1289 Margins, outskirts, outliers

Satellite Love
by Genki Ferguson

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (McClelland and Stewart), 2021
$24.95 / 9780771049873

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski

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Lou Reed’s well-known rock song of 1972, “Satellite of love,” a deliciously oddball piece, contains as one of its very few lines, “Things like that drive me out of my mind.” Those familiar with the song just might find this line playing on hard repeat in the back of their minds as they immerse themselves in the world of Genki Ferguson’s Satellite Love.

 A well-chosen title can say a lot about a novel. Exactly how much that is true of this book will become fully evident only once readers are well into the story. As the title suggests, it is a love story. Of sorts. The word “love” in the title of a novel obviously (and, in this case, misleadingly) sets up a lot of expectations, yes, but what about the companion word – “satellite”? Of course, lots of metaphors and analogies offer themselves, all within the orbit of “satellite.” Even so, the word necessarily evokes something mechanical and functional, not fertile ground for rich emotional themes. Not only this fundamental dichotomy in tone between the two words of the title, but also the deep oddness of associating love with a satellite says something about the punch and tang of the whole book.

Some might be tempted to call this oddness “whimsical.” Others might choose to invoke the term “magic realism” as the story evolves, or still others to speak of “fantasy.” Ferguson provides plenty of fodder for all such terms, but deftly eludes allowing any of them much sticking power.

Consider: Anna, the victim of school bullying and remote from her only parent, her mother, finds herself fascinated with a satellite in the night sky. She also finds herself drawn to a misfit new classmate, a boy who speaks in a kind of telegraphese and otherwise signals his outsider status with a cleft lip and missing tooth. What she doesn’t at first realize is that the satellite in low earth orbit that she finds fascinating is observing her from its “omniscient” position — and shares its observations with the readers. But it doesn’t stop there: Anna decides to bring the satellite down to earth in the shape of a young man (exactly what shape we find out only near the end of the novel) and, for obvious reasons, called Leo. And, to prove an important point about the nature of faith, she decides to build a rocket ship. Why not? Such is the nature of this novel that that is exactly what she does.

Vancouver writer Genki Ferguson. Photo by Dasha Yildirim

Three other characters complicate matters — Fumi is an excruciatingly banal example of the pretty girl type; Anna’s grandfather is so far gone in dementia that he has no idea who Anna is; and, finally, the deaf and blind “General,” as Anna calls him, now a resident in a care home, is purported to have hidden out for several decades after the Second World War.

It is misleading, though, to say that this outline of the relatively simply storyline is what the novel is “about.” Much more accurately, it is about outskirts, margins, outliers. So powerful is this current of alienation throughout the novel, that it is hard not to feel that the story comes secondarily, as a kind of logical emanation of the book’s real subject matter.

Even the setting is connected: the Japanese city in which the story takes place is off-centre — Sakita is virtually derelict, scarred with failed-industrial decay and architectural collapse. As such, it functions as an evocative backdrop to a story of not belonging, of being treated as an outsider, of acting as an outsider and even looking like an outsider.

Even Anna’s mother was herself bullied in school through something called the “diseased child” game, one where a child is singled out and abused as if she is diseased. Anna, for her part, is given a taunting nickname, and teased mercilessly about her cheap, fast food lunches, amongst other things. More important, though, the very notion of loneliness repeats and echoes throughout the book. In the words of the satellite, “Scattered throughout the Earth were thousands of Annas, whose only purpose was to serve as an outsider, a warning against breaking unstated social norms.”

Reduced even further, the book is not just about loneliness and alienation, but also about decay — decay of memory, decay of sight and hearing, decay of the body, decay of religious faith, decay of the imagination, and, most disturbingly, decay of sanity. Appropriately, the book opens, “Did you know most people are hollow?” Anna, the speaker at this point, insists that “emptiness is something you can’t come back from.” And Anna is not alone. As Ferguson makes clear, other characters feel exactly the same way, sometimes using the same word, “hollow” to describe themselves. As Soki goes to make a tribute at a temple, he observes, “The coin had a hole in the middle too, just like me.”

The dementia of Anna’s grandfather, like the blindness and deafness of the “General,” paves the way to the more fundamental theme of the book — the disappearance of the “kami” (like spirits, but understood fully only in terms of traditional Japanese Shintu). This, in turn, is linked to the tension running throughout the novel between rationality and scepticism on the one side and, on the other, faith in a spiritual reality. Epitomizing the conflict is the fact Anna goes to a clairvoyant to find out what is wrong with her, “my brain or my heart.” At first, the Satellite becomes the almost comic spokesman of all things rational and quantifiable, observing of Anna, for example, “she was exhibiting 12% more melancholy than the night before, 3% more yearning.” Almost comic here, a similar trait finds more deeply human qualities in the form of Soki’s father, once a Shintu priest, now a disillusioned rationalist.

The active response to this rationalism takes repeated and complex form in both Anna and Soki. Soki’s reaction is largely traditional: he attempts to reenact some Shintu rituals, even to the point of putting himself through a thousand prayer sequences outside a temple.

Anna’s reaction to the absent kami is utterly different. Far from engaging in traditional rituals, she intermeshes Shintu kami with Nordic myth (as does the General) and, even more oddly, with machinery of the modern world. In addition, for her, the kami become elusive obsessions, transcendent beings whose existence she becomes determined to lock down: “If I were able to prove that the kami were real, I could be the one to tell Soki that we weren’t alone, that there was something looking out for us.”

It is characteristic of Anna’s driven personality, however, that, these “kami” wouldn’t be just benign presences but beings whom she could “ask to let us leave this unworthy world,” and, more alarmingly, “Ask to inflict divine punishment on those who’ve wronged us.” Concerned as she is about the link between mechanical objects and kami, her decision to build her rocket seems just the most colourful extension of her concatenating personality.

