To Be Continued . . .

by Gordon Leenders
ISBN: 1550226681

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A Review of: To Be Continued. . .
by Jason Brown

To Be Continued is Gordon j.h. Leenders second book. His first, May Not Appear Exactly As Shown, was awarded the city of Hamilton's Best Fiction Book in 2004. Hamilton should love Gordon j.h. Leenders, since he so clearly in love with it. To Be Continued is, in sum, an homage to this city. Characters in a long series of brief vignettes have the locales and the history of Hamilton for setting and background. Their stories are small beads on a thread that runs through Hamilton's streets and parks, along its Lake Ontario shoreline and through its stores and cafes.
In a typical sequence of three passages a man on a bus, recognized by a former student, panics because he suddenly recalls his secret past. Before this scene is resolved, we move to the second narrative: an elderly women steps off the same bus and ruminates on her family and her failing memory, and is loudly antagonized by a pre-teen girl on a skateboard, whose friend apologizes for her. The third narrative then follows the girls and their argument about age and respect. Each story is truncated by a switch in perspective and a change in the direction of the narrative's gaze.
This technique is visual and cinematic; all of the action is chronologically ordered, following a single lens through a sequence of tenuously connected events. (Comparisons to film, rather than writing, spring readily to mind-Richard Linkletter's Slacker, for example, or Jeremy Podeswa's Eclipse.) It is virtually impossible for To Be Continued to drag. If you are not captured by one window, you quickly flow on to the next. Chapters are rarely longer than four or five pages and they follow a maxim of David Mamet's: they start late and leave early. We enter two people's conversation about a possible infidelity and before they finish we are moved along to another sketch. Sometimes tensions are resolved later on, sometimes not.
The people in To Be Continued, their worries, arguments, and celebrations, are also a pretext for transiting this chain of life's moments through Hamilton. Thus, the bus the aforementioned man is taking is the West Hamilton 5C; this moves the elderly woman to her destination of Westdale Village; the two girls, after their encounter with the woman, head towards the Westdale Theatre, which sets up the next encounter and the next window on some other Hamilton inhabitant. The narrative possibilities are circumscribed by this long-shot effect, the camera careening around the city on a single day.
It is not unusual for Leenders to have a character break off from the action to launch into loosely connected Hamiltonalia: "See this bridge here,' Maureen said, gesturing to the train bridge they were now driving over. It was originally built around 1895, the year the old TH&B-the Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo-railway was completed.'" Or, take another instance: "Jason bowed slightly in Norman's direction then turned to Jessica and said, Bessie Starkman married Rocco Perri and they ran the most infamous bootlegging gang in Canada during the conscription years.'"
In part because I grew up in Hamilton, I have a divided response to this assertive and conscious method of setting tales. On one hand it thrills me to recognize the streets and shops and their histories and to see them so clearly cherished. And I think it's brave for a young writer not to squirm away from places like Hamilton's Bean Bar in 2005 in favour of something like a Saskatchewan wheat farm or some harsh piece of maritime coastline, places that come pre-packaged with a rich cultural mythology-or, at least, whose rich mythology we are more prepared to accept.
On the other hand, I wonder if this is the right way to celebrate a location. It's very literal and direct, all this name dropping, all these impromptu history lessons scattered throughout the text, and at times it detracts from the vividness of the moments. There are instances when it feels as if the author is forcibly directing characters away from their own microcosm of a world towards this larger project. And this irks, because the essence of a city is not a collection of place names but the lives of its people, shaped by their environment. They don't have to speak a place, they are it-as Al Purdy (another author fond of place names) would have it, after a time the convolutions of the geography are indelibly inscribed on their consciousness.
While this overzealousness is a concern, I don't think it sinks the boat. I happily read To Be Continued in a single sitting and was genuinely caught up in its turns and tumbles. Leenders is a talented writer, inventive and warm. Not all the characters in this book are benevolent or happy, but there is something like a feeling of belonging that is engendered from the side-by-side telling of their stories. They may be strangers to one another, but they are held together by a shared familiarity with the shape and pulse of their city.

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