Book review: Two storylines merge into sharp satire in November’s Radio

By Robert J. Wiersema

Writers are often advised to write what they know. It’s not always the best advice, but it plays to the strengths of someone like Steve Noyes. The Victoria writer, who has worked as everything from a parking lot attendant to an editor, draws on his experiences as a contract English teacher in China and his decade as a policy analyst in the B.C. Ministry of Health to considerable effect for his new novel November’s Radio.

The story begins after the end of a relationship. Following her split with her boyfriend Gary, Wendy decamps to China, where she takes an English as a Second Language job while she waits for something remarkable, something transcendent, to happen. When she meets a pair of dissident artists, and becomes part of their work, it seems — at first — that perhaps she has found what she has been seeking. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.

Things aren’t simple for Gary, either. Reeling from Wendy’s departure, he trudges through his job at the Ministry of Wellness, blundering through the political quicksand of the rapidly privatizing public sector. When Gary is assigned to fast-track an anti-anxiety drug — which he himself is using — through approval for widespread coverage, he discovers a trail of suppressed research and casualties. The mostly numb Gary is faced with a moral dilemma — tell all and face ruin, or conceal the truth and move up in the ministry.

Noyes spins out these oddly complementary narratives in alternating chapters, allowing each character’s experiences and perceptions to colour the reader’s impressions of the other characters.

Neither Wendy nor Gary is particularly self-aware, but in their criticism of each other and their time together, a vivid portrait of the two characters begins to emerge.

Not that character is an especially significant aspect of November’s Radio; Noyes has something altogether different in mind. In both storylines, situations and events escalate quickly to the near-ridiculous, a keen-edged satire unfolding in each different world, and refracting off the other.

It is to Noyes’ considerable credit that he is able to vividly render a culture so convincingly — whether it is the world of contemporary Chinese dissidents or that of pharmaceutically numbed bureaucrats — as to allow such satire to develop so powerfully from early in the novel. The reader may not be entirely clear on the intricacies of contemporary Chinese culture, but they understand enough to appreciate the ridiculous extremes of the performance artists with whom Wendy has become affiliated.

It’s not just satire, though. No sooner is the reader comfortable in approaching the novel as a satire than Noyes throws another curve: a human moment, genuine peril, genuine emotion. It is this variation, the uneasiness which Noyes creates, which gives November’s Radio much of its power.

Read more in the Ottawa Citizen.

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