Arborescent

By Bruce Cinnamon

by Marc Herman Lynch Arsenal Pulp Press 2020/$18.95/224 pp.

Marc Herman Lynch’s debut novel, Arborescent, is a triptych—three distinct novellas connected by setting (a rundown apartment building) and a dark, magical atmosphere. In a wintery Moh’kíns’tsis (Calgary) where the stars come to earth and the dead rise, our three protagonists are all coping with fresh trauma. Nohlan Buckles just lost his father and is turning into a tree. Hachiko Yoshimoto is being stalked by a boy from her church group and starts manifesting mythic figures from kabuki theatre into the real world. Zadie Chan has to become the parent in her family as her hoarder mother pursues an obsessive quest to claim her dead lover’s estate, and spawns doppelgangers around the city.

In each of these three narratives, Lynch combines beautifully macabre and surreal images, such as stars exploding from a man’s chest, with earthy and comedic moments like Nohlan’s fumbling attempt to stop an old man from masturbating in an internet cafe. Indeed, Lynch doesn’t miss an opportunity to infuse this world with gorgeously described, deeply disturbing situations and characters. A horrible landlord reminiscent of a Miyazaki villain grows monstrously large, scattering pistachio shells as he stalks the halls looking for prey. Amused partygoers look on as a rabbit is crushed into red gore under a glass sheet at a posh nightclub. People in animal masks prowl the edges of all three stories, a motif reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre.

In a lesser novel the dizzying array of carnivalesque moments might become confusing or tiresome. But Lynch imbues his three main characters with humanity, complexity and depth; it’s easy to empathize with these isolated, profoundly lonely people.

The novel’s only weak point is that isolation extends from the characters to the structure of the book itself, with the three protagonists largely siloed in their own stories. The plots do not converge until very late in the third act, and the novel suffers from having to start from scratch three times (not to mention a loosely related prologue). Lynch gives us just enough time to get to know a new protagonist and become invested in their story, and then we jump to a brand new character with an unrelated plotline. When the stories do converge, only two of the three protagonists are given a real resolution, with our first point-of-view character relegated to a peripheral role. It’s an odd decision that leads to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, Arborescent eschews a traditional arboreal (linear) plot structure, instead embracing a rhizomatic model where individual images and moments resonate with each other across the entire text. The result is an ambitious, experimental book which hums with unsettling energy and wild imagination.

—Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen (NeWest).

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