Eli and Abi Jones are inseparable siblings growing up in the seventies and eighties. Their relationship even involves a secret “Martian” language only they can decipher. They live with their waitressing mother Joy and electrical technician father Pal, roving through American and Canadian cities on account of Pal’s short-lived employment opportunities.
A rupture of catastrophic proportions occurs on Eli’s tenth birthday when he finds Pal molesting thirteen-year-old Abi in her bedroom. Abi contends with the psychological and physical tolls of being raped repeatedly for three years, while Eli experiences survivor’s guilt from standing powerless to intervene on her behalf. Joy is aware of the assaults but unable to stop them; instead, as a kind of mental life preserver, she invests her time in a relationship with the man who may be Eli’s birth father—an Elvis impersonator named Carol.
This is all from the 2022 novel Jones, a coming-of-age, fictional account of Neil Smith’s childhood. As with any autofictional endeavour, readers will likely have questions about the book’s harrowing emotional upheavals—perhaps never more so than when it concerns a much-admired author who has avoided writing about himself for years.
Smith began as a commercial translator before trying his hand at his own books. His debut story collection, Bang Crunch, debuted in 2007 after a bidding war; a supernatural thriller, Boo, followed in 2015. His lean prose style became known for its effortlessness as much as its lyricism, and his stories were so often tinged with a deadpan humour that it became something of a literary calling card.
Then came much-praised English translations of Geneviève Pettersen’s The Goddess of Fireflies and Guillaume Demers’ Jeremy: the boy with a spinning heart. He has won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and has been nominated for a Journey Prize. Smith prides himself on the scrupulous accuracy of his translated prose, but always had reservations about turning this facility with language and obsessive attention to detail on his family history.
“I needed some distance between my real life and what happens in the book,” says Smith, speaking about the book’s similarity to his upbringing. “It’s inspired by events in my life, but mine is a much more ambiguous approach to autofiction.”
This ambiguity can sometimes be a casse-tête for readers engaging in an interpretative game with a text, looking to pin meaning down with a sense of authority. Practitioners of autofiction are not usually forthcoming about the ways in which they have weaved elements of their lives into their work in the same way that magicians grow tight-lipped when pressed on how an illusion was brought off.
Sometimes a narrator will share a name with its author, but outrageous events beggaring belief are enough to signal the “constructedness” of a work; in other cases, mapping out a biographical event has a natural terminus, but a narrative impulse compels a writer to build bridges with a course of action different than the one they might have originally taken.
In the case of Jones, there is certainly no shortage of clues: Eli becomes a Governor General’s Award-nominated translator, like Smith, and both were brutally assaulted by police at a protest against police violence. The surname Jones, the fifth most common in America, lags behind the top contender, Smith.
Smith, who is now fifty-nine, was left with a tremendous amount of anger following the death of his immediate family; he felt that he lacked closure about the disturbing events that occurred in his adolescence. Reading, writing and translating had been an escape during the turbulent years, and the main obstacle to working on Jones was the fear that he would wreck the refuge he had carefully built for himself; that to muddle the joys of the creative act with harrowing reminiscences might taint the impulse to write entirely.
Coming around to the idea that a semi-autobiographical book could lead to a breakthrough in his therapy, Smith began considering what the novel’s creative objectives might look like. The first goal, says Smith, was to engage with audience expectations rather than veer away from them—to embrace the possibility that a reader might be imputing memoiristic tendencies to the writing.
“It’s like I’m a casting director who’s gone out to find actors who look like us, speak like us, but are not us,”Smith says. His other priority was honesty. “From what I’ve seen or read,” he says, “I don’t always feel that people who are writing about incest have lived through it.”
The final criteria was more of a question, and it is Neil’s attempt at answering it that makes his latest novel so original and unexpectedly moving: could incest be made funny?
Many of our expectations about what we might call the incest narrative can be traced back to two novels: Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, published in 1749, and William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, which appeared forty years later.
In Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones believes he has bedded down with his estranged mother, now answering to the name of Mrs. Waters. He turns out to be mistaken—Waters was merely the servant girl who deposited Tom as a foundling in a country squire’s bed—but the scene is played out with such ironical remoteness that the question of depravity only rears its head as a punchline. A reader is not given an opportunity to understand the psychological ramifications of actually sleeping with one’s mother, but merely experiences the illicit absurdity of the idea.
Brown goes in the opposite direction. When Thomas Harrington discovers that his lover, Harriot Fawcet, is actually his half-sister, the enormity of the transgression leads him to take his life, while his beloved succumbs to consumption.
The literary topography of incest has mostly remained unchanged, with recent offerings falling somewhere between these two renderings. Richard Hell’s Go Now and Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England preserve a farcical detachment in their coverage of the subject, while Sapphire’s Push and Damian Rogers’ An Alphabet for Joanna scrutinize the nightmarish consequences. The former method plays against a reader’s broad understanding of incest as a social taboo, while the latter seeks to deepen sympathetic awareness of the experience, highlighting how dignity can be affirmed in the wake of life-altering trauma.
Smith knew that to bring those two narrative modes together came with great risks; that to speak about incest with descriptive frankness while also drolly poking fun at it might be a reactive combination. Would the merger of tones bear fruit—or would it prove insensitive and graceless? Could humour create proximity rather than distance from an unspeakable subject, and deepen a humanistic portrayal of survival?
