Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Description of the Blazing World, by Michael Murphy

It’s difficult to talk about the various plot points of Michael Murphy’s debut novel, Description of the Blazing World, without giving the whole story away. The book has what we might call a diptych structure – that is, two separate narratives that alternate back and forth, chapter after chapter. The first stream introduces us to pathetic everyman Morgan Wells, who grows obsessed after a postcard arrives in his mailbox addressed to a different man with the same name. The second stream is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy whose mother sends him away from their Nova Scotia home to live with his older brother Dave in Toronto for a few weeks during the summer of 2003. While there, the boy discovers a letter hidden inside Dave’s copy of a 17th century science fiction novel called The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, unleashing a slew of mysteries about the boy’s family and sending him on a crusade to unlock the secrets of his recent past.

You don’t really get a sense of how these two narratives are connected until late in the novel, when Murphy begins skillfully exposing exactly what ties the poles of Morgan Wells’s story to the poles of the boy’s story. It’s hard to go into details here, since doing so would reveal spoilers that might ruin the novel for a perspective reader.

What isn’t hard to do, though, is tell you how great Murphy’s writing is. He has a fantastic eye for quirky details that bring his world to life, and a style that is at once funny and deeply engaging. I did find myself more interested in the boy than I did in Morgan, since he does seem to be the more fleshed-out character. I love the way he constantly corrects himself whenever he finishes a sentence with a preposition. I love his passion for Choose Your Own Adventure books. I love the way he possesses both a fourteen-year-old’s self deprecation and his sanctimony. And his observations (and critiques) of the adult-run world are pitch perfect.

What’s also interesting about this book is how Murphy can provide us with just one half of a character, for the purposes of the broader plot, without making us feel like we’re being ripped off. You don’t get a full angle on Dave or the boy’s mother, or even Morgan himself, until close to the end when everything fits into place. It’s like two seemingly disparate paintings, slowly being rotated and moved closer together, until it finally becomes apparent how they fit together and create a bigger picture.

The only flat note in the book was reading Murphy’s author bio and seeing that he’s now attending law school. Good lord, what for? Such a career might put a crimp in his writing time (I hear lawyers occasionally work more than eight hours a day), which would be a shame, since it would be wonderful to see more – a lot more – work from this talented young writer.

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