It’s October 1944. During a brief respite from the aerial bombardment of London, Sebastian Wigrum absconds from his small flat and disappears into the fog for a walk in the Unreal City. This is our first and only encounter with the enigmatic man we come to discover decades later through more than one hundred everyday objects he has left behind. Wigrum’s bequest is a meticulously catalogued collection of the profoundly ordinary: a camera, some loose teeth, candies and keys, soap, bits of string, hazelnuts, and a handkerchief. Moving through the inventory artifact to artifact, story to story, we become immersed in a dreamlike narrative bricolage determined as much by the objects’ museological presentation as by the tender and idiosyncratic mania of Wigrum’s impulse to collect them.
With its traces of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec, Daniel Canty’s graphically arresting Wigrum explores the limits of the postmodern novel. Having absorbed the logic of lists and the principles of classification systems, the Wigrumian narrative teeters on the boundary between fact and fiction, on the uncertain edge of the real and the unreal.
Readers venturing into Sebastian Wigrum’s cabinet of curiosities must abide only the following maxim: If I can believe all the stories I am told, so can you.
About the authors
Oana Avasilichioaei's previous translations include Universal Bureau of Copyrights by Bertrand Laverdure, Wigrum by Quebecois writer Daniel Canty (2013), The Islands by Quebecoise poet Louise Cotnoir (2011) and Occupational Sickness by Romanian poet Nichita Stanescu (2006). In 2013, she edited a feature on Quebec French writing in translation for Aufgabe (New York). she has also played in the bounds of translation and creation in a poetic collaboration with Erín Moure, Expeditions of a Chimæra, (2009). Her most recent poetry collection is We, Beasts (2012; winner of the QWF's A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry), and her audio work can be found on Pennsound. She lives in Montreal. Learn more about Avasilichioaei at www.oanalab.com.
Ingrid Pam Dick (aka Gregoire Pam Dick, Mina Pam Dick, Jake Pam Dick et al.) is the author of Metaphysical Licks (BookThug 2014) and Delinquent (Futurepoem, 2009). Her writing has appeared in BOMB, frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, Aufgabe, EOAGH, Fence, Matrix, Open Letter, Poetry Is Dead, and elsewhere, and has been featured in Postmodern Culture; it is included in the anthologies The Sonnets (ed. S. Cohen and P. Legault, Telephone, 2012) and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, (ed. TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, Nightboat, 2013). Her philosophical work has appeared in a collection published by the International Wittgenstein Symposium. Also an artist and translator, Dick lives in New York City, where she is currently doing work that makes out and off with Büchner, Wedekind, Walser, and Michaux.
From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic
designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the
inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader”
and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these
collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration
in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes
part of how the book complicates itself. Novels where form dominates, and ones where the graphic design element is strong, can be exciting, but they are
also easily met with a challenge—do you have more to offer me or are you just a pretty object, a chair that looks nice in the corner, but not
recommended as a reading chair?
Besides risking form over substance, Wigrum is also immediately quirky—a culturally-loaded term that for some is ever-appealing, for others,
an easy and lazy dismissal (the fear that it is simply a gimmick), with the middle ground needing the full context of the book or film. We aren’t in
Wes Anderson territory here, but Canty does want to charm the reader with fantasy, with claims of authenticity that no one is falling for or being confused
by. The references to books, stories, and films abound, from the most indirect, to obvious, to direct statements (“Faulkner’s Hankie” is
one of the objects). All of this, the dominance of form, the quirk, the seeming dependence on referents, are aspects of a book that make me cross my arms,
dig my heels in, and look for ways to dislike a work. I caught myself doing this, promised to reset myself—and just as I am working on this, Canty
presents a backbone. He lets us see what happens when Wigrum seeks and finds an object in the wreckage of a World War II London bombing:
Those imaginative enough will leave with their pockets stuffed with stones, metal bits, shards of crockery. They will tell their friends what it is and the things will transform before their eyes. In a hidden recess of themselves, even those who say they don’t believe will
believe. Wigrum knows that out of a beloved story he is left, at times, with only a few phrases, an image, an impression. Can a whole world, a
man’s life be reconstructed out of what remains? The allusion is inevitable. Saves us from having to shoulder all the weight of our presence. To pick up the thread of a story, retain only what’s left of it, and invent the rest.
