An English teacher at UBC, Brett Josef Grubisic has published on a wide assortment of subjects, such as the history of male beefcake art and dystopian literature. He has also edited Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction and co-edited Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions with Carellin Brooks.

As an editor at New Star Books, Brooks encouraged Grubisic to write his debut novel, The Age of Cities (Arsenal, 2006), a coming-of-age story about a male librarian from a small town in the 1950s who goes to the big city in 1959. His accidental discovery of a gay subculture is framed by a contemporary analysis by a modern editor named A.X. Palios. This experimental novel involves the discovery of a manuscript inside a hollowed-out home economics textbook. "I was skeptical about historical fiction and its usual posture of representing historical actuality in good faith," Grubisic has commented. Hence he has "destabilized" that aspect of the narration. The novel nonetheless resonates as a reflection of gay culture in Vancouver. The Age of Cities was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize.

The black comedy This Location of Unknown Possibilities (Now or Never, 2014) by Brett Josef Grubisic is not the first novel to arise from the B.C. film industry, and it won't be the last, but it could be the funniest. When an English professor named Marta agrees to serve as a consultant for a week-long, low-budget, bio-pic film shoot in the Okanagan, she only expects the gig will give her a few stories to tell from the shoestring end of a billion-dollar industry. She is taken aback by her boss, the handsome cynic Jake Nugent, who is an unforgettable, smooth-talking and ingenious Hollywood North rascal accustomed to the shoot dynamics in remote sites. Script changes (massive), on-set mishaps (minor) and after-hours hi-jinks (many) lay the groundwork for Grubisic to evoke "the profound foolishness of the human heart."

According to promotional materials, "In telling the story of disgruntled English professor Marta Spek's star-crossed week of employment on a low-budget made-for-TV movie, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, his sophomore novel, offers a mini-series worth of satiric jabs at two of B.C,'s economic heavy-hitters, universities and film production. When English Professor Marta Spek is offered a film consultant's contract, she's fighting a bad case of year-end doldrums. She signs on, imagining that exotic hands-on work at the sandy location shoot for a made-in-Canada biopic will open doors of opportunity and spark her creativity--or at the very least supply interesting material for her family's annual Labour Day gathering. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be boss, the handsome Jake Nugent, who's well experienced with shoot dynamics in remote sites, hopes only to stamp out inevitable problems before they swallow the budget and cost him a job. Script changes (massive), on-set mishaps (minor), and after-hours misadventures (many) guarantee that Marta and Jake won't easily forget this week in the Okanagan Valley. A wry look at the shoestring end of a billion-dollar industry and the occasional but profound foolishness of the human heart, This Location of Unknown Possibilities makes a case for black comedy being the best lens for viewing contemporary life."

Grubisic is also the author of the cultural studies book American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture: 1890-1970 (Arsenal, 2009), with David L. Chapman. His other edited books are Contra/diction: New Queer Male Fiction, Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fiction (co-edited with Carellin Brooks), National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada (co-edited with Andrea Cabajsky) and a scholarly book, Understanding Beryl Bainbridge.

From his website: "Had someone asked me about my future plans at this age (6 or so) and place (my uncle's farm in Grand Forks, B.C.), I would likely have said, "I dunno." If pressed, I'd have answered, "A cowboy" even though I was afraid of horses and didn't really know how a cowboy spent his time besides wearing chaps, firing a gun, and riding around on the range while wearing a cool hat. Within months, my answer would have broadened to include a spy, an archeologist, an explorer, and a hobo (that last occupation was hazy in my mind, but I figured it involved wandering freely through the countryside, eating around campfires, and catching rides in boxcars).

"At age 9, and at the beginning of my father's second marriage (of three), my mind began to race with career schemes that were exotic, although both improbable (an assassin, a burglar, a jewel thief, etc) and fantastical (a fashion designer). A couple of years later, the shift was towards the practical (a dentist), which in retrospect was equally far-fetched.

"Because I was an exceptionally shy and stubborn child, my parents allowed me to read in solitude when the family socialized with friends and relatives. I'd carry a book with me, find a quiet corner, turn my back to everyone, and immerse myself in whatever story struck my fancy. As a method of overcoming shyness, voracious reading was not at all effective. But as a early indicator that I might end up in a career which entails reading and writing and talking about books, this childhood behaviour seems a wildly accurate prediction."

