Speculating on Divinity Genes
A Review of Matthew J. Trafford’s The Divinity Gene
By Peter Chiykowski
In his debut collection of short stories, The Divinity Gene, Matthew J. Trafford pulls off a generic balancing act, suspending his swaying narrative tightrope between the often opposed platforms of “genre” and “literary” fiction. His performance is certainly captivating. Walking the line with him are rogue angels, dissected mermaids, messianic clones, Faustian e-demons, and homophobic undead (the term “zombie” is considered demeaning to still-sentient beings who have yet to gain the vote). These creatures swing the stories between scenes that are sometimes fantastically unfamiliar, sometimes unflinchingly intimate, often both.
“Thoracic Exam,” the opening act of the ten-story collection, is a good indicator of the volume’s strengths and weakness. An unnamed female narrator-nurse examines the recent widow of an old love interest. The routine check-up turns into an opportunity for the romantically unsatisfied stethoscope-wielder to investigate the body and the life she never chose. The story showcases Trafford’s writing chops (“I must eavesdrop inside of her”), but also his off-putting love of jargon (“Her lacrimal ducts are now secreting full tears”).
His tendency toward clinical and obscure terms, one that recurs frequently, culminates in a prepubescent narrator from a fishing village describing a cut-up mermaid using words like “striated,” “lepidopterist,” and “filigreed.” The narrator’s vocabulary asks for more suspended disbelief than the mythical sea creature around which the story revolves.
Trafford skilfully deploys the speculative elements of his fiction. Never does he let fantasy outweigh the emotional core of his plots, and crucially, he never lets the magic or technology interfere with the complex networks of desire that motivate his characters. Rather, the “genre” elements of his stories work to distil the conflicts and intensify the choices the characters have to make. In “iFaust,” a widowed grandfather wrestles with the decision to trade his well-aged soul to the devil in exchange for that of his ungrateful grandson who made a literal Faustian bargain for success as a rock musician. The conflict – the grandson’s sullen plea and the grandfather’s vacillating refusal – is served well by the supernaturally high stakes. Unfortunately, the tension is later spoiled by a last-minute decision from a secondary character who consequently trivializes the grandfather’s role in the story.
This is not to say that Trafford relies on speculation and magic to distract from narrative shortcomings. One of the collection’s most powerful pieces, “Past Perfect,” is a slice-of-life story that follows the experiences of a young man losing his older husband to aphasia. It is one of the book’s many grief narratives, arguably the most powerful. While in “The Renegade Angels of Parkdale,” the gay male narrator of a similar age is made passive by the loss of his partner, relying on friends and fallen angels to initiate the story’s significant scenes, the narrator of “Past Perfect” is admirably active in dealing with and dramatizing the gradual and thoroughly disenchanting processes of grief. The loss of partners and family members is a recurrent focus of the work, as is the nature of homosexual and homosocial relationships.
In addition to being fascinated by the classic themes of death and love, Trafford is also interested in formal experimentation. “Renegade Angels” features some two-column simultaneous narration. The gambit is a little distracting, a visual reminder that the reader is involved in the physical task of reading a page and not the cognitive task of a reading a story. The footnotes of “The Grimpils” feel less like aids for differentiating protagonists and more like excuses for the author to trot out his technique. The centre-stage action of the characters coping with the disappearance of their friends and lovers is vastly more interesting than Nick’s aromatic analysis of Ceylon tea. The opening section of the title story, “The Divinity Gene,” engages in a much more rewarding bit of play. It is formatted like a wiki entry, complete with links and section headings to explain technological advances that lead to the genetic cloning of Jesus in 2006.
Ultimately, The Divinity Gene indulges in a level of showmanship that is unnecessary, but not unappreciated. The volume is best taken in multiple sittings. The young introspective gay narrators dealing with isolation and/or grief can become a bit monotonous, even when separated by the various other protagonists (including a widowed grandfather, a thirteen year-old boy, and a bitter middle-aged nurses). Whatever their limitations, though, his stories all come from a uniquely powerful breed of conflict, one playfully mutted up with formal and fantastical experiments that continue to yap and growl in the memory after the book is closed.