At first glance, George K. Ilsley’s novel ManBug seems simple.
It’s a small, short book written in dream-like fragments.
But like the lead character who guides us through the relationship of two lovers, what appears simple on the surface is undeniably complex.
The novel explores the relationship between two men, Sebastian, an entomologist with a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome and Tom, a dyslexic bisexual.
Told from Sebastian’s point of view, the story is a study in obsessions, labels and the metamorphosis of relationship and the self.
“There are these obsessions in the book with the meanings of different words,” said Ilsley in a recent interview.
“Sebastian is trying to figure out the world through Tom and he’s always looking for meaning in a world that often doesn’t provide it. So he’s looking for meaning in what people do or what they say, and that’s often very confusing.”
Ilsley, 49, is spending the next three months at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat.
Vancouver-based Arsenal Pulp Press published his short story collection, Random Acts of Hatred, in 2003 as well as his latest novel.
ManBug was published in the spring of 2006 and looking back at the book, which he hasn’t discussed at length for sometime, Ilsley still enjoys it without reservation.
“I forget my own work so it has the capacity to surprise me when I reread it, even after reading it a hundred times,” said Ilsley.
“I was in love with each book when they came out. I would carry ManBug around the first few weeks it was out. I haven’t cringed with ManBug. I was excited the last few days rereading it.”
Writing the novel served as a distraction from another manuscript — which Ilsley is revising for his next novel, set in Vancouver — but once the book was published, he found it difficult to leave the characters.
He attempted a screenplay based on the novel and contemplated a sequel.
“I was really quite attached to Tom and Sebastian at the end of it and I didn’t want to let go of them,” said Ilsley.
In the novel, people define Tom and Sebastian by their quirky labels and as the two develop their relationship, Sebastian struggles to understand just what they mean.
“Labels are a kind of handle people use to grab onto something that makes them more comfortable,” said Ilsley. “With Sebastian, he makes you wonder how much labels apply because he’s so literal he wants to know if it’s literally true when you use these labels. Like gay or straight. Tom throws that up in the air because he’s bisexual. Is he neither gay or straight, or both?”
Sebastian’s disability requires an instruction book on How to Make Friends, which teaches him how to hug.
For a good friend, he writes at the bottom of the page, “hold for five seconds and release.”
“That’s one of the most bittersweet things in the book,” said Ilsley. “It makes me almost cry when I read it, but it made me laugh when I wrote it. It’s a telling moment that he needs this book and then makes notes on the process.
“Is Sebastian naïve or sophisticated? Or is he more sophisticated than other ‘neuro-typicals’ who are cynical and hypocritical and often two-faced and lie with facility?
“Is that a better way to approach the world?”
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For Ilsley, his work comes from the fascination with people and human consciousness.
“I think a lot of plot in life arises from character, from who people are and what they’re thinking about or doing. That’s where plot comes from in real life. There is no plot in ManBug except for the character development.”
Carefully crafted characters arise from an author’s effort to get inside the head of his protagonists to create an authentic voice, said Ilsley.
His first attempt at ManBug told the story from the perspectives of Tom and Sebastian, rather than just the latter.
Ilsley couldn’t get Tom’s voice right and abandoned it, leading to the fragmented style of writing that mirrors Sebastian’s literal, analytical mind.
“Voice reflects the way a person is thinking about the world that’s going on inside of them, their layers of duplicity and denial and their hopefulness,” said Ilsley.
“Voice is a mysterious thing. Once you get the voice then you can write — it just comes out. Until then, it’s a struggle. It’s not like you’re channeling. It’s acting in a way. You’re imagining this character and what they would say or do.”
More than the voice, the fragmented story and the characters’ slowly revealed past reflect Sebastian’s worldview and his attempt to organize the world into manageable chunks of information he can analyze, said Ilsley.
“Even the chunks about Tom are him dealing with stories he has heard about Tom,” he said. “He’s recycling information that Tom has told him, and maybe Tom isn’t telling the truth and giving him the most reliable information.”
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Ilsley grew up in rural Nova Scotia, where he found it difficult to pursue his love of reading and learning.
“It’s hard growing up in small town or being a smart kid in small town,” he said. “I was a smart kid, I liked reading and these weren’t activities that seemed to be appreciated.
“It’s very discouraging being in the school system and have the other kids tease you because you like to learn things.
“If you like to learn things it’s hard to survive school, which is a horrible state of affairs. You would think the whole school system would be about encouraging children who would like to learn, but other children would punish that.”
He left his town for university in Acadia before moving to Toronto.
His first short stories were tinged with his experience in an intolerant, uncompromising society.
“I developed an outsider identity, for sure. Then you grow up and meet other people with outsider identities and you realize most people have outsider identities.”
The success hasn’t changed Ilsley’s approach to writing, but he does have more literary journals asking him to submit short stories, a nice change from the anxiety-filled process of sending manuscripts off to publishers only to receive rejection letters in return.
“If you want to be a writer, you can just write but you’re not going to get a lot of financial reward from it,” said Ilsley.
“I don’t know how many writers in Canada are making a living writing, other than Robert J. Sawyer and Margaret Atwood. Most other writers have a teaching job or husbands or partners (to help).
“I used to think when I was younger that you could write a book and you could be successful and you’d be a writer. As I got older I realized you could publish things and your life wouldn’t change. You could publish a short story collection and still need a day job to pay the rent.”