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Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish


Three Years with the Rat: 02/13/18

Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking

Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking is a science fiction horror that falls into the crossing the cornfield category of the road narrative. As it is Canadian science fiction it uses slightly different imagery which I will explain below.

The book is told through three interlacing timelines. From our point of view, everything is set into motion when the protagonist is telephoned by an angry landlord who demands that he come clear out the stuff left behind by his sister (Grace) and her boyfriend (John). Grace, we learn rather quickly, has been gone for some time — and it's presumed that she has died by suicide. John, apparently, believes she is simply missing, fallen victim to an experiment they have been running.

Our protagonist not sure why he's been summoned to schlep and clean if John has pulled a runner. He figures John is just as dodgy as his sister was. Inside the apartment he finds a small wooden box with a rubber seal around one side, a large wooden cube big enough for a person to sit inside, a lab rat in a cage, and a note explaining that these few things are the tools to finding and rescuing John and Grace.

Faced with a person-sized box and the desire to not clean and schlep, the protagonist opens the box and looks inside. It is completely covered in mirrored glass. He decides to try it out. He sits inside, closes the door and is amazed at how dark it is with the door closed. And that's when things start getting weird and awesome.

Like Lewis's wardrobe, this wooden box with mirrors inside is a portal to somewhere else. The mirrors and dirt from a particular street in nearby Oshawa (the rest of the novel being set Toronto or on lake Ontario) are the trick to making the box more than just a box.

The blurb for the book compares Three Years with the Rat to House of Leaves and there is some similarity (the bigger on the inside and horror bits) but narrative structure and overall tone reminded me most of The End of Mr. Y. Put more accurately, Three Years with the Rat is at the intersection of the two — in that it does deal with a labyrinth and there is a minotaur-like creature — but there is also the notion of experimentation and of being experimented upon. In other words, the labyrinth on the cover isn't necessarily the one that the rat has been running through, nor is the rat the only lab rat.

Let's now look at how this story counts as a crossing the cornfield road narrative. Like Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, the story begins with a disappearance and the protagonist's complete conviction that he can find this missing someone. Both use features of urban life and travel as a conveyance to another world. In Lowriders it's a suped-up car and a maize-maze. In Three Years it's a dead end street (or dirt from that street) in Oshawa and glass-box in/to Toronto.

Hosking was nice enough to have his characters discuss the significance of both Oshawa and Toronto. Given that he is Canadian and the largest population center is in Toronto (and more widely, the province of Ontario), he could have left these details out, and trust curious, non-clued in readers to look up the places. Ontario is said take its name from the Iroquois word for the area, tkaronto; or "place where trees stand in water." Oshawa, meanwhile, comes from the Ojibwa word aazhaway (the crossing place or across). Putting those two ideas together in a magic box (or a mirrored representation of a tesseract, perhaps) allows Grace, John, the rat, and the protagonist to cross into an alternate version of Toronto — a wilderness where the rules are different and the stakes are higher.

Hosking though isn't the first person to use Toronto's origin story as imagery for a crossing the cornfield type of story, or perhaps a crossing the mangrove story would be more appropriate for a Canadian setting. All Our Wrong Todays begins in Toronto and features alternate versions by means of time travel. In comic book form, the visual of trees in water (adjacent to a menacing cornfield — for American audiences, I guess) is the barrier in the Black Hammer comic by Jeff Lemire.

Looking at Three Years with the Rat while in narrative analysis mode, I felt like a bunch of big pieces fell into place in my understanding of how Canadian and American road narratives use different motifs to convey similar ideas.

Five stars

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