The word “evolution” is normally used in a biological context. When applied to literature, however, it can reveal a fascinating fact, namely, that the art of storytelling has changed profoundly over time.
This thought occurred to me while reading I Don’t Know How to Behave, the latest book by Ottawa-based writer Michael Blouin that is published by BookThug. A highly innovative poetic-novel, this work tells the story of the late Canadian stuntman Ken Carter and his attempt to jump a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental over the St. Lawrence River at Morrisburg, Ontario, in the late-1970s.
The book goes back-and-forth between two periods in time: 1979, as Carter prepares for his jump, and 1999, when Canadian film icon Bruce McDonald is looking at making a movie about Carter’s crazy stunt. Helping McDonald is his assistant Gillian, loosely based on Canadian poet Gillian Sze.
This intriguing plot alone makes this a fascinating book. What is truly remarkable, however, is its narrative structure. By combining poetry, the language of screenplays, drawings, historical commentary and straight-on fiction writing, Blouin has created a storytelling format that is significantly more evolved than the traditional novel.
“I am hesitant to say that I’m doing something new,” says Blouin modestly, when asked to comment about his writing style. “There is a part of me that would like to think that I am doing something new, while another part knows that you build on what came before.”
While it is true that Blouin did not invent by himself a new form of storytelling, it is also true that his writing technique is part of a genuine literary evolution. This is not a traditional poem, play, novel or even comic book, but rather a hybrid that provides a new way of telling stories.
In a recent post I called Blouin one of the best writers in Ottawa. After reading I Don’t Know how to Behave I stand by that statement. While some people may be put off by his hybrid style, and others confused by such a radical departure from a traditional narrative format, nobody can deny that his work is highly original.
Local readers who want to see what all the fuss is about can check out Blouin on Saturday, October 26, as he launches his new book along with fellow BookThug writers Sandra Ridley and André Alexis at the Manx Pub (370 Elgin St.) as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
If you want know how Blouin came up with the Ken Carter plot, meanwhile, listen to this great vignette.
“I thought of an idea of writing a book from the point of view of Burt Reynolds as he was filming Smokey and the Bandit,” says Blouin. “I started writing about a director and realized I was writing about Bruce McDonald.”
After getting McDonald’s approval to use him in the book, as well as Sze’s permission to make her part of the project, he inserted the two characters into the Ken Carter story. The result is a book that evolves our understanding of what a novel can do.