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Introducing Greg Brown, Fiction Faculty

When do you feel compelled to make a note in the margins of a text?

I don’t often write in the margins of books. In college I tried to cultivate the habit, but it didn’t take. In fact, the only book I’ve made any substantial notes in is Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel Bouvard et Pécuchet. Quick summary: The book follows two Parisian copy clerks/BFFs who come into money, move to the country, and attempt to become “men of ideas” without a single idea between them. Chapter by chapter, Bouvard and Pécuchet bumble their way through all the branches of human knowledge: chemistry, geology, mathematics, medicine, literature, religion, etc. (Things do not go well. Our heroes blow things up, make themselves sick, and alienate the local villagers who suffer their experimentations with increasing ire.) Flaubert bragged that he read some 1,500 books as preparation for the novel. It shows. The novel is a whirlwind of 19th-century arcana. It’s a novel by way of encyclopedia.

I don’t know if I loved, or even liked, the novel, but as I read it I found myself scribbling on the margins and the inside front cover, the back cover, anywhere I could find the space. I’d never encountered such a large collection of obscure words: astragal, grampus, plinth, vesicant, podromes, gangue, ascultation and many, many others. All these strange, vaguely science-y words, I wrote them down. And their definitions, too. I’m a stone-cold sucker for disciplinary jargon, i.e. the language you hear in research labs or greasy spoons or pirate ships or anywhere else professionals communicate with each other in their own special codes. I love the patina of authenticity created in fiction that employs accurate, precise diction of this kind. It gives depth to character and setting; it helps sustain the delicate illusion of reality. If I’m reading a story about, say, lobster biologists I hope to encounter “dodecapod” or “antennules” because the believable evocation of character and setting depends in part on the story getting the language right. B et P is full of this kind of authenticity. Whatever its faults, the novel is deliberate about how it uses language. I admire it for that.

Greg Brown is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Memorial University of Newfoundland’s MA program in English Literature. He is a recipient of the University of British Columbia’s Roy Daniels Memorial Essay Prize and his work has appeared in Postscript, Paragon, The RS500, Lenses: Perspectives on Literature, Pulp Literature and Tate Street. He lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and teaches at the Creative Writing for Children Society in Vancouver.