Friday, September 27, 2013

The Steve Machine by Mike Hoolboom

I was a bit wary of this book, because I am a somewhat boring person who is a big fan of linear narratives, and I tend to get overwhelmed by experimental fiction that wraps around itself. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about. Anyway, I thought by the synopsis that The Steve Machine would be the kind of thing I didn't like, the kind of novel you need a Masters in English Literature to begin to understand. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and compelling and even quite charming it was.

The story starts when Auden, our narrator, is diagnosed with HIV. He decides to pack up his life in Sudbury and move to Toronto, where he meets a few fairly strange people (as you do), including Steve. Steve is a video artist whose work is so innovative it teaches people things, like how to communicate with each other on a molecular level, and what's going to happen a few minutes into the future. Steve has Auden write things down as part of "the machine", which is the book. Yes, the book you're reading. So it's kind of trippy, but it is fun and weird and moving enough to be read on just one level, if that's all you're looking for.

After reading a few different books in which the AIDS epidemic among gay men featured prominently (most notably The Toronto You Are Leaving), it was fascinating to encounter this one which is set in the present day (ie the late 2000s) and still details a lot of the problems around stigma and prevention that were present when the virus first started to spread in the 1980s. The description of the clinic waiting room, the strange feelings, the mood whiplash, was extremely well done and terrifying. I liked the way the author dealt with Auden's job and how he tiptoed around the diagnosis with his boss, and yet they were both comfortable with explicit sexual stories and Auden booking sex workers for him.

The extra complicating factor of this novel is that Steve Reinke is an actual, real person. The afterword addresses some of the lines between fiction and life, and it seems that Reinke was a pretty good sport about being used as a character in the book. It's a funny thing to do, and I have to wonder what the author's intent was - why not just create a fictional character? Anyway it didn't make a lot of difference to my enjoyment of the novel but I'm sure if you know Steve this is something you want to check out.

Overall, I liked it. It was short and sweet, and definitely a quick read. There's a lot to think about but it's not too cerebral. One complaint: not enough Toronto. Otherwise, I would recommend it.

Four CN Towers out of five:

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