The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster
Canadian author Barry Webster's whimsical, perversely playful fiction has garnered numerous accolades; indeed, his 2005 collection, The Sound of All Flesh, took home the ReLit Award for best Canadian short story collection. With The Lava in My Bones, Webster brings his talents in the shorter medium to bear on the medium of the novel. As a debut novel, The Lava in My Bones is witty and mature, and painstakingly intertextual, in its nearly seamless segues from teen angst to social commentary, from the use (and, most times, the overuse) of magical realism to a universal tale of the search for love and self-acceptance. However, where The Sound of All Flesh succeeded in its brevity and the far wider scope for which a story collection allows, The Lava in My Bones reads too redundantly like a short story stretched far beyond its logical narrative constraints, a series of vignettes tied together loosely by the themes of family, social ostracism, and the motherly ties that bind -- not to mention the oedipal ties that strangle when they can no longer mold according to social and cultural expectations.
The Lava in My Bones begins with Sam Masonty -- a geological expert on climate change "who'd gotten a BA, MSc, and PhD in eight years" -- barred from reentering Zurich and imprisoned in his native Ontario, where he commences not only his first relationship with another man, Franz, but his curious habit of eating rocks ("If you love something, you put it in your mouth"). Sam vacillates back and forth between recalling Canada's vast natural expansiveness to his lover who knows only the monotonous tedium of life in his own country, "Switzerland, the most land-locked country in the world." Webster's skill here is in presenting a relationship between two men that plays into self-parodies of queer life while also eschewing them: although Sam and Franz enact a doomed love affair, one that comments on queer subculture insofar as it emphasizes taut bodies and designer clothing, the body is less the focus than are the ways in which desire can be viewed as something intimate and yet something dangerous.
Webster foregrounds this theme of desire in a prologue that situates Sam's inchoate queer identity in terms of the grandiose and fantastic world of fairy tales; in these tales, Sam encounters "lovers who bit off each other's organs and when they opened their mouths, birds flew out," all the while recognizing that "these tales were telling the very story of his life." The magical realism found in these tales makes its way into the main narrative: during the height of Sam and Franz's relationship, snow falls in Zurich despite the fact that it is summer; Sam's academic work on climate change ("Rocks bear the imprint of the weight of our bodies... rocks record the details of someone's life") becomes personal when Franz first swallows a rock and then tempts his lover to appease his own wish to be closer to the core of the earth; and Sam's malevolent, religious mother appears at the foot of the bed he shares with Franz, casting judgment and externalizing Sam's own conflict about his sexual identity.
These fantastical elements carry over into the subsequent vignettes, episodes that are sieved through Sam's main narrative as we return to him for grounding. (It is no wonder that as each thread in The Lava in My Bones is titled after the four elements, Sam's element is that of the earth.) As Webster extends his terrain to introduce the reader to Sam's family, the reliance on magical realism becomes more of a crutch than a quirky trope that would allow the novel to flow more smoothly and inventively. We are introduced to Sam's sister, Sue, who begins to ooze honey from her pores; Sam's maritime father who is obsessed with mermaids; and Sam's hyper-religious mother who enlists the help of the Virgin Mary to save the souls of her far-from-normal children. Although the mother's vigilance is one of the most absurd flights of fancy in the novel, it does, all the same, emphasize an intertextual debt to literary and cultural sources; to be sure, in spite of his unique voice in characterizing a mother who feels she has not done enough to steer her children in this world, one is often reminded of the omniscient, phallic mother figure in Guy Maddin's film Brand Upon the Brain!
Franz later admits in his own vignette: "In truth, I did not want you, Sam. I wanted the space that surrounded you... The German language is so damned sexy; just hearing it gives me a hard-on; no wonder you wanted me, Sam." This clumsy juxtaposition of Webster's major themes here is made all the more so by this point in the novel; the introduction of first-person narratives grants us more subjectivity for tangential characters than the reader receives in Sam's more major and profound sections. In fact, the narrative distancing results in further displacing the main character along divisive lines that belie Webster's overt attempt to dismantle them: time and space, language and confusion, love and shame, and reality and fantasy are dichotomies that are less blurred by the cacophony of voices and the overwrought structure of The Lava in My Bones than they are fixated and made more resoundingly separate.
Webster certainly has a way with words, and this is largely what carries the reader through his debut novel. Less focused than his short fiction, The Lava in My Bones still explores similar themes of longing, the search for love, and the desire for self-acceptance; at the same time, due to the novel's excessive length and its chorus of voices -- many of which seem to be dead-end paths on a road already labyrinthine in terms of structure -- one comes away feeling as though language is the primary focus, especially how language can render magical the otherwise marginalized existence of the sexually and socially outcast. Webster's uniting thematic here is definitely praiseworthy in its message of tolerance, but it is one that is often lost among eaten rocks, mermaid infatuations, oozing honey, and the many fairy tales and films that overpopulate his novel.
The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster
Arsenal Pulp Press
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City; he is the curator of @proustitute.