Immediately after this, Wigrum finds his object, but importantly, there are others looking in the rubble, weepers, the wretched, and children. Canty and
Wigrum are asking this from us. This admission of the lie, or at least of the fractured truth, is followed by a brief, detailed history of a spoon Wigrum
finds and we are expected to believe. We should forget doubts, see what pieces we can find, and then see what we can do with those pieces
ourselves, after someone else has found the story. Objects, people, stories, and allusions are all threads that can be picked up and then invented off of.
With a backbone set, Wigrum again opens up, early resentments eased.
Though ideas, recurring characters, themes, references (Pynchon, Melville, and Vonnegut make varied appearances), and ghostly links asking for a revisit
connect some of the “inventories” to each other, for the most part they stand alone. Though purposively incomplete, they don’t lack for
insight, keen phrases, or emotional insight. Their brevity—they generally run from a half-page to three pages—and the way this small scope is
meant to evoke something more in the reader calls to mind Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories or Walser’s Microscripts,
though not as fine-tuned or accomplished. On the sentence level, Canty, through Oana Avasilichioaei’s translation, has the occasional clunker, with
at least some seeming to come from hewing close to the original, though a couple are awkward phrasings that could likely be smoother without straying from
the French. The vision differs too, while Canty’s inventories are gestures toward larger stories, missing stories, Kawabata and Walser focus on the
microscopic. Their works are satisfying as individual short, short pieces; Canty’s need their context, their framework, and play off of each other
rather than separate.
His own sense of detail is based most strongly on ideas, the ideas that drift through Wigrum. The flights of fancy are some of the successful
quirky moments, ones that make you smile, but aren’t suggestive of importance that isn’t there, as when describing books that the object
“Blank Page” came from: “The books, elegantly typeset in octavo signature according to the golden ratio, were printed on India paper,
hand-sewn and bound in colourful cloth.” There’s no meaning behind the use of the golden ratio, we aren’t supposed to make anything of
it, but if dreamy, lost books are being invented, why not invoke such a beautiful concept? Canty is also skillful at letting the stories come close to the
world we know, then, just when we feel normalized, launching the story and the ambition outwards with. In “Blooming Handbook, 1968” he begins
by drawing us in with a historical figure like Buckminster Fuller, moves on to an invented work, returns to our reality by citing Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but ends with another sudden change, “Moreover, some of his philosophy’s followers claim that
his dome, once fitted with solar panels, could be transformed into an interstellar spaceship, a flying garden that would leave the earth to begin the world
The inventories vary in tone, which helps keep one after another compelling, and quality, which means the brevity of each is fortunate. Some are
forgettable, easy to pass over on the way to a more interesting object, but those probably vary from reader to reader. Some objects are more than
forgettable and you look forward to the start of the next. There is no particular tone that suits Canty best—some have dark, violent twists
(“Arab String, 1949”), others are hysterical. “Holden’s Hat” comes out with the pleasantly absurd premise that Holden
Caulfield did exist, does wear the famous hunting hat, and when he becomes a college professor, develops the habit of “When annoyed by a
student’s vanity, he would pull down the earflaps of his hunting hat to stop hearing anything.” A few are heartbreaking, as with “Chinese
Fortunes,” the story of a man who finds a bottle of twenty fortunes that instead of “deal[ing] in vaguely exotic generalities that can easily
apply to anyone’s life, other than the most unlikely,” tell the fate of truly unique and specific deaths.
