The gluttonous, jazz-loving character of Neil Connelly in John Lent’s So It Won’t Go Away can never get enough out of life, no matter how much he over-indulges his desires: “Drinking, smoking, sex: a man’s hands twittering, eyes bugged out in a desperate longing to be held, fondled, stuffed, stroked. Guzzling and inhaling things in a big grab against death.” At the same time, John Lent can’t get enough of Neil Connelly and his two siblings, Jane and Rick. Nine years ago he introduced this trio in Monet’s Garden. Time has not been kind to the Connellys. In Lent’s seventh book, the middle-aged and childless Connellys are all ex-alcoholics struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression.
They have survived their alcoholic father but it’s not clear if they will survive themselves--and their disturbing similarities to one another. All three find it hard to be intimate. All have addictive personalities. All have a keen interest in modern art and literature. All three are writers who teach about writing. Neil Connelly loves jazz and Lent is himself a singer/songwriter for an Okanagan jazz trio. Neil and Rick teach at the same university where John Lent teaches much the same courses. If that last paragraph sets off an amber light of caution, well, you’re only human. Philip Roth aside, most fiction writers who can only write about writers (ie., themselves) are sorely lacking imagination. But in John Lent’s defence, he’s had time to refine his style and hone in on what’s important to him. The short stories in So It Won’t Go Away are not plot-driven narratives.
Instead they flip around in time, place and point of view, incorporating first, second and third-person perspectives. Lent’s dozen stories get as close to three-dimensional writing as is possible. Sometimes the reader is taken into a character’s mind as a child, sometimes she/he is addressed directly. Other times Lent interjects directly, positioning his characters like a conductor. Frequently the act of creation itself is explored, be it music, art or literature.
Cumulatively, this collection is more than a series of literary experiments and musings. It’s like John Lent is circling his narrative, studying it from all angles. Each story connects to others. Along the way we learn about Jane’s inability to find a permanent partner. We learn about Rick’s long-term marriage to a woman battling lupus. We learn about Neil’s break-up with his wife and his own subsequent breakdown. It’s not cut-and-dried. Instead it’s all jumbled together, like a family that messily combines past and present and future at the dinner table. Along the way, Colette, the 71-year-old mother of the three Connellys, maintains her own balancing act: “...it was a matter of two landscapes: the one they were driving through, and another one, of words and names and instructions, that became a second version of the one they were driving through—a landscape of language and facts and details which she would store away and pull out whenever she needed it —one that was, in some ways, the most important landscape, the most real.” Her three children come together in an idyllic village in France at the end, and their deep affection for one another could well be the remedy they need to help resolve their problems. The narrator muses, hopefully: “Was there another way of seeing it so you could fall into it, embrace it…gobbled up by an equally voracious God?” Meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with filling your lungs with spring air, devouring a tarte flambé, slurping down a good scotch, jamming jazz into your ear or fitting your body to another’s in an act of love. If the shoe fits, write it.
John Lent, of Vernon, has also released a new jazz trio CD, Shadow Moon, with guitarists Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall. — Cherie Thiessen
… [T]hree books serve as a reminder of the relevance of Canada's small presses, of writers and editors willing to push the envelope of form and content in the shadows of the mainstream. The books, by John Lent, Douglas Gosse and Clint Bumham, tackle significant questions concerning the nature of fiction, the role of life in fictive worlds, and the very boundaries of the written word itself. Each impresses, but in very different ways.
With So It Won't Go Away, Vernon, B.C., writer John Lent returns to the metafictional world of his 1996 Monet's Garden, which introduced the characters Neil, Rick and Jane Connelly. While occupied with serious philosophical issues, thematic heft and impressive stylistic play, both books are firmly rooted in these characters and their developing, or unravelling, lives.
So It Won't Go Away finds the Connellys adapting to, and recoiling from, middle age. In “A Better Life”, for example, Jane confronts her life when she meets the near-adult daughter of high-school classmates, while many of the book's sections follow Neil's trajectory away from — and back toward, perhaps — his long-time partner Shelley. All three siblings are forced to reconsider their previously held ideas and ideals, and there are a number of discussions of what is of value in contemporary life, of art and creativity, of money and relationships.
Nothing is easy, and the Connelly siblings find small comforts where they can; in books and ideas, in European travel, in night driving and problem drinking, in the passing comforts and joys of daily life.
On this surface level. So It Won't Go Away is impressive enough; accessible and moving, the stories will satisfy most readers. There are, however, more significant forces at play.
Structurally, the book is something of a puzzle. Labelled “connected fictions,” it occupies a grey area between a traditional novel and a collection of linked stories, While there are a number of compelling through-lines, their treatment is too fragmented to satisfy fully as a novel; on the other hand, the fragments are too dependent upon one another to stand alone as stories. Additionally, throughout the book, time and perspective fold in upon themselves, reflecting and refracting multiple viewpoints. The levels of structural play are subtle, but deliberately unsettling, and keep the reader active and involved.
Most significantly, there are times when the narrative opens up to include its pseudo-creator, an unnamed narrator who takes credit, early on, for “inventing three brothers and sisters — Kick, Neil and Jane — whose stories began to tell the bigger, impossible story.” Interestingly, the creator never creates a position of privilege for himself; his story is as fictive, and as truthful-feeling, as the “bigger, impossible story” of the Connelly siblings, and becomes another strand in the complex and utterly winning tale Lent is spinning.
— Robert J. Wiersema
Robert J. Wiersema is a writer and bookseller in Victoria, B.C. His first novel, Before I Wake, will be published this fall.
John Lent's So It Won't Go Away is another welcome find. The Vemon teacher, author and musician has published six earlier works, but this novel qualifies for inclusion here because it is his second full-length prose fiction. In prose that is markedly more lush than Ilsley's spare, fragmentary paragraphs. Lent tells the interwoven stories of three adult siblings, one of whom, like the author, teaches and writes in the B.C. Interior.
The book works both as a straightforward story of family pain, addiction, love and redemption, and as a highly intelligent meditation on the process of writing itself. Imagine a collaboration between the Eugene O'Neill of Long Day's Journey into Night and Roland Barthes or Jorge Louis Borges, and you begin to get a sense of the richness and complexity of this work.
Not many books, first, second or 10th, deliver the narrative pleasure and intellectual heft that Lent delivers here ... So It Won't Go Away makes a compelling argument for the abiding pleasures and virtues of Canadian fiction, especially in its second acts. — Tom Sandborn
Tom Sandborn is a journalist, poet and critic who lives and works in Vancouver.