Norm Sibum, draft dodger, still looking back to America.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with poet and novelist Norm Sibum, author of The Traymore Rooms. This is the 700 page book that “nearly bankrupted” Biblioasis, according to the host of their Toronto launch party. The last time I spoke with Norm, he was sitting on my back balcony with a few others the night before I moved. He pointed out that I had way too many loose ends to be moving the next day, and then sent me to find him a corkscrew amongst the boxes. It was well past 3 a.m., and it took the promise of more wine on the other end of town to get him into a cab.
The novel revolves around Calhoun’s new neighbours in the Traymore and their intersecting social lives both in their Montreal apartment building and on the Blue Danube’s sidewalk patio next door. Around fifty pages in, Sibum titles a chapter “The Beginning of a Proper Narrative,” but such a narrative still proves elusive. There’s a bit of sexual tension between the narrator, Calhoun, and waitress and Classics student, Moonface. To tell the truth, I’m sure if I didn’t know the author I probably would’ve set this behemoth aside and left it lying around as one of those things I was ‘going to finish’ for all eternity.
By page 150 of The Traymore Rooms, there’s been a murder mystery, Calhoun’s best friend has died, and he has started having visions of an American cheerleader from his Utah high school. The layers of epithets, visions, and subtly variant descriptions build into the psychic world of a narrator who bumbles through sexual exploits and crises amongst the Traymoreans with his mind on Virgil, Tacitus, and comparisons between Rome and the USA. Calhoun is a draft-dodger from the Vietnam era, and he never really gives up living in America. An attachment to the old country is celebrated as multiculturalism in Canada when the subject comes from the subaltern world to escape poverty, war, and famine.
Personally, I am a bit more skeptical when Americans (and Brits, too) come with the same attitude, and treat their stay in Canada as some kind of exile, always looking back. What’s the difference between a 1-A American and an émigré from beyond the Iron Curtain? Maybe it comes down to the reputation American tourists and expats have of treating the rest of the world like the lobby of the Hilton.
As incredibly banal conversations between characters revolve repeatedly around Bush and Obama, I’m not convinced Sibum has checked out. To the book’s credit, it’s mostly about sexual politics, death, and having neighbours you actually know, however much Biblioasis touts it as salient satire.
Tobias Carrol at Time Out describes the novel as “personal and political chatter,” with a few well-placed and beautiful sentences. The appeal that pulled me through the rest of the book was the sense that while reading it, I was sitting on the terrasse of the Blue Danube as well. Sibum opens up his miniature universe of The Traymore Rooms with a mixture of kindness and criticism. The length becomes an asset as the episodes come to resemble actual, and not novelistic time. How many times have you heard your friends tell the same story, or found yourself hacking out the same conversation at the same kitchen or bar table with the same person, getting nowhere fast? At one point, a character uses the word “journey” as a metaphor for life, despite Calhoun’s aversion to such a “bourgeois” turn of phrase. Sibum’s antidote to such a middle class sense of purpose is the meandering life, lingering on the boulevard—a kind of aristocratic rebellion.
As John Domini points out, the titular Traymore is a franglais “trés-more,” which fits into all the hype about the novel’s size. However, it’s also trés-mort, for an apartment building where no less than three people die, with one elderly resident on the brink of death throughout. In one character’s hyperbolic French, living “en traymore” may even refer to “entre mer et monts.” It comes from Daniel 11:45: “He will pitch the tents of his royal headquarters between the sea and the mountains of the Holy Splendor. Yet he will come to his end—there will be no help for him.” The Saint Lawrence might not be the sea, and Mont-Royal is only a hill, but the aggrandized pessimism of Daniel 11:45 is all there in Calhoun’s account of his lonely life.