Throughout this variety, Wigrum maintains a consistency of ideas, or beliefs. Though the aspiration is not a grand one, no fresh achievement in a
book, there is a special, and rare accomplishment: form, content, and style align to make a complete work, with the loose ends being purposeful, or in the
case of weaker inventories, unnecessary. An early hint of this alignment is in “Bartlebrick” where the story of an object, a brick, and its
association with a Wall Street bookkeeper, Stipes, who responds to all requests with “I’d rather not.” At the end of this obvious
allusion to Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivner,” we are told that this predates Melville, that he likely got wind of this through
connections from his time at the working near the Dead Letter Office. Canty’s story, instead of being influenced by Melville, is presented as the
origin of, cause and effect are switched, and a continual loop is ignited. It is a fragment of a tale that Melville comes across, which leads to his own
tale (with the expression changed, and the time at the Dead Letter Office coming after Wall Street instead of before), which leads to Canty’s . . .
but Canty’s came first . . . This looping is reflected in phrases showing up in different inventories, apparently detached, but in the frame of the
book, caught in endless repetitions that lead to fracturing of new stories (though at times I wished the repetition had a little more variation—I was
sorely tempted to count how many times he used a variation of “sibylline” and wished that Avasilichioaei had found another way to translate
Canty is obviously aware of and confident in these loops, daring in his Afterword (attributed to him in the table of contents), when questioning the
relationship between the collector Wigrum and his curator Stepniac, to tempt us with “Assumed names or looping loop of correspondences?” The
effect of a book that lives so entirely within its scope, where the style reflects the concepts and conception, lets the reader move within that world,
almost like taking on the mindset of a hero in a fantasy novel or an explorer in an alien culture in a sci-fi novel. I found myself enveloped by the
references, seeking them out almost in a paranoid state. Something sounds familiar and I begin to wrack my brain, trying to get at the reference. This is
where the finalized index comes in handy for readers. The index was something I forgot entirely about, so easy to dismiss in the beginning (does this
author really expect me to read an index? to care about his pet references enough to try to pin them down?), until a footnote telling of a rubber baron and
his boat Klauski, found on top of a mountain, sent me to the index, and sure enough I found Fitzcarraldo. Eventually, I became jealous of
anyone with a final edition, with the set index. Instead, when glancing at it and finding a reference to Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy,
likely the book I’ve read the most times in my life, I revisit the entire book, trying to find out where this reference I missed was
(“Atlantean Flag, 1978” has a reference to both 42 and a game of scrabble that ends in a fight; it must be it). We can buy in so much that when
he cheekily, backhandedly admits the base reality of what an object is, we dismiss it with him. The description of “Ectoplasmic Sponge” opens
with “This solid and spongy body, easily confused with an aquatic sponge, is the residue of an ectoplasm vomited by Ashley Atalanta, the Irish medium
born Virginia Sexton.” Why not admit what something is at the same time you deny it, and offer a more interesting reality instead? It becomes enough
that you don’t know whether to be embarrassed for Canty, or feel like you are missing something, when he puts forth a historical anachronism like P.
T. Barnum meeting Ben Franklin.
This excited collection of objects, of invention, is not necessarily an exercise in positive thinking, though we are called on to join in, as when we see
whole other stories bursting out of one that is shared with us, and as that early invocation would make us think. Objects and people begin to show little
difference from each other. Both are repeatedly lost, burnt, disappear, die, and leave barely a trace, only enough for another story to begin, which itself
will then inevitably be lost again. In the very beginning, we’re told how similar people and objects are: people are “nothing more than
ourselves” and the objects in the collection have “nothing in particular other than the aura their story bestows upon them.” The
encouragement of story, faith in the fantastic, is not a risk-free endeavor, more than one character loses his place in the world or his life simply be
believing in his story or encouraging another’s: “If a moral was at work in the automaton’s ruse, it is that fiction seems to be a game
and, if a game, it can definitely be won or lost.”
In the final sections, Canty begins what he started by returning to the underlying structure of Wigrum, a collector of objects, the woman tied to
him and rebirthing in name in various women throughout, the curator of his works, Stepniac, and the story of how Canty himself came to these texts. The
connections between all of them are only hinted at, and like in so many of the stories, we have no original, core text, only remainders, so as Canty writes
that Wigrum “commenced ceasing to exist,” the ending, and the disconnections, are opportunities to take our own risks, creating the rest of the
stories, linking what we are able, and letting be lost what must be lost.
P.T. Smith - Three Percent
Wigrum is not a novel in the traditional sense; rather, it's a collection of objects and descriptions of those objects that the main character collected and kept. Canty originally published Wigrum in 2011, in French, and will be released this fall as an English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei.
