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Book review: Colin McAdam's 'Fall' focuses on inner demons in the milieu of a private school for boys

There's always been something unsettling about the idea of an army of adolescent boys cooped up in a boarding school. It's a bit like Lord of the Flies, but with drab uniforms and enforced gentility.

So when novelist Colin McAdam chooses an exclusive boarding school in his native Canada as the setting for one Noel Reece's transmogrification from timid introvert to belligerent sadist, no suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader is required. Fall is a cerebral and even profound study of alienation's potentially terrifying effects, yet proves frustratingly inchoate when it comes to elucidating the nature of alienation itself, and just how it nurtures Noel's myriad inner demons.

The title of this novel, McAdam's second (his debut Some Great Thing won international acclaim), does not refer to humanity's loss of innocence through the actions of Adam and Eve — at least not directly.

Fall is short for Fallon, a boarder in the girls' section of St. Ebury. From the day of Fall's arrival, Noel becomes infatuated with her, and he remains undeterred by the fact that he is assigned a room with her popular American boyfriend, Julius. Intriguingly, Noel grows deeply fond of Julius — who nudges him out of friendless isolation — even as he cultivates his secret desire for Fall.

In the most exquisitely subtle and restrained manner imaginable — a nascent fantasy here, an unobtrusive phrase there — McAdam has Noel reveal unexpectedly convoluted feelings for both Fall and Julius. Though not devoid of a physical dimension, Noel's attraction to Fall emerges as peculiarly nonsexual. Indeed, it appears to be a platonic yet possessive veneration of an aesthetic ideal: "No one owns beauty but the perceiver. What I thought of Fall was my own."

Meanwhile, Noel's affection for Julius features an understated yet undeniably sexual element: "I remember starting to picture their kisses from her point of view, enjoying a new perspective."

When Fall goes missing, the reader tries to piece together what happened as Noel exhibits increasing signs of aggression. McAdam begins to shift the story's focus, demonstrating that even though Noel may not be directly responsible for Fall's disappearance, his late-blooming aggressive personality traits hardly augur well for the future. Of a conversation with Julius, Noel recalls, "I wanted to tell him that I liked the idea of hurting someone."

Throughout Fall, Noel and Julius share main narration duties, with Noel looking back at the events of more than a decade ago even as Julius relates them contemporarily in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Unfortunately, McAdam makes Julius painfully ingenuous, the better to contrast him with complex and even conniving Noel.

Yet the more serious matter is that McAdam never clarifies the source of what Noel describes as "the throb of blood or the animal choices that truly guided my life." This is, paradoxically, both the story's strongest and weakest aspect. It's a bold strategy that eschews tidy, pat formulas for explaining human behavior. Yet it's almost as though McAdam has subordinated his story to the question of why certain men gravitate toward violence. Ironically, this may make Fall more satisfying as a philosophical exercise — pondering the relationship between violence and the male condition — than as a conventional story.

The only morsel of information McAdam throws the reader is a pinpointing of the period — not chronicled in Fall — during which Noel's maturation went awry. Much of Noel's childhood and early adolescence were spent alone. Looking back, he muses, "I know so well the anger that builds in silence." Once he emerged from his shell, it was too late. Indeed, at one point Noel asks himself, "Had I become myself by avoiding others?"

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.


By Colin McAdam

Riverhead, 368 pages, $25.95

Book review: Colin McAdam's 'Fall' focuses on inner demons in the milieu of a private school for boys 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 4:30am]
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