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Story House
by Timothy Taylor
Knopf Canada
464 pages, $34.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted April 12, 2006

Timothy Taylor’s debut novel, Stanley Park, was a runaway success when it came out in 2001. Not only did it earn nominations for several major literary awards, including the Giller Prize, it also spent a long time on the national bestseller lists. Silent Cruise, the short story collection that followed in 2002, further solidified Taylor’s standing as a writer with chops.
                                    
Many of his readers have been impatiently awaiting Taylor’s follow-up for years, and though sometimes that sort of anticipation can only lead to disappointment, that will not be a problem here. Story House is a mesmerizing novel, populated by strong, complex characters and driven by a multi-layered plot that is both archetypal and completely original at the same time. Its readers will welcome the chapter breaks because of the opportunity to catch one’s breath before diving back into the book.

Like Stanley Park, Story House is set in Vancouver with an egocentric protagonist at its centre, although in this case, there are actually two central characters, Graham and Elliot Gordon. Half-brothers born only six months apart and straddling their 40th birthdays during the main thrust of the book, they can be seen as two halves of a whole. Their father, Packer Gordon, was a famous architect in the Arthur Erickson mould, but his legacy exists mainly outside of Vancouver; the one building he designed in his own city—a modernist waterfront home “on a rock outcropping in the western reaches of the city” where Graham and Elliot grew up—was torn down soon after Packer’s death in the early 1980s and replaced by a sprawling “monstrosity.”

Story House opens with a bang. The first chapter features a boxing match between teenaged Elliot and Graham (see what I mean by archetype?) that is very nearly fought to the death. Narrated from the point of view of Pogey Nealon, an ex-boxer-turned-coach, this opening chapter sets up the central conflict of the novel—you just know that the irreconcilable differences between the brothers will come to a head again at the end of the book. Packer films the fight, remaining a cold observer behind his camera’s lens rather than involving himself as an encouraging father, and this distance he maintains with both his sons carries through the rest of the book.

Graham feels cheated that “the great Packer Gordon” never taught him anything about architecture, and follows in his father’s footsteps in a futile attempt to connect with him. Graham sees himself as far less talented than his genius dad, although he and his partner, Fila, have created a distinct niche for themselves in their three years as a design firm:

            “For all the drawing and modeling and big talk, Fila and he had become fixers, not makers. Architectural plastic surgeons. Redesigning hotel lobbies, rebranding physical structures. However much they were paid for it, Graham understood these projects were less architecture than a means to an architecture that never seemed to materialize.”

In Stanley Park, Taylor described the restaurant world from inside the kitchen so well that many readers assumed he was a chef himself. He handles the world of architecture just as convincingly here, spicing up the text with architectural jargon like “curtain walls” and “aesthetic frottage.” His background knowledge comes out in the way Graham thinks, the way he deconstructs and rebuilds the dynamics of his relationships and ignores obstacles in his path.

Elliot, though the eldest son by six months, was always made to feel like he did not deserve his father’s legacy because of his illegitimate status. His answer is to turn his back on the Gordon name and embrace a borderline illegal job peddling counterfeit designer goods. He is good at it, and does well for himself, although he finds it difficult to negotiate a balance between his work and home life.

Taylor handles the world of counterfeiting just as well as architecture, even doing a fair job of justifying it as an honourable occupation. As Rico, Elliot’s mentor in the business, explains it, pointing at the logo on a pair of overpriced sunglasses, “Anything where over half the value is captured in a nickel-alloy-stamped thingamajig isn’t illegal to copy, it’s a moral fucking imperative to copy.”

The brothers go their separate ways after Packer’s death until the discovery that the same East Vancouver building where they fought their boxing match 25 years earlier is very likely the first structure their father designed. Built in 1939, 55 East Mary Street is a modernist cube, three stories tall with an open spiral staircase—resembling the double helix of DNA even if the building was built before DNA was discovered—at its precise centre. Plot machinations too complicated to detail here force the brothers to work together on a restoration of the dilapidated building as part of a reality television series called Unexpected Architecture.

Throughout Story House, Taylor writes with a self-aware intelligence that occasionally borders on arrogance, but never veers into pretension. Though this is a serious work, there are short bursts of brilliantly funny writing that demand to be re-read, like this thumbnail description of Graham’s mechanic:

            “He’d accepted a relationship closer than he would have liked with a mechanic named Rudolph who charged $175 an hour but for that price would actually do house calls.
            ‘Do not move the car,’ Rudolph would say in response to Graham’s description of a given wonk or warble. Then he’d come around a few hours later sipping a take-away espresso and interpret the pattern of stains on the garage floor before lifting the hood or touching a wrench.”

Or this snippet from a conversation about Graham’s mother:
           
            “ ‘My mother was always . . .’ Here Graham had to search around for words. What exactly had his mother always been?
            ‘She was a vegetarian,’ Zweigler offered.
            Graham nodded. ‘And then some.’ ”

Perhaps more so than in Stanley Park, Taylor’s writing style here depends heavily on rhythm. He often uses staccato bursts of sentence fragments that when fitted together form a greater whole, like this example from when Graham first sees a house he didn’t know his father had built:

            “Familiar lines. More length than height. More interlocking planes and surfaces than anything quite so straight-forward as a roof line linking vertical walls. Cantilevered roof beams. Stacked stone details. Fondness for the luminous expanse of glass.”

But Taylor’s skills go far beyond snappy dialogue and clever turns-of-phrase. He clearly challenged himself to write a more complex novel than Stanley Park, and he succeeds in stunning fashion. Beyond Graham and Elliot, there is a strong and diverse cast of secondary characters, most of whom also take the reins of the narrative at various times: the two women in Graham’s life, his whip-smart wife Esther and his sexy, no-nonsense business partner Fila; Elliot’s wife Deirdre who has her own personal connection with 55 East Mary Street; Avi Zweigler, the Hollywood TV producer who both admires and hates Packer Gordon; and, of course, Pogey Nealon, whose triangular theories of boxing (like rock-paper-scissors, “boxers beat punchers who beat swarmers who beat boxers”) are refracted and expanded thematically throughout the book.

Taylor also confidently juggles several intertwining storylines, often choosing to describe a scene from the least expected narrative position, which then turns out to be the reader’s best vantage point. This skill is reminiscent of a cinematographer who recognizes that the camera itself can be a character in a film. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Taylor overlaps five separate sequences so seamlessly you’ll barely even notice, just like the editing in a well-made film.

The ending of Story House is both surprising and not. Certain elements seem inevitable, but not predictable or obvious, while others are completely unexpected, though not out of place. The only disappointment I felt upon finishing this book was due to the realization that I’ll probably have to endure another five years for his next one. If his first two books are any indication, I can’t wait to see what Timothy Taylor writes next.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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