The Stutterer and the Statesman
May 06th, 2020
In his debut novel, Panegyric (Now or Never $19.95), Logan Macnair is giving us two opposing wordsmiths, one verbal and one non-verbal, the orator and the scribe.
by Cherie Thiessen
In Logan Macnair’s audacious and experimental first novel, Panegyric, we meet a male politician named Valerie Montblanc who wants to be Prime Minister. On the hustings, he is a masterful embellisher—he can make a verbal bouquet out of a fistful of weeds.
[panegyric – public speeches or published text in praise of someone or something]
To further his political ambitions, he wants a biography. Trouble is, Montblanc can’t write his way out of a proverbial paper bag, so he hires a lifelong stutterer, Larry Mann, who can’t manage a sentence without a stammer but he has an extraordinary vocabulary.
It’s an original odd couple: a rich, self-made, older man with enemies and a woefully unsuccessful and unfulfilled younger man who suffers painfully from psellism.
[psellism: stammering or stuttering; a speech disorder]
As a ghostwriter, Larry has produced one widely-praised biography for which he received zero credit. His biggest, public accomplishment to date is attaining the highest score on The Donkey King in the video arcade on the Spirit of Vancouver ferry.
The ghostwriter has left his dreary digs on the West Coast and now for five months he will live in Montblanc’s luxurious lower suite while interviewing him and completing the book. While Larry will be making good money for this gig, once again he knows there will be no recognition in it for him, no glory.
The ghostwriter must remain marooned in his quarters, not welcome to invade the upper chambers of the house. There is a wife who is seldom there, but she is willing to appear as a prop on the hustings.
Montblanc is controlling, mercurial and often sarcastic. The politician ricochets from mood to mood, sometimes cruelly mocking Larry’s speech impediment; at other times he can be angry and challenging. It’s almost as if he’s playing with the scribe, saying incongruous and often shocking things out of the blue to confuse him.
Larry’s lucrative assignment is turning into a challenge that could well be beyond him. Larry’s panglossian hopes appear to be misplaced.
[panglossian: marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds: excessively optimistic]
Montblanc wants Larry to write about him in positive colours but then, tantalizingly, he slips the greys and even the blacks into the literary palette.
What are the mysteries in Montblanc’s past? Is he stable? And why can’t Mann get off the ground and take control of his life? This plot alone is worthy of a read but Macnair ups the ante with his clever writing in 65 short chapters—with a one-word title beginning with the letter P.
For a stutterer such as Larry, P’s are especially difficult to pronounce. Dedicated readers with a dictionary at hand will be well rewarded with a serious increase in vocabulary.
Macnair manages to segue each chapter title within the content of each chapter. Each chapter is a little like eating a bowl of lentil curry – very dense and filling. It took Macnair two-and-a-half years to complete this work, while simultaneously in pursuit of a Ph.D.
“The short length of the chapters was inspired by a few things,” he says, “most notably Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, which was a huge influence on my book. I borrowed many structural and stylistic cues from it, including his use of short, occasionally abstract, chapters.
“While some of them are only a couple pages long, they can be demanding, but my hope is that there will be lots there for curious readers to potentially unpack if they are so inclined.”
The ‘P’-word chapter titles were not an idea that was originally intended.
“It was something I decided to commit to after writing a few initial chapters. I would spend a lot of time looking through these lists of fancy P words and compiling the ones that I thought were interesting. You would be surprised how many archaic P words are actually out there!
“When it came to naming the chapters, I didn’t have a set method in place, sometimes the chapter was fully-written and I then had to find a suitable word for a title that captured the essence of what the chapter was about, and sometimes I started with nothing more than an interesting P-word that I would then use it as a jumping off point for the chapter.
“Larry’s speech impediment was not originally intended either. It was only after writing about six or seven chapters that the idea came to me. As soon as it did, the themes and characters of the book became much clearer to me, as did their internal struggles and motivations (and the juxtaposition with the eloquent and well-spoken Montblanc).
“Because I don’t have this speech impediment myself, I needed to do a lot of research so that I could accurately depict not just how the condition is expressed, but also some of the internal struggles or thought processes that people who have such a condition may undergo.
“As the story goes on, I try to express that, while Larry has blamed his impediment for many of the failures in his life and sees it as a source of shame, he has also been using it as a crutch to mask the true source of his worries.”
Panegyric has found a good home with Now or Never Publishing, a Lower Mainland literary publisher that prints edgy books. Macnair is now hard at work on his second novel, Troll. Perhaps it will feature another polemicist.
[Polemicist: a person who engages in controversial debate.]
Cherie Thiessen reviews fiction from Pender Island