Marc Herman Lynch’s debut novel, Arborescent, is a magical romp through a strangely familiar world. The novel is set in a fictional version of Calgary called Moh’kins’tsis, which isn’t a made up name or place at all, but the traditional Blackfoot name for the region. In this city where true names are spoken, Lynch conjures the otherworldly and mysterious aesthetic of classic writers like Kafka and Murakami, or to use a contemporary Canadian example, Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall.
Arborescent opens with a prologue that introduces us to Jeb Buckles. Jeb is an eccentric old man who hates technology and builds a giant trebuchet that he uses to launch appliances. After we meet Jeb, the real story begins. The rest of the novel is divided into three parts, each focusing on a specific character.
Part One introduces Jeb’s son, Nohlan. Nohlan finds his father nearly frozen outside in the winter, and that’s when things start to get surreal. Jeb’s chest opens, and stars shoot out of it. Until this point, the characters and setting have been strange and eccentric, yet realistic, but it suddenly becomes clear that the novel is firmly rooted in the tradition of magical realism. This point becomes even clearer as the story progresses and a plant begins growing from Nohlan’s body.
Despite the magic, Arborescent is firmly rooted in the mundane. Nohlan works at Cyberia, a cyber café frequented by a handful of older patrons, and lives in an old apartment building called Cambrian Court. Cambrian Court is the first and most obvious connection between Nohlan and the other two main characters, because they all live in the crumbling building. We first catch a glimpse of one of the others, Zadie, in this first section. Zadie is sitting outside on a balcony, wearing an owl mask, when she meets Nohlan.
If the apartment building unites the characters, another common thread tries to divide them, from each other and themselves. That is their creepy landlord. He tells Nohlan that people often consider him an advisor rather than a landlord, and then proceeds to provide cryptic, but decidedly disturbing advice.
Part Two focuses on Hachiko, a young woman possessed by the character Oiwa, one of the three great ghosts of Japan, after playing the role in a kabuki production. Hachiko’s ex Michael stalks her throughout this section of the novel, and the ghost of Oiwa seems to grow more powerful within her as she confronts Michael and lets the ghost take control of her life.
As more characters are introduced, the characters’ lives begin to blend together. Jeb, Nohlan’s father, makes a brief appearance in Part Two, and of course, the creepy landlord is a recurring character throughout this section as well, telling Hachiko weird stories about his father and the artic that sound more like lies than anything else.
As the parallels between the characters begin to become clear, it seems the book is really about identity, what it means to be human, and how we are interconnected to the people around us, no matter how disconnected we may seem.
Part Three focuses on Zadie, and is a family story. Zadie’s mother Anna and her grandfather Gong Gong are concerned with their Chinese cultural roots in different ways. Her grandfather Gong Gong is afraid of losing culture. He says, “Everyone is crazy for superheroes! But when we abandon our roots for fantasies, we become ghosts” (143).
Meanwhile, Zadie’s mother has spent considerable effort trying to lose her culture. “Her mother, taught by her mother before her, showed Zadie these procedures to reduce the Asianness in her features” (146).
As things begin to escalate in Part Three, it becomes clear that Zadie’s struggle with identity is cultural, as it is with her mother and grandfather, but also deeply personal. The loss of identity and of culture seems to be a focus in this section. And the world of Arborescent is consistently strange, so of course that theme is presented in a surreal manner. Through a bizarre twist, Zadie watches herself come back to life, finds herself literally in pieces, and tries to put herself together again.
As different as Zadie’s story is from the first two, she is still connected to the other characters. In Part Three, we learn how Zadie got the owl mask she was wearing when she met Nohlan in Part One. The overlap between sections is a reminder that these characters all live in the same building, the same community, the same world.
And just as Zadie puts herself back together, so does the novel, piecing together the three separate but interwoven stories. The characters all unite in a bizarre finale that feels like an inevitable conclusion to the wild, magical identity crisis that is Arborescent.
Himself a first generation French Chinese immigrant, Lynch provides a fresh look at the Asian immigrant experience in Canada through a tapestry of characters. Both thoughtful and challenging, Arborescent is a vital novel from a fresh new voice in Canadian literature.
Marc Herman Lynch
Arsenal Pulp Press, October 2020, 224 p.p., $18.95 (paperback)
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.