The experiment is largely successful. Sarcasm, gallows humour and self-deprecation used by Abi and Eli evince a corrupted slant on the world; their lives are possibly broken beyond repair and they know it. Smith had done something similar in Boo, which followed a teen nicknamed Boo due to the wanness of his complexion embracing this derisive epithet and attempting to solve his own murder from the afterlife. For the characters that populate Smith’s books, all they can do is lean into the ungovernability of their circumstances. Denial is usually nothing but a chimera, like when Eli obsesses about maintaining a B grade average so that he might be passed over for a student whose family life is entirely unremarkable (he even fails tests on purpose).
In some ways, Smith felt he had no choice in writing a tragicomic novel—a lot of the comedic sensibility was modelled on his late sister Gail’s view of the world. While he knew that he had to be careful with the use of flippancy in tackling a subject as sensitive as sexual abuse, the humour is what kept his writing honest; it showed how one’s personal sense of what is or isn’t funny could become a coping mechanism against the savagery of the world.
“In order to balance the drama and darkness in the book,” Smith says, “I tried to lighten it with humour. I wanted to show that you can survive—that you can be creative and you’re not going to forget, but you’ll be able to move on.”
Smith’s narrator Eli is able to build something of a life for himself in the Verdun neighbourhood of Montreal after leaving home as a teen. He participates in book launches and is able to keep a modest apartment for himself, but despite these advances, he has problems with intimacy. He prefers to repress his feelings, and cultivate his talents as a listener and confidant.
Sometimes the humour in the book arises because Eli and Abi are processing the events of their lives through self-mockery and ridicule. They poke fun at their circumstances as a way of reminding themselves of how abnormal their lives are. This can happen as a compulsion to relive an event as often as it is a way of lashing out, but whatever its source, this gaucheness is characteristic of their problematic understanding of the ordinary. There is an almost pedestrian quality to how Joy’s contempt for her daughter is barely hidden or how police are called to their residences with alarming frequency.
The devastating effect of sexual abuse on something so elementary as one’s sense of humour is not often considered in literature with as much focus as in Jones. When Abi overdoses and is described as being in a near-vegetative state, Eli cannot help but ask himself if “she’s eight-tenths a butternut squash, rather than a full ten-tenths”; as a way of delegitimizing Joy’s ability to parent, Abi lampoons the family’s tendency to move often, joking that “Whatever town we go to, the villagers chase us with pitchforks.”
In a horrifying scene that perhaps best illustrates this troubled comedic disposition, Eli attempts to convince his drug-dealing uncle Three Dollar Bill (perhaps the source of all the social dysfunction in the Jones family) to refrain from selling heroin to Abi; a grotesque solution presents itself. Bill, who has always coveted Eli’s handsomeness, agrees to cease all interaction with Abi if Eli agrees to sleep with him. On the night that this event is slated to occur, Eli breaks down into ringing peals of laughter the minute Bill undresses. “We’ve got the same dick,” Eli says. “My pubic hair’s not black like yours, but our dicks are practically the same.”
This black humour is even weaponized against Pal when Eli discloses the affair to his father. Eli alludes to the fact that Bill and Pal’s facial similarity made it seem like he was having sex with his father. Eli cannot strike at his father physically, but he can twist the knife with his wisecracking facility with language: “He fucks like he talks,” Eli rhapsodizes, “it goes on and on and on, and he gets me all sweaty and smells like a mix of Brylcreem and poutine.”
Whether Eli is attempting to understand his sister’s pain in the most self-annihilating way possible, or is atoning for his inability to prevent Pal’s rapes, the meaning of the bargain is clear: Smith tells readers that the scourge of incest goes beyond the physical violations and betrayals of trust. Incest is particularly appalling as a baseline through which victims understand normalcy, exogamous sexual relations and even jocularity. When violence is all that you have known, you might not flinch in its company; but Smith shows how there are times when victims might not even notice its presence, or recognize its propagation as an idea dominating every facet of their lives.
The American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher is said to have opined that “a person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” Abi and Eli’s use humour as a shock absorber for all the dysfunction and chaos filtering through their lives. It may not be a reliable defence—especially with repression, drug use and self-denial so handy—but it offers a convenient way around the trapdoor of memory in times of crisis.
Much has been written in recent years about the validity of the trauma narrative in the arts, and whether or not it tends to reduce characters and experiences to a readable set of symptoms. Smith's novel can be thought of as a rejoinder of sorts, one which shows that diagnoses can remain elusive or fail to illuminate the course of corrective action to pursue when faced with medical uncertainties; if properly humanized, trauma narratives can avoid charges of overcooked insipidity and become works of astounding relevance.
“Some people don’t make it,” Smith says returning to the subject of his sister Gail’s struggles with addiction. “My sister tried killing herself several times. I have to be thankful that she lived as long as she lived. I worry that people who have lived through incest will see suicide [in the book] as a downer, but it had to be true to life and true to my sister, who was incredibly funny. It would have been a betrayal to write this depressing, earnest book about her life.” ⁂
Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation and Kilworthy Tanner. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Catapult, Hazlitt, Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail and elsewhere. The National Post describes his writing as “an inventive escape from the conventional.”