Barry Webster - Told in a lush baroque prose, this intense, extravagant magic-realist novel combines elements of fairy tales, horror movies, and romances to create a comic, hallucinatory celebration of excess and sensuality.

Barry Webster, The Lava in My Bones, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012.

A frustrated geologist studying global warming becomes obsessed with eating rocks after embarking on his first same-sex relationship in Europe. Back home, his young sister is a high-school girl who suddenly starts to ooze honey through her pores, an affliction that attracts hordes of bees as well as her male classmates but ultimately turns her into a social pariah. Meanwhile, their obsessive Pentecostal mother repeatedly calls on the Holy Spirit to rid her family of demons. The siblings are reunited on a ship bound for Europe where they hope to start a new life, but are unaware that their disguised mother is also on board and plotting to win back their souls, with the help of the Virgin Mary.
Told in a lush baroque prose, this intense, extravagant magic-realist novel combines elements of fairy tales, horror movies, and romances to create a comic, hallucinatory celebration of excess and sensuality.

"The Lava in My Bones is, quite simply, a fabulous book ... “Magical,” “compelling,” “electric,” complex, troubling, and contradictory, The Lava in My Bones is a book that I will read repeatedly throughout my life, illuminating crap times and hard knocks with the seismically wild, deeply relevant and earnest irreverence of it all." —Lambda Literary

Compulsive, energetic, surreal, and wildly imaginative, Barry Webster's The Lava in My Bones links human emotions and a cascade of natural events. In this unusual tale, sexual identity is wrenched from family and social dysfunction, and a bold canvas of metaphor invigorates the characters' quest to love and be loved in return. These are relationship truths, embedded in family dynamics: Webster's take on desire is like no other.  Marilyn Bowering

