It’s Complicated: Stephen Marche reinvents the love story

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Love and the Mess We’re In tells the story of Clive and Viv, two young Canadian writers having an affair in Buenos Aires. Clive is best friends with Viv’s husband Tim, who has been hospitalized for years following a psychotic break.

While the preceding plot outline might lead you to believe that Stephen Marche’s third novel could be a frothy soap opera romance or a heavy literary meditation on infidelity, he neither celebrates nor judges the two lovers, but tries to accurately represent their jumpy emotions as they embark on a romantic relationship and then deal with the consequences of their actions.

To illustrate these two lives coming together, Love and the Mess We’re In uses inventive page design, largely doing away with the conventional paragraphs of even text that appear in most novels. The manuscript is printed in a variety of shapes and sizes, with multiple typefaces running in several directions. The book was typeset by master printer Andrew Steeves, and it is as legible as it is unconventional. Often while reading the book I was reminded of Chris Ware’s multidirectional comic strips or the concrete poetry of bpNichol, writers who, like Marche, emphasize the discontinuities of everyday life through their form as well as their content.

And while it might sound complicated and awfully serious, reading this book was a lot of fun. Each page held a new surprise, and I often had to turn the book sideways or upside down to catch all the text. This constant reminder of the physicality of the book in my hands didn’t break my connection to the world of the novel, but drew me deeper into it. I found myself staring at the pages of Love and the Mess We’re In far longer than I do those of most novels I read, searching for the connection between the text and the idiosyncratic way it is laid out on the page.

For example, rain is never described, but instead represented by lines of vertical type spilling down the page. One of these squiggly lines running down the page cheekily suggests that “Novelists should never attempt to describe the weather.” Other inventive presentations include one page that is read from the bottom to the top, echoing the characters’ movement upwards in an elevator. In a nod to Ulysses, the word “Yes” appears near the end of the couple’s first romantic encounter, printed in a giant typeface taking up the entire page. These are just a few of the unique design features used in the novel; other innovations include a fold-out full-colour modified NYC subway map, diagrams of constellations and double-page conversational spreads that show not only what Clive and Viv are saying, but also reveal their thoughts as they talk.

Marche’s text is as singular as the book’s design, and he jettisons many aspects of the traditional novel. There are few long descriptions, and while he lavishes dozens of pages over Clive and Viv’s conversation at supper, the major turning point in their relationship happens in one short paragraph. Instead of reaching for the cliché, Marche’s book is filled with strange emotions and details that feel like a genuine reading of contemporary life. At times his prose veers a little to close to reheated lyricism, but the discipline imposed by the novel’s often short scenes offer him little space to linger in such moments.

While the unconventional design is what I noticed first, it was Marche’s writing that kept me turning the pages. By throwing out most of its conventions, Marche has recuperated the love story for our time. By tearing apart and reconstructing a straightforward story of boy meets gir,l he reveals the true weirdness that lies at the heart of love, romance and adultery. Clive and Viv clearly don’t know what they are doing. As the narrator notes, “Neither Clive nor Viv would recognize themselves in their own story, because they are not the kind of people who do what they’re about to do.”

It is a testament to Marche’s powers as a writer that he can take something as commonplace as a romantic relationship and reveal its inherent strangeness.■

Love and the Mess We’re In by Stephen Marche, Gaspereau Press 2012, 272 pp. $28.95 paperback

Jeff Miller is the author of the award-winning short story collection Ghost Pine: All Stories True (Invisible Publishing, 2010). He lives and drinks coffee in Little Italy.

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