Magnificent Obsessions:
A Photo Novel

by Lesley Choyce,
144 pages,
ISBN: 1550820206

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by Pat Barclay

THIS CHRISTMAS, a few of us took turns making a half-hour videotape of eight family members playing a word-game called Pictionary. The result would definitely not bowl them over at Cannes. For us in the family, though, it was a revealing window on who we really are. With the advent of the economical camcorder, and its potential for enlarging our perceptions, one's relationship with photography is fundamentally and forever changed. All at once, those black-and-white shots of unidentified people and places in our parents' and grandparents' now obsolete family albums seem no longer mystifying, but rampant with possibilities. Photography has become a participatory medium not just for photographers but for viewers, too.

For Lesley Choyce, it's also become a literary resource. Choyce's latest book, which he dubs "a photonovel," uses a bizarre assortment of 69 photographs that do much more than illustrate the story: they determine the plot, although strictly speaking the word "plot" is an exaggeration for what goes on in MagnificentObsessions. This is a boy-grows-up story, narrated by the free-thinking young Byron of Linden, Nova Scotia, who has "a lifetime interest in invention and discovery" This characteristic frees Choyce to use photographs of everything but the kitchen sink for his hero to describe and philosophize over. A shot of a model dirigible inspires Byron's youthful experiments with methane gas, for example, while a group of headless dummies in a haberdasher's window produces a mature Byron reflecting on the meaninglessness of existence. One gets the feeling that the ingenious Choyce could produce an obscurely relevant reason why any photograph in the universe could have had a bearing on his hero's chequered career.

Why a "photonovel" in the first place, though? The very concept is a modern conceit, a quirk of literary fancy. Yet Choyce's weird conjunctions of photos and text are often as much fun for the reader as they evidently were for their compiler. Photos six and seven, for example, show two different boyish faces, each purporting to be the young Byron. "I went through phases of being fat and thin, fat and thin," he explains under photo number seven. "This shot was taken by an itinerant photographer who caught me on the up side of skinny but 1 busted out of that suit within a week of his foray into Linden." And lurking behind the humour is the hint of a serious purpose. As Choyce notes in his acknowledgements,

This narrative remains credible because of my belief that we exist in a world of multi-faceted potential lives that exist for each of us beyond the single time line that carries us from birth to death.

Or, as the psychologist explained about Byron's eccentric Uncle Ed, who was caught "ringing doorbells at random, then running for the hedges," "Ed was just trying to say to them all: 'Wake up you sons-a-bitches and open the doors of your perceptions."'


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