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Writing on the Borderline: Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall) and Marjorie Celona (Y)

Écrire les confins : Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall) and Marjorie Celona (Y)
Catherine Rovera


Nous nous proposons d’examiner ici deux premiers romans fascinants, tant du point de vue de l’intrigue que de l’écriture: The Shock of the Fall du Britannique Nathan Filer, poète et infirmier psychiatrique de surcroît, et Y de Marjorie Celona, jeune auteur originaire de Colombie-Britannique. Ces deux récits à la première personne font état du mal-être de leurs protagonistes respectifs, Matthew et Shannon, deux adolescents qui ont vécu un événement ou une enfance traumatique ayant fait d’eux des inadaptés sociaux. L’un est hanté par la mort de son frère et interné en hôpital psychiatrique ; l’autre a été victime de maltraitance dans l’une de ses nombreuses familles d’accueil. À l’image de ces deux personnages à la dérive, le récit peine à s’inscrire dans le paysage littéraire et reste en marge des grandes tendances du roman britannique et canadien contemporain. Nous tenterons de montrer comment les deux romans revisitent tour à tour la maladie mentale et la question de la filiation.

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1The purpose of this paper is to introduce two debut novels, by British stand-up poet Nathan Filer and Canadian writer Marjorie Celona respectively. In the context of an ever more globalized literary landscape, it does make sense to examine these two works concurrently. For one thing, both novelists are, each in their own way, border-crossers, writing across genres and mental territories: the former is a Bristol-based performance poet-cum-registered mental health nurse, while the latter has lived in British Columbia, the United States and Scotland, and her first novel was born from a short story of the same name. Strikingly enough, both novels have a troubled teenage narrator, someone in his or her late teens who lives on the edge (one is a schizophrenic and the other a drifter), and beyond their domestic plots and disrupted families, they address issues of genealogy, inheritance and adolescent mental health. But, first and foremost, they remain borderline fictions that ignore some of the big issues of postmodernity.

2In contemporary British fiction, mental disorder has often been used as a key device to represent the fragmentary nature of postmodernity, with characters suffering from an acute sense of social alienation. Yet unlike many of its ‘postmodern’ counterparts, The Shock of the Fall dismisses the social and cultural background of its angst-ridden protagonist. And even though it casually exposes the flaws in the British mental health system, it is far removed from any consideration on psychiatry. What we have, instead, is a self-absorbed narrative, solely focused on the personal experience of the character and mimetic of his obsessive thought-patterns: ‘borderline’ can be taken here at its face value, in the clinical sense of the word—a serious mental illness considered to be somewhere between psychosis and neurosis, whereby the patient suffers from unstable interpersonal relationships, as well as unstable self-image and affects.

3Indeed, The Shock of the Fall is a first-person account, by a would-be writer, of his descent into schizophrenia in the aftermath of his brother's death, and of his treatment in a mental hospital in Bristol. His therapy is portrayed with wry humour: ‘This is my care plan: As a small boy I killed my own brother, and now I must kill him again. I'm given medicine to poison him, then questioned to make sure he’s dead’ (Filer 280). Nineteen-year-old narrator Matthew Holmes is haunted by the death of his brother Simon, which occurred ten years before, and suffers from command hallucinations—spoken orders from his dead brother that compel him to perform certain acts. When he starts writing his story, he has been locked up for nearly two years on ‘Crazy Crazy NutsNuts ward’.

4In terms of narrative technique, the novel bears some of the hallmarks of postmodernism, starting with self-reflexivity. The protagonist is nicknamed ‘writer in residence’ by the hospital staff, and the boundaries between art and everyday life are often blurred while, at the same time, as a self-conscious narrator he constantly points his finger at his own literary construct/artefact. The novel thus abounds with examples of mise en abyme, self-portrait and direct address: ‘This is my life. I’m nineteen years old, and the only thing I have any control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story’ (Filer 89). In addition, the narrator moves back and forth in time in a playful manner, so that the tragedy is re-enacted several times from slightly different angles and the story moves in concentric circles.

5Meanwhile, the way the novel is edited is reminiscent of a scrapbook, with short chapters that follow one another like a series of vignettes. The visual dimension of the book also accounts for its experimental quality, as the reader is presented with letters, drawings, a family tree or ‘genogram’, medical definitions and so on. Moreover, some pages have a different layout and even a different typography, most notably through the use of a typewriter. As a result, what we have is a hybrid text that pushes the boundaries of the novel towards such forms as the diary, poetic fragments, drama or autofiction.

6According to the authors of Madness in Post-1945 British and American Fiction, a ‘psychotic text’ is less a novel ‘about madness’ than a novel which takes us ‘inside madness’ (Baker 166). But Filer’s novel does not quite match the description of a ‘psychotic’—therefore unreadable—text like William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, even though in one of its most intriguing passages, which reads like a pastiche of a medical report (‘Diagnosis: The Slithery Snake’), one may at first wonder who is in charge. The novel is more hypnotic than psychotic, as it is based on obsessive patterns and recurring metaphors. That of the snake, for instance, is meant to suggest that Matthew's elusive disease ‘with the shape and sound of a snake’ (Filer 166) is partly the result of genetic factors. Suspecting that insanity runs or ‘slithers’ in his family, the protagonist assumes that he himself is doomed.

7There is a more complex leitmotiv (or conceit) borrowed from physics. Fascinated by elementary particles, Matthew wonders if memories too are made of atoms, because then his brother may still be alive somewhere and his spirit may even someday materialize. Just like the moon circling around the earth, his late moon-faced brother (who had Down Syndrome) hovers around him and conversely, in a desperate attempt to retrieve his dead sibling in every particle of matter, Matthew gravitates toward Simon. This paradigm is closely related to the underlying pattern of the novel, with a story moving in concentric circles: ‘We move in circles, this illness and me. We are electrons orbiting a nucleus’ (Filer 306). That was beautifully suggested by the original title of the novel, Where the Moon Isn't.

