by Zoe Morrison
“Everyone thinks reunions happen by themselves, just like office Christmas parties or non-denominational holiday receptions. (…) you pay your fifty cents per paycheque into the social fund and God or Satan or the ghost of a secretary who loved her job so much she never went home whips together everything”
Suzette Mayr’s 2004 novel Venous Hum centers on the life of Lai Fun Kugelheim, a mixed-race lesbian with a somewhat supernatural background, as well as a complicated web of people around her. Lai Fun, pregnant with her second child, feels neglected by her businesswoman wife and finds herself having an affair with a man who happens to be the husband of her best friend Stefanja. When Stefanja hears the news that one of their old acquaintances from high school has died, she decides to start organizing their twenty-year reunion. Feeling guilty about her betrayal, Lai Fun agrees to help though she has no interest in being reunited with the “apathetic losers” of their class. The book recounts Lai Fun’s school life and her experiences as someone different, in a system that wants to assimilate her and drain the life (metaphorically and literally) out of people who don’t fit the status quo. Oh. And there’s also [SPOILER] a cannibal dinner party at the end.
I decided to pick this book up after having the pleasure of taking a creative writing course taught by Mayr herself at the University of Calgary. Wanting to read more Canadian literature, as well as more books with queer characters, her work seemed to be a surefire way to fulfill both these goals, and with my being a self-confessed vampire enthusiast, Venous Hum seemed the natural place to start.
After a preface that contains a “Dear Anne Landers” column about high school reunions, a Margaret Atwood quote about Florence Nightingale being a cannibal, and a couple paragraphs about the policies of Pierre Trudeau regarding immigration, abortion, and homosexuality, Venous Hum begins with dream interpretation, which in my opinion, is a very appropriate way to begin since the novel that follows feels very much like a dream ripe for interpretation.
Mayr writes in a sort of stream of consciousness style that flows easily between the pasts, presents and futures of her characters. The dialogue is often untagged which augments the blurring effect of the story somehow without making it hard to read. Thoughts and feelings flow into words, the past flows into the present, and the unreal seeps into the familiar mundane setting of an Albertan city.
The beginning of the book contains a lot of the things I’ve come to expect in literary fiction. It’s generally a bleak portrayal of adult life and its struggles, but as the novel goes on, it gradually blends both metaphor and supernatural elements into the world, getting stronger with each passing section, leading to a delightfully dark-humored murder plotline and dinner party (complete with recipes for brain fritters and deep fried fingers) and the class reunion itself which is a beautifully disorienting scene that will be sure to stick with me for a long, long time. This story left me feeling anxious and unsettled like the way you feel after you finish a psychological thriller or horror movie, where a small part of your brain is stuck questioning reality and your place in it.
One thing I will say is that it was a bit of a jarring experience to read this book in 2020 Alberta. It definitely feels like a relic from a different time. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where I’d hear about the passing old classmate in any way other than a flood of “Rest in Peace” posts on social media. The more political aspects of the book also have a certain uncanniness about them, like looking into the past and seeing the seeds of our current political climate, the same issues but different iterations. However, I think the age did add an additional aspect to the themes of memory and ghosts of the recent past that permeate the book.
Overall, this book falls into the category of things that I’d describe as “a weird experience that is worth having because of the way it makes you think.” If you’re in a book club that loves looking for meaning and decoding symbols (or you’re just a person who does literary analysis for fun), I’d definitely recommend this book.
Image courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Gracie Safranovich.