplete and run-on sentences in Mrs. Dalloway might be the story remains firmly anchored in the action happening to Clarissa on a day in June when she’s preparing for a party. Similarly, ee cummings fiddled with adjectives and other syntactic features in his work, but for all those radical ungrammaticalities we never can avoid interpreting a poem like “somewhere i have never travelled” as a tender love poem. Some contortions of form and style, though, withhold the most basic interpretive questions of content—What’s going on here? Who are the characters? What action am I supposed to be following? and even Why am I reading this? 

Without being able to at least address these basic questions, the experience of reading is rather like listening to a friend go on about their dream. It’s interesting, sure, but is there anything to it besides an illustration of the dramatic scope of that person’s idiosyncratic inwardness? 

Call me a philistine, but my frustration reading Dedora’s The Apple in the Orchard is related to my suspicion that the experimental writing that some readers find obscure and eccentrically convoluted is, like an abstract painting, esteemed by others precisely because it’s obscure and convoluted. Which is not a good reason to like a book, let alone a novel.  

Having said that, let me explain what I admire about the book.

Dedora’s narrator, as fixated as he is on spotlighting the delivery mechanism of his memory, verges on linguistic eccentricity that can just as easily be called straight up self-absorption. But again, one of the lessons of modernism, or post-modernism for that matter, is that the referential function of language can be bracketed now and then so that readers can direct their attention to the linguistic phenomenon that erect and sustain our psychological and social lives. 

An example of one of the author’s techniques

Yes, a novel should probably have a discernible line of logic—a story, with characters and actions that have consequences, and a general consistency in something other than syntactic flamboyance, but the fact is that none of us remember or think in grammatically correct sentences of around twenty words long. No self-respecting novelist who aspire who wants their work to be “literary” follows Strunk and White’s rules of composition to the letter, or abides by Orwell’s suggestion that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” But they also know that every experiment in literary inventiveness—not concluding modifying clauses or finishing sentences, inserting parts of speech where they grammatically don’t fit, using ellipses instead of words, all of which Dedora does here—risks alienating readers, as this one does. 

The acquisition of content through some entertaining escape, though, isn’t why readers will probably want to read this novel. Deodora is just not that kind of writer. Though conventional novels provide readers with a realistic account of the inner lives characters and their experiences, even the most doggedly realistic of them resort to illusion and fiction, rhetorical forms and literary techniques. That’s just how it’s done, and that’s what Deodora has done here. His words aren’t arrows directing us to thoughts; they are thoughts, as incomplete and fragmented as they might strike some readers and did strike me. And there can be nothing all wrong with reading a novel that’s more of an experience in thinking that rubs our conventional or grammatical way of assessing thoughts the wrong way.  

In some ways The Apple in the Orchard reminds me of the work of Roland Barthes, the literary theorist whose novel style was always stimulating and energetic but also eccentric and needlessly obscure. His work, which underscored the materiality of language, rankled conservative scholars who thought it self-absorbed, intentionally obscure. “Language is legislation, speech is code,” Barthes wrote, in a nod to the required rules language needs to work, but he also said, rather beautifully, “language is a skin: I run my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.” A similar idea informs Dedora’s work, certainly to the extent that in his often too long, meaning-challenged sentences we arrive at lustrous little thought diamonds.  

Early in the novel, for example, while in that Toronto restaurant the narrator gives us a wonderfully musical sexual simile: “the flood tide of alcohol will ripple ever so gently as the gremlin of a Chuck Berry duckwalk with his erectional guitar shakes, rattles, rolls.” In the later little chapter “Grey Owl,” this lovely confusion of pronouns: “impenetrable, silent, blanketed, broken by the lone howl of the wolf and the terror of the pack wo which you he we belong.”

And the wildly paratactic sentence I quoted above resolves itself with this ungrammatically resonant conjunctive phrase: “and eat a most civilized devouring where one wants out.” Each is a memorable thought gem, irrespective of narrative context. I have to say that all the frustration I experienced reading this novel, which was of course the result of my own inability to read words in anything but the most grammatically conventional manner, dissipated when I encountered phrases like this—stopped, read them, read them aloud, read them for their own sake like I’d read a poem and not as part of some interpretive equation that would help me figure out what was going on by way of a mental summary. 

In the course of reading this novel and preparing this review, I came across a piece by Peter Quartermain, the iconic UBC English professor who long championed the poetics of difficult writers whose work, because it resists conventional reading and interpretation, remains non-canonical. Quartermain wrote this of a poet who was as obscure as some will say Deodora is in his indubitably poetic novel, specifically of that poet’s complex language: his work “conjures an imagined event which we perceive and feel, and our perception is a perception of language.” To put this differently, language is inseparable from thinking and consciousness, which of course it is, at least to the extent that what we think is literally wrapped in how we say and write it, even though making this sort of claim will frighten readers habituated into believing that truth and reality exist in some non-linguistic world. 

It’s not easy bringing an imaginative world into existence using words and sentences, no easier than it is to build a wall with bricks and mortar or erect a bridge with steel struts and geometry. The added difficulty is that a wall and a bridge have public, utilitarian functions, whereas language isn’t always bound to the same laws of social exigency. That’s why there’s such a thing as poetic or artistic licence, whereas the same could never by said of bricklayers or engineers. 

Yes, I am still frustrated when I flip through my extensive comments and responses (and outbursts) in Dedora’s novel, but I can also appreciate what he’s done here. He has written a novel here that dramatizes it its own way what that other modernist, Blanchot, says, which is that “language perceives that its meaning derives not from what exists, but from its own retreat before existence.” 

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Peter Babiak

Born and raised in the GTA, Peter Babiak now lives and writes in East Vancouver. He teaches linguistics, composition, and English Lit at Langara College, and writes for subTerrainmagazine. His commentary and creative nonfiction has been nominated for both BC and national magazine awards; his collection of essays—Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, published by Anvil Press in 2016—was a Montaigne Medal finalist and an Honourable Mention in the Culture Category of the Eric Hoffer Awards. His essays were selected for The Best Canadian Essays in 2017 and 2018. He has a dog, a cat, a garden, and an alluring garage. [Editor’s note: Peter Babiak has reviewed books by Stephen Bett, Claire Wilkshire, Heather HaleyTrevor NewlandDouglas CouplandClint BurnhamStan Rogal, and Jamie Lamb; his book Garage Criticism was reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy, for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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