Dennis E. Staples unravels convention in stunning debut ‘This Town Sleeps’

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Grade: 4.0/5.0 

In “This Town Sleeps,” Marion Lafournier, a gay Ojibwe man from the fictional small town of Geshig, Minnesota, hooks up with a former classmate, Shannon Harstad, a deeply closeted white man. This hook up turns into an almost-relationship, and through this almost-relationship’s progression, both men’s psyches are intimately explored. 

In Dennis E. Staples’ gripping debut, he shows off endless multitudes of excitement when it comes to language and all that he can do with it; thus, readers must put aside ideas of literary convention, take a deep breath and simply let the author show them what he can do. 

The only real pitfall of Staples’ evident excitement is that he gives readers a taste of it in an awkwardly arbitrary prologue. Once the excitement is pushed to the side in the novel’s playing-it-safe first chapter, it is only thereafter that Staples completely lets his guard down — and mostly pulls it off.

“This Town Sleeps” isn’t exactly Marion’s story, nor is it Shannon’s story and nor is it the story about their relationship. The novel, which takes place in a fascinating realm of intensely realistic magical realism, is the story of Geshig and its many tragedies, as explored not only through Marion’s eyes but also through the perspectives of other several characters. 

It is profoundly difficult to juggle first-, second- and third-person narration in one novel while keeping the story cohesive, especially when each style of narration is reserved for certain characters. While the sheer amount of characters, coupled with this frequent perspective-shuffling, once or twice warrants a reskim to reorient oneself, Staples does a magnificent job of keeping these different perspectives organized enough to maintain clarity. Each character is distinct and tells the story of one particular tragedy that took place during Marion’s boyhood, tying all of these characters together through the shared conflict that constitutes the heart of the novel.

This cast of what feels like thousands might be expected in a much longer novel rather than the relatively short read that is “This Town Sleeps,” and it makes the story almost too full. Almost, in fact, smothering, which is also precisely the adjective to describe Geshig’s atmosphere. Staples is able to triumph with a cacophony of voices because, as a collective, they say something about Geshig that could not be said otherwise; together, they echo the emotional locus of Geshig and its oppressiveness, ironically more effective as a community of speakers despite the fractures in the actual community itself.

Not only reliant on form to unravel the expectations set by sometimes-stifling literary convention, the magical realism of “This Town Sleeps” is aware of its own unbelievability, yet all the more believable for it. With more “traditional” magical realism never questioning its own fantasies, this is just one more way in which Staples defies convention. 

Thus, the novel falls somewhere on the outskirts of what readers might conceive as magical realism, but it would be further from the mark to try and push Staples’ work into the fantasy category. Informed by Ojibwe customs and beliefs, characters have prophetic visions while family curses abound, apparitions roaming within the novel’s pages. But this is simply the truth, even though Marion himself raises a skeptical eyebrow (or a dozen) at all of this. 

While Marion’s narration, in its relative forthrightness compared to the other perspectives, can sometimes feel in conflict with the novel’s overall aesthetic, what Staples is able to achieve is distinct, making this debut one that promises many more riveting tales to come. Geshig sleeps, but readers will want to stay wide awake for hours, turning haunting page after page and chasing Staples down the novel’s many winding roads.

Alex Jiménez covers literature and LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.