The Rule of Stephens
By Timothy Taylor. Doubleday Canada, 230 pp, softcover
Most of what you need to know about Timothy Taylor’s new novel is contained in its title, and we’re about to explain that title now. Step away if you have to be surprised.
The “Stephens” invoked here are the physicist-philosopher Hawking and the horror-fiction innovator King; the “rule” is that the world has to operate according to rules laid down by either one or the other. Hawking’s universe is mysterious but orderly: forces act on other forces and there are consequences; logic can untangle any snarl. King’s, instead, embraces a mirror-image version of that most fatuous axiom “Everything happens for a reason.” Nothing happens for a reason on his terrain; the world is random and cruel.
Are these mutually exclusive world-views? Not when your protagonist has fallen 28,000 feet out of the sky when the airliner she’s riding in disintegrates, and then risen, barely scratched, from the chilly Atlantic off the Irish coast.
Catherine Bach is, she thinks, a staunch member of Hawking’s camp. A former trauma doctor in the Downtown Eastside, she wants to do well by doing good, and has come up with a brilliant self-care solution: an ingestible sensor that relays medical information from the body to a diagnostic computer app. Her problems are technological (how can the sensor attach itself to the stomach lining?) and financial (where will the money come from to take this to market?). A predatory venture capitalist offers opportunity, at first, and then a threat, but there are logical ways to deal with Morris Parmer.
More problematic is the deep sense of malaise that Bach’s accident and survival have unleashed. Into her self-willed world something malevolent has ventured, an evil power she visualizes as a swarm of screeching black birds pouring out of her chest. Inexplicable suicides mount around her. Cracks appear in her fortress of reason. And, most troublingly, she acquires a doppelgänger with the power to bring all of her careful plans to naught.
The tension between these polarities drives The Rule of Stephens, sometimes uncomfortably. It’s puzzling, for instance, that Taylor’s business whodunit is, at first, far more gripping than his supernatural horror story, with the two tales seemingly uneasy about sharing a single cover. Both angles are eventually reconciled, however, and while we won’t flag whether the ending is happy or not, we will say that Taylor’s third Vancouver-set novel is a compelling tale of morality, medical science, chance, and what it’s like to live right here, right now.