Sebastian Wigrum, the protagonist who only appears once at the very beginning of the novel, spent his life collecting small pieces of people's lives: hazelnuts, pieces of string, keys, and the like. Upon his disappearance in October of 1994, Wigrum's collection is documented and published, following his last request. The result is a glimpse into the ordinary, everyday things that gave meaning to people's lives, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
The book is arranged as a catalog, alphabetically, featuring items that Wigrum kept in separate groupings. There are sketches and footnotes to go along with each item's history, featuring a unique layout to the book that won Canty the 2011 Grand Prize in the Quebec Graphic Design Competition Grafika.
The individual items don't have a connection to Wigrum himself. Instead, they're more like flash fiction pieces, each telling a meaningful story that could easily be either fact or fiction. Some of my favorite objects in the collection are a bundle of love letters never sent, a bottle full of Chinese fortunes, and a cosmonaut pocket watch. Many of the objects reference things like missiles, and one particular reference to bananas at the beginning of the book, hint that Canty may have been heavily been influenced by Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Unlike Pynchon's writing though, Wigrum is much easier to read in short bursts because of the book's innovative format.
If you're ready for a new kind of novel that blends the line between reality and fiction in small ways that are nonetheless important, if you like flash fiction, or if you want a peek into the lives of random, ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to tell, pick up a copy of Wigrum by Daniel Canty. It will be released in English in October of this year, and is presently available in French.
Jenny Blenk - from her blog 'Quoth the Raven'
“This is a new novel genre. An inventory! … The inventory is a list of more or less fantastic objects – sometimes computer-based, electronic, historical, or purely useless – but each finds its place in this collection for one reason or another. In the last part of the book, Daniel Canty mixes fact and fiction, deconstructing our vain attempts to discover the truth. Unique and very exciting!”
– Shannon Desbiens, Les Bouquinistes
“In Wigrum, the reader should expect plenty of humour and a very special cabinet of curiosities. This most original work is difficult to characterize as a novel. Rather, it takes a truly literary approach that will satisfy the curious reader.”
– Mélanie Robert, Voir
CABINET OF CURIOSITY: DANIEL CANTY’S WIGRUM
by Calum Gardner
The “cabinet of curiosity” was once a staple of the private home of the wealthy eccentric, containing unique and unusual objects from around the globe. When Elias Ashmole donated his collection – by that stage rather larger than a cabinet – to found the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, it contained a stuffed dodo, said to be the last to be seen in Europe. Thanks to the magnanimity of people like Ashmole, objects of private curiosity became those of public education as the modern museum evolved. However, a few in the old style remain – Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which features a basement full of stone carvings taken from a range of ancient sites, and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the home of art collector Jim Ede, which like the Soane house is preserved as it was when its owners lived there. The constant streams of visitors cannot erase the sense of personality such places have, and this works in a very different way to the overwhelming structuration by history and chronology which we find in large public museums. But perhaps the institution which best preserves the spirit of the cabinet of curiosities is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, whose miscellany contains dioramas depicting obsolete theories of magnetism, portraits of every dog sent into space by the Soviet Union, and a carving of a scene of a room with figure and furniture all inside the stone of a peach. The museum never admits its own absurdity and anachronism, its dim rooms behind a near-anonymous storefront maintaining the experience that visitors to a private cabinet would have had, that they were privy to a secret history of which the world outside was ignorant. To those who have visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the experience of reading Daniel Canty’s Wigrumwill be strikingly familiar.
Wigrum , first published in French in 2010, is now made available in an English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei. The book begins with Sebastian Wigrum, a London collector of objects with curious histories, and takes the form of a fictitious catalogue of this eclectic set of items. Accompanied by small, understated line-drawings by Estela López Solís, it is elegantly designed, its wide margins often hosting notes explaining backstories and translating the utterances of its international parade of characters. The effect is given of an explanatory work, a scholarly companion, even though the “exhibition” itself does not exist. The book’s design is the result of a collaboration between Canty and designer Raphaël Daudelin, who have worked together on projects since 2005. Although Wigrumcarries Canty’s name, the experience of the book is miscellaneous in so many ways that we feel we are not just reading the words of an author, but observing a collective enterprise; in fact, it has the sense of having been curated by designer, illustrator, and translator.
