A genre-transcending little gem of a novel.
"This lie is one about life, that we need more of it, that we need to be more productive, produce more, that it has to be longer, that death is the enemy. It’s not true. Infinity is a breathtaking mystery, or so I used to believe. Now I know it’s not. Infinity is stagnant. It doesn’t expand. It can’t. It’s just immeasurable. It’s not a mystery, it’s simply endless".
"Maybe if we had all the time in the world, life would start to feel meaningless. Or worse".
Iain Reid's latest work is a pithy, however grand in scope, fictional journey right into the heart of a diachronic human theme, the process of growing old and its relation to issues concerning personal identity, as well as a profound contemplation on the nature of creativity as expressed through the transformation of human experience into the work of art. We Spread is a novel dedicated to the Ontario-based Canadian author's grandmother who died at the age of 101 with her last years spent at a nursing home, which is also the setting of the story and the place where the protagonist, Penny, will be transferred after a nearly-fatal domestic accident. Reid began his career in 2010 writing nonfiction and his worth as a writer became instantly acknowledged among literary circles. In 2015, he won the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award, a prize given to the most promising new writers of nonfiction, an event that heralded the success of his later works. His first attempt at writing fiction was with the 2016 much-lauded I'm Thinking of Ending Things which was adapted into a feature film by Charlie Kaufman who both directed and written the screenplay. Kaufman's own preoccupation with certain themes such as memory, more specifically its fallible nature, and a distinctive style that frequently veers into surrealism proved to be the perfect fit for Reid's genre-defying text. It is one of the rare cases that the movie can be considered as equal in terms of narrative potency to the original source.
The story is told in its entirety through the perspective of the main character, Penny, who speaks in first person and suffuses the narrative with figments of her frail state of mind that is additionally highly susceptible to all emotions related to fear and the power of suggestion. In the opening pages of the novel, Reid lets Penny speak out her mind through the utterance of a series of loosely connected thoughts integrated in a wider mode of cerebral activity which is marked by confusion, with Penny sometimes even experiencing optic and auditory hallucinations, and infused with pessimistic remarks that further highlight the protagonist's disorganized train of thought. Penny is growing progressively detached from her own memories and the recollections from her past life often feel like belonging to another person, having lost their unique structural place in defining her identity as a human being and gradually fading out, leaving the protagonist feeling empty and despondent. She begins questioning her state of mind, a theme that will prove to be critical to the story as the plot unfolds and invites the reader to whether accept or reject Penny's disturbing speculations regarding the caring facility in which she now resides. The "Six Cedar" long-term care facility seems to be, at a first glance, a model establishment adopting an innovative approach to elderly care, proclaiming that the key to longevity is to stay positive and be as productive as possible at any field, either artistic or scientific as the few residents of "Six Cedars" seem to do. However, there are several things making Penny suspicious of the others such as her being unable to remember agreeing getting there in the first place as well as the vast amount of information that the director, Shelley, and the staff seem to possess regarding her and her past.
Penny's involvement with fine arts is an essential aspect of the character and Reid puts his protagonist in situations where she reveals, during several astute dialogues mainly with Hilbert -a fellow resident in "Six Cedars"- her understanding of the nature and purpose of art. At one point, she says:
"The art I used to do is about layers, a transfer"
Hilbert responds: "A transfer?"
Penny: "From something I experience, something I feel, into something I'm able to produce. Maybe it make others feel a similar way. Maybe not".
This process of peeling back the layers is also germane to the story told by Penny as the plot unravels. The reader is called to first detect and then shed the veneers of the story which can be read as belonging to science fiction, horror, or the literary genre, with our assumptions regarding that matter being constantly upended as we reach the finale. The major question regarding whether Penny's suspicions are valid or just another trick of her dwindling intellect is, shrewdly, left open for the reader to interpret. The mystery element is ever-present and thoroughly unsettling conveying a unique feeling of uncanniness, thus prompting the reader to finish the story in just one sitting, something completely feasible due to the short length of the novel. The prose is terse and devoid of anything that could be perceived as ornamental, thus the final result is an assertive, forceful text that evokes feelings of creepiness and otherworldliness as well as challenges the reader's cultural capital with the well-placed quotes referring to art or academic fields such as arithmetic enunciated by the main characters, mainly Penny, Hilbert, and Ruth. At one point, Penny says to Hilbert: "I didn't care about three dimensions in my work. I already live in three dimensions. That's exactly why I liked painting. I wanted to try to exist only in two dimensions". The aforementioned quote is charged with meaning and its proper analysis is fundamental for grasping the full complexity of the author's impeccable characterization.
In Reid's We Spread the predominant themes are the ails of aging and the loss of personal identity within a limited crowd which slowly acquires a uniform shape as the individuals squander their sense of self, mainly through the distortion of their memories. In the first pages of the novel, we read as Penny indulges in an inner monologue: "I was scared of becoming an old person. Terrified. I guess I still am. I was so scared of losing parts of myself and running out of time. Of forgetting". Whoever loses track of his personal history is doomed to be absorbed in the muddy waters of an ill-defined collective identity. It is impressive how Reid, at the age of 41, has dissected the mind set of an individual reaching the final moments in her life in a sensitive, yet authentic in terms of plausibility, manner, delineating the portrait of an ageing woman who is frantically searching the workings of her own mind in order to discern truth from lies, as her body betrays her and she slowly fades into oblivion. A jigsaw puzzle called "Pando" and which pictures the labyrinthine patterns of the nearby forest is the key to understand the significance of the book's title as "Pando" in Latin translates as "We Spread". The puzzle becomes a metaphor, at a microscopic level, for the situation that the characters experience: the similarity of the different pieces is an allegory for the growing resemblance of the main characters whose identities begin to merge. As Reid sees it, there is something extremely delicate regarding the construction of human identity and several things are capable of shaking its foundations.
We Spread is a fine novel to begin reading the work of Iain Reid as it features many of his preferred themes as well as a particular writing style that's brimming with truthfulness and audacity. There is nothing pretentious about the text and it's not often that we get the opportunity to delve into such a fascinating fictional universe as that created by the Canadian author. Concluding, I would like to add that Reid's next project is the adaptation of the 2020 Greek movie by Christos Nikou, Apples into television series. Reid will co-write the screenplay along with Jason Schwartzman and will also be one of the show's producers. The original film's storyline is aligned with Reid's own tales in terms of themes and atmosphere, so I guess we're in for an enthralling experience.
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