Reviewed by Chris Margeson
Ian Williams’ debut novel Reproduction, released in February of this year, already feels like the kind of book that subtly shifts the landscape when it hits the shelves. It garnered a lot of buzz leading up to its release and, daring the odds, lives up to every word of the hype. With Reproduction, Ian Williams has given us a book that is one-of-a-kind, a miraculously moving read, and an effortless recommendation.
Reproduction is Williams’ first novel, but the writer has already carved out a niche in Canadian literature with his award-winning short story collection, 2011’s Not Anyone’s Anything and two wonderful books of poetry. True across each of these projects is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more inventive and creative writer working today. Reproduction, like Williams’ previous works, is an unconventional breath of fresh air. He shapes his sentences like silly putty – who else could so casually and confidently describe a character as speaking quidproquoly? – and it’s this wildly creative language he uses, in Reproduction, to tell a beautiful, hilarious, and occasionally heart-breaking story about the way family shape our lives, for better or for worse.
Set between the late 1970s and the present day, Reproduction begins at the point at which most families also get their start: the happenstance intersection of two very different lives. Sitting in a shared hospital room, by the sides of their dying mothers’ respective beds, Felicia, a serious young woman from a “small unrecognized island” in the Caribbean, meets Edgar, the crass heir of a wealthy German family. In an uncomfortable riff on romantic boy-meets-girl narratives, this meeting becomes the Big Bang that sparks into existence a constellation of relationships you might call a family (though Felicia refuses the term, preferring instead the less committal “household”). From Felicia and Edgar’s brief affair, a child is born and named Armistice (affectionately and ironically shortened to Army); Edgar disappears himself and is replaced by Felicia’s new landlord and his own dysfunctional family, and the general chaos of modern family-making follows.
A lot of dramatic things happen in Reproduction, though it’s difficult to convey it all in the sense of one plot moving toward any kind of resolution. In Reproduction’s 400-odd pages Williams beautifully portrays an unconventional family dealing with many of the dramas of life that families, conventional or otherwise, often stumble into absentee parents, mortal illness, birth, death, adoption, and trauma. Even in the midst of its most convoluted relations and plot twists, Reproduction remains relatable, as moving as it is hilarious. Indeed, Williams’ guile is often in the way this sly, pervasive humour serves as a kind of Trojan Horse, dismantling readers’ defences so that the moments of raw emotion hit harder. And it’s often at these moments that the real tenderness of Reproduction shines through; in the brief, flickering connection of a son to his estranged father, for example, or in Felicia’s inability to write down the date at work on the day her mother passes away.
Leo Tolstoy famously began his novel Anna Karenina with one of the most oft-quoted statements on family in literary history: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Probing the maladjustments and misfortunes of so-called “unhappy” families has been fertile ground for narrative intrigue for a long time. But Williams takes this a step further: Felicia’s unconventional “household” is, perhaps, an image of a family adapted to our times, and not one easily shelved as happy or unhappy, nor one that always fits our preconceived notions of what a family is. There’s a quietly profound scene toward the end of Reproduction in which the long-estranged Edgar, meeting Army for the first time since his birth, attempts to catch himself up on the labyrinth of connections that constitutes Felicia’s family life since his departure. “It just happened,” Army tells him, “People fall into other people’s arms, you know.” For better or worse, this is often how these things happen. Tracing the genealogy doesn’t change the simple fact of relation, of reproduction and metastasis; the past is always echoing in the present-tense of family life.
Whether you call it a family or a household or something else entirely, these are the first and foremost relationships that shape us, a source of the values and ideas we reproduce in our own lives – even if only as a means of escaping from them. If there’s a takeaway from all the familial and generational chaos of Reproduction, it might be something as simple as a call to recognize this, and to pay more careful attention both to that which we pass on, and that which we inherit, in the wide-open world of the (un)happy modern family.
Reproduction is published by Penguin Random House Canada.