Giller Shortlist: Reproduction by Ian Williams

Anyone who has read this book will understand when I say that I don’t know where to start with this, and I don’t know where it’s going to go.

Let’s start with structure.

Reproduction is a literary structural feat. I didn’t even realize the extent of it until I did some homework. Part 1 of the book includes two central characters and is made up of 23 sections that represent the number of chromosomes in the human body. Part 2 includes four central characters (2×2) and is made up of 16 sections (4×4). Part 3 is made up of 256 shorter sections (16×16), and Part 4 has what Williams is calling “cancer” (another form of reproduction) – “This manifests on the page with subscript and superscript interruptions that begin to sprout up like tumours mid-sentence.”

In a Q&A in The Vancouver Sun, Williams explains: “I wanted a novel that would reproduce itself. In Part 4, you’ll see how I finally got the book to generate a coherent organism resembling itself out of its own material. But then I wasn’t satisfied with the achievement of creating a book that reproduces itself. I started to ask, Can a book encode its own death even as it seems to be growing? Solved that, too. In Part 4, the book both grows and dies.

But these are not the things I noticed while reading the book. The unique structure adds a level of interest to the reading, but it means very little if the story isn’t good. What was it that kept me reading?

When asked by The Vancouver Sun what Reproduction is about, Williams tells them: “The novel is about the families we are born into and those that we choose to form.” A chance meeting of two people in a hospital room leads to a mismatched group of people who (we might say) make up a family… whether they like it or not.

Reproduction is character-driven, and the characters are distinct and strongly defined. Some are likeable, some are decidedly not – but they are all wonderfully imperfect and, well, … ordinary.

One could say that the odd character grows over the course of the book, but I’d argue that most of them do not. Most of them remain stubbornly the same – Edgar is just as maddening at the end as he is in the beginning; Oliver never stops whining about his ex-wife; Felicia’s determination never wavers; Army is still coming up with money-making schemes. You get the sense that they don’t care a fig that they’re in a book. They’re not thinking about redemption or forgiveness – they’re thinking about groceries and sex and paying the rent. The stuff of ordinary lives.

I can’t go away without mentioning how funny this book is. Williams has had entirely too much fun writing it. In addition, he deftly weaves all the ‘isms’ into the characters’ day to day interactions, turning the ordinary into something extraordinary (and relevant) for the reader.

A few of the isms…

His complaint confirmed Felicia’s suspicions about white people, although she now saw him as less of a white man and more as a very pitiful man, the way she pictured all men as somewhat simple and unrefined and helpless with basic things but good with abstract things like bills over fifty dollars.

Felicia pulled her toque low over her ears. She didn’t want to be looked at. Sometimes, as a woman, you don’t want a man rubbing his eyes all over you in the offhand appraising way they have.

The sex talk that Felicia received had two problems. First, it occurred after she had had sex. Second, it was delivered by the man with whom she had just had sex, had been having sex for six weeks. / In its entirety, it went like this: I don’t want to get pregnant. / Then don’t.

No, Edgar was not violent with her. He was insistent.

Generational gaps…

I know what it is, Edgar said. He tapped the screen as he had seen all those kids in skinny jeans do. He wasn’t Amish. He double tapped it. Or a Luddite. He swiped. Or a caveman. He held it up to his ear. Or a dinosaur. Finally he shook it. He had opposable thumbs.

The concerns of teenage boys…

What if, in fact, he had had sex with Heather and didn’t know it? What if his Olympic sperm had been absorbed through her skin directly into her uterus…

If you could cut a baby out of a woman’s stomach, then surely you could put one in through her stomach. Surely maybe couldn’t you?

A favourite line…

On the plus side, she seemed spacey and unaware that she was holding a knife. On the minus, she seemed spacey and unaware that she was holding a knife.

A favourite descriptive paragraph:

Waking the following morning at her house, rather, the room she shared with her mother, rather used to share with her mother, in Christian Lady’s house, Felicia was struck by how the room itself seemed to have a heart attack. It was stuffed with so many things, greeting cards, ornaments, peacock feathers in vases, creams, boxes of clothes that couldn’t fit in drawers, petticoats airing out. By contrast, Edgar’s house could be diagnosed with pneumonia. The air was frail and old. It smelled of smoke, rubbing alcohol, cleaning agents, all very thinly, like a chewed flavour on someone’s breath.

I read Reproduction as a member of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury. Visit Buried in Print to read Marcie’s thoughts on the book, and The Temz Review for Marcie’s amazing review. You can follow all of our Giller shadowing at Kevin from Canada.

