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November’s Radio

by Steve Noyes

November’s Radio begins in the aftermath of a breakup. Wendy has gone to China, leaving her partner, Gary, in Victoria. Their separation established, the novel then proceeds to run on dual tracks, alternating between storylines that remain distinct.

noyes-novembers_radio-front_cover-smallSuch an approach raises basic technical difficulties, chief among them how the two narratives connect. More problematic is that the two protagonists aren’t even in contact with one another throughout most of the novel, and their adventures seem totally unrelated. Wendy is involved in the creation of a next-generation form of holographic performance art with an odd Chinese couple, one of whom, Chen, is the son of one of China’s shady new plutocrats. Meanwhile, Gary works in B.C.’s Ministry of Wellness as a cubicle drone, doing research into pharmaceuticals.

What’s the connection? There is a bit of plot crossover at the very end, but until that point it’s hard work finding common ground. The reader may note, for example, that Gary and Wendy both run afoul of government corruption, with Chen undergoing a party trial and Gary pressured to provide support for a happy pill that has potentially dangerous side effects and little proven effectiveness.

More substantial is a thematic connection in the way both stories emphasize failures of language. The B.C. ministry buzzes with acronyms, doubletalk, bureaucratese, and therapy-speak. Reports are written but need interpretation. When something important needs to be communicated, it’s done in code.

Code is also a preferred mode of communication in China, being the way Chen’s father sends messages to him. Wendy does not know Chinese; her conversations are often awkward and at times collapse entirely into babble. Things breaking down is thus a connecting motif, from lovers to language.

Another typical difficulty with the split-narrative approach is that it runs into trouble when one of the two stories moves at a different pace, or is just more interesting than the other. The book then develops an awkward gait, as though proceeding with a limp.

November’s Radio isn’t entirely successful at avoiding this problem. Gary’s sections have a much clearer story to tell, as well as having a brisker pace and more conventional pattern of rising action and resolution. Wendy’s story, on the other hand, is both more complicated and less coherent, with individual episodes that don’t always feel connected to a larger narrative arc. Adding to the weakness of her sections is the fact that she is a stranger to China, doesn’t speak the language, and doesn’t always seem to know what’s going on. She is a mostly passive partner in her artistic collaboration, and less of a full protagonist than Gary.

Noyes’s novel is subtly comic, fragmented, understated, and dynamic, with episodes that often appear to be shifting about or forming different patterns. There may be no proper way for them to fit together, but interpreting their code is part of the challenge Noyes has set.