Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner – Review

It’s a meandering novel of people, unknowingly relatives of each other, have their lives swirl around each other for a moment, occasionally finding themselves in each other’s company, but usually caught in little whirlpools of their own. In short, all of them find themselves drawn to Montreal. Joyce runs away to Montreal, goaded on by the tales of pirates in her family that she absorbed from long hours sitting with her grandfather. Noah moves to Montreal for college to pursue a degree in archeology –  a field that sounds odd and offbeat enough to be enjoyable. And the unnamed first person narrator, who runs a bookstore, and is pretty much good with whatever life brings him.

For a novel that spans ten years in the lives of three different people, I guess I just expected a bit more.  Dicker pushes the novel along with ease, at a pace that never allows the novel to become a drudge but also doesn’t allow it to sink into the rhythms it continually hints at making up the undercurrents of life. In the end, you want to know more about the brothers who run the fish store, you want to know more about Maelo, who Noah rooms with, you even want to know more about the janitor/landlord who Joyce rents her room from upon arriving in Montreal.

Two characters stand out the most for how rarely they appear in the scope of the novel. The first is Noah’s mom. In a certain way, the dynamics between Noah’s mom and dad and, later, between Noah and his mom are the embodiments of Dickner’s thrust that life is interconnected in ways strange and bizarre and which we can occasionally tap into if only we’re open to them. Having her disappear early on after Noah decides to go to school in Montreal, and his apparently total failure at ever contacting her again, just feels off with the general thrust of the work.

The other is Professor Thomas Saint-Laurent, garbage researcher extraordinaire. He pops up to briefly be a powerful figure in Noah’s life and then Dickner simply disposes of him through a convenient protest to allow Noah to run off to South America. If Dickner had created a litany of interesting characters who pop in and out, making quick indelible impressions before vanishing off into the ether, it would be okay. But he doesn’t. And most of his characters end up serving somewhat more of a purpose. So Saint-Laurent feels a bit wasted. Perhaps Dickner was using him to illustrate how life occasionally takes you down blind alleys, but that’s not the impression you get because Saint-Laurent isn’t the one who takes Noah down the path towards a career in archeology, it is something that Noah had decided well before and just happened to run in Saint-Laurent through classes. Which arises the possibility that maybe, as we eventually come to see with the narrator, Noah hasn’t been entirely honest with himself and has actually led himself down the wrong path.

But there is a certain existentialism to this scenario that doesn’t entirely jibe with the whole “everything is connected” idea.  Looking through the Saint-Laurent story arc and I don’t see anything that screams “necessary!” Which is a shame because the character is interesting, he is fun, and I want to see why he’s there or see him more often.  But it just doesn’t seem to have anthing spin off of him.

Which, oddly, doesn’t take a whole lot away from the work. It’s still an enjoyable read, Dickner’s point (or what I take to be his point) still comes through, and it still holds together in the end. Could it be a bit more refined? Sure, but it’s not exactly a tree stump with a couple of axe chops to it stuck in the corner and being called an end table, either. But it leaves you wanting a bit more, not necessarily answers but just a bit more of a trip to get to the ambiguous journey it leaves us on the verge of.

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