While Garry Thomas Morse is already an accomplished poet and fiction writer, he manages to deliver something completely new and fresh in his new novel, Yams do not Exist.
From the first page, it’s clear that this book is something different. The very first sentence contains two footnotes, and one of them relates to the very first word! These are not the usual dry footnotes of a scholarly article, but instead a clever way to provide cheeky asides that break the fourth wall. The footnotes bring us closer to the narrator, allowing him to tell us things that are (theoretically) not on the page, or at least not part of the normal flow of the narrative.
For example, the narrator uses this footnote approach to tell us about the protagonist’s name. “Farinata1 1. This Latinate name is merely a low-tech Easter egg—or Paschal egg, for that matter—and will be covered in sensuous detail when we have a moment. For now, it is enough to admit that he lays claim to a literary bent. Poetic, if you must know.” (p 3) Since Farinata’s name is the first word in the novel, we get all of this info and background right from the start. Before even finishing the first sentence, we have an idea of who this character is.
The footnotes are clever, if frequent and wordy, and range from a few words to nearly an entire page in length. As you might guess from the indulgence in footnotes, this novel can often be quite dense, but there is a levity in the tone as the asides are often cheeky and make it feel as if the narrator is poking fun at his own academic proclivities.
The language itself is affected and flowery, but with modern insertions that have a comedic effect. Take the following description, for example: “the sublime undulations of those buttocks in Get-A-Grip shapewear were already out of sight.” (p 11)
The overly elevated language lets you know that the narrator is smart, but also eccentric and ridiculous in a way that allows us to laugh both with and at him in good fun in a way that’s reminiscent of works like A Confederacy of Dunces.
The book itself is unique as a physical object as well. Turnstone Press did a great job on the design. From the colourful yam cover to the little yams at the beginning of each chapter, the book is beautifully crafted. Various fonts and layouts used to make portions of the book look like text messages or handwriting. Because of this focus on form, the plot can get a bit lost in the language, but it works, and it is that language and narrative voice that pull us along and give the books its charm.
As for the plot itself, the story is an odyssey of self-discovery across the Canadian Prairies as Farinata pursues love and his own grandeur. Farinata’s tale is overwrought with references to classic literature and culture, but not all of the novel is told from his point of view. Early on we meet a waitress named Wisteria, for example, and the language in her section is more colloquial and less flowery. There aren’t even any footnotes. The contrast is a breath of fresh air that helps break up the dense parts, and helps us understand that those qualities belong to Farinata himself, rather than Morse.
Farinata’s stream of consciousness if further broken up in other ways as well, such as segments of the novel that are presented as handwritten letters by characters whose names are only letters themselves, such as the mysterious “K”.
Yams do not Exist is not exactly experimental, because it feels cohesive and rooted in traditional narrative, but it is very playful and postmodern in its use of different forms and mediums to weave a story that is the sum of its diverse parts.
The book is full of real world landmarks from the prairies, such as Winnipeg’s Legislative Building and the Osborne Village Safeway, where the yams really come into play when Farinata meets an actor named Yella, who tells him that yams, in fact, do not exist.
“Yams, silly! Yams do not exist.”
“Then what am I stroking?”
“Good sir, that is a sweet potato. Okay, so maybe yams do exist. But not on this continent, except in very rare cases. Yams are just part of this major marketing ploy.” (p 168)
Yella continues to offer Farinata a deep history of the yam (or not yam), giving him a taste of his own obtuse medicine. This whimsical moment is a great representation of what you can expect from the book at large. It is a mashup of perspectives both true and untrue, and often feels like a playful mélange of words.
All of these pieces, from the clever use of language to the attention to form, let you know you’re reading something truly unique and special. So many books are published every day, and they begin to blur together after a while, but Yams Do Not Exist is not one of those books. It may not be for everyone, but the adventurous will discover a fresh new contribution to the CanLit landscape. Yams do not Exist will open your eyes to the beauty and culture around you, and maybe even make you laugh at it from time to time.
*Fun Fact!* Garry published the story “Yella and the Yams” in our ndncity issue and this story is now a part of Yams do not Exist.
Yams do not Exist
by Garry Thomas Morse
Turnstone Press, 2019, 200 p.p., $19.00
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.