Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, A Minor Chorus by Billy-Ray Belcourt is a novel that follows an unnamed narrator as he leaves his PhD program in Edmonton to conduct a series of interviews on his reservation in northern Alberta.
While taking time to shout out Edmonton’s cafes, A Minor Chorus bears witness to the stories of different people in narrator’s life, with each interaction plotting a slow and methodical trail to a reunion with an old friend whose life, though deeply interwoven with the narrator’s, has brought him in a drastically different direction.
Throughout this process, Belcourt hosts a discussion of academia, joyfulness, indigeneity, and possibility — both as an abstract concept of growth and having a direction in your life as well as the material opportunities for inclusion and exclusion created by systems such as universities — all in the form of a novel about a narrator who is himself an aspiring novelist.
At the heart of this book, Belcourt is writing about his narrator trying to create something that fills the spaces that are left hollow when he finds himself detached from his sense of self and his community while at the same time being faced by an overwhelming disenchantment from academia as the only path he can take in the pursuit of knowledge. This drive towards fulfillment manifests itself in this book as his struggle to write a novel.
A Minor Chorus really reminded me of a book called Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes. At the centre of Camera Lucida is an interest in photography sparked by a photo that Barthes has of his mother, which touched him so deeply that it became the figurative focal point of this book. While his work was haunted by this photograph of his mother, a photograph which to Barthes seemed to artfully capture precisely who she was as a person, Barthes never actually shared that photograph in the book itself or elsewhere.
This mystifying photograph is one that we can only hear about and never actually see. This process is one replicated in A Minor Chorus by Belcourt, whose narrator (possibly a stand-in for Belcourt himself) keeps discussing a novel with his friends, family and mentors that he intends to write featuring interviews with people from his hometown. Yet, this novel is always just out of grasp.
Yes, an answer upon finishing A Minor Chorus could be to say, “Plot twist: this book in my hands is actually the novel Belcourt was writing the whole time!” After reviewing Belcourt’s poetry collection NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field and his memoir A History of My Brief Body, however, A Minor Chorus feels similarly geared towards internal reflection. In this case, the modes of personal possibility created by leaving this novel forever out of reach.
Coming close to home, referencing Yellowknife and the gold mines that morphed from a well of wealth to one of arsenic, this novel is a fascinating self-reflection. The book that A Minor Chorus’s narrator is writing seems to eerily slip away as the unnamed main character focuses more and more on the act of bearing witness to the stories of those on his home reserve in northern Alberta, leaving in its wake this novel as a testament to his experiences.