Matt Sumell’s debut novel, Making Nice, is the kind of book that may have some readers throwing it down after a chapter or two, but it is also the kind of book that has rich rewards for those willing to push on to its conclusion. The initial demands that Sumell makes on the reader are the necessary price for those rewards.
First of these demands deals with the question of defining the genre: what we have here as many of the blurb writers note is a “novel in stories,” a phrase paradoxical at best. There are novels and there are short stories, and never the twain shall. . .enough said. On the other hand there are collections of stories tied together by character, narrative voice, setting, theme or some other connection. The question then is though they have something in common, is that enough to make them a novel. A collection after all is a collection. A novel presumably has some unifying principle uniting everything in it from its inception. Stories presumably have each their own unifying principle.
Stories are in a real sense quite different from chapters in a novel. Chapters follow each other following some preordained plan. If there is a preordained plan for a set of stories, they are no longer stories. Readers who feel it is the novelist’s job to provide that plan are likely to be put off by the very idea of a “novel in stories.”
Moreover, even if you buy into the idea of a “novel in stories,” the order of the stories as they are presented in Making Nice is not immediately apparent. They don’t follow events chronologically. They don’t immediately explain relationships between characters. Indeed, they don’t always give accurate readings of characters. Eventually, it is clear that they flow psychologically from the mind of the mind of the narrator and central character, Alby, and therein lies a third problem.
Alby is neither a reliable narrator, nor an endearing character. The more we learn about him, the less there is to like. He is a narcissistic, sexist alcoholic; an absolute low life as likely to shop lift a candy bar, or pass out on the street in a puddle of vomit, as he is to make some offensive remark to the “Whatshername” or “Whatsherface” sitting next to him at a bar. Alby is a character it takes some getting used to. That said, the more time you give to Alby, the more you sift through the vignettes of his life, the more willing to put up with his infantile behavior you become, and even, by the time you get to the end of the book, to find some sympathy for him.
Sumell may not be the first writer to create sympathy for the devil, but that he manages to effect this change in attitude towards Alby is no mean feat. You begin by shaking your head in disapproval. Then you begin to laugh at him, and before you know it, you begin to feel sorry for him.
Essentially, Making Nice is the story of how Alby and his dysfunctional family deal, or more accurately fail to deal with the sickness and death of his mother. Alby is the middle child. He has an older sister, a younger brother, and an alcoholic father. Relations between family members as described by Alby are poor, and with the mother’s death, they worsen. Alby’s stories reflect his failed attempts to come to terms with his family and what his mother meant to them all. They make for an erratic, emotionally powerful ride for those willing to take it.
As a further reward there are a lot of laughs along the way. There is a story in the form of short reading comprehension passages, with multiple choice questions after each passage. There are audacious figures of speech: baptism is “waterboarding the baby.” There is punning word play: a story about a cat is “my cat monologue. My catalogue.” There are clever allusions: the sun is a “big orange in the sky that yellow-brick-roaded the water westward.” There are combinations of them all: “Even poets resort to measuring, be it in coffee spoons or metric feet.”
Readers willing to meet Sumell half way will find the trip worth their while.
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