David Zieroth's The November Optimist is a bravura performance

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The November Optimist
By David Zieroth. Gaspereau, 92 pp, softcover

Aside from the poetry of Russell Thornton, it’s seldom—too seldom—that we see literature that stakes out North Vancouver as its inspiration and terrain. This fact alone makes The November Optimist, David Zieroth’s story (or novella, or whatever it should be called) all the more remarkable. Zieroth’s unnamed narrator is a flâneur, sauntering aimlessly around Lonsdale, silently making note of everything and everybody he sees, sitting in endless coffee shops, stumbling upon a film shoot in progress, eyeing his fellow passengers riding the blue buses, wondering how best to engage with homeless people but not actually doing so.

“So I happen to be walking in the later afternoon, on a street I’ve walked before, when I happen to catch through trees the sight of my city rising beyond its blue harbour. A never-before-seen foreshortened dimension appears. I am floating over its bright vast space, its towers lit from above, reflecting glass reflecting glass back and ablaze in yellow, cream, red, mauve. The sun lowers itself behind clouds. Some lights dim down and others flip on, squares in a wall of squares spelling liveliness nearby.” The man who’s saying this to himself recalls Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, scurrying around Dublin. There’s also something Proustian about him. He not only overthinks everything, he overfeels it as well.

He’s the supreme introvert. But his well-regulated emotions are tested by the sight of a woman, one of mature years, it seems, about whom his mind dreams up various biographies and scenarios. To him, she becomes the “belle dame de mystère” with whom he could never actually interact except through the medium of his expectant fantasy. “So you want to be persuaded it’s in your XX chromosomes,” he says to her in his imagination. “You want to be made to feel special. Well, of course, yes, and to ask the question reveals a lack of understanding and sensitivity verging on offence…” Here’s a highly intelligent and terribly bookish fellow who keeps being reminded of sentences in books and quoting them to himself as his thoughts somehow come into sharp focus even while they meander.

Although Zieroth has published prose before, he’s far better known as a poet (he won the Governor General’s Award in 2009). But in this bravura performance—a real high-wire act of writing—he enters into a class and type of sophisticated fiction symbolized by Ticknor, Sheila Heti’s debut novel in 2005 that overnight made her a figure to be listened to and reckoned with.

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