This is one of the times I am forced to admit that I have occasionally been terrible at keeping up with our city’s output — or rather, I spent a serious number of years looking at America and Europe instead of my own backyard.

Neil Smith’s first novel won last year’s QWF Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction (beating out, I might add, Heather O’Neil’s latest collection of short stories), and a quick Google search informs me that his collection of short stories was both hyped and acclaimed when it came out in 2007. A Spanish translation of his story “Isolettes” was recently published by K1n – by someone I know, no less – and yet I still hadn’t gotten around to reading him.

So, here I am. I waffled between the two books – after all, sometimes you’re in the mood for a story, and sometimes you want to sink your teeth into something longer – before reading both. I started with Bang Crunch and wasn’t in the mood to let Smith go, so I carried on.

Bang Crunch

These nine short stories are, frankly, quite good. They’re bleak and darkly funny at times, yet heartwarming and hopeful atbangcrunch others. While some readers may find Smith  overly clever, I find he almost always manages to be unusual without being gimmicky. Plots range from the plausible to the fantastic – one is narrated by a foot and a pair of gloves, for example and the story “Bang Crunch” is told by a girl suffering from a syndrome that causes her to first age rapidly, then rewind back to babyhood before dying. For the most part, stories restrained in their quirkiness, even when the language becomes unexpected – the mother of a premature baby in the first story, “Isolettes” remarks that she can see her daughter’s organs through her thin skin, “the way shrimp is visible under the rice paper of a spring roll”. The characters are strongly defined and easy to care for –  I was both relieved and excited when I realized that the characters from “Green Fluorescent Protein” were making a second appearance in a later story, “Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha?”.

Four of the stories are set in Montreal, including the two mentioned above,but it’s a Montreal where the language is always a well-written, proper English, no matter who is speaking. Even when places are explicitly named, you get the impression that these stories could have been set anywhere (and indeed, the other stories generally have unnamed, or equally featureless settings). The city is scrubbed clean of many defining features, especially linguistic ones, but I might venture that it makes the stories more enjoyable to read. After reading Heather O’Neil, and loving her use of language while still failing to be enchanted by her plot…. Maybe it’s too distracting to be familiar with the setting in real life, it gets too difficult to be fully immersed in the story. (Or maybe experimenting with linguistic hybridity is just tricky, and it’s better to do without than to fail to do it well.)

Upon finishing the final story, “Jaybird” – I almost want to mention each story individually and tell you about it, but am trying to show some restraint – I was delighted to remember that I had one-click purchasing on my Kindle and barreled straight on through to Smith’s novel, Boo.

Boo

This novel was…. Fine. Good, even. The more I think about it, the more I can find within it to appreciate, and it was totally a book that can conceivably win an award… But in the way that sophomore albums and sequels almost never seem to impress, this left me a little less satisfied than his first work.

booBoo is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy named Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple, who has died and now finds himself in Heaven. This heaven is far from the usual clouds-and-harp scene – it’s nothing more than a walled-in town populated only by dead thirteen-year-olds and rife with mundane problems. There’s no toothpaste, for example, and the plumbing sucks, and the teenagers living there are still prone to injury and the occasional re-death. After another boy from his school appears bearing new information about Boo’s death and his own, they and two others go on a quest.

The book is written in the first person, and echoes the precocious, charmingly adult voice that Smith first used for the protagonist of “Bang Crunch”. It’s just a tidge stilted, in a way that Smith manages to write off as a character quirk, though I suspect that like many authors writing as preternaturally smart youth (see, for example, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), he’s just fond of the conceit.  He does it well, though, and gives it believable moments of childlike innocence – the swear words are censored with asterisks, and the entire book is takes the form of an unsent letter to Boo’s parents. For the most part, this manages to be more clever than overwrought, but I can admit that it could get old if you have a low threshold for tolerating literary quirks.

While this book does bear all the hallmarks of a Young Adult novel, including its school-locker-themed cover, I have yet to be convinced that it is actually one. I’m not alone on this – when I checked GoodReads, the vote seemed to be just about evenly split between “Literature” and “Young Adult”. Penguin helpfully categorizes this as both “coming of age” and “ghost”, and while the Gazette labelled it “Teen-centric” in their review, that particular description made me raise my eyebrows rather high.

While yes, the characters are teenagers, who do “grow up” in a way over the course of the story, the themes are fairly mature, and the plot manages to surprise even when you think you have the whole thing figured out. The plot is fantastical, but in an understated, almost mundane way (not words that come to mind when I think of recent best-selling YA literature). I would have to say it’s more a book that happens to have a teen protagonist, that young adults could also read.

I can imagine that if I hadn’t literally just read Bang Crunch, I would have been far happier with Boo, though. And I would definitely still recommend this to a reader – with some caveats. And if you’re lacking time or desire and can only pick one, or have little patience for precocious and spirited protagonists, I’d say stick with the short stories.

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