We are all constantly writing and revising our own stories, serving as protagonists in the tangled and evolving fictions of our own lives. We narrate our progress, building myths and legends, identifying cruxes and climaxes, naming epiphanies. For most of us, it is natural to position ourselves as the heroes of our stories, but what if you were cursed with the ability to assess your personal narrative less subjectively? What if you realized you weren’t the hero in your own story, but a minor character in someone else’s?
This is exactly the crisis that English professor Marta Spëk suffers through at the beginning of Brett Josef Grubisic’s second novel. Crushed by her own existence and nearly wrung dry with ennui, she receives an invitation to serve as a film consultant for a biopic being shot in the Okanagan Valley. It’s every English major’s dream to put one’s arcane knowledge to use, and Marta’s book, Imperial(ist) Empress: Mysticism, Écriture Feminine and the Levantine Writings of Lady Hester Stanhope, gives her a rare and intimate knowledge of the film’s subject. Though sceptical at first, and unimpressed by early encounters on set, Marta begins to see a chance to rewrite her own painfully bland and banal story.
Grubisic does an excellent job positioning Marta as an outsider encountering the film industry through wide, watery eyes. But she’s a competent and valuable outsider, soon undertaking a much larger role on the film and catching the attention of one of the studio executives, Jake Nugent. This Location of Unknown Possibilities is Jake’s story almost as much as it is Marta’s; at the outset he is as cynical and inured to the realities of the industry as Marta is new to them, but gradually they seem to trade places.
As the film, the narrative, and the characters spiral further out of control, the book gets darker, stranger, and funnier. By the time the film has wrapped, it has morphed into something utterly different, and the novel’s own narrative has mutated, twisted, and slipped its bonds. When the book goes off the rails it is shattering and glorious – just as shattering and glorious as the lives we pretend we’re the authors of.