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Governor Generally Speaking

They've come undone: Trevor Cole's The Fearsome Particles

I always lose at slots. My favourite next top model always blows a wheel on the runway.  I drown in the deep-end of hockey pools. However, in 1997, when Frances McDormand was up for the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Fargo, I not only predicted her success, but I was also partly responsible for it. For weeks leading up to the show, I got down on my knees and prayed that Marge Gunderson from Fargo, North Dakota, would waddle home with an Oscar-and she did. It was the only time I've ever bet on a winner.

But, let's hope that the lightning of accurate prediction strikes twice. For the next week, I am going to read, review and speculate on the chances of the novels shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Literary Awards: Trevor Cole's The Fearsome Particles, Bill Gaston's Gargoyles, Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams, Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron or a Frame for Frames, and Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game. As I get started on this literary bender, my rainy day background music is suitably depressing. The coffee is on; all bets, however, are off.

Day One: The Fearsome Particles, by Trevor Cole 

Meet Gerald Woodlore. Gerald works with window screens. Everyday, Gerald battles the twin evils of his demonic, adopted cat-named Rumsfeld, no less-and his wife's talon-like toenails. One night, while trying to seduce his wife, Gerald chokes on an olive that has lodged itself at the back of his throat.

Meet Victoria Woodlore.  Vicki is too shocked by the red wine spill Gerald makes while choking to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre.  A luxury real estate dresser, Vicki stages showings of sprawling Toronto mansions. Vicki decides between displaying buttery glazed Savoie pottery jugs and Victorian syrup dispensers, based on her notions of the make-believe families most suited to the properties.

Meet Kyle Woodlore.  After spending nine months in Afghanistan, Kyle just wants to be left alone.  

Trevor Cole deftly shifts between these characters' perspectives. He creates in the Woodlore clan a family come undone by its members' inabilities to understand one another. Gerald wants Vicki to cut her nails. Vicki wants Kyle to become a scientist. Kyle wants them both to fuck off. Beneath the ostentatious enamel of domestic bliss, however, the Woodlores desire cohesion, and it's life that gets in the way: the dangers of plummeting stock values, Internet gambling and Afghani kite fighting.

Cole weaves into each of his characters' narratives an aversion to foreign particles. Vicki prevents potential buyers from viewing a house she deems to be too full of potential for such "stricken, woeful people." Gerald, with the help of an ambitious marketing assistant, pitches an idea for window screens that block out light and dangerous air bugs with equal resolve. Kyle locks his bedroom door, keeping out intruders who might remind him of his painful life overseas.

The Fearsome Particles reads the way American Beauty should have screened.  Instead of sentimentalizing plastic bags, Cole imbues his characters and their actions with levity, sincerity and grace. Cole forgoes maudlin sentimentality in favour of honest ambiguity. At the end of the novel, the reader is left wondering how and when this cracked Canadian family will find the glue they need to put their lives back together.

The Fearsome Particles is a novel about the inability to communicate. Cole captures the significance of words that go unspoken, and this critic, for one, is transported back to the frustration of adolescence through the character of Kyle. Similarly, Cole proves that every now and again we can lose our control over language, that our armour of rhetoric betrays us.

In one particularly heartbreaking (but hilarious) passage, Gerald checks up on his son, who is suffering from a post-modern version of shellshock. For the past few days, Gerald had been confronted with the response, "I'm down," when inquiring about his son's wellbeing through the bedroom door.  On this visit, however, Kyle responds with a deceptive "I'm up." Elated, Gerald cracks open the door to see "instantly what Kyle had meant when he'd talked about being "down" and being "up." He was gambling."

In a way, all of Cole's characters are gambling, although for each the stakes vary along with the odds.  Life, according to Cole, is a bet hedged for the sake of security. The Fearsome Particles worms its way into the inner recesses of domestic life and shatters the myth that veneer presupposes verity. The Fearsome Particles leaves its reader feeling itchy, as if affronted by the particles that make the Woodlores so very afraid.