||A Review of: The Nine Planets
by Chris LaVigne
The world is a sham and Marty Devereaux knows it. Vice principal
and co-founder of a St. John's private school, Marty is an expert
at keeping up appearances, carefully crafting reality to suit the
tastes of his wealthy clientele. He is skilled at constructing
pleasing facades. Needing to create some semblance of tradition,
Marty sets up a phony trophy case filled with impossibly ancient
awards for the school's opening day. Marty's school, The Red Pines,
is only the most obviously fictional piece of a world Riche constructs
by means of his characters' dishonesty, their bold, unflinching
willingness to deceive. For Marty, the central character of The
Nine Planets, the real is what you can get others to believe in.
Marty is a cynic and a nihilist. When asked whether he supports the
development of a nearby natural land reserve, he explains, "I
don't have feelings one way or the other. For much." This
apathy puts Marty at odds with his friend and co-owner of The Red
Pines, Hank, a recently-converted environmentalist leading the
charge to save the land from development. Marty has nothing but
disdain for his partner's new cause, detesting "people who
discovered' things about themselves late in life."
Marty believes himself to be "fully formed." His life is
neat and simple, much like the "ordered austerity, the tidiness,
of his house" which he cherishes. Keeping his life uncluttered
involves a fairly high degree of emotional detachment. "In
Marty's experience. .. .nothing caused more suffering than love."
It matters not whether he's dealing with his playwright brother,
his activist sister-in-law, his sixteen-year-old niece, or his
longtime lover; Marty makes sure his heart never interferes with a
rational assessment of the circumstances and the people around him.
Riche's novel presents a grim and unsettling portrait of a die-hard
pessimist-a man for whom the glass isn't just half-empty-it's
poisoned. The world has no hidden meaning for Marty. He sees no
reason to live other than to put off dying. He convinces himself
that those who think they have a cause worth fighting for-activists
like Hank or Marty's sister-in-law Meredith-are either too stupid
to see the inevitable futility of their efforts or take pleasure
in showing off their moral virtues. In Marty's mind, do-gooders are
not motivated by genuine altruism but by a superiority complex.
They pat one another on the back "for being paragons of social,
cultural, and environmental high-mindedness." Marty sees
activism as moral snobbery rather than a possible alternative to
the nihilism he embraces.
What matters to Marty instead is financial opportunity-specifically,
the kind offered to him by Gerry Hayden, a newly globalized capitalist
who runs his businesses out of offices in the Bahamas and Ireland
for tax reasons, and owns Pizza Huts in Lebanon. When Hayden
approaches him with an idea for a chain of franchised private schools
based on the Red Pines model, Marty faces a dilemma: the first
school is to be built on the same land that his partner Hank is
trying to save. So what does a callous old man like Marty do? Why,
sell out his best friend, of course!
If Marty sounds like a jerk, that's because he is one. He's about
as much fun to be around as a paranoid skunk. This is a serious
problem considering that Marty is present in nearly every scene of
The Nine Planets and much of the novel is filtered through his
curmudgeonly observations. Riche deserves credit for trying to
write his book around such an unconventional protagonist, but
ultimately it ruins his novel. Having to endure Marty's company for
300 pages makes for a labourious reading experience.
Riche has shown in the past that he knows how to be funny. As well
as his first comedic novel, Rare Birds (which he also made into a
screenplay), he has written scripts for the hilarious television
show Made in Canada, which follows a group of unethical,
intellectually-challenged television producers. The series shares
the same mordant sense of humour as Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom,
plumbing laughs from the depths of its characters' repulsive and
Riche might have planned Marty to be a satirical character in the
same mould, but he's far too gloomy and bitter to evoke any laughs.
The problem with Marty is that he's not an idiot. The backstabbing
producers of Made in Canada and the shallow news director of The
Newsroom are funny because they're fools. Their behaviour is the
result of stunted development. They don't know any better, whereas
Marty's conduct is the product of thoughtful and self-aware choice.
Marty is terribly jaded, but then the world he inhabits is so bleak
that his outlook is not surprising. Riche's portrayal of the
youngsters attending The Red Pines does nothing to put their
generation in a promising light. Worse is Marty's niece, Cathy, who
wanders aimlessly through the city wishing she had a job just to
kill time. Outdoing even Marty, Cathy offers the gloomiest appraisal
of existence in the book: "Most of life was a pose. You went
from one to another as a way to get by."
Like the first few victims of a teen horror movie, characters in
The Nine Planets succumb to their fates without much of a fight.
Since, as they see it, no truly authentic act or conviction is
possible, they decide to forego any belief and abandon any hope of
ever doing something that matters. If the world is a sham, then why
contribute to it? Why not just go along for the ride? The Nine
Planets asks readers to believe that the world has always been
broken and simply cannot be fixed. Cathy reaches a similar conclusion
when she thinks about how gender inequities might affect her when
she grows up: "Yes, all that endless, boring, Jurassic-age
feminism that her mother got on with . . . it was all true. But
then what, what did you do?" Riche's characters know that
certain things in the world are wrong, but they lack the will or
imagination to effect any kind of change for the better.
American novelist Chuck Palahniuk has written about the same themes
Riche addresses in The Nine Planets. Like Marty, Palahniuk's
characters begin with the conviction that life is pointless. However,
in novels like Fight Club and Choke, Palahniuk shows how his
characters are able to channel their apathy and existential angst
into purposeful action (he could also teach Riche a thing or two
about satire). Palahniuk is just one example of a writer whose
characters' profound cynicism does not lead to scornful withdrawal
from the world. By contrast, Riche's characters are too closed-minded,
and Riche seems unwilling to move them out of their easy nihilism
into the more challenging realm of hope.