Book Review: Reproduction – Ian Williams

Reproduction – Ian Williams (Random House Canada, 2019)

There is a lot in this book. And if it had ended about one hundred pages and several characters sooner, I would have enjoyed it more. It covers a lot of time. It has a lot of characters (to the extent that it’s unclear who the true protagonist is). It makes a lot of attempts at different styles of writing. The only thing it doesn’t have a lot of is settings. Williams is ambitious and in some places he succeeds but in many places I found myself wishing he would calm down.

The story begins with Felicia and Edgar. They meet when their mothers share a hospital room. Felicia and her mother are recent immigrants from an unnamed island; Felicia is in her late teens, hoping to finish high school. Edgar is much older, probably late thirties, living a privileged and solitary life due to his family wealth. When Felicia’s mother dies and Edgar’s lives, Felicia moves in with Edgar and “Mutter” to care for the aging woman.

Felicia and Edgar’s relationship is complicated and unpleasant to witness. Felicia seems smart and determined but she quickly gives up her own ambitions to cater to Edgar’s needs. His care of his mother is haphazard and Felicia’s sense of guilt keeps her from walking away but she also seems drawn to Edgar. This is a continuing theme throughout the book and, honestly, it’s hard to know why. Edgar has no redeeming features. He isn’t kind or compassionate or funny. He isn’t even described as good-looking. He is rich but not even obscenely so.

Nevertheless, Felicia becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son who she names Armistice (nickname: Army). The book jumps forward in time and Army is 14 years old. Felicia seems to have done well for herself, working a steady job in a university office. Army is a pretty typical 14-year-old boy. Obsessed with his looks and making money and girls. Particularly one girl – Heather, the daughter of Felicia and Army’s landlord, Oliver, who is visiting her father for the summer, along with her younger brother, Hendrix. (See? Lots of characters.)

Army is both eager for wealth and growing curious about the father he’s never met. Heather is testing boundaries and learning about the power of her own sexuality. Oliver is a bitter divorcee who is maybe in love with Felicia and hates Army. This section is told primarily from the perspective of Army and Heather and Felicia fades into the background here as a rather stereo-typed suburban mind. (Nevermind that she’s probably only about 32-years-old now.) Again, she lets Oliver dominate her and when Edgar inevitably re-appears, she can’t seem to resist him. Even though he’s now older and even more unpleasant.

But don’t worry, the book keeps going. If it had ended with this section then I think it would have been a somewhat flawed but overall decent novel. But someone else has a baby and then we jump forward to that baby’s teenage hood and get to see all the characters again, more embittered and unpleasant.

As the book progresses, Williams seems to get more experimental with structure and style. There are large chunks of dialogue without any indicators or other descriptions. This works for the most part but is confusing at times. Toward the end of the book he begins inserting other scenes into the present timeline scenes. Allow me to show you:

The subscript and the superscript represent two different characters having a different conversation at an entirely different time in the novel. It’s a neat idea, a way to highlight how relationships repeat themselves and how people don’t really change or maybe they do or how all of our interactions are underlined by other interactions we were a part of twenty years before. But it’s super distracting and I found it confusing and hard to follow. Maybe I could have dealt with it for a short section but it goes on way too long and added to the sense of relief I felt when I finally finished this book.

I don’t want to write Williams off as an author because I think he is trying new things and probably has a lot of stories in him to tell. I hope that his next novel is more pared down and thus stronger.

I read Reproduction as part of my Writers Fest Challenge. Ian Williams will be one of the featured writers at this year’s Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Reproduction – Ian Williams”

  1. I like that you acknowledge the author for trying something new. I was in an MFA program where we mostly read and wrote experimental fiction. The balance is doing something different while connecting with a reader. It looks like this author has such a goal in mind, though I admit many do not — they want to write what they want to read and are happy to tell you as much, including famous people like Gertrude Stein.

    1. I think the idea behind what he attempted was great and it was definitely a unique way to present the subtext that lies behind so many conversations. With stuff like this I’m always inclined to lay some blame at the feet of the editor too. Some editor or reader should have been able to tell him, “Hey, cool idea, but this is confusing to read” before it got to the point of publication.

    2. I’m of the opinion that experimental works need a variety of beta readers to give feedback, but because so many are published by small presses, that doesn’t happen how I imagine it. The last experimental book that was hugely popular was House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

  2. I’m having a hard time making up my mind about whether or not I will read this book. I often like experimental novels, and even find that a selling point for me, but on the other hand, I want to like it! I feel like I need to be ready if and when I pick this one up. Thanks for the great review!

    1. I like experimental novels too. For me, this one just seemed like it was trying to do too many things. Perhaps it will be more enjoyable for you!

  3. Well I managed to get halfway through Reproduction and I have never done this before with a book but I literally threw it on the floor. Never to be picked up and read again!!! I am in shock that it won first place at Giller!

    1. I struggled with this one too. Hearing the author talk about it helped a bit because he was playing with format in a lot of ways that I didn’t pick up on. But a book shouldn’t require that. I think it appealed to the jury for its experimentation but it definitely wasn’t my favourite on the shortlist!

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