Book review: An immediate, then close — then terminated friendship

The memoir’s heart is Phillip and Viswanathan’s friendship with him — and the facets of Phillip’s biography never fail to captivate.

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Like Every Form of Love: A Memoir of Friendship and True Crime

Padma Viswanathan  |  Random House Canada

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$35 | 296pp

Despite — or perhaps because of — a wealth of intriguing, outlandish material, Padma Viswanathan shoots herself in the literary foot in Like Every Form of Love. It’s a flesh wound, true, and by no means mortal. Still, the Nelson, B.C.-born author’s memoir is marred by an agonized tone and unsure momentum.

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like very form of love

As Viswanathan — a Giller Prize finalist for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao — recounts the ups and downs of an immediate, then close, then distant, then terminated friendship with Phillip, and journeys to distant countries and archives in attempts to nail down the elusive facts of Phillip’s tumultuous history, she also mulls over the troubled book project that eventually became her Memoir of Friendship and True Crime.

She ponders the failed drafts and years of assorted missteps. Throughout, as well, Viswanathan relates chronic struggles to shape the book and to settle on its true topics, themes, and purposes. The net effect is to nudge the reader to evaluate the relative success of the published version  — instead of, say, staying immersed in Phillip’s story.

And then there’s the academic’s questionable inclination to buttress or deepen the primary story with frequent, laborious digressions in the form of references to other literary writers, from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and a parable by Ovid, to Alice Munro, Susan Sontag, Janet Malcolm, and Oscar Wilde — as well as the views of psychologists, post-structuralists, and philosophers.

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It’s as though she remained unconvinced that Phillip’s story held its own.

Yet the memoir’s heart is Phillip, his past, and Viswanathan’s friendship with him. By turns lovely, sensational, and bizarre, the facets of Phillip’s biography never fail to captivate.

A friend for more than two decades, Phillip was a gay man some regarded as “unlettered, unfiltered, (and) unsophisticated,” but whom Viswanathan saw as an “artist of survival” imbued with “fantastic interestingness.” She met him in 1997, at Genoa Bay on Vancouver Island, a place of “towering eccentricity and outsized opinions,” where Phillip, a nurse’s aide in Victoria, didn’t quite fit in.

The born storyteller: “Stories: he had a million of ‘em,” Viswanathan writes, he unfurled a complex backstory involving another set of towering eccentricity and outsized opinions that came together after dictatorial Harvey Totten, Phillip’s father, placed an ad in a Fraser Valley newspaper— “Help wanted, three boys”— and Delia Pilon (one alias of many) answered.

A bridge-burner viewed as a “wicked woman,” “borderline psychotic,” “grasping, lazy hypochondriac,” and unparalleled manipulator, Delia transformed into Phillip’s stepmother.

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Eventually, she introduced herself to Phillip and his brothers with a bracing candour: “My name is Mary Lloyd and I’m a bank robber. I was paroled, but the conditions stipulated I was supposed to stay in Prince George, ass end of nowhere, nothing and no one. So I broke parole and came down south to be closer to my mum. I’m on the lam.”

The newly formed family’s stability did not last, with “I’ll see you in hell” being the least of the epithets.

Although Phillip had lost touch with both by the time he met Viswanathan, there’s no denying the formative roles Harvey and Mary played in the shaping of Phillip, Viswanathan’s subject-to-be.

“I hit pay dirt” Viswanathan recalls writing in her diary. She vowed to take notes. Assessing the material later, she concluded, “left unmediated, Phillips was unintelligible on the page.” And so the writer’s worries began.

Alchemized into memoir, the notes tell a harrowing story, of Phillip’s wild years in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver, where he was sexually assaulted and drawn to the pleasures — and perils — of drug and alcohol overconsumption. “I was only twenty-eight and I looked eighty,” Phillip told Viswanathan.

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Viswanathan’s investigations of and subsequent meetings with Harvey in Nicaragua lead to chapters that support the author’s belief in the “compelling book” she imagined. Ditto for Lloyd. And yet the cumulative result is curiously ragged, as though the subjects ultimately confounded the author. The “various truths” that Viswanathan finds are inherently appealing; the book, however, does not cohere.

In his 60s as Viswanathan writes another draft, Phillip is upset — to the degree that he sends an empty email to his friend with “you are not to contact me under any circumstances” as the subject line. A later call with “I don’t want anything to do with you,” marks the pair’s final exchange.
Viswanathan records her depression; and she discloses her writer’s techniques: “I have fuzzed timelines, to present information in a logical and digestible manner. I have withheld or compressed details, quotes, minor contradictions, interviews and informants, to allow the story to complete” — that, while honest, casts doubt on the preceding account.

Seemingly bereft, Like Every Form of Love winds down with its subject a shut door and the book itself an open question — about another book draft in another reality where a lively friendship did not die.

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Three of Brett Josef Grubisic’s novels, The Age of Cities, From Up River and For One Night Only, and My Two-Faced Luck, are set a few miles west of where Phillip grew up. 

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