By Jason Lee Norman
Published by Wufniks Press
Americas is not a history book. It’s also not a geography lesson, or a lecture on cultural differences — although you’d probably get that impression if you only read the first line of every chapter. Americas is not just about the 22 countries that make up the Americas, and Jason Lee Norman is not just a writer who happens to be the author. He’s more of an impressionist artist who happens to deal in the medium of words.
At first, Norman’s writing is enchanting enough that you can overlook its faults. But if you love grammar, you’ll probably read the first page and want to take a sharp, pointy object to it. After reading a couple chapters, you get the impression that Norman could have written the entire book as one giant run-on sentence and it would have had the exact same effect as his actual writing style.
Broken up into 22 vignettes, each chapter tells the story of one of the countries in the Americas. As a University of Alberta graduate, it’s fitting that Norman begins his book in Canada, though he sets out to offend the sensibilities of the average Canadian immediately.
“Canada is a neighbour of the United States of America and there is always a growing fear amongst the Canadian government that all Canadians will forget that they are Canadian and just assume that they are Americans,” he writes.
Norman doesn’t apologize for these feelings. He doesn’t pull any punches either, describing Canada next as an “ant: forever planning for the winter that inevitably comes each year,” contrasting that with a happy-go-lucky United States that’s always on summer vacation.
As Americas goes on, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether or not Norman is being intentionally wordy or if he just has a chronic case of verbal diarrhea. “Mexicans see rabbits on the moon,” he writes. “Guatemalans have silly holidays to combat decades of military oppression where citizens were banned from dreaming, crying, and looking at their shoes when riding an elevator. Costa Ricans are obsessed with sand, and Colombia is infested with cats.”
Norman continues to paint the countries with his words, and one by one, his strokes get broader. “In Venezuela, all the children were adopted from South Korea,” Norman writes. “In Suriname, everybody slept in one morning and they all missed their job interview.”
Norman’s odd descriptions of each country are intriguing, though at times the sensationalism of his writing style gets old, and his broad generalizations can be hard to pick apart. It begins to feel like you’re reading the same Mad Lib over and over, and just choosing different words for each fill-in-the-blank space.
Still, Norman’s unusual and potentially inaccessible writing style can be overlooked as he manages to creates a unique vision of each country — that’s where the real power of this book lies. When I got to the fourth chapter, I forgave Norman for what he wrote on the first page. I even forgave him for all the eye-rolling run-on sentences and overly dramatic fragments, because he lets the reader stumble onto something bigger.
Norman plays around with truth and fiction in each chapter. Sometimes they’re easy to tell apart, and sometimes they aren’t — but in the end, Norman is writing about identity. In Norman’s world, each country in the Americas is like a member of one big dysfunctional family. He evokes their personalities beautifully, capturing the distinctive qualities that make up every country.
By the time you turn the last page, the Americas are alive and three-dimensional. Whether you love it or hate it — and I don’t think there’s any in-between with this book — Americas conjures up visions of each country, providing a unique perspective into the worlds of both the foreign and the familiar.
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