What would Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis look like if it was written today by a Canadian who has an absurdist knack akin to Pynchon, Saunders, and Vonnegut? It would look like Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow by Jason Heroux, published in 2018 by Toronto-based Mansfield Press.
Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is a novella that falls into the realm of magical realism. The story is a puzzle perfectly jigsawed together to capture both the mundane nature and the complexities of everyday life.
The book is set during the Age of Transformation, when everyone and everything is transforming into each other. Owen’s father, once a meaty-hunk of personhood, has transformed into a bicycle lost by Owen in front of a Chinese restaurant.
Meanwhile, Owen struggles to come to terms with his past: he used to be a dog named Scooter owned by a couple, who wants him back to be their dog. Not wanting to leave his wife, Lila, Owen goes through everyday life coming to terms with the fact that he will have to, by dictum of nonsensical yet eerily realist property laws, return to his owners and act like a dog while actually being a person.
It is through the juxtaposition of the outlandish premise with the scene-by-scene mundanity that the book derives its charm and subsequently its profundity. Scenes twist and turn between banality and absurdity. In one scene, Owen goes through the everyday motions of ordering a double double dark roast — a Canadian thing — only to get an elderly man afflicted with Tangier disease.
Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is about messiness in a world where everything always seems in order. Heroux shows readers the volatility of a world that seems static. Binary oppositions of familiar and strange, change and stasis, and confusion and order are playfully subverted until the boundaries of said terms become indistinguishable from one another.
The brilliance of the novel is that it treats these bizarre switch ups so nonchalantly that the reader cannot differentiate between what is the familiar becoming strange and what is the strange becoming familiar: in this case, the server cannot take the elderly man back because of the store’s no-return policy.
The book is Timbit-sized — only 104 pages — making it a quick and unintimidating read in an era when most people do not read.
The short length ensures that every chapter is a rewarding experience, bubbling with absurd humour, cosmic alienation, and identity crises, often all in the same page. Sadness and laughter exist together in every paragraph, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis.
It’s the type of prose where one catches oneself unconsciously mouthing the words of each sentence as if they are under the book’s incantation. In many senses, this impressive feat of brevity is also where the book momentarily wavers. As the book draws to a close, readers will feel unsatisfied with the way the story resolves itself alongside the stagnation of Lila and Owen’s relationship.
But that’s where Heroux’s artistry shines through: in life, resolutions are always a bit disappointing, and relationships always end up stagnating at some point. It’s only by acknowledging that banality, and by showcasing it in inventive ways, that one can start to understand the maze of contemporary life. In Heroux’s world, one is always lost in that maze, dissociated with their surroundings and cosmically alone against the absurdity of the universe.
One never has a clear grasp of who they are or what they are doing as the hours slip away in conferences and phone calls. Heroux’s world is not unlike our own.
In a world where reality TV stars become presidents, most of us wouldn’t be surprised if we started to transform into mundane objects tomorrow. Heroux’s world is one where absurdity is taken more seriously than seriousness.
In one of the funniest, but also exasperating, arcs of the book, Owen and Lila install a Home Automation service that doesn’t work. They spend the rest of the novel trying to get it removed, going to lawyers and support groups in the fight against the convoluted contract from a big corporation. In one scene, after a harrowing phone call with an agent for the Home Automation company, filled with the standard frustrations of trying to cancel anything over phone, Owen is told that the service can be removed.
Upon hearing those words, Owen is flooded with “feelings of peace, tranquility, balance and harmony” and “the universe [seems] full of mysterious hidden beauty.” In those moments, Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows understands that what David Foster Wallace called “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence” are where the most important cosmic battles are taking place; the most familiar battles end up as the most mysterious.
Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows explores the forgetfulness and always-changing identities that are core to the human experience, asking that confusing question of who we are in a world that constantly transforms, but somehow stays the same.
In the everyday bureaucracy of life, that grand feeling of dissociation hits us out of the blue, and we realize that, deep down, we are not so different from the bicycles and spoons of the world. We, too, are subject to the whims of agents outside our control, merely existing, going from places day-to-day in fleeting moments that culminate in death.