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Bernice Friesen | Freehand Books
Not many novels include Immanuel Kant in the list of obligatory acknowledgments at the end of the text. For that matter, not many works of fiction come complete with a glossary of mathematical symbols. Universal Disorder has both.
If you have by now begun to suspect that Bernice Friesen’s new novel is more than a little strange, you are not wrong. But hey, Charlie, the protagonist of this work of glittering brilliance and heart scalding grief is a savant mathematician and physicist, fascinated with the areas of inutterable strangeness found if you look out into the far distance or down into the subatomic dance of quantum energies. He may be on the autism spectrum, and at one point refers to himself as “an incurable Aspy” — a reference to the high functioning Asperger’s syndrome end of the spectrum.
Charlie is also the product of a dysfunctional Saskatchewan family suffused with alcohol and chaos when we first meet him, and later a bewildered hanger on in the Montreal’s 1990s Goth and avant-garde art scenes, and a cutting edge mathematical innovator at the end of this richly complex and moving bildungsroman.
The story is told in free indirect discourse, a supple but demanding narrative method that refers to the protagonist in the third person while suffusing the narration with elements of the character’s inner experienced subjectivity that brings it closer to the realm of the first person. Friesen uses this approach to render Charlie’s excruciating pain, guilt and loss, as well as his obsessive fascination with number as the metaphysical core of reality. It also plausibly renders Charlie’s ultimate attainment of fragile serenity and love.
But do not look to this book for Hallmark card sentimentality. Charlie’s family is in painful disarray and his mind is profoundly disordered. Friesen renders all this chaos in memorable set pieces like the drunken night his father tries to set fire to a piece of farm equipment. Later, his father nearly drowns him in an ill-advised attempt to retrieve a cherished wristwatch thrown into the lake.
Charlie’s involvement in the art bohemias of Montreal in the 90s generates detailed, moving and richly comic moments of social observation. And make no mistake, while Friesen is working with profoundly tragic elements of human experience here — guilt, loss, madness and dread — she always gets the joke.
This is a remarkably well crafted and moving novel. Highly recommended.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.