What is Ken Sparling up to? Why does the Toronto-based writer compose novels the way he does? His first, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, had chapters and a story spiraling in many different directions, told by many different voices. For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers from 2005 is one dose of text in 117 pages. The text is in small paragraphs, each of which could be considered a very short fiction in itself. Like Dad Says, For Those has many voices, some in first person, some in third. Some of the same characters, Tutti (a wife figure) and Sammy (a son figure), from the first novel reappear. And as in the first, many of the narrators are domesticated men who are having trouble finding their place in the world. Parents die, children cry and above all God, the operative word in the title, can sometimes be an asshole. Many of the narrators wonder what they are doing on this earth and one questions God, though God doesn’t answer.
People are upset in For Those, people miscommunicate, people want to know what is going and what is going to happen. The result is glorious romp about anger, disappointment and enlightenment. Early on, one encounters this paragraph:
“People feel pretty good when they laugh, so they like to laugh every chance they get. Laughing is about all you get these days. It is also supposed to be medicinally beneficial, which is a real bonus for those attempting to extend their time on this earth so they can squeeze in a few more laughs. You don’t get a lot of the deep heartfelt sadness these days. Laughing is about the best you can actually hope for anymore.” p.35
A few pages later, a zen element that lurks behind many nuggets in the book leaps out, again focused on laughter, but as serious as a spinal tap:
“Mom thought it was great that I could make her laugh. But it wasn’t. It was the only way I could survive. I had to make her laugh or I was dead. I had no choice. No one does. Whenever you think you have a choice, you don’t. You don’t do anything by choice. Everything you do, you have to do. If you think you are doing something by choice, it just means you aren’t doing anything.” p.40
These sections are the products of people caught in the reversals of life. One is constantly walking on ice, at any minute something can snap and give way. Yes, one can get married and have kids, but that is work. Then one has to make money and go shopping for food. Then our parents die, but how do we keep on going? Sparling seems to suggest we might as well try to enjoy it and if that means letting loose some anger, so be it.
It is a wonder to be able to open a novel at any page and read a section without having to start from the beginning without missing anything. It is unknown whether this is Sparling’s preferred way to digest his work, but I see his novels more as devotional texts that can be opened anywhere for a source of illumination and comedic non-sequitor. We are not meant to puzzle things together à la Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. As Beckett said at the end of Watt, there are “no symbols where none intended.”
Some sections of the book deal with writers (as well as God, author of humankind) examining their process, their troubles. At one point, one loses their pen, but knows the exact time it was lost—4:34p.m. Arguments between husband and wife and parents and children have weighed on this narrator (sometimes a thread can be made out), but also the most improbable illumination can come about in the most improbable environment, as seen here:
“I was in Canadian Tire looking for garbage bags and at the same time—simultaneously, as they say—I was looking for the story of my return. Well, in actuality, I was looking for my return. Looking to give you the story. So, actually, there were three things. Me, what I wanted most, was my return. But I also wanted the story of my return, which ostensibly, is for you, but it is really for me. All of it. Also, I wanted garbage bags. This most pressing. I had to get garbage bags. Line up at the checkout. Pay for the garbage bags. And get out of Canadian Tire.” p.83
We are all looking to get somewhere and most of us want to go home—whatever that word means to us. This paragraph strikes me as about the artist’s struggle more anything. One creates in order to live, to move on into a higher realm, but still one has to take out the garbage. This section comes in the midst of the heart of the novel, roughly pages 75-86. Many astonishing passages hold sway including a domestic picnic scene replayed twice, a tidbit from the making of Gladiator, Alfred crying, dreams of naked girls, a hilarious moment in a creative writing workshop, Sammy playing with his friends and things breaking, the man who never wears dirty socks and, to cap it off, a stunning scene with a mother:
“I brought myself to climb the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. Mother was dead.
“Are you dead?” I called.
“You are dead, aren’t you?”
Her eyes were open. p.85
Anything can happen in a Ken Sparling novel and it does. The narrators rail, anger and tears flow, but people laugh and make up. God, people think, is above, but not really. Maybe he is on the street smoking a cigarette, betting on a horse race. What God wants can’t be discovered and often what we want can’t be uncovered. Sparling sees the humor in this and For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers delivers.
The book was originally published by Pedlar Press. Amazon currently lists it for $200, but why make a middle man rich? Go Canadian. Chapters has it for a reasonable price. Even better, Ken has a box of them and would be happy to send them to people. Contact him at kensparling (at) live.ca