Canadian author Barry Webster's whimsical, perversely playful fiction has garnered numerous accolades; indeed, his 2005 collection, The Sound of All Flesh, took home the ReLit Award for best Canadian short story collection. With The Lava in My Bones, Webster brings his talents in the shorter medium to bear on the medium of the novel. As a debut novel, The Lava in My Bones is witty and mature, and painstakingly intertextual, in its nearly seamless segues from teen angst to social commentary, from the use (and, most times, the overuse) of magical realism to a universal tale of the search for love and self-acceptance. However, where The Sound of All Flesh succeeded in its brevity and the far wider scope for which a story collection allows, The Lava in My Bones reads too redundantly like a short story stretched far beyond its logical narrative constraints, a series of vignettes tied together loosely by the themes of family, social ostracism, and the motherly ties that bind -- not to mention the oedipal ties that strangle when they can no longer mold according to social and cultural expectations.
The Lava in My Bones begins with Sam Masonty -- a geological expert on climate change "who'd gotten a BA, MSc, and PhD in eight years" -- barred from reentering Zurich and imprisoned in his native Ontario, where he commences not only his first relationship with another man, Franz, but his curious habit of eating rocks ("If you love something, you put it in your mouth"). Sam vacillates back and forth between recalling Canada's vast natural expansiveness to his lover who knows only the monotonous tedium of life in his own country, "Switzerland, the most land-locked country in the world." Webster's skill here is in presenting a relationship between two men that plays into self-parodies of queer life while also eschewing them: although Sam and Franz enact a doomed love affair, one that comments on queer subculture insofar as it emphasizes taut bodies and designer clothing, the body is less the focus than are the ways in which desire can be viewed as something intimate and yet something dangerous.
Webster foregrounds this theme of desire in a prologue that situates Sam's inchoate queer identity in terms of the grandiose and fantastic world of fairy tales; in these tales, Sam encounters "lovers who bit off each other's organs and when they opened their mouths, birds flew out," all the while recognizing that "these tales were telling the very story of his life." The magical realism found in these tales makes its way into the main narrative: during the height of Sam and Franz's relationship, snow falls in Zurich despite the fact that it is summer; Sam's academic work on climate change ("Rocks bear the imprint of the weight of our bodies... rocks record the details of someone's life") becomes personal when Franz first swallows a rock and then tempts his lover to appease his own wish to be closer to the core of the earth; and Sam's malevolent, religious mother appears at the foot of the bed he shares with Franz, casting judgment and externalizing Sam's own conflict about his sexual identity.
These fantastical elements carry over into the subsequent vignettes, episodes that are sieved through Sam's main narrative as we return to him for grounding. (It is no wonder that as each thread in The Lava in My Bones is titled after the four elements, Sam's element is that of the earth.) As Webster extends his terrain to introduce the reader to Sam's family, the reliance on magical realism becomes more of a crutch than a quirky trope that would allow the novel to flow more smoothly and inventively. We are introduced to Sam's sister, Sue, who begins to ooze honey from her pores; Sam's maritime father who is obsessed with mermaids; and Sam's hyper-religious mother who enlists the help of the Virgin Mary to save the souls of her far-from-normal children. Although the mother's vigilance is one of the most absurd flights of fancy in the novel, it does, all the same, emphasize an intertextual debt to literary and cultural sources; to be sure, in spite of his unique voice in characterizing a mother who feels she has not done enough to steer her children in this world, one is often reminded of the omniscient, phallic mother figure in Guy Maddin's film Brand Upon the Brain!
Franz later admits in his own vignette: "In truth, I did not want you, Sam. I wanted the space that surrounded you... The German language is so damned sexy; just hearing it gives me a hard-on; no wonder you wanted me, Sam." This clumsy juxtaposition of Webster's major themes here is made all the more so by this point in the novel; the introduction of first-person narratives grants us more subjectivity for tangential characters than the reader receives in Sam's more major and profound sections. In fact, the narrative distancing results in further displacing the main character along divisive lines that belie Webster's overt attempt to dismantle them: time and space, language and confusion, love and shame, and reality and fantasy are dichotomies that are less blurred by the cacophony of voices and the overwrought structure of The Lava in My Bones than they are fixated and made more resoundingly separate.
Webster certainly has a way with words, and this is largely what carries the reader through his debut novel. Less focused than his short fiction, The Lava in My Bones still explores similar themes of longing, the search for love, and the desire for self-acceptance; at the same time, due to the novel's excessive length and its chorus of voices -- many of which seem to be dead-end paths on a road already labyrinthine in terms of structure -- one comes away feeling as though language is the primary focus, especially how language can render magical the otherwise marginalized existence of the sexually and socially outcast. Webster's uniting thematic here is definitely praiseworthy in its message of tolerance, but it is one that is often lost among eaten rocks, mermaid infatuations, oozing honey, and the many fairy tales and films that overpopulate his novel.
- K. Thomas Kahn