29 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Reproduction by Ian Williams

  1. wadholloway says:

    I don’t admire writers who play games with the structure. I just read the story as it’s presented to me. That said: a) I admired your review; and b) I enjoyed the excerpts you chose.

    • Naomi says:

      And the story is a good one! But, yes, I am always amazed by writers who can, not only write a good story, but can play around with structure so creatively!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    The structural basis reminds me of Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which won the Booker prize. apparently every chapter related to the 12 signs of the zodiac, a fact to which I was completely oblivious when I read it. But knowing about her structural device added nothing to the book for me.

    • Naomi says:

      I do like a book to stand on its own, even if one is oblivious to the inner workings of the author’s mind. But I am always interested to hear about those inner workings, as well!

  3. Cathy746books says:

    I like clever structure if it is somehow linked to the themes in the book and doesn’t detract attention from the story. This sounds perfectly done – and the cover is fab!

  4. annelogan17 says:

    I just saw on twitter that someone remarked the cover of this book is an envelope. I’ve had it on my shelf for a few months now and never noticed that!

    Typically books with unique formats like this repulse me, but I think I may like this one because it’s character driven, and Williams is VERY FUNNY writer (i’ve read some of his other stuff). I hope to get to it before the actual giller is announced LOL

    • Naomi says:

      It’s possible, too, to just read the book and ignore the structure. I didn’t realize the extent of it until I did some reading about it after I had finished the book. It did explain some things.
      I would love to read more by Williams!

  5. Karissa says:

    I struggled a lot with this one. There was so much I liked (and you’re right that it was surprisingly funny) but I also felt very aware that Williams was doing things with structure and playing with form but I couldn’t quite figure it out on my own. Once I heard him talk about it, I was able to appreciate it more but on its own, it didn’t get there for me.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see that. I didn’t get it all on my own, either, but I liked the writing and the story anyway, without knowing about the creative stuff he was doing with it. The second half of the book did take a long time to read though, didn’t it?!

  6. buriedinprint says:

    That’s such a good point you’ve raised about whether/how the characters grow. And when I think about how many people have expressed frustration and/or confusion about the ending of the book, I wonder if what they’re feeling is also frustration about THAT.

    Because I agree, there is change, but not necessarily growth. Or, at least, we don’t have specific evidence of that. But maybe that’s just human?

    So, maybe what’s really frustrating about the later parts of the book is that we see ourselves in the story, repeating the same old (bad?) patterns and habits and not really growing either?

    Another thought I had while reading your review is that these patterns do accumulate, the weight of carrying them becomes more intense, as the generations accrue. We don’t know a lot about Felicia’s life, but we know there must have been a sense of loss and loneliness in her past, and we see other characters (avoiding spoilers) coping with all of that and more besides, and then still other characters (sigh – still spoilery). So realistic. How things pile up! And we, as readers, have to carry part of that burden too.

    Loved the quotes you selected! Do you think you’d want to read other books by him, or does the fact that he’s mostly written poetry keep you at a distance from that idea?

    • Naomi says:

      I would definitely read more by him! And I can`t wait to see what he comes up with next!

      I completely agree – I think we`re used to reading about characters who grow and learn and forgive, etc., and maybe it feels frustrating that this doesn’t happen. But I think it`s definitely realistic for many people, that life just plods along…

  7. lauratfrey says:

    Still not sure how I feel about this book. I never, in a million years, would’ve caught on the the # of sections, or anything like that, and I chalked up the sub and super script to a comment on how the past echoes in the present. Finding out the actual reasoning kind of makes me feel dumb? I’m also very uncertain about the whole teen pregnancy storyline (though I like that it made me question why I’m inclined to view Heather as a “teenage pregnancy story” but not Felicia) But I still loved the book. I love Army. I wanted more of Army and his mom, Army and Heather, Army as a little boy.

    • Naomi says:

      Army is such a great character – very charming! And it seemed as though he took care of his mom almost as much as she took care of him (even if she didn’t know it at times).
      Heather’s storyline was maybe more of a means to an end – I liked the family dynamics that came out of it – so interesting. (It also showcased one of our big societal problems, obviously. But maybe that’s the part you’re questioning?)
      I wouldn’t have figured out the structure stuff, either, if I hadn’t read about it. But it doesn’t make me feel dumb since I don’t think I’ve come across anyone else who’s noticed it themselves yet, either! And I don’t mind acknowledging that Ian Williams is probably way smarter than I am. 🙂
      Did you review this book on BookTube?

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