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Ditch

by Hal Niedzviecki

Voice is visceral, it’s of the guts, whereas the daily tinkering of today’s society is primarily cerebral: we think more than we feel, we count more than we sing. To find voice, when voice is so disengaged, writers must often coax it to life through experimentation.

Hal Niedzviecki is no stranger to experimentation. He’s the editor of Broken Pencil, a magazine devoted to all things alternative, and his first novel, Lurvy, was a retelling of Charlotte’s Web as a bizarre farmer’s almanac. Niedzviecki’s second novel, Ditch, continues the experiment, reading like a semi-epic prose poem that pushes so hard against the boundaries of its author’s voice that at times it feels as if it might shatter. Told through brief chapters and simulated e-mails, Ditch is about an angst-ridden boy and a cyber-porn girl who meet, fall in lust, and then flee Toronto for her home in Maryland, where her sinister mother and father await.

There’s nonsense here, confusion, darkness, humour, and pretension. But there is also beauty. At his best, Niedzviecki utilizes simile and metaphor as a brilliant quack inventor utilizes a garage full of junk: “Open to him, her eyes turn away like an ocean reflection.” What’s an ocean reflection? How does it turn away? How do eyes do it? Who knows. The reader marvels at the beauty of such images, and they abound.

The trouble with such brittle writing, however, is that it’s difficult to convey story. Niedzviecki’s characters seem to exist behind the thick glass of a computer screen. One thinks of Le Carré’s desperate rogue spies, or of the horrid detachment of Bret Easton Ellis. Not so plot-driven as Le Carré, nor so gruesome as Ellis, Ditch is nonetheless about the isolation at the core of such books. Indeed, Ditch is all isolation.

And that’s its central riddle. Someone once said that poets should write essays to get all the ideas out of their heads. This anti-essay, Ditch, certainly leaves one marvelling at the poet Niedzviecki’s voice. Yet one also wonders if the novelist Niedzviecki shouldn’t have actually shattered that glass screen – or if he just couldn’t.