Book Review

One of very few things that can be safely said about fiction is that stories offer writers and readers experiences. Robert Frost famously said of writing poems, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I quote that line a lot because I think it’s lovely and worth memorizing, but I know it’s reductive. The experiences writers and readers share aren’t cleanly equivalent (tears don’t always generate tears, laughter doesn’t always generate laughter). What is shared is something like intensity, moments of held breath and exhalation. And that’s no small thing—it’s a way of using language to transcend language—which is one paradox of many at the heart of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s novel A Minor Chorus.

On its face, the story seems simple: a PhD student, stuck in his head and overwhelmed while writing a dissertation, takes a step away from campus to visit northern Alberta and the reservation where he spent much of his childhood. On the way, he considers writing a novel and has intimate encounters, some sexual, some not, with strangers he may never see again and with people he’s known a lifetime.

But because stories are experiences, A Minor Chorus isn’t so simple. The narrator, who is unnamed, has found himself, a person who is Cree and queer, trying to write a dissertation that does what dissertations do: “advance an institutional body of knowledge.” Belcourt, known for his poetry, packs volumes into that seemingly dry phrase—a body is a personal vessel and a collective entity. A body is subject to, subjugated by, and a builder of institutions large and small—relationships, philosophies, governments, families, cultures, penal systems, academia, languages . . .

A lot. It’s all a lot, and the narrator feels the crush of it. Crammed with theories and ideas and words, words, words that can’t suppress the pulsing sadness and longing he feels, he has less interest in advancing institutional knowledge than in creating “another way of being in the world.”

Stepping away from campus, though, away from books and a realm of abstraction, isn’t as easy as taking a road trip. He’s learned, surely long before pursuing a PhD, to intellectualize his feelings (if you haven’t done it, it’s an effective, if unhealthy, defense mechanism). On the way to northern Alberta, he considers, in meticulous detail, what a novel can be, what its possibilities and pitfalls are, and how it might be structured and not constrained. We travel with him in thought and through interludes of memory. For much of the book, we are fairly trapped in his head. When others speak, their words aren’t allowed quotation marks. Their voices are instead strained through his thought, through a narrative he tries to control as tightly as his anonymity and distance from others, even referring to each reunion with family as an interview.

But Belcourt deftly betrays the narrator’s intentions, that sense of control, in a way that echoes characters like James Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead.” When the narrator hears people, so do we, and we don’t always hear quite the same thing. A mind-bending example comes when his great-aunt Mary says the tragedy of her life is the tragedy of her grandson, the narrator’s cousin Jack. When she says this tragedy should be in the narrator’s book, he hears her despair, winces, and tries to eclipse the feeling with thought, focusing on the idea of her tragedy being another’s:

I believed her. I believed that whatever Jack had endured, of which only fragments had been relayed to me, was so engrossing that it triumphed over her sense of self, that it rewired the mechanics of time such that some years, months, weeks, days, seconds became elongated, more metaphysically intrusive than others, garnering so much psychic weight that she couldn’t trust chronology or linearity anymore. The days before Jack were a kind of prelude: one could skip over them and what followed would still paint a full portrait of a complicated person with dignity and stifled dreams and a cinematic breadth of emotion. Of course, love, stripped of pretense, whittled down to a matter of survivability, enticed one to abandon the autobiographical, I thought. To evoke an “I” is an elegiac act; it’s to kick-start a losing game. Perhaps there’s a kind of freedom in this, to be rid of the demands of personality and subjectivity and given over to a grammar of intimacy that’s plural, undeniably worldly, against loneliness. Like all freedoms, however, contingency reigns. There’s always the risk of disappearing into someone else, of risking one’s humanity by chasing a myth for so long you become engulfed by it, turn mythical.

It’s one hell of a long wince. And the moment enacts what’s being said: the second of time is “elongated,” “metaphysically intrusive,” full of “so much psychic weight” that chronology momentarily stops. At the sound of his aunt’s emotion, the narrator recoils, burrows into thought and theory and talk of “grammars,” nestles like a tick into an “I” of ideas. (The “I thought” also reads, to me, with tragic humor.) His wince is the fear of losing himself by disappearing into another, but also the fear evoked in the reader is that he’s already gone, disappeared into a “self” that is, if not mythical, still risking his humanity.

A Minor Chorus is a very slim, dense novel that begs to be read again and again like a poem, and the narrator’s abstract fixations make the concreteness of Belcourt’s imagery, textures, and sounds all the more potent. When we glimpse and touch, our heart aches for a deer dying alongside the road. His aunt’s crow’s feet are rendered as “slightly inverted dashes, as if her eyes indicated a break from a regular thought, a jolt.” He shakes her hand, and we feel that jolt.

It’s tempting to give away the ending (and the beginning) of Belcourt’s novel, to relate what I take from it about redemption and loss of self and grief beyond words and why the story is about a story that can hold all of those things. But this is a book to be experienced through its moments of held breath and exhalation. What it achieves does transcend language, and that’s no minor thing.

About the Reviewer

Chris Harding Thornton, author of the novel Pickard County Atlas, is a seventh-generation Nebraskan. Chris holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she taught courses in writing and literature. She has also worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer.