Mooncalves, Victoria Hetherington’s off-kilter debut novel, brings challenges, rewards

Mooncalves, Victoria Hetherington’s off-kilter debut novel, brings challenges, rewards

April 16, 2019 Off By admin

From the curious title onward, Mooncalves forges its own path. A stylish puzzle of a story, Victoria Hetherington’s debut novel is prickly and demanding and a bit feral but both singular and absorbing.

Once upon a time, a mooncalf referred to a monstrous animal birth. When used now, it’s a human label: the fool, the idler, someone mentally ill-equipped for the daily grind. Toronto’s Hetherington stuffs her tale with amoral, criminal, rule-breaking, megalomaniacal, deluded, misguided and damaged characters. Which ones qualify as mooncalves is anyone’s guess.

Victoria Hethering, author of Mooncalves, Now or Never Publishing.
Victoria Hethering, author of Mooncalves, Now or Never Publishing.  (Now or Never Publishing)

They’re all tied in some way to Joseph, a kinky, plant-loving cult leader who foresees the Merge, a fast-approaching nightmare era when computer technology gains ascendancy. A creepy loon but magnetic, Joseph is a sermon-giver; he and Margaret Atwood’s Crake could debate about humanity for days.

At a simple level, Mooncalves recounts the before, during and after of a handful-sized mini-cult of former bruised and battered Torontonians who’ve relocated to rural Quebec.

Hetherington parcels out her story in irregular bits and (puzzle) pieces, though, with chapters narrated by Joseph’s acolytes, Erica, Logan and Shelagh. Other chapters take the form of “Communion minutes” and cult meeting video transcripts.

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Still others originate in Millhaven prison or in what the novel identifies as “Toronto, Theoretical Space” (which may be the futuristic “bright machine hell” Joseph fears); the latter features a “synthetic companion” named Buppy, the dog-shaped teacher of Logan’s daughter. The epilogue’s vision of 2028? A mixed bag of utopian tech and systemic failures.

Hetherington disavows standard linearity across these 22 chapters. Piecing the story together — from Joseph’s youth to the era of Buppy the robot dog — is the reader’s primary challenge.

The novel brims with tonal shifts — gruesome violence, eerie sci-fi, black comedy, oddball, deeply urban bits that wouldn’t be out of place in the Netflix series Russian Doll, irreverent but laugh-aloud scenes from the sex wars and eye-catching absurdity.

Readers looking for precedents might see slight family resemblances to other Canadians, specifically the novels of Lynn Crosbie and the body-horror films of early David Cronenberg.

Late in the story, Hetherington introduces a scene with a diseased pigeon, with a “fleshy mass developed through a lifetime of eating cigarette butts.” A persons rips open the living bird to consume its flesh. Gross, discomfiting, perversely attractive and funny, it’s a showcase for a searing novel that’s much the same.

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