In novel Mantis Dreams, Dr. Dexter Ripley has been diagnosed with peroneal muscular atrophy, a disease he does not get treatment for that leaves his body as twisted as his mind.
Canadian author Adam Pottle’s debut visits Ripley’s often polarizing and other times humanizing view on the world through journal entries.
Pottle sets the novel in Saskatoon — fitting for an author who is currently acquiring his doctorate degree at our own University of Saskatchewan.
There is often a mentality toward those with disabilities or the elderly that they become innocent and inherently clueless on account of their age or condition. What Mantis Dreams does so well is give a satirical edge to those ideas by having a character that is so aggressively against such expectations.
The novel begins with Ripley at the U of S as a professor of English, teaching despite his illness and expressing his brutally honest feelings for his dimwitted students through journal entries. This is only the first glimpse into the mind of Ripley and as the book continues the reader discovers more about why he is the way he is with each entry.
From his literal dreams of turning into a praying mantis — 100 feet tall and adored by the people even as he crushes them — to the battles he has in the old folks home with 80 year old rival Old Scratch, Ripley takes the grumpy old man stereotype to a new level.
Aged a still relatively young 59, Ripley feels senile with his seemingly unwarranted anger towards all those around him. As the story progresses it becomes easier to understand his criticisms and that Ripley has developed a new hardened perspective from his disability that makes him analyze the world from a new perspective.
Ripley becomes convinced that his ailment is a blessing of sorts that lets him see the world from a more honest viewpoint where people show who they truly are to him. There are also expectations given to him due to his disability and status as a professor, as people expect him to be inspiring and are appalled when he isn’t.
Every time you think you may fully grasp Ripley he surprises the reader with hidden depth. You can get a real grasp of his depth in cases where he begins writing about his youth, in tensions with his sister Maggie — who almost singed his face with a brand — and dealing with the death of his parents. His parents didn’t die by normal means and the realities behind the anger in his reflections become clear due to his youth without them.
The journal entry style of the novel makes it feel more authentic and make Ripley’s views realistic, even about his day-to-day struggles with his condition. What makes the character all the more interesting is that he refuses to get the proper treatment for his disease, leaving him in the wheelchair where he could otherwise walk — a choice he makes because the new viewpoint it gives him on life and the general behaviour of others toward him.
Ripley’s story is full of twists and turns, each of which make him clearly harsher but more relatable as you get more glimpses into his mind and history. Mantis Dreams is a worthy read from an author full of promise.
Photo: Cailtin Press