Reviewed: A Minor Chorus, Billy-Ray Belcourt, University of Queensland Press
After having published two books of poetry and one essay collection, Driftpile Cree academic and poet Billy-Ray Belcourt addresses his trademark preoccupations—precarities of place, Indigeneity and gender—in A Minor Chorus, a self-referential and pensive first novel that examines the form itself. The unnamed narrator is a university student struggling to complete his thesis, which he finds a chore compared to what he could write instead: a novel, a codex of his hometown, the intimate details of his family and surrounding community members. He puts his thesis on hiatus and returns to northern Alberta; here, A Minor Chorus turns into an intermittent telling of the people that make up his memory, told through present and past encounters.
Threaded with overt references to the works of other writers (‘I thought about something Ocean Vuong has articulated’; ‘All morning I thought about Toni Morrison’; ‘This was what I suppose the writer Maggie Nelson means by…’; ‘Rachel Cusk wrote:’), the hybridity that Belcourt leans into with this novel makes it difficult to find a rhythm. It’s a disjointed narrative, but perhaps that’s the point; I’m reading a poet writing an essay writing a novel. This isn’t odd per se—poets are often other things too. I think of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of lectures delivered as essays to teach the reader about poetry’s affectations in the various nooks of our lives. Poetry and essay work together well. One can argue that the contemporary essay is an extension of poetry—a collection of thoughts that string together tight even as ideas and feelings breathe between the knots.
I think back to a writing exercise I used to do: (1) eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it word for word; (2) delete the repetitions, the ‘umms’ and ‘ands’ and ‘yeahs’. But to stop there would stultify the dialogue, so it must be further refined. There are snippets of dialogue in A Minor Chorus that I wish had been kneaded this way. Conversations that start with ‘hello’ and ‘what’s new’ jump quickly to long philosophical ruminations with little build-up, which makes it difficult to see how Belcourt’s characters land upon their ideas. As readers, a certain intimacy is needed in order for us to feel invested in a narrative. But Belcourt has taken on mammoth concepts and given himself under two hundred pages to explore them, which I suppose leaves little room for luxury. Perhaps this racy pacing is Belcourt saying ‘fuck it’. After all, he is attempting to annihilate the form. Unfortunately, it’s just shy of the theatricality required to do so.
The kinked dialogue is remedied through effortless poeticism combed into thickets of exposition. ‘What were two brown boys dancing in the forests of northern Alberta but glistening accidents, lowercase letters scribbled down for no one to see?’; ‘It was red, like an apple. I was a red man. My longing was red. My heart was a ripe fruit’. The buoyant ease of poetry pitted against the hesitant theorising of the novel makes sense, especially as the book’s main concern is the ethics of novel-writing. Belcourt uses the book to address the paradoxical nature of writing one’s Indigeneity through an institution built to bury it. How can a writer serve their community, particularly a disenfranchised one, when the tools available are the ones commonly used to subjugate it?
In his essay collection A History of My Brief Body (2020), the third essay, ‘Futuromania’ opens like this:
The aesthetic function of the novel, to my mind at least, is to whisper, to hide critique, to grab a reader by the throat with an invisible hand. I want no part in this. My provocations will be bare-faced. I won’t trick anyone. Maybe what I want is to be violent in an epistemic sense; the blood will not be on my hands but on my words. This is why I’m a poet above all else. Maybe it’s best if I admit everything that is fucked up about me and my writing practice in the first paragraph of any piece of writing.
He could easily have been thinking of the novel back then, and enacting those very words in A Minor Chorus. The two books function like a diptych, with nearly identical bibliographies; it’s possible he had been writing the two at once. And he’s right—he’s a poet above all else and the sincerity that poetry warrants disrupts the fabrication that fiction needs, making A Minor Chorus a dense paradox of self-reflexivity and restraint. The tension between fiction, theory, and poetry mimics the protagonist’s internal dialogue, contemplating whether a colony’s language can be used as a remedy in the first place.