You Comma Idiot
by Doug Harris
Frederiction, NB: Gooselane, 2010
330 pp. $29.95
Harris’s novel follows Lee through a summer of crisis: his friend, Henry, is accused of kidnapping and suspected of murder; Lee sleeps with Johnny’s beautiful girlfriend, Honey; and Cuz moves in on Lee’s dealing territory. The consequences of these crises threaten the years of friendship that have reinforced and guaranteed the idyllic stupor of their unmotivated lives, threatening Lee, Johnny, and Henry to take on active roles in world around them. The novel is narrated in the second person and Lee is the referent of the ubiquitous ‘You.’ The blatant masculinity of Lee’s problems (“You’re the kind of guy who still thinks about the pretty girls you were afraid of in high school” ) articulated through the narrative subject pronoun ‘You’ places the female reader in a strange place of gendered interpellation. More than offering the interior thoughts of a male character through first person or stream of conscious narration, which imply at least a minimum of reader identification, the second person narration is strangely authoritative, demanding identification with the statements the narrator makes.
“When a pretty girl laughs tells a funny story and everyone laughs,” the narrator explains, “that’s you in the everyone part. A voice that matters only in that it rounds out the chorus” (8). Lee is indeed the rounding out of all the male characters in the novel. As he adjusts to the new demands life is making on him, he occupies, however unstably, different iterations of masculine identity represented by his friends. When he manages to steal Honey from Johnny, he is the type of guy who can get the prettiest girl; he is “not an idiot” (148). When all his plans fall apart and he is under investigation for selling drugs, he is a naïve outcast abandoned by his friends as Henry is when he is accused of kidnapping. Similarly, when he finally has to assert himself physically in his defense against Cuz, he must take on Cuz’s own machismo. And finally, when he is forced to take on the responsibilities he has too long avoided, he becomes a sacrificial father not unlike his friend Aaron. In his portrayal of Lee’s negotiations of these masculine iterations, Harris provides a study of the slacker type. At once idiot, prince, fool, fighter, and father the slacker struggles to do as little as possible, all the while under the pressures of society, here represented by the female characters, to do just a little bit more.
Harris’s novel is often funny and at times offers unexpected insights and images. For the most part, it is a careful and witty examination of masculine potentialities in the slacker class. Unfortunately, the ending of the novel deflates the insights the novel had been building up. Although meant to be a moving and poignant testament to the silent strength of male friendship, the ending digresses into a stereotype of Canadian masculinity, the hockey fight. If not for the last words, “No, really” (325), a further deflation of one of the most successful jokes running through the novel, one would assume Harris was kidding.
Kaitlyn Pinder holds a Joseph-Bombardier CGS-SSHRC doctoral scholarship in the Department of English at McGill University. There, she studies Canadian modernism and its philosophical underpinnings. Kait received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Western Ontario where she studied Comparative Literature. Her other academic interests include Anglo-American modernism, Italian literature, and visual culture.
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