In Grade 11 English we read A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, as our Novel, and I hated it. Now, I know that hating the assigned reading is a time-honoured tradition in English class, but you have to understand that this was my first experience with such an emotion. I was the book-addicted, scholarly, high-achieving nerdy student who, in Grade 10, had gotten together with friends and their English teacher at lunch to read Shakespeare (and then after our school closed at the end of Grade 10, continued to meet up outside of school over the following year). I had never not enjoyed the assigned reading before; I, with all the plucky naivety of someone who looked up to teachers and already wanted to be one, assumed that if the teacher chose it, it must be good.
Oh, how much I had left to learn.
Now, full disclosure: the aforementioned school closure and move to a new school took its toll on me and my peers, and my way of coping with it was to be somewhat of a jerk to my Grade 11 English teacher. I took it into my head that I wasn’t being “challenged” enough and me sure she knew that I wasn’t happy that this year’s Shakespeare selection would be The Taming of the Shrew (even though it’s actually an all right play to study, and later that year I went to see a neat theatre-in-the-round version). This was one of the few times as a student that I was not-pleasant to a teacher, and I regret that.
So it’s hard to say how much my displeasure over being forced to discuss and analyze A Separate Peace was caused by the book and how much came from simply being resolved not to enjoy this English class. But ever since then, I’ve had a complicated relationship with books about private boarding schools. I file them away into a mental folder in which the “boarding” has been crossed out with “boring,” and only John Irving or Robertson Davies can usually manage to break out of the cabinet at night to haunt me with dreams of tattooed wrestlers, bears, and snowballs inducing labour.
Fall reminded me a lot of A Separate Peace—or, to be more accurate, since I don’t remember the book at all, it reminded me of my memory of an idea of A Separate Peace. Colin McAdam creates a fictional Canadian private school and follows two boys, roommates, eighteen years old and thus men, really, as they orbit the eponymous girl who is the object of their affections.
I cringe as I write that last clause—a subordinate clause, even—because I’m sad that a book about two dudes moping over a woman still managed to get shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2009. Have we not moved on from such pubescent writing? Apparently not. Fall is every bit an object in this book, denied both voice and agency, forced to exist simultaneously in the fantasies of these two young men as well as a character who serves only as a sexual mirror for one and a fixation for the other. And everything about this plot is so earnest. It’s as if McAdam thinks he’s on to something big, like no one else in the history of the Western world has thought to write about teenage boys discovering sex and love and obsession in this way before. There’s not even a hint of self-deprecating self-awareness here, just the pure and honest pain of it—and yes, it’s well done in that CanLit sort of way. But my point is that Fall takes itself way too seriously about two decades too late. If it had decided to subvert itself at any point, maybe it could have had a chance.
Instead we have Noel, called Wink because of his lazy eye in that painful way boys have of giving out cutting nicknames. Noel is withdrawn, introverted and intellectual and actually getting something out of this fancy education his diplomat father is paying for. Rooming with Julius, the most popular of the seniors at St. Ebury’s, Noel falls for Fall, Julius’ girlfriend. At first we’re supposed to see this as the kind of unrequited pining of someone for his friend’s girl, but soon McAdam shows that there is a darker undercurrent to Noel, one that culminates in tragedy for all involved.
If Noel is unplumbed depths, then Julius is tapped out shallows. I suppose the stream of consciousness narration of his chapters is supposed to emphasize this: Julius is all surface, no depth. I’ll be honest: the stream of consciousness didn’t do much for me; it’s an effective narrative device, but I don’t like it.
The fact that this is a Canadian private school is mildly interesting. Unless you go to one, or know someone who does, you probably don’t think much about private schools in Canada. They seem like a foreign thing. Indeed, St. Ebury’s and its real-life counterparts are the domain of the old moneyed types, Canadian or diplomatic as depicted here, who still cling to the boarding-and-starched-uniform visions, complete with “masters” and complicated disciplinary codes. It’s interesting to be reminded that this is still a thing.
McAdam points out the hypocrisy of those places, the tension between the cost of providing such an education and the way the straitjacket of rules infantilizes these adult boys. This is a legitimate criticism. But it’s also a little beside the point, given what Noel ends up doing.
The inevitability of Noel’s heel turn is fairly obvious quite early in the book. So it’s not so much a surprise as it is the fulfilment of a promise when it happens, and everything that follows is anticlimactic. There is a strange beauty to the plot as McAdam has structured it; Noel is at least semi-fascinating as a character study of a species of sociopath. We could have long, meandering conversations about unreliable narrators and suppressed memories.
But that doesn’t dispel my ultimate discomfort, which is that when you strip away all the decoration, what you have is a plot driven by a damsel in distress. Fall is not about Fall the woman but what these two men imagine Fall might be. And that is interesting psychologically, yes. But it’s been done before, and I don’t know that it’s all that necessary for us to keep retreading the issue from this privileged perspective of the poor damaged rich boys.
Where’s the story from Fall’s perspective? Why can’t we learn about who she is, rather than who Julius and Noel tell us she is? Why can’t we hear her thoughts on whether Julius is a bore (but great in bed) and how Noel is sweet but also a little creepy, and how she loves her mom but is afraid she’ll never get a streak of independence? Of all the poorly-sketched characters in this book, Fall definitely seems like the most lively, most interesting, deepest of them all. Shame we never meet her.
I’d love to see Fall make decisions. I’d love to see her fight back at the river instead of serving the role of prop to cement Noel’s downfall. McAdam has so many opportunities here to elevate the story rather than go through the motions.
I don’t question his skills as a writer, really. It’s a nice enough book, albeit one that is unquestionably shooting for that “literary” label. And therein lies the problem: Fall just takes itself too seriously. McAdam hopes to become great by following in the footsteps of those we consider great rather than stopping to critique the greats, to steal what works from them but question and tear down the things that don’t. The result is simply a reiteration of what has come before: there is nothing in Fall you haven’t seen elsewhere, and it’s the same ol’, same ol’ stories of men obsessing over women that male writers have been writing for a very long time.