Along with UBC English instructors Gisele M. Baxter and Tara Lee, Brett Josef Grubisic has edited an anthology examining dystopian literature produced by North American authors between the signing of NAFTA in 1994 and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in 2011 for Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dsytopian Literature (Wilfrid Laurier University Press $48.99). While including references to the works of Margaret Atwood and Joseph Campbell, the collection opens with an essay by Janine Tobeck called The Man in the Blue Suit: Searching for Agency in William Gibson's Bigend Trilogy. There's also an essay by Robert McGill about fiction from Douglas Coupland called The Sublime Simulacrum: Vancouver in Douglas Coupland's Geography of Apocalypse; an essay about Lisa Robertson by Paul Stephens called The Dystopia of the Obsolete: Lisa Robertson's Vancouver and the Poetics of Nostalgia; as well as Sharlee Reimer's essay on Larissa Lai called Logical Gaps and Capitalism's Seduction in Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl.

In My Two-Faced Luck (Now or Never, 2021) a former prison nurse stumbles upon cassette tapes (remember those?) from 1990 that contain the personal stories of an inmate recorded in B.C.'s Horsetail Institution. The tapes reveal a queer journey that had begun in rural New England in 1927. The inmate was clearly trying to come to terms with his life – including a ruined family, hidden lovers, a tragic marriage, strange unemployment and a conviction for murdering his boss in San Francisco. The nurse was herself trying to recover from the end of a long marriage and she determines to shape the convict's reminiscences into a memoir. It is the final volume of Grubisic's "River Bend Trilogy" that includes The Age of Cities and From Up River and For One Night Only.

Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O
by Brett Josef Grubisic (Now or Never $19.95)

Review by Dustin Cole, 2018

Aging is a crisis, if you live that long. I am thirty-seven. When I think about being sixty-five years old, different things come to mind.

There is hope for artistic fulfillment and recognition. There are fears of hearing loss, renal scans, colon removal. There is sombre resignation of the inevitable five-mile jog in the afternoon as debit against the sixpack to be had that evening.

Brett Josef Grubisic's Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O is a comic novel that explores the subject of ageing. It is both flippant and learned, exhaustively current, cutting edge even, yet still with a whiff of eczema salve.

Add to that the wafting vapour of a low-sodium cream of tomato soup serving for one, slightly scorched.

Now in his fifties, Grubisic noticed an age spot on his hand which put him in mind of a specular threshold. Two demographics bordering each other on different planets. One day, the vital apex of middle age, the next, poof, senior citizenry.

He started thinking. What might it be like for me ten years on as a sexagenarian? "Mottled, a geezer, just like that." Behold the character of Marcus O. In all his myriad facets, we come to know Marcus, human, all too human.

Reading this novel, we encounter wry cynicism, beleaguered sarcasm, acid snideness, dismissive witticisms (galore), petty vengeance, prideful obstinance, involute paragraphs -- paratactic, parenthetical, grotesque. And all of it had me chortling page after page.

Here we encounter Marcus O's dynamic temperament, at once lucid, drab and despairing:

"Years earlier, when incandescent bulbs had suddenly become as iffy a proposition as race-, religion-, gender-, size-, ethnicity-, disability-, or sexuality-based zingers at the office, he'd adjusted to the change automatically, even while disdaining the blue surgical light that represented an environmental good.

"The air plant in the spherical mini-terrarium distributed to every office as regulation greenery, he'd accepted too.

"Acceptance. He'd instantly pictured an Edwardian curmudgeon railing against light bulb filaments and mourning candlelight's passing in rhyming couplets. No one hangs out with that guy, he understood. Out with the old, etc., etc."

Beneath the hilarity there is profound sadness. He is consigned to the waste bin. Because he's out of touch? No, because he's old.

While Grubisic's subject is oldness, his theme is something we can all relate to: the mediation of thought by technology. Under this "surgical" light, the book is more contemporary hyper-realism than geriatric sci-fi.

