Reviewed by Jack Messenger
Do the Wrong Thing
by Malcolm van Delst
Frog Style Media
ISBN 9780994755018 (eBook), Aug. 29 2018
On several occasions, I was fortunate to hear Malcolm van Delst, a writer based in Vancouver, Canada, read aloud from a work-in-progress called Do the Wrong Thing. The extracts she read left me puzzled and intrigued: I was unable to grasp exactly what the book was meant to be about, and exactly what she aimed to achieve. Do the Wrong Thing seemed to consist principally of details and fragments – often, details of fragments – set down more or less at random, from the life of a young woman whom I took to be the author herself. Now that I have read book one of Do the Wrong Thing (others are yet to be published), I am still puzzled, but the mists have cleared enough for me to relish the journey even while the destination remains obscure.
It’s unwise to review something that has yet to appear in its entirety, as any surprises in store can overturn assumptions and thoroughly embarrass the reviewer. Suffice to say, Do the Wrong Thing is – so far, at least – a kaleidoscope of memories linked by subconscious attraction and the sudden remembrances provoked by the work of recording them. This might sound chaotic and unsatisfying; however, if one relaxes into the book, so to speak, and travel with no thought to arriving, things start to happen. To use an analogy that quickly sprang to mind while reading, it is as if we are watching a family’s 8mm home movies, randomly and with little context other than the comments and exclamations of the hosts. It is we who do the job of interpretation.
In some ways, Do the Wrong Thing is a metafictional novel (memoir? meditation? remembered dream?) par excellence, for it contains deliberate errors, metatextual tags, lists and poems, plus the occasional illustration. The writer’s own voice breaks through the text with apologies and excuses and explanations of her difficulties in remembering/reconstructing the past. Gradually, one comes to know the mind of the rememberer, and/or the mind of the central character, until the immediacy of the encounter between reader and author feels exhilaratingly personal and intimate. It is as if we are in the unmediated presence of another consciousness.
Conventional minds such as my own tend to baulk at this kind of approach, but Do the Wrong Thing is powerfully seductive: it is possible to enjoy it almost against one’s will. Ava’s journey from toddler to puberty is accompanied by parents, uncles and aunts, school friends, cats and farm animals and, above all, an ever-expanding host of brothers and sisters (it is a Roman Catholic household). There is an oddly timeless feel to this largely rural milieu, so that it is abruptly surprising to learn we have reached the 1970s, for example, when David Cassidy and the Bay City Rollers caused teeny-boppers’ hearts to flutter.
The perils of childhood and the kind of mystified insightfulness it often possesses are brought to bear on parents, in particular, but also on the changing loyalties and precarious alliances between school friends, as well as the menacing unknowability of certain teachers and older brothers and cousins. Children have to be tough and remember to forget the things that frighten them.
There is a gathering storm behind book one. Teenage years are the next to be recollected, I presume, and they have been presaged by an increasingly virulent rejection of organized religion (the gruesome crucifixions and bleeding hearts on display throughout the family home are thoroughly repellent). Something nasty might be waiting patiently for the opportunity to strike; at any rate, some significant break, some defining moment, will surely take place because, one senses, it is from beyond that pivotal point that recollection and reassessment are made possible.
Where exactly is Do the Wrong Thing headed? Does it know? These questions cannot yet be answered, but we can look forward to making up our own minds as more is revealed. I, for one, will be along for the ride.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more about him at jackmessengerwriter.com