Barry Webster is also no stranger to experimentation. His first collection, The Sound of All Flesh, containing an award-winning story that debuted in EVENT, established his reputation as a writer unafraid to push his ideas to the extreme—and to crack us up doing so. Webster has now leapt into long-form fiction with The Lava in My Bones, a lush, baroque and brave investigation of human sexuality and sexual identity, which draws on surrealist fiction as well as fairy tale to create a world in which metaphor becomes literal and characters live out their inner lives through physical hyperbole, like heroic clowns.
Webster begins by introducing us to Sam, a Canadian geologist imprisoned for his imaginative excesses, who arrives in Switzerland to deliver a paper at a climate-change conference only to fall in love with Franz, a handsome, wealthy artist, who is so moved by his attraction to Sam that he eats the rock Sam holds. Thus begins Sam’s intense encounter with Franz, whose rock-eating leads to renewed painterly inspiration and ultimately to his temporary rejection of Sam, who meanwhile has begun to hear the fire at the centre of the Earth.
Sam is not the only character for whom nature becomes personal. His sister, Sue, bullied and socially excluded back in the small town of Cartwright, Newfoundland, where the siblings grew up, begins to exude honey from her pores, a secretion that increases with puberty and becomes life-threatening when her boyfriend almost dies sampling its delights.
What follows is a wild, shape-shifting narrative in which Sue becomes locked in a protective, honey-proof dress, and Sam escapes from a psychiatric hospital in Toronto and runs back to Newfoundland while simultaneously transforming into a wolf, after which the two siblings, accompanied unknowingly by their mother, end up on a cruise across the Atlantic, chased by swarms of bees. In other words, if you plan to read this novel (which you should), make sure your mental seatbelt is on because Webster sure takes some crazy swerves.
He is also funny. His humour is earthy and ribald, ranging from the siblings’ cross-dressed, yet religiously devout, mother racing around the cruise ship wielding samples of the Virgin Mary’s urine, to Sam’s deliberate goading of prurient psychiatrists: ‘The rocks remind me of bosoms…. Yes. Great, big lactating tits.’ The Lava in My Bones is a compelling read, propelled by virtuosic writing and surreal insight. While Virgo foregrounds soul, Webster foregrounds the body, specifically human sexuality and its connection to the vagaries of the natural world: ‘Sam felt the expansiveness of his own desires…a wonderful wilderness he could get lost in and explore for the rest of his life.’ For Webster’s utopia is one in which disguises, genders and costumes can be switched at will and endless combinations of desire are possible, such that the alacrity with which characters change species, switch genders and orientations resembles a pansexual vaudeville act, albeit one that is moving as well as entertaining.
The novel’s energy does flag in places: Webster’s aesthetic of literalness and excess works best in small, intense chunks, and over the long haul risks squandering its power through repetition and a lack of nuance. The Mr. Potato Head analogy, for example, comes around once too often, repeatedly assaulting the reader with the author’s theme of gender as performance.
Nevertheless, this is fiction that engages the mind, libido and funny bone, and with slightly less telegraphing of its intentions could leave even more room for the heart also to kick in. What touched me most about The Lava in My Boneswas the hope these characters discover through their trials, and their faith in the honesty of the body and desire: ‘As his arms and legs flail in the fast-moving currents, he is confident that his body will save him, for it is matter, part of a universe that endures.’ As, we hope, is the human imagination, mysterious and fabulously weird. - Cathy Stonehouse
The best magic realism aims to satirize some element of societal trauma or injustice. Think Bulgakov parodying the excesses of Stalinism in The Master and Margarita, or Márquez dissecting Latin American fatalism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. If we extend the tradition to Barry Webster’s new novel, then the target here is clearly the degradation of the Earth itself. Indeed, it may very well be the first of its kind, at least in Canada: an ecological magic-realist novel.
The Lava in My Bones is divided into elemental sections (rock, air, ice, water, etc.) and narrated from various perspectives. Sam, a somewhat indolent Canadian geologist, travels to Switzerland to attend an academic conference. While there, he meets a priapic young swinger named Franz who awakens in him a nascent homosexuality. The two begin a tryst and engage in lovemaking that gives the phrase “Did the Earth move for you?” a whole new meaning.
Meanwhile, back in Sam’s home of Labrador, his kid sister, Sue, becomes the target of bullies when she begins to perspire honey instead of sweat. Finding no solace in her religious-zealot mother, she longs to reconnect with her brother. The two finally reunite, but not before Sam gets dumped by Franz, travels to a warped version of Toronto, is institutionalized, escapes, and flees back to Labrador. Sam and Sue travel to Europe by boat to confront Franz, but their journey is complicated by their mother, who stows away on board and doggedly tries to thwart their plans.
This novel is a joyous fairytale about familial dysfunction and our connection to Mother Earth. Webster writes hallucinatory prose with zany gusto. The Lava in My Bones does have a message – something about the fires inside our bodies being connected to the fires inside the Earth – but part of the fun is untangling that moral from the images of collapsing continents, swarms of attacking bees, and oodles of gay sex.
This is an exuberantly written novel. We need more like it in this country. - Mark Sampson

