book reviews

A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson: A Review

A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson, Douglas & McIntyre, 2012, 254 pp.

Not since Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise have I read a more compelling quirky voice, I think. Yet Oddly Flowers and Arthur (who is perfectly named) Williams are quite different.

Arthur is ten, an intelligent boy who while seeming somewhat wise for his years (though not inappropriately; I’ve been around enough kids who’ve shocked me with their insight) is also consistently endearingly childish (and not in a bad sense) in his endeavours and with his wildly creative imagination and exaggerative manner of speech. He’s also convinced his boring father Simon is not his father, and has “in the meantime” fantasies about what his read dad might be up to, such as founding the quietest city in the world, in which they all wear moss on their boots, and that other cities emulate so that the world becomes so quiet they can hear the stars. (This, by the way, was one of the most beautiful passages in the book, and there are many.)

The one thing we all look for in narration by a child, as we did with Room, say, is authenticity, and Ben Stephenson has Arthur down pat. You will wish you knew Arthur, you will recognize in him someone you already know, perhaps even yourself. Certainly while I was reading, his voice reminded me of countless journal entries I’d written at his age. Looking at the author photo of Ben, who’s just over twice Arthur’s age, it’s easy to imagine how he managed to create such a compelling, humorous, sweet, sensitive, and ultimately winning voice in Arthur.

When Arthur is in the woods behind his house one day, he finds a worn notebook under the leaves, written by a man named Phil. Arthur reads this notebook, all the way to page 43, the last page, where something terrible happens. He reads about Phil’s questions, his relationship with E, his happiness, his sadness. But what exactly happened on page 43, Arthur needs to know, though he is pretty sure he already knows. And so, donning his rubber boots and packing a tape recorder in his backpack, Arthur attempts to interview his neighbours to find out what they might know about Phil. The top-secret investigation proves more difficult than he had thought, as none of the adults gives him a straight answer or is helpful—until he meets the hermit.

Part of the beauty of this novel is that we are given the story from three perspectives, that of bewildered, searching, sympathetic, and also hilarious and plucky Arthur, who admits when he’s scared or cries, and through whom we see the painful frustration of feeling small and unable to help, but who also has astute observations of adults. How many a child has called us out, after all? With chapter headings like Part of the Reason Why It Rains and Accidentally Teleported, and complete with Stephenson’s own illustrations, Arthur’s voice will win you over.

Someone once told me that our bodies use a language that is a million times easier to understand than when we talk with words. I figured that it didn’t work on doorknobs, but still. With my eyes I told it the whole story. It stared back at me, but not with eyes, obviously, because it was a doorknob. Still, it its metal way I thought I could hear it saying, well, I think it said, “Open sesame.” So I turned it with the carefullest fingers I had, and I pushed on it. The door opened smoothly and completely silent.

“Thanks, doorknob,” said my eyes.

“No problem, brother,” whispered the doorknob …

I opened the top left drawer with silence, which took about two ice ages … I pulled on the bottom drawer and it squeaked. I turned into an ice sculpture of myself. The squeak was really loud, and on top of it I probably squeaked too. I waited. There was still snoring. I thawed myself out …

I felt like a bank robber. The moon glow from the window blinds made stripes on my black sweater like it was a bank-robbing sweater on TV.

… “Good luck, brother,” said the doorknob, and I closed the door with him, giving him a quiet high-five.

We’re also given Phil’s notebook entries interspersed throughout, a different, struggling, searching, but also poetic voice, the voice of a soul on the outside. Whatever similarities there are between Arthur and Phil were, to me, indicative of what we humans have in common, particularly our need to question as well as imagine something better. Phil’s existential voice is so real to Arthur that the notebook becomes the man (he calls it Phil), rather than just his words.

It’s raining inside the bus now as much as it’s raining outside, and I can watch my chest filling and emptying and feel my heart’s kicks get further apart, the rain is warm but tastes like a glacier. I see Ecstatic Phil tilt his head back and open his mouth. Piano music softly plays and Phil looks up front and it’s the driver, he’s playing the three Gymnopédies, waiting for the light to turn, the windshield wipers as metronome. And every atom of Phil wants nothing but to surrender to this rainy hope, this rapture of the crowded bus and of finally loving every person on it so completely …

And soon Enlightened Phil will have to get off this bus and he will but whatever breakfast diner soon holds him he’ll make sure to bring the bus with him in his pocket… he will remember the boundless joy of life and the communion of everyone so alone—the euphoria of a crowded bus taking you and everyone just where you need to go. And at night when he forgets it and sees himself sitting on top of his own head kicking spitting and howling HE WILL NOT FORGET and he will LIVE IN that joy and EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.

Finally, we are given the perspective of the trees in the woods who watch them both. These sections, few but important, are simply beautiful. The collective voice of the trees is a lovely way to show us what we otherwise could not know or to provide backstory. In this passage, however, which begins as they observe Simon and a younger Arthur playing in the treehouse they’ve built in between the trees, they give us the very nature of themselves:

We don’t mind this, this use. As much as they confuse us, we trust the humans. What reason would they have to let us go to waste? They can sense our value, in some way they must feel it. However, one thing we do find confusing. Sometimes after we are cut, they will count the rings exposed on our cross-sections. They count our layers, and this counting seems somehow important. Is it a game? “This one is fifty years old,” they say. “This one is almost a hundred.” Is it a joke? Surely they know that we, who have seen nearly every age, who have been here for so long, passing our vision through time in all directions, we who live in all time as in a single moment—surely we are not years old. Why do they want the rings’ number? Do they even notice their shape?

A Matter of Life and Death or Something is not simply a cute story of a young boy who finds a notebook and embarks on interviews with a green towel tied around his neck like a cape. It is not only that and the story of a struggling young man who keeps and loses a journal and how the two intersect. It is an exploration of how we as humans interact, affect each other, essentially are connected. It is about life and death and everything, everything! in between. It is so much to think about. It’s insightful and curious and marvellous.

And the end, oh, the end. Oh, Arthur. In complete disagreement with the wholly deflating and unfortunately adult National Post review of this book (when I become an author, I am never going to review another book), and also with the Quill, where it’s suggested that Arthur and Phil are not distinct enough, I say that A Matter of Life or Death or Something is—and here I’m going to quote Ben quoting Holden Caulfield—“…a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” It’s a heartbreaking, heartwarming, beautiful, funny, and imaginative offering. This book! I thought last night when I finished. This gorgeous gem of a book! Why isn’t Ben Stephenson on everyone’s list?

Read the interview with Ben

Thanks very much to @bookpromogirl at Douglas & McIntyre for seeing a tweet that I wanted to read this book and for sending it to me for review.


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