The subtitle claimed by Wigrum, “a novel”, situates it firmly within the realm of fiction, but inside the covers, the book introducing elements of doubt as to that status, casting itself as the one document of an almost-forgotten history. Canty is a character, his “Afterword” and “Postscript” both existing on the border of the novel’s world. He defends the existence of Wigrum and another mysterious scholar, Joseph Stepniac, including letters to and from them which he claims to have found, dangling the possibility that the events related might be “true” after all. There is little about the book’s formal operation which can be used to assess its success as a novel in response to the usual definitions of that category, and some things seem totally unnecessary like the fact that the book is said to have been compiled from multiple sources – the “Prague Collection” and the fictional ur-text “Excerpts from Patience.” There is little in the way of characters or a plot, or rather there is too much: every object has its own novel-sized story, like the tale of the golden-yolked egg laid by an alchemist’s chicken, or the doll dropped off the summit of Mount Everest which later appears on a hillside in Montreal. Yet so many of these stories go untold, only suggested; the book sets up stories which are fascinating but which receive only this sparse, suggestive treatment. The draw of this is that the glimpse of a story tantalises, so that perhaps our imaginations supply possible stories, or, even more compelling, they reach, only to find that the truth exceeds our grasp. The reason Wigrum collects these objects together is because he wants to hold some connection of the stories behind them, and in this the collection (like Wigrum itself) finds its parallel in the Library of Lost Time, a small publishing house featured in the description of the “Blank Page.” It produces small print runs of volumes, but only on their author’s death, and is run by one of the book’s many women named Clara, with whom Wigrum is infatuated and Wigrum is obsessed. Thus Wigrum is a book of books, structured around the organisation and cataloguing of potential stories.
Generically, Wigrum fits best the label of the “postmodern novel”, a frustratingly vague term which is more like a constellation than the close relation within other genres. As such, the closest points of comparison are still fairly far away, but once we stretch for them, there are plenty. The book’s cover copy suggests a few of its own, such as the works of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, but while the metafictional nature of the novel, underlined through various false starts as the introductions and prefaces unfold themselves, recallsIf on a winter’s night a traveller, and the organising principle of the catalogue or list irresistibly recalls Life A User’s Manual (itself mentioned in the entry on the “Polygraphist Knight”), there are other points of comparison. We might read it against Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the epic poem by the fictitious John Shade, where the real story unfolds in the commentary provided by the man gradually revealed to be Shade’s delusional stalker, Kinbote. As in Nabokov’s novel, there are hidden correspondences in the commentary waiting to be put together. Nothing about Wigrum is uninformed: the letters which float around on the white front page are like the details of Wigrum’s life, stranded and waiting to be read back into coherence.
Producing an exhaustive catalogue of these correspondences would doubtless be an enjoyable task, but it is outwith the scope of this review; however, a few of the important ones bear dwelling on. There are multiple references, especially in connection with books, to the number 451, a famous literary number thanks to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 claiming it to be the temperature at which paper burns. There are 451 titles in the catalogue of the Library of Lost Time, and 451 copies printed of Wigrum’s book On the Souvenir as Art Object. This places literary expression, the story, under continuous threat, and indeed most of the objects have only survived to be collected by some happenstance that stops them being destroyed – the kamikaze pilot’s pen, or the single “Blank Page” that survives from the “Library of Lost Time,” a casualty of the London Blitz.