The hero of The Lava in My Bones is a geologist obsessed with digging beneath the surface of things, which makes it particularly apt that the novel can be read on several different levels. Buried almost completely out of sight are the bones of a domestic drama about an unhappy Labrador family. Mother is stuck in a loveless marriage to an emotionally remote fisherman and so finds herself turning to religion in order to cope. Her son, Sam (the geologist), gets into a relationship with Franz, a Swiss playboy, while attending an academic conference. It’s an odd same-sex attachment between representatives of “the two most unromantic countries in the world,” and indeed Franz quickly gets sick of the affair and buys Sam a one-way ticket back to Canada. Sam doesn’t respond well to being dumped and finds himself in a mental institution upon his return. Finally, there is Sue, Sam’s younger sister, a pudgy girl who gets bullied in high school while enduring her own uncomfortable sexual awakening.
When you describe what the novel is “about” in that sort of language, the language of realistic fiction, it doesn’t sound very appealing. This is not, however, a realistic novel but one that draws on the tradition of magic realism, finding fantastic objective correlatives for shattering personal experiences and disturbed states of mind. Characters in this world change gender as easily as flicking a light switch, while Sue sweats a kind of honey that attracts bees, Sam turns into a werewolf able to cover forests with his ejaculations and their mother manages to exorcise a good chunk of the Atlantic Ocean with a sprinkle of the virgin Mary’s urine.
With all this emphasis on liquid discharge, it’s small wonder Sam comes to feel that “bodily fluids are the most wonderful thing in the world … the oil that lubricates the Earth’s engine.”
Along with these fairy tales of flesh, the book is also ridden with pantheistic gusts of nature poetry. Sam and Franz even hook up over a shared predilection for eating stones, and are transformed into physical embodiments of their native lands.
This is fantasy as allegory and psychodrama, and the exaggerated effects really do help, because beneath the layers of lush language and mythic pyrotechnics is a rather annoying love story. Of course all lovers are annoying, but Sam and Franz represent truly epic levels of self-absorption. Thus Franz to Sam: “Of the six billion people in the world, you were the one who could most profoundly appreciate the masterpiece of my body.” And there’s more where that came from.
Not surprisingly, Sam considers Franz to be a narcissist, a condition Franz curiously seeks to outgrow by locking himself in a room and avoiding all human contact. But Sam’s use of the narcissist label is also a case of the pot calling out the kettle. Indeed, Sam is so full of himself he even has epiphanies that reveal the previously obscure (to him) reason “why other people exist.” Other people don’t really matter very much to Sam. Shortly after rejoicing in his belatedly discovered gayness he discovers that Franz has pulled a gender switcheroo and become Veronika. But it makes no difference. What Sam is disturbed at is the thought of settling into a boring life of married domesticity (like those “other people”), and he has to be reassured by his partner that other people really aren’t so bad: “Everybody is us.”
It says a lot that both characters are stricken to amazement at this recognition of their having something in common with the rest of humanity.
The most upsetting expression of Sam’s solipsism, however, is seen in his treatment of his mother. The wicked witch in this fairy tale, she is nevertheless disposed of in a particularly jarring way, both condescending and vicious, that makes Sam out to be almost psychopathically self-centred. And yet it seems impossible that this is how Webster wants us to view him, especially given the happily-ever-after ending. The result is a truly disturbing, if unintended, moral disjuncture.
But then morality and myth have always made odd bedfellows, and The Lava in My Bones lays itself open to many interpretations. Cultural theorists will see in it an essay on the artificial boundaries of gender identity, and Freudians should have a field day tracking the associations of homosexuality with oral fixation (“If you love something, you put it in your mouth”), penis obsession, narcissism and hatred of the mother. Or you can choose to read it as a pure entertainment that isn’t serious about anything.
But I wouldn’t want to go that far. We usually think of magic realism as being a liberating force in fiction, allowing authors to leave the laws of physics and traditional rules of narrative behind. In digging down to the myths and archetypes of simpler forms of storytelling, however, writers can also find their picks ringing against a bedrock of unconscious and immovable elements that are not always reassuring or attractive. This is what makes even the most basic fairy tales so ambiguous and often scary. Webster has written a vast, exuberant and optimistic epic about the ebbs and flows of the lava-like oils that lubricate the world’s engine, emphasizing the transformative power of love. But the dark side of desire is here too, and it has the feel of something a lot less mutable. - Alex Good

Barry Webster, The Sound of All Flesh, Porcupine's Quill, 2005

Warning: The following stories contain nudity, violence, pianos, amazingly radiant verbalising, venomous weather, and funny clanking noises in the tiled washrooms of the nation. Viewer discretion is advised.'
- Mark Anthony Jarman

`Both highly erotic and anti-pornographic, humanizing investing souls in objectified bodies.' - N A Hayes 