Marcus frequently consults Syb, a voice-activated piece of encyclopedic hardware in the shape of a "tubby aluminum cylinder," voice set to British (Female). It has trouble with diphthongs and triphthongs, but accesses the annals on command, from the chimpanzee-human divergence to a brief history of calisthenics, prattling on until Marcus says stop.

He's got a dermal monitor, too, or CMT. I'ts short for compact medical technology.

"'s an implant that transmits his body function signals to a sentient cloud network. If he wants he can pull out his tablet and watch real time statistics on the bus at a traffic light, observe the release and catch of hormones, or the steady production of healthy cells.'"

Marcus subscribes to the online dating site Venerati. A fair chunk of his spare time is spent pondering Venerati's ACVQ, the AccuCoreValu Questionnaire, "designed and perfected by a commissioned brain trust of leading field experts." The questionnaire depicts a process of self-revision. These short interstitial chapters are the novel's formal innovation. Here he quips, he deletes, quips, deletes, says something he means but it's too heavy for a dating site, so he forfeits his honest and distinctive opinions for something truthful, minus affect, and ends up sounding like a jellyfish with leather elbow patches. For example:

How often in the last month have you felt misunderstood?
I'd expect to find a question of this sort on a psych eval given to military and police recruits.

Anything above an acceptably low number is an instant red flag meaning Should Not Have Access to Firearms.

I've been misunderstood several times. As for "felt misunderstood," that belongs to the script of an adolescent, along with "it's so unfair" and "No one even tries to get me," and that hormonal sense of being a peg in a world overrun with round holes. After that, feeling misunderstood belongs to narcissists, the woefully immature, the clinically paranoid, and that population segment for whom life plateaued too soon and at too low a level; they're resentful of that fact and need some external force on which to pin the blame.

In my field, being misunderstood is inevitable, an ordinary part of the job description. As for feeling misunderstood, that's not at all common for me on any month.

Because he and Syb have done so much research on the topic of online dating, any attempt to represent himself with an earnest bit of text triggers second thoughts. So, he censors his own personality.

We learn so much about Marcus O in these struck passages -- vulnerable, idiosyncratic things; sensible, wise things. But nobody he is trying to meet will see as we do.

This is, I think, the conflict of the book. Mediated thought. He struggles to renew forms of unmediated thought and actions which may follow. The notion of mediated thought can be extended beyond the novel's wide spectrum of technologies and applied to other, often hypothetical people, as well as to institutions, even to our most hallowed -- the university.

In the world according to Marcus O, the physical configuration and exterior surfaces of the university say as much about it as its course offerings and global rank:

"Pluralistic utopian crystalline forms, exotic geometry that evoked promise of unfettered potential, fantastical elements of engineering whimsy along with the earthen and subterranean that promoted a perennial reverent organic oneness with the biosphere. A mindful city of mind at the edge of a coastal city of spired glass. What magnificence. Luminous with plenitude and potential, secular cathedrals where nearly every last mystery had been explained."

Often when reading contemporary, research-heavy fiction, I can't help seeing the highfalutin' author knuckling down at the archive or haunting the rare books room. At no time did I get the sense this book was a compendium of mulish research, an achievement unto itself.

Cerebral as hell, Oldness is a portrait of a hapless brainiac rendered with stylish derring do.


Dustin Cole of Slave Lake, Alberta, is writing a novel, Notice, set in Vancouver about a student being evicted by his shady landlords, his subsequent insolvency, and his realization that Vancouver is far from a "Super Natural" idyll.



Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction. Editor.

Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions. Co-editor with Carellin Brooks.

National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada. Co-editor with Andrea Cabajsky.

Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dsytopian Literature (Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2014) $48.99 978155459890


The Age of Cities (Arsenal, 2006)

Understanding Beryl Bainbridge (Univ of South Carolina Press, 2008)

American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture: 1890-1970 (Arsenal, 2009), with David L. Chapman.

This Location of Unknown Possibilities (Now or Never, 2014) $19.95 978-1-926942-60-5

From Up River and for One Night Only (Now or Never, 2016) $21.95 978-1988098074

Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O (Now or Never, 2018) $19.95 9781988098630

My Two-Faced Luck (Now or Never, 2021) $19.95 9781989689271

[BCBW 2021] "Fiction"