Another striking thematic pattern is the number of children who vanish, temporarily or otherwise in the course of the book. There is Samuel Mudde, a myopic Quebecois orphan adopted by the scientists at CERN who leaves his “Acceleration Glasses” behind when he vanishes into a particle accelerator; a “heroic canary” named Zazie who was used to detect gas leaks in the Paris metro until she was freed when the “Red String” used to track her (now in Wigrum’s collection) was cut by an anonymous little girl who is implied to be the model for one of the most famous runaway children in literature, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro (Queneau is said to have been one of the onlookers when the bird vanished into a tunnel); and Clara Zeno, a “measuring prodigy” who could tell the size of an object with a single glance and who when she vanished in 1944 left behind a birthday present, the “October Tape” later acquired by Wigrum. At times like these, Wigrum might be thought to fall down somewhat in its repetitiousness – after the nth copy of a life story, we risk feeling bored, or annoyed that the secret is being dangled in front of our faces. In general, however, the novel manages our expectations, making us think that the next piece of the puzzle is just beyond our grasp. Women and girls named Clara or Klara appear again and again, although in historical circumstances and sequences that mean they are not the same Clara who Wigrum knew and admired from afar. There is also Wigrum’s friend, rival, and correspondent, Stepniac, who “authors” the novel’s foreword (which appears after Chapter One). In this way Stepniac, as fictional character and as alter ego of Canty, becomes one of the book’s curators and authors. His name reappears as that of the STEPNIAC 3000, an “artificial brain” from the Second World War, “invented [...] by a group of cyberneticists of the Polish resistance.” The computer, like Stepniac, is an author, in its case of “a modernist work, written entirely in code,” about a man identified only by the initial W. We are treated to an excerpt from the text describing this character: “a man who would not be a man but an island, an island who would not be an island.” That the only way this work is described is as “modernist” (it is not even called a “novel”), is telling – it might be meant as a term of derision, or a warning about the text’s incomprehensibility. The idea that computers might be modernists on one level makes perfect sense, but they also don’t have an older tradition against which to react. That being said, one ofWigrum’s enthusiasms is the history of computing – perhaps STEPNIAC 3000 reacts against its origins in humanity, the story of Babbage and Ada Lovelace that unfolds in the description of the “Binary Keys” to their early computer, the “difference engine.” That story features a copy of the machine being secretly constructed in the jungle on the fictional South American island of “Unuguay,” and the dictator who rules the island, and eventually comes into possession of the keys – and on whose order, it is implied, the plans were stolen in the first place – claims, “I am, I was, I will be Unuguay.” Like “W” he is not a man but an island, and for him too, that island is not an island, since the little “bamboo dictatorship” of Unuguay does not exist. Perhaps the STEPNIAC 3000’s “modernist work” is a response to the early identity crisis in the computer’s history, the tale of the construction and destruction of its first two selves, original and copy.
The computer’s work has other characters, each of whom “transforms into ‘a woman who responds to the man she has been.’” This is a fair summary of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, another “modernist” work that involves a man changing into a woman whose existence is forced to be a kind of “response” to the man she was – Orlando will lose her home and possessions unless she marries, which she only does when she finds her double in Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, an adventurer like her former self and, who it is implied, also once changed genders. That theme of changing lives is also reflected in the story of the “Ambidextrous Keys” exchanged by two men, Stephen Wallner and Jeremiah Salterton, when they swapped lives. This bizarre and apparently effortless operation is described in painstaking detail, making one of the book’s most compelling stories, and one that has least to do with the object; the “Binary Keys” which are laid out in the same way in their illustration as the “Ambidextrous Keys” in theirs, are intimately involved in the lengthy alternate history of the birth of the computer. The housekeys of Wallner and Salterton are almost incidental to the story, however, and an item such as their monogrammed handkerchiefs would have been as interesting for Wigrum to own, perhaps more so, since they share their initials with Sebastian Wigrum and Joseph S tepniac. Overall, the stories of these two sets of keys tie together to create a story about subjectivity, individuality, and selfhood that might expand to fill a whole novel of its own. Wigrum contains dozens of such possibilities: when we read them, study them – the form of the museum catalogue does make reading and cross-referencing these descriptions feel like “study,” with the re-reading and non-linearity that entails – they expand.