`Barry Webster is a classically trained pianist. Parents of budding prodigies beware: If Webster's story collection reflects his experience, you'd do better to put your money on tap dancing. His story ``The Royal Conservatory Statement and Fugue for Eight Voices'' opens with a piano teacher gazing from her studio window at ``dangling icicles, dead squirrels, and tress reft by lightning.'' The hard chill, the little frozen corpses, the shattered trees preface an aria of beauties and horrors. In a fearless, magnificent run-on sentence, we encounter gold-buckled shoes, slit throats, tulips, scorpions and fresh hearts ``whose blood drips in straight lines down the wallpaper and coagulates in little puddles below the electric sockets.'' Enter the ice-pick-wielding mezzo-sopranos.'(Jim Bartley Globe and Mail)

`Imagine a world threatened by clowns, enriched by music, and teetering on the edge of change, and you have a taste of the rich offering in this strong debut collection.' - Laurie Elmquist 

`Barry Webster's stories constitute a magical glass window through which we see more clearly into the human story than with ordinary prose. Webster's fiction neither magnifies nor distorts, but its clarity of vision permits a reader to see the longing for a better life that underlies ordinary existence -- that wish his characters (and ourselves) have for a happier past, a more caring and just present, a beneficent future. By unflinchingly revealing the gritty and the glorious, these tales bring into sharp focus previously opaque dimensions to how people function amid restrictive social constructs and a damaged natural world that we inherit and must transform or at least cope with.' - Tom Wayman

Montreal author Barry Webster is a classically trained musician, a pianist to be precise, and in his writing, that fact couldn’t be made more clear. The Sound of All Flesh, his first published compendium of short fiction, is ruled by rhythm, breathing imagery in and out like the dependable lungs of an accordion.
Generally, Webster’s prose is poetic and impressionistic, at once astutely precise in its terminology and amiably amphibological in its impact. The main thrust through his narratives is the visualizations he conjures; phrases like "we sink to the floor to suck the dirt from carpet fronds" resonate with a power that carries readers effortlessly through the more functional sentences until the next enveloping image a few lines down. Though published in book form for the first time here, Webster’s words have been printed in a variety of Canadian journals, including Matrix, Dalhousie Review and Fiddlehead; he has been short-listed for a National Magazine Award and the CBC-Quebec Prize.
The accomplished collection starts off with a challenge, the most obtuse and formally ritualized piece of the 12. The Royal Conservatory at once makes homage and denigrates that most prestigious of musical institutions, composed like a musical partition-in-the-making: founding elements are listed at the beginning, to then integrate into harmony at the end. The piece’s parts are rich and laden with a very particular humour that laces its way through the book, but to grasp it as a consumable piece of prose requires a certain effort.
Subsequent stories confirm Webster’s great ability at simply, less self-consciously, telling tales. My favourite could possibly be Laughing Forever, the story of a poor boy who promised himself he would never laugh, lest he expose himself to the demonic will of the world’s clowns. The horror in the story attains mythic proportions: "Monstrous, blood-webbed eyes, mauve pupils that stab and impale, the oblate nose obscenely moist, wound-red, emitting a deafening HONK when touched, the mouth lipless as a skeleton’s, beige teeth flat as tombstones, the gaps between which fingers can be caught, shredded or severed, and no hair on top of his head but, on the sides, heaps of poisonous, pink mould, his trumpet-mouthed ears full of hook-headed fuzz brittle as the hair on tarantula-legs." Yikes! Bozo will never look the same.
The pieces range from very straightforward (the travelogues Believing in Paris and Capturing Varanasi) to playful, extraordinary and surreal (A Piano Shudders, The Innocence of Water, Circles). In the balance rests the sense of a lifetime of words and notes melting into one another on the page. - Isa Tousignant


Popular posts from this blog

Steven Seidenberg - a dramatic intensification of Seidenberg’s career-long blurring of fiction, poetry, and philosophy—an accomplishment recalling the literary contributions of Blanchot, Bernhard, and pre-impasse Beckett

Leon Forrest - Fabulous, wildly comic, and Ulysses-like. a huge oratorio of the sacred and the profane, set in bars, churches, and barbershops .

Futures and Fictions - In what ways could we imagine a world different from the one in which we currently live?