Ever since he serialized his first novel, Lockpick Pornography, on the Internet with a plea for donations to help pay his university tuition, Joey Comeau’s literary career has been on the move. He’s now finished his degree, optioned the film rights for the novel and seen it listed on the syllabus of literature and queer theory courses at several universities.
Comeau’s success goes beyond his first novel, though. A Softer World, the weekly comic strip he publishes with Emily Horne, has a loyal online following and had a short run as a replacement strip in Britain’s The Guardian. He’s also just published a short story collection, It’s Too Late To Say I’m Sorry. Comeau comes to Ottawa and Transgress on the tails of a tour promoting the new book and a career move from Halifax to Toronto. He’s pleased and a little amused to be invited to an event like Transgress.
“My understanding of the reading, transgression in the sense that they’re doing it, is just edgier stuff that you don’t see in most mainstream fiction,” he says. “I figure that’s why I got invited — lots of cussing and fucking.”
And by most definitions Comeau is definitely edgy. Lockpick Pornography features angry queer youth wreaking havoc, mostly at the expense of heterosexuals, as they cuss and fuck their way through life. They steal from straights, trick them into sex acts and plant pro-gay literature in their homes and schools. Underlying it all is a whiff of anarchism or leftwing liberation ideology.
But it would be simplistic to label Comeau an “activist.” In fact, he strongly rejects that moniker. “I think I’ve been around maybe one protest while it was going on,” he says, “and they mostly just make me uncomfortable. I don’t have any kind of activist background.”
Comeau explains that his fiction is driven by character rather than ideology. The young lesbian protagonist in his new unpublished novel isn’t really a committed environmentalist, but she’s bent on protecting a few individual trees of deep personal importance to her, even to the point of violence. What Comeau’s really interested in is not activism per se, but compulsion and obsession.
“The characters I write about are compulsive in a way. Sometimes they’ll struggle to find a reason or a forum to put the actions they already find themselves doing into. At first, ideologies of various kinds are good forums to give yourself. I mean in Lockpick Pornography, they are very strongly activist, but as the book progresses, pretty much everything they say at the beginning turns out to be, well, like the main character is wrong about a lot of things, or they take things too far or they’re too black and white about things. It’s a good way to explore false dichotomies — to have people who really strongly believe in something and then have it not turn out that way.”
In the end, Comeau emphasizes that it all starts with a story. “In a way, I’m talking out of my ass,” he laughs. “I don’t start with a plan to find the false dichotomy of the gender binary. It starts just writing about characters and adventure.”
For Transgress, Comeau plans to draw on Lockpick Pornography as well as his new novel for material. Whatever he chooses to read, he says that humour will play an important role. He’s more reluctant to commit to anything in terms of stage performance. “Well, I shift nervously from one foot to the other,” he jokes. “My first book came out two years ago and I’ve read maybe 20 times, but not a lot — it’s still new. It’s going to be a surprise.”
A Softer World and the first seven chapters of Lockpick Pornography are available free online.