Review: Mouthquake, by Daniel Allen Cox

9781551526041_Mouthquake>>Published: September 2015

>>Finally got around to it: October 2015

Our conversations are magical. Stutterer and deaf person, we have such interesting ways of communicating. We meet somewhere in the middle of the other’s irregular speech. He lipreads my thoughts through a stutter, and I read his through his slur. When we speak to each other, Eric stares at my mouth, and I stare at his hands. I don’t understand sign language so he doesn’t sign to me, but his fingers still try to decode what he’s saying. He can’t help it.

He places his hands on my neck to feel the vibrations. Sometimes I think he knows what I’m going to say a few seconds before it comes out. And sometimes, maybe even before I know what I’m going to say. I place my hands on his sternum, not to feel the vibration, but to feel the pain in his sighs and what happens between words. He’s a breathy one. Having a conversation with him engages so much of our bodies. It’s so sexual. I think the real reason we talk is to have an excuse to fondle each other. We’re real pervs that way. I wonder if I’d love Eric as much if he were a hearing person. And I wonder if he wonders the same about my speech.

***

Mouthquake, Daniel Allen Cox’s fourth novel, is very much about memory and those locked away; and is itself, in both writing and structure, a bit like a memory—fractured and disseminated in uneven shards like a breadcrumb ouroboros.

Taking place in Montréal in the 80s and 90s, the novel follows our protagonist, belaboured by a stutter, as he, imagining himself a German Shepherd a la The Littlest Hobo, befriends a mysterious local figure—the Grand Antonio, a large, woolly mammoth of a man who pulls buses with his hair and sells postcards of himself alongside such luminaries as Dean Martin, Carly Simon, Johnny Carson, and even, mysteriously, Marilyn Monroe to unsuspecting passers-by.

Immediately, Cox’s novel blurs the line between realities with surreal, often poetic descriptors—in sharp contrast to its stuttering protagonist. For example, when referencing the Grand Antonio:

“He laid a hand on my head, which made me still. When he patted my toque, it felt like I was being bashed by a warm, raw steak. When he laughed, it sounded like the engine of a bus in trouble.”

The extensive, colourful language used throughout syncs with the narrator’s experiences as a stuttering child, one who learns to see the world more cohesively through sound and music. In the novel’s second and strongest section, taking place in the 1990s, he is introduced to his other half—a deaf young man named Eric. Together they discover different modes of communication as the narrator further explores the correlation between his experiences, his sexual appetite, and different forms of physical punishment and how it all relates to the construction of his identity.

I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I’ve enjoyed Cox’s work in the past, especially the incendiary and awesome Krakow Melt; however, as I read, I discovered that the narrative of this book simply wasn’t sticking with me. I found myself wanting more from Mouthquake’s young narrator than the book seemed willing to provide.

As beautiful as much of Cox’s language is, it comes in this instance at the expense of its characters—ultimately, I thought the narrator somewhat impenetrable, and as a result the novel had a difficult time maintaining my interest. I’ll readily admit that part of this, I think, has to do the perhaps unfair expectation that the concept introduced near the novel’s close, that people are songs in and of themselves, would resonate more deeply than it does. Instead it feels like a rather brilliant idea not successfully executed throughout. In other words, given the premise, I think I expected more of a synaesthetic approach to theme and identity.

It’s a strange thing to be reviewing a book, knowing that there is quality to its writing and to the story being told, but having been unable to connect to it—and, if I’m honest, feeling as if there was more attention paid to its construction of a sense of time and place than to developing its characters or what links them to one another. In the end, while I appreciate that each of Cox’s novels (of which I’ve read three) feel radically different from one another, Mouthquake washed over me with unfortunately little impact. I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t find anything in which to sink my teeth.