Marta Balcewicz’s novel Big Shadow is a nuanced coming-of-age story, one of the year’s most stunning debuts.
The Chicago Review of Books wrote of the book:
“Balcewicz has a knack for humor both observational and deadpan, symbolism both ironic and earnest, and peculiar turns of phrase . . . At times, Balcewicz’s prose channels Sheila Heti’s wry brooding.”
Maurice, one of the main characters in my novel, Big Shadow, is a musician, a remnant of the 1970s New York punk scene and the ’80s post-punk scene who has since focused more on his poetry (the book is set in 1998). He has also written a novel or two. And he’s published the requisite memoir, an excerpt of which is present in the novel because the narrator, Judy, reads it one day when she’s very bored. The excerpt is my favourite part of my novel—or it’s the part that amuses me the most.
Judy is 17 years old, and she appreciates art very much. The idea that she is perceived by others as an artist (especially if the “others” are artists themselves) is dangerously complimentary to her. Unfortunately, this much older musician-poet whom she meets makes her feel exactly that: that she is an artist. He even makes her feel she’s landed a job as a video artist, in New York, though neither he nor she understands what that means, I don’t think.
Labels are funny and despite the presence of a musician as a main character, and a fair number of references to his career, his band, and other musician-like things, I don’t think anyone would call this a “music novel,” and I believe that is accurate. One of the few things I was conscious of while writing this book was that I shouldn’t make it sound like a novel that references too many music-world details. I suppose I was afraid that potentially esoteric references would weigh the text down, or be boring to a reader (I’ve been bored by such books myself). But a playlist allows me to link music to the work and the work to music with no scruples.
I think my novel would feel complimented by its association with these songs.
The Go-Betweens, “Karen”
My novel is set in 1998, a moment when having a home computer with internet access was not yet entirely ubiquitous in North America. Judy must work to learn things about Maurice, and at one point she goes to a public library branch so that she can use the internet to search his name. She also takes out a 550-page book on the New York punk scene called How What Happened Happened.
The Who, “Disguises”
At the end of the novel, Judy meditates on the subject of disguises. She’s talking about a specific friend, Jennifer, who presents herself very carefully, with impeccably-applied, heavy make-up—so much so, that when Judy sees Jennifer without any make-up, she doesn’t recognize her. But I think most characters in this book are overly conscious of how they present themselves to others; I suppose we all are.
The city where Judy lives is unnamed, though those who are from Toronto, and know I live in Toronto, will likely make the correct assumption that Toronto is a model for this setting. Ultimately, what is significant is that Judy wishes to leave the place she is from. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she wishes to escape the loneliness that she feels in the place she’s from.
Richard Hell & The Voidoids, “Walking on the Water”
At one point, Judy thinks to herself that Robert Quine is her favourite guitar player. I think Quine can be the favourite guitar player of a 17-year-old girl, but I also think my narrator says a lot of things that she knows simply sound good, even as private thoughts.
Noise Addict, “I Wish I Was Him”
I like how complicated fandom is. With Judy, her admiration for Maurice is something other than a love of his art, because she was never actually a fan of his band and doesn’t seem to care much for his poetry. I think it’s more generally a wish to have his level of freedom, and his lifestyle. But for Maurice, the conviction that he is revered for his output is critical. One of the first things he does when he meets Judy is play her his music video.
Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs”
There is a moment in the novel when Judy’s sleep is disturbed by Maurice’s incessant fiddling with a record player. He pushes the record needle back to a point in a song over and over. The part he’s obsessed with features a screechy instrument, and Judy thinks to herself that it’s probably John Cale’s viola.
The sentiment that one is not like everybody else can take the force of religious dogma for a young adult. And so, telling a young person “You’re not like everybody else” can render the speaker a god.
The Vaselines, “The Devil’s Inside Me”
I’ve enjoyed hearing the range of responses to my characters. Secretly, my favorite is when readers say they don’t definitely know how they feel about them—their like and dislike of a character is in a competition that ends in a draw.
My novel has two plots. The primary plot centres on the relationship between Judy and Maurice, the musician-poet—someone who she believes can do good things for her. The second plot is that of the eponymous big shadow, which is a mythology (or one could call it a doomsday cult) devised by Judy’s childhood friends. I think both plots ultimately deal with belief in something, or a reverence. And both are, in a large sense, about religion.
Free Kitten, “Teenie Weenie Boppie”
In one scene of my novel, Judy performs a dance to a Serge Gainsbourg song that’s playing on the stereo in Maurice’s apartment. I think she is finally feeling comfortable around Maurice, and this allows her to dance in a seemingly free and easy way. Can something be both unselfconscious and performative? The moment doesn’t end well for Judy.
Yo La Tengo, “I Heard You Looking”
Judy feels trapped by her friends’ odd mythology—this mildly cultish belief in the coming of a big shadow. When the novel opens, Judy is frustrated by her assigned task: watching the skies, day in and day out, always on the lookout for a tenuous, ambiguous celestial sign. Though I think part of being creative or artistically inclined is feeling compelled to be on the lookout, and being attuned to the strange things around us. I think if Judy only thought about it in this way, a way that’s more flattering to her ego, she would’ve had a better time.
Marta Balcewicz spent her early childhood in Pomerania and Madrid, and now lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Tin House online, Vol. 1. Brooklyn, Washington Square Review, The Rumpus, and Passages North, amongst other publications. Her fiction was anthologized in Tiny Crimes(Catapult, 2018). She received a fellowship from Tin House Workshops in 2022. Big Shadow is her first novel.