I’ve gone and joined a book club. It’s a very diplomatic book club, in the sense that every week, six of us nominate books (first come first serve) and then those books are put to a vote. We read the book with the most votes. Every few months, the book club leader has us nominate books that were nominated before, but didn’t win. That is how I came to nominate How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Chris Boucher.
You see, I had it in my head that it was a graphic novel.
It’s a strange novel, probably one of the strangest I’ve ever read. Essentially, the book is about the nameless main character (literally — he sold his name for some hours), and his Volkswagen son. His father is killed by a heart attack tree while he is waiting for the narrator to meet him for dinner. Then the tree runs away with the diner and his father. The narrator and his Volkswagen son never know if his father is alive or dead. The novel goes back and forth between stories like this and also holds onto a manual structure, teaching you how to keep your other-worldly Volkswagen running.
Words take on entirely new meanings in How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. I spent most of the book thinking about Lewis Carol’s poem “Jabberwocky.” We studied that poem in linguistics because it shows something very interesting about language. Even though the words are completely made up, you can mostly point to them and say which ones are verbs, nouns and adjectives. You can also get some kind of meaning out of it. When you read that poem, you picture something happening. You “understand” it to a degree.
In that same way How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive isn’t about Volkswagens or trees or anything particularly shocking. It’s about family. It’s about love. Most of all, it’s about grief.
I don’t want to mislead you – How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is an incredibly frustrating book and there are parts, especially the more manual-like parts, that I skimmed. It’s like a work out for your brain, though, and one that I actually enjoyed, even when I was frustrated. You see, in Boucher’s alternative world, objects are people and people are objects. The narrator’s son is a Volkswagen. He dates a stained glass window. He gets into a fight with a leaf and a toaster. When you are reading, it’s difficult to imagine and your brain kind of goes back and forth between picturing the actual objects and the people they represent.
Many of the people in my book club were frustrated by this book. Many people dropped out of the meeting because they couldn’t finish it. I had some problems with it. Even though I thought it was well done, I think Boucher got bogged down in the conceit of the manual by trying to mimic the style of the original How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Those parts were mostly unnecessary and I think they would have been far more interesting if they had been fewer and farther between. I was probably the only person at book club who admitted to actually enjoying reading the book.
I liked the challenge. I liked that Boucher, despite speaking nonsense for most of the book, was able to so accurately represent grief. But as someone else pointed out, there just wasn’t much story here. People are born, people die, people grieve. I think that was actually a conscious decision on Boucher’s part. Anymore and the confusing language would have been too much, too strange. If your language and the way you tell your story is going to be complicated, the actual plot has to be pretty simple.
It’s not perfect, but this strange novel was exciting to read. I can’t wait to see what kind of novel Boucher writes next. Perhaps he’ll surprise us all and write something very mundane and normal, but I hope not.