Fawn Parker, 287 pgs, ARP Books, arpbooks.org, $22
Dumb-Show is irreverent and relevant in the ways your high school English teacher told you Mordecai Richler was supposed to be. It’s also actually funny when it isn’t making you squirm.
The story is one of those tightening-gyre deals; we meet each character amid a life-altering transformation. The main characters, Heather and Geoffrey, are a sister and brother caught in the deteriorating gravitational pull of a controversial professor, who is not Jordan Peterson, at a downtown Toronto university, which is not the University of Toronto. Geoffrey is a fabulously incoherent graduate student — and protégé of not-Peterson — who grades students randomly amidst haphazard dabbling in getting high, grade-school misogyny and general self-inflicted catastrophe. Heather is adrift in different ways, following their mother’s recent death, and feels responsible for everyone aside from herself. She’s a pleaser, her mother’s “rock,” and her many good deeds are, unsurprisingly, rewarded in the ugliest ways possible: cue the squirming.
Parker ridicules the academy and the unchecked male privilege that rewards laziness and mediocrity, if not outright incompetence. She also takes more than a few shots at poisonous celebrities along the way. The result is a truly glorious mash up of the academia of a novel like Lucky Jim and the medieval sand trap from the film The Duel.
The joys of the novel are some truly gorgeous prose (classic form meets contemporary themes), hilarious scenarios (who tries to get a buzz from Viagra?), and the restrained handling of a forceful feminist message. It’s clear to the reader, for example, that Heather has always been the smartest person in the room, but Parker lets the character get there on her own. The literal dumb-show of the title is also a master stroke: a staged play within the book that mocks and mimics the events of the novel itself. Or maybe the book itself is the dumb-show.