What do you get when you take four emerging Edmonton writers and give them each a quadrant of their city to explore? In Project Compass, publisher and editor Jason Lee Norman has assembled a crack crew to take readers on an odyssey through a city that, despite producing its fair share of writers, is rarely the explicit setting of their stories. The result is an engaging and emotionally-arresting collection of four concurrent novellas that all unwind on June 21, 2016. Starting from the north, south, east, and west, we follow four Edmontonians as they wander their way through the longest day of the year and reflect on the paths they have taken.
In the north, Lizzie Derksen charts a meandering and contemplative course through the life of an unnamed fifty-year old as she walks down a traumatic memory lane. Derken’s second person narration and careful stenography of details lend an affecting immediacy to the tale of the protagonist’s estrangement from her husband and six kids, creating a sense of desolation which lingers long after the novella is complete.
At the same time, Kristina Vyskocil takes us to the south, where a hapless millennial named Terri endeavours to reassemble her life after a bad breakup, with the help of her friend and life coach Mike. Vyskocil maintains a fine line between comedy and pathos as Terri drives, Ubers, and bikes her way through the city, never seeming to get where she needs to be, metaphorically or geographically.
From the east, Matthew Stepanic follows undergraduate Alex as he jumps from hook-up to hook-up in a quest for connection, all the while avoiding an impending party where he will undoubtedly meet Jacob, his ex. Through skilfully-rendered sexcapades that cycle between tender, tantalizing, and awkward and Alex’s reflections, Stepanic investigates everything from the possibility of alternative universes to the shifting currents of politics and being queer in Alberta.
In the west, Robert Strong introduces us to curmudgeonly Conrad, who still lives in the starter home he bought in the seventies, even if he never managed to have a family. Instead, he spends his days watching the children do their “playground politics” across the street, and engaging in power struggles with his caregiver Charlie. Through kitchen chats and car rides, Strong deftly captures the ebb and flow of how Conrad and Charlie need each other, while slowly revealing their true relationship.
As the chapters of the novellas are interlaced and proceed in chronological fashion, there are many ways to read this experimental novel. I’m glad that I read the book cover to cover, because the occasional struggle to recall what was happening to a specific character was easily ameliorated by the sense of immersion in the characters’ collective march from dawn to evening. Throughout, it is the character of Edmonton itself that shines through Project Compass, from overt references to Folk Fest and K-Days to the way that all of the protagonists wind up in the river valley, the nucleus of the city. From the four compass points, we are set loose in a beguiling city of big box retail and brutalist architecture, peopled by characters stuck in unfulfilled and failed relationships who drift through life unable to make the changes they need to. Together, Derksen, Vyskocil, Stepanic, and Strong paint a compassionate yet accurate portrait of a city that “was not built for people…actually it was built for infrastructure,” and of a “city of destinations and landmarks, and the people just filled them.” We meet people who are perpetually thwarted by ubiquitous summer construction, train crossings, Conservative politicians, and ultimately themselves.
Project Compass is one of a series of Edmontonian literary adventures that Jason Lee Norman has created and curated. Besides editing two volumes of local hibernal writing (2013’s 40 Below: Edmonton’s Winter Anthology and 40 Below 2: Alberta’s Winter Anthology), he is the also the culprit behind #yegwords coffee sleeves, where local independent coffee shops wrapped their beverages in short stories and poems, and Edmonton International Airport’s new Short Story Dispenser, which similarly provides travellers with local literary produce. Project Compass is the third product to emerge from Lee Norman’s Monto Books, a new publishing house that seeks to “capture the spirit of Edmonton and share it with the world.”
For me, the spirit of Edmonton has always been people banding together to make something great and memorable despite the odds. Project Compass succeeds in interweaving four compelling and intelligent novellas that could only have emerged from the crucible of the North Saskatchewan river valley, and yet manage to engage with the universal Gauganian questions of self: where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown of Edmonton for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at his MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.