It is typical of Ferguson that he doesn’t show his hand. Clearly sympathetic to his two young protagonists, he doesn’t so obviously endorse their almost comically extravagant quests. In fact, consistently, he lets the veins of dark emotions and thoughts run throughout the book entirely in their own terms. The little line drawings dotted throughout the book are so simple and clean that they only reinforce the sense of the author’s tonal detachment.

Genki Ferguson. Courtesy YouTube

At the same time, Ferguson accentuates the difficult elements of his characters’ lives by immersing them in an almost relentlessly linear plot of escalating darkness. Anna becomes more and more obsessive, even violently paranoid and terrifyingly delusional. Her final climactic act — an attempt to escape the world she repeatedly calls “rotten” — ends explosively.

But, provocatively, Ferguson doesn’t make the nihilistic reader’s life easy: on the contrary, he not only provides flashes of humour, but more important, allows his characters genuinely touching and heartfelt moments. Almost out of the blue, Anna is told by the General she has a “good heart;” equally out of the blue, Anna herself hugs her grandfather who, having no idea that she is his granddaughter, admits “sometimes, people just need to be held.” Extravagantly, the author even shows the final catastrophe simultaneously to be, in the grandfather’s eyes, a “great beauty.”

Most significantly, however, Ferguson makes this otherwise disturbing tale also a love story — as the title suggests — and, after the drainingly bleak latter part of the book, he presents love as something entirely the opposite, as a quiet and caring devotion.

Getting to that point, however, isn’t easy. On the contrary. As a story of love, this novel seems, at first, a story of a love driven by obsession, jealousy, hurt, and anger. In one paragraph alone Ferguson uses the terms “bitterness and longing,” “mourning,” “remorse,” “jealousy,” and “self-loathing.”

Considering the legions of love stories in the literatures of the world, writing a love story from a completely fresh angle would be a bit of a challenge. The particular tropes Ferguson chooses have a long history: the love triangle (or, more accurately, two love triangles), young love, and communication gone disastrously askew. In his hands, however, the story does seem fresh, primarily because of the way he deeply integrates it into Anna’s highly-charged personality and, simultaneously, because of the sheer energy he gives her emotional life.

Accepting (for now) the validity of Leo’s viewpoint, Ferguson makes absolutely explicit through his “omniscient” comments how Anna’s quickly developing “adoration” turns to “infatuation,” and, more alarmingly, something much darker: “for Anna, life and love could only be contained in obsessions.” At first Anna’s attraction to the new boy, Soki, she frames as “karmic connection.” As Soki’s interests seem to veer off course, though, Anna is not happy, to say the least. Enter Leo.

At its most elevated moments, the relationship is moving. Laughing together with Anna at a drive-in movie with an inaudible sound track, for example, Leo says of Anna as a strand of hair catches in her mouth, “It was the most beautiful thing I had every seen.” Fine as far as it goes, the story of love involving Leo produces a difficulty for readers — and the fundamental impasse of the book. As both Leo and Anna keep reminding each other, he doesn’t actually exist. He is a figment. “You’re imaginary, a coping mechanism used to deal with intense isolation. I made you up,” says Anna. Leo does not disagree.

Thus, the love story becomes the focus of the book’s most distinctive narrative quality: it is written as a series of short chapters, each in the first person, each from the point of the view of the main characters — primarily Anna, Soki, and, yes, the Satellite later come to earth as Leo. (Grandfather, the only character to speak in the present tense and with poignant effect, makes his voice heard only briefly.)

Canadian stamp, 1966

Readers thus have to choose — because Ferguson clearly doesn’t want to make life easy for his readers. On the one hand, they can relax into a kind of doublethink where they accept both the fact that Leo doesn’t really exist, and, simultaneously, engage directly with his intensely personal and convincing point of view as if he does. Ferguson, after all, through providing him a rich array of thoughts and feelings, makes him seem utterly “real.” In addition, at several points he provides Leo with thoughts that don’t seem as if they could have originated in Anna. Thus, for example, sometimes he is puzzled by Anna, sometimes misunderstands her, sometimes he is repelled by her, and so on. “I had forgotten about Anna as a person,” he admits. “I was wrong to assume I had understood her.”

On the other hand, readers may wish to challenge head-on the narrative paradox in which Ferguson seems to enjoy entangling them. Many will find themselves humming along with Lou Reed: “Things like that nearly drive me out of my mind.” Reading something like Leo’s claim, “I developed this creeping suspicion that I may not actually exist,” can throw a monkey wrench into even the most careful analysis, especially when it is repeated so often. And Anna doesn’t help settle the matter, especially when she says things like “I needed him to go out, to experience the world on his own, to evolve as a person. I needed him to come back to me and fall in love of his own free will.”

And, as if jumping tracks, Leo tells the readers that he is beginning to feel he is becoming real: he becomes excited when he can physically touch a dog. Even that moment goes awry, though: as Leo’s increasingly desperate behaviour becomes more and more detached from Anna’s — and especially as he tries to rescue her from her most catastrophic act — his actions also become insubstantial, and, in one sense, non-existent. In Leo’s terms he comes to exist in “another reality.”

Yet the final chapter, written from Soki’s point of view, puts all such tangles of explication into an entirely different light. Considering the harrowing direction of the novel, some might find that, in the last chapter, Ferguson has gone soft. Certainly if his story were to be filmed as he originally had intended, the director would need a sure hand in filming this part of the novel. In the words, though, of a very old man suffering from dementia, “sometimes, people just need to be held.”

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Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has reviewed books by Keath FraserMatthew SoulesKaren HofmannBarry KennedyAnn Shin, and Lynne Quarmby, among others, for The Ormsby Review. Visit his website here. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.

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