Book review: The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal by Sean Dixon

(cover image courtesy Harpers Collins Publishers Australia)

Book reading is, by and large, a blessedly passive activity.

Not so for the members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club of Montreal, the heartbeat and narrative core of The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal by Sean Dixon, who see the appreciation of all literature as an avowedly active pastime, involving meetings in condemning multi-story buildings, role play of the most mortal-endangering order and the kind of fierce discussion reserved for angry mafioso infighting.

It is not a club for the fainthearted which outsiders Anna and Dumuzi discover one night when they are contemplating sex in the near-condemned building her grandfather used to run as a clothing emporium and one of the more adventurous and idiosyncratic members of the Cabal (and that’s saying something!) falls through the ceiling onto them.

Runner Coghill, whose greatest literature treasure is the ten-tablet ancient Sumerian book known most popularly at The Epic of Gilgamesh (she calls it The Man Who Saw Everything) bequeathed to her by her late father, falls at the feet of the couple who exist more as a reluctant twosome in Anna’s eyes and as an unrequited possibility by Dumuzi or Du.

It is not the most conventional of meetings but then it is entirely fitting that the Cabal should make their illegal presence known to the building’s owner and her male admirer – Anna has significant issues with intimacy and commitment and is having trouble giving herself to Du in any meaningful way – in this way and that they should get to know each other better at the city’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

This odd coming together, which in short order, introduces Anna and Du to the club’s other members such as near-autocratic leader Missy Bean, spiked-haired Romy, diffident transwoman Aline Irwin, singer Priya Underhay (everyone else is singularly book focused), heartbroken Emmy Jones, Jennifer and Danielle (who act as the narrators of the book which recalls the events of 2003) and heartbroken Emmy Jones.

“‘It’s a special, unique look,’ she said, sighing happily and lying back into the pillow that was big for her head if not her eyes. ‘We just have to do it in our special, unique way.’

Neil was full of ideas for how the Lacuna Cabal could do the book in a unique way, but before they could be expressed they were interrupted by the entrance of the new girl, Anna, bearing a glass of water.” (P. 61)

Described as “freaks” at one point by Dumizi, the members of the club are hard people to love.

They are attached to each other after a fashion and Missy, for one, is frequently described as being deeply moved by the plight of members of the group she founded and rules with an easily-irked iron fist.

But they are weird, strange and utterly quirky people who see nothing untoward in re-enacting the books they are reading in ways that might be viewing as impolite and socially awkward at best and damn near illegal and fatal for those involved at worst.

They take their literature so seriously in fact that while they are together as a club, the bonds of friendship and togetherness seem tenuous at best at times, strained of late by the deaths of a couple of members who died not so much at the group’s hand but more from close proximity to them.

Into this often benighted mix come Runner’s younger brother Neil – her only surviving member after a terrible fate befalls the rest of their family – and Dumuzi’s AT robot creating housemate Coby who comes to know one member of the Cabal’s strange ranks in a decidedly Biblical way that verges on statutory rape.

If you think this all sounds very offbeat, you are right with The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal often veering so darkly and deeply into a quirky storytelling space that it’s hard to conceive of people like this existing, having anything to do with each other and actually liking each other in any way.

Sean Dixon (image courtesy official Sean Dixon Goodreads page)

It’s clear we are meant to think they are devoted to each other but in a weird, individualistic dysfuntional way, but the net effect, for a reader at least, is a huge emotional distance between you and the characters.

It means that though there are some potentially engagingly serious issues covered in The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal such as death, loss, trauma, social isolation, love, both unrequited, familial and manipulative, you tend to view from a great remove, untroubled by some fairly intense developments such as the death of one of the major characters.

This loss should affect you far more than it actually does, but affecting though it is in its way, it is caught up in the book’s unending drive to be the quirkiest of all quirky books you have ever read.

In and of itself that’s fine to a point; the novel is beautifully written as an exploration of the sheer weirdness and strangeness of life, expertly capturing how the seemingly ordinary things of life can be quite odd if looked at them out of the melee of the rat race, something few of us ever get to do but which the narrators, Jennifer and Danielle, are perfectly situated for.

But the quirky saturation of the story means that for all its cleverness and amusing back-and-forths, it is lacking in any real sense of emotional accessibility, save for the final 50 pages or so when the characters are finally allowed to reveal something of their true selves.

“So Aline explained as best he could, with his limited knowledge of the epic, how the the Lacuna Cabal had been acting out the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but then how someone had died and everything had changed; how the story had been abandoned by everyone except the young boy in question, Neil Coghill; how he was, after all, just a boy, so such an event would inspire in him such a peregrination; also how he had taken the story rather more seriously than anyone would have wished.” (P. 303)

It feels like you are relate to these characters, who are facing some very real, almost devastating events in their lives, through a fog or a screen, an indication that if you want to tell an affecting tale in a quirky style that you need to make sure the former is not swamped by the latter.

Having said all that, The Last Days of the Laguna Cabal is a thoroughly, unique read that manages to be very much an original voice in an ocean of books trying desperately to fit one reader-happy genre slot or another.

But unlike another similarly quirky book, If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll, which artfully balanced oddness with real emotional resonance, The Last Days of the Laguna Cabal, though replete with interesting characters, poignancy and an evocative take on humanity’s capacity to be thoroughly selfish even when what is needed is selflessness, fails to sparks any any sense of real emotional engagement.

It’s a fun, bravely one-of-a-kind read with a lot of great things to say which are said in an impressively original way but it fails to hold your attention over the long term, meaning that for all its good points, it ultimately fails to land the kind of emotional punch and impacting thoughtfulness it seems to be aiming for.

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