8‘Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass’ (Celona 1). This is from the one-paragraph prologue, which reads like an ode to the letter Y. And then, the first line of the novel reads: ‘My life begins at the Y’ (Celona 3). As a newborn, Shannon was dropped on the doorstep of the local YMCA on Vancouver Island and from then on, she has been tossed around from one foster home to another (and even abused). She wants to go back to her roots, and with the help of an eyewitness named Vaughn, she manages to locate her birth mother, Yula.

9The novel can best be defined as a Bildungsroman or a coming-of-age quest, as we follow the protagonist up until her seventeenth birthday. In terms of narrative technique, we have a two-track narrative, or a ‘fork in the road’ with two parallel lines/lanes. On the main one, which is told in the first person and in the present tense, we follow Shannon’s life from infancy to the age of seventeen. The second one, Yula’s story, is interwoven with her daughter’s and focuses on the few days leading up to Shannon’s birth. It unfolds very much like a prophecy (as well as a countdown), as it is often told in the first person and in the present tense from the point of view of the unborn daughter. The two narratives converge at the end when Shannon finds Yula.

10Another powerful device is the use of the cinematic technique of the split screen, with two independent, intersecting storylines. In the opening chapter, we alternately see Yula dropping her baby in front of the YMCA and Vaughn witnessing the scene from his car, according to the Jungian principle of ‘synchronicity’—two events which are seemingly causally unrelated, and yet occur together in a meaningful manner. It is no coincidence that Vaughn is a seer: he has the gift of prediction and believes that ‘[m]ost things are, in some sense, predetermined’ (Celona 208).

11What is also compelling is the way in which Celona revisits the orphan tale. Besides an allusion to Tom Jones, we have some of the staple ingredients of the foundling narrative, namely a dysfunctional family and an abusive father figure. Yet unlike her fellow orphans of Victorian fiction who are all filled with great expectations, Shannon sees her future as ‘full of impossibility’ (Celona 266) and feels better off roaming the streets in derelict downtowns.

12One may wonder if Celona’s novel fits in with the current trends in Canadian fiction. Contemporary Canadian fiction is strongly contextual, often grounded in specific historical and cultural contexts, which is not the case in Y. According to Marta Dvorak, Canadian fiction is also characterized by ‘a blending of the high literary tradition with the folk tales, tall tales, and local legends of popular oral culture’ (Kröller 164), which is not the case either. But she notes ‘a return to, and subversion of, historical fiction, life writing, and the bildungsroman (the latter nudged back towards its original eighteenth-century focus on the sociocultural forces that shape the protagonist)’ (Kröller 164).

13Significantly, Y, which sounds like a first-hand testimony of someone in foster care, raises the issue of maternal inheritance and social determinism. Moreover, through Yula’s heartwrenching story, the novel takes us into the mind of a trailer-trash mother who got her first child at fifteen—a small boy called Eugene—and is involved in a ‘toxic relationship’ with a drug addict (Shannon’s father). Through sheer carelessness, she lets her son die as he mistakes cocaine for sugar. When Shannon finally finds her, she lives ‘at the edge of reality, beholden to no one’ (Celona 68), in a secluded place half-way up a mountain, looking after her suicidal father—as a way of seeking atonement perhaps: ‘Every time he falls asleep, she places her hand on the back of his head, hoping to finally feel his spirit lift out and away. She imagines the weight of being an orphan—suddenly, unexpectedly’ (Celona 341).

14In her seminal study, Coral Ann Howells observes that ‘[t]he quest pattern . . . has gained a particular resonance’ among women’s revisions of traditional narrative genres (Howells 187), as evidenced by two novels which, like Y, are set in British Columbia and have alienated teenage female narrators: Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning (1997) and Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000). Both are told from a postcolonial-feminist perspective and characterized by a ‘double exposure’, or tension, between native myths and cultural traditions on the one hand and English-Canadian education on the other hand. But against this backdrop, Y looks even more like an outlier, a borderline case. Indeed, it departs from the wilderness quest narrative, deeply rooted in oral storytelling, as well as from the narrative mode of magic realism which is one of the distinctive features of Anderson-Dargatz’s writing. Like The Shock of the Fall, albeit in a less experimental mode, Y is more than anything else a compelling example of a renewed interest in narrative and storytelling while, at the same time, challenging the idea of writing as salvation.

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Baker, Charley, B. J. Brown, Ronald Carter, Paul Crawford & Maurice Lipsedge, Madness in Post-1945 British and American Fiction, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Celona, Marjorie, Y, Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, 2012.

Filer, Nathan, The Shock of the Fall, London: Harper Collins, 2013.

Howells, Coral Ann, Contemporary Canadian Women’s Fiction: Refiguring Indentities, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Jung, Carl Gustav, Synchronicity—An Acausal Connecting Principle, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Kröller, Eva-Marie, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature, Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

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Catherine Rovera, « Writing on the Borderline: Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall) and Marjorie Celona (Y) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Rovera

Université Paris-Dauphine, ITEM-E.N.S.-C.N.R.S.
Catherine Rovera is Senior lecturer at the Université Paris-Dauphine and a member of the James Joyce team at ITEM-C.N.R.S. (Institut des textes et manuscrits modernes). She wrote her doctoral thesis on Jean Rhys's fiction and is currently working on Jean Rhys's manuscripts and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake notebooks. Besides codicology and genetic criticism, her research focuses on the relationship between modernist writing and British popular culture, in particular Victorian and Edwardian music-hall. She is also working for the publishing house Gallimard, reading mostly contemporary British and North-American fiction.

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