For those who, like this reviewer, enjoy detecting those patterns, Wigrum supplies an abundance of additional references to other literary works and historical motifs. Hemingway, Proust, and J.D. Salinger all appear, as does the Second World War (especially bombing, from the London Blitz to kamikaze pilots), nineteenth-century con artistry, and the early history of computing. When it comes to literature, Canty likes to blur the border between the work and reality as he has done with Wigrum, making Holden Caulfield a real-life gas-station attendant who possibly by mere coincidence informed The Catcher in the Rye and was even made an assistant professor on the back of it, and suggesting in the cryptic history of the “Hare Watch” that the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland lives, invisibly, somewhere far below the city of Oxford. Wigrum supplies as many referential rabbit-holes as we might care to go down, but cross-referencing them all is the kind of maddening task which seems at once impossible and enticing, as when first looking into other highly elusive works, Pale Fire chief among them.
Another pedantic theme, although this one in a formal dimension, is the internationalism. The notes make a point of translating every utterance into the original language in the margin, be it French, Czech, Japanese; even the Braille from the “Ticket for the Blind” is included. For the reader of the English version, this can only underline that our experience of the book is mediated, but in any language it looks, presented in white marginal space, like the notes accompanying an exhibition in a museum. The easiest rationale for this to imagine is that the originals are provided to allow us to make our own translations, in case we are unsatisfied with the apparently multilingual scholarship of the catalogue; its purpose as a device in a novel, then, is to add to the authenticity of the device, but also to lend multiplicity to a collage of experiences that would otherwise seem too authoritative, too single.
This concern to express neither too much nor too little authority is only one of several fine linesWigrum walks in its expression, and preserving that is ably managed by the English translation. While Oana Avasilichioaei, in translating Canty’s French, does her best to hide her presence from the reader by producing a straightforward and clear translation, this also hides her skill in helping keep Wigrumaffecting without being manipulative, and elliptical without being obtuse. The book presents itself as a museum catalogue, and the language is simple and factual, if at times slightly sentimental. The French may be even more so; in one entry, for a stub printed in Braille claiming to be from a “Cinema for the Blind”, it is described how when sighted people went to the purported site of the cinema, they found only “des murs nus, au fond de ruelles sans issue,” which Avasilichioaei renders as “the blank walls of dead-end alleys.” This slight contraction and grammatical re-arrangement is entirely within the rights of a translator of French into English, but were we to read instead “bare walls, at the end of alleys with no exits,” this would press harder on the sense of abandonment of its “disadvantaged and lonely” patrons that the section as a whole suggests. Avasilichioaei gives her English readers “disadvantaged” for Canty’s “pauvres” (“poor”), her prose’s characteristic blend of sensitivity and matter-of-factness preventing this passage from becoming a neo-Dickensian parable.
Nevertheless, it does have a moral lesson, spoken as a report, which it is said “captures the cinema’s mystery,” by one of the blind people who leads the unidentified sighted scholars investigating the cinema to the alleys: “You don’t wander into the Cinema of the Blind by closing your eyes. Being blind is something altogether different from keeping your eyes closed, and it’s not cinema.” The compiler of the catalogue has missed the point of what the blind man has told him. This is not a comment on the mythical Cinema but on a certain attitude, perhaps one which encompasses the study of the curio. People’s lives cannot be entered just by choosing to imagine how those people experience the world as a recreation or holiday from one’s own life. This is not, however, the ambition of Wigrum, or of Wigrum either. The collection is not composed of objects that let us assume the identities of other people; they are seldom clothes or costumes (with the possible exception of the hat with ear-flaps that belonged to the “real” Holden Caulfield), but tokens of their lives. They are not tickets but ticket-stubs, keeping a record of what has happened without admitting us into the audience in order to see it again.
The museum is the most difficult source of knowledge to cite. If I have learned something from an encyclopaedia or a scholarly treatise, I can give a page number, a quotation. But if I learned it from examining a prehistoric leaf or an unpoppable bubble, it is harder to give a better citation than to say “go, and see it for yourself.” The museum catalogue writer in doing this is tasked with only suggesting a more complete experience. There is a certain impulse towards honesty in writing a novel in that mode: the form that clings most closely to “reality” here demonstrates its commitment to that by applying itself with scholarly diligence to the construction of a system of traces. Its stories, always changing and questioning their own truth, work to model (like a museum diorama) the way that we all construct our own history and experience.
glasgowreviewofbooks - Calum gardner