Review: I Don’t Know How to Behave (subTerrain, Issue 66)

>>Michael Blouin

>>192 pgs

>>BookThug

>>$24.00

ReLit Award-winning author Michael Blouin’s new novel, I Don’t Know How to Behave, is not easily categorized. As the cover states, it is indeed a fiction, intercutting between two distinct narratives: the first a pseudo-documentary-style look at select portions of the life and impending death of Canadian stunt driver Ken Carter, and the second a surrealist bank-robbing, movie-making romance between Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) and poet Gillian Sze (The Anatomy of Clay). However, the novel is also a pastiche of literary styles and visual components, including poetry, interviews, fabricated newspaper clippings, storyboards, and screenplay formatting—complete with stage directions and notes on character development.

As noted, the novel is split into two “books”: Book One, “Midnight All Night,” offers insight into the mind and life of Ken Carter who attempted to jump a car over the Saint Lawrence River first in 1976, then again in 1978 and 1979. Book Two, “He Grabbed Her Suddenly, Held Her to Himself and Kissed Her Hard Like in a Hollywood Movie,” is set approximately twenty years later and follows McDonald and Sze as the former is attempting to make a film about Carter’s life.

From the get-go, Blouin challenges readers to decipher his narrative’s structure. The novel opens with a brief, tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae introducing the three main characters amidst half-truths and full-blown lies; Blouin’s versions of Carter, McDonald, and Sze are dramatic extremes with only fragments of reality threading their on-page personas. Following a brief definition of the phrase “death wish,” the author issues a note on form detailing the narrative’s presentation: nearly every page is divided with narrative content in a variety of forms across the top portions of each page, and artistic support and historical documentation along the bottoms.

Between the narrative portions, often abstracted and poetic in form, and the more descriptive content, much of Blouin’s novel reads like a deconstructed screenplay, dividing dialogue and direction into separate entities rather than interweaving the two. In Carter’s chapters, the tops of each page offer insight into the stunt driver’s life and inner thoughts, while the bottoms detail his life through the lens of a documentary film. Meanwhile, the McDonald/Sze chapters are split between depictions of scenes from their troubled relationship, McDonald’s unsuccessful attempts to get his film about Carter off the ground, and minutiae regarding Canadian film history and the elements of proper filmic storytelling.

The McDonald/Sze chapters illustrate the all-too-often accepted incongruities between documentation and storytelling. By repurposing other mediums and styles such as storyboard sketches and photographs as small windows opening into even greater dysfunctions, Blouin deftly explores—and disrupts—the surreal cross-section where the two divergent poles come together: entertainment.

Nothing is as it seems in I Don’t Know How to Behave; as the characters are stripped clean of what few ties they had to their real-life personas, the novel reveals itself in the end as Blouin’s story—it was never really a novel at all, rather a distorted, highly engaging post-mortem about ambitions and expectations and the shattering bits of reality that creep through the demilitarized zone between the two.

 

>>From subTerrain, issue 66, January 2014

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