Michael Christie’s first novel explores the new worlds created when a son grows out of his agoraphobic mother’s safety net
And Will has certainly never gotten to know anyone other than his mother, a fiercely loving yet wildly eccentric agoraphobe who drowns in panic at the thought of opening the front door. Their world is rich and loving, full of art, experiments, and music—but confined to their small house.
In buoyant, kinetic prose, Michael Christie has written an emotionally resonant and keenly observed novel about mothers and sons, fears and risks, and the lengths we’ll go for those we love.
Will’s thirst for adventure can’t be contained. Clad in a protective helmet and unsure of how to talk to other kids, he finally ventures outside. With the help of an artistic loner who introduces Will to the high-flying freedom of skateboarding, Will is pulled far from the confines of his closed-off world and thrust headfirst into the throes of early adulthood and the dangers that everyday life offers.
Michael Christie’s extraordinary creativity shines a bright light on a poorly-understood condition
Image from the short film ‘Agoraphobia’ by Jonathon Smith/Malibu Film Productions
Michael Christie’s real-life mother was agoraphobic. “My mother’s agoraphobia began in her early 20s,” he writes in The Washington Post. “It started after a panic attack while she was driving. First she stopped using highways; then she avoided left turns. After that came a gradual narrowing.
“Friends and hobbies that required outward ventures were scuttled. Her interests migrated indoors: reading, art, crafts, cooking. By the time I was about five, she didn’t leave our house if she could help it. At school, I’d hear about “vacations” from my classmates and had trouble parsing the idea. Forget airplanes or road trips — my mother couldn’t leave our neighborhood without risking seismic panic.”
Confronting mental illness in literature can often be difficult, however UBC MFA graduate Michael Christie tackles this topic head on in his new novel If I Fall, If I Die. — Mischa Milne, The Ubyssey
“Christie has presented a realistic account of a paralyzing, deep-set, and long-running phobia,” writes Brett Josef Grubisic in The Vancouver Sun. The novel includes carefully crafted, poetic depictions of Diane’s experiences of anxiety and panic in the context of her progression to agoraphobia.
“Rarely has the tender claustrophobia of the mother-son dynamic, the raw humanity of mental illness, or the delicate, dangerous process of growing up been rendered with such heart and sensitivity,” says Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers. “If I Fall, If I Die mines the fundamental dilemmas of both childhood and parenthood to sublime effect. I can’t recall a funnier, truer or more beautiful debut.”
Agoraphobia can be seen in the larger context of today’s society
Image: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
“Lately I’ve been noticing how much harder it is to get people I know to leave their neighborhoods. To put down their phones. To read or watch or listen to things they don’t already know they’ll enjoy,” writes Michael Christie in The Washington Post.
“It’s not just my sphere; Americans at large are more isolated than ever, and more anxious, across many disparate groups: children, soldiers, college students, women. We increasingly fear things we have no reasonable cause to fear. While the number of clinically diagnosable agoraphobics hasn’t increased, something that reeks of agoraphobia seems to be presenting itself all around me.”
In a most unusual Bildungsroman, Christie paints a painstaking picture of debilitating mental illness. There is a fairy-tale quality to the story, which reads as an allegory of the rampant anxiety of the modern age. — Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times
Around the time when Christie was finishing the manuscript, observes Mark Medley in The Globe and Mail, the journalist Hanna Rosin published The Overprotected Kid in The Atlantic. The article examined the rise of helicopter parenting.
“Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s,” Rosin writes, “…walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.” She asks, “How did these fears come to have such a hold over us?”
She died five years ago, but I see my mother in everyone lately. On Instagram, my friends’ gazes have turned inward: to their food, their dwellings, themselves. And who can blame them? Anxiety and fear are the defining emotions of this historical moment, whipping over the globe faster and freer than wind or electronic money. — Michael Christie, The Washington Post
Michael Christie says that a rising cultural fear bath leads to over-anticipation. We “put on our headphones and close our personal borders, lest a stranger engage us in any way. We clutch our phones (which might be increasing our anxiety), read books we’re sure we’ll like, listen to voices with which we’re sure to agree, and sink into isolation as real as my mother’s, even if the root of it is different.
“Each day we wake up with the realm of safety whittled a little smaller, the borders of our own private domains drawn a little tighter. Outside is disease, bombs, inequality, crime, risk. Inside is warmth, screens, comfort, Amazon packages, plenty, health, safety.”
Dark book is a ‘love poem’ to Thunder Bay
Image from the video “My Home Town” by Matt Popowich/Westfort Films, Thunder Bay
Michael Christie was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario — his ‘home town’ and the setting for If I Fall, If I Die.
“After high school,” writes Mark Medley in The Globe and Mail, “Christie moved to San Francisco; the lo-fi videos he’d produced of himself riding around Thunder Bay had come to the attention of a skateboard company, Stereo, which agreed to sponsor him. He lived rent-free in a house in the city’s Mission District with a bunch of other skaters – Will’s dream, basically – and spent his days skateboarding.”
Michael returned much later to Thunder Bay while writing If I Fall, If I Die. “He bought a house on a hill overlooking Lake Superior and began writing a new book partly inspired by his own peculiar childhood.”
Christie told Mark Medley that he’s now “exorcised” himself of Thunder Bay, though his father still lives there.
It’s a dark book, but it’s also a love poem to the city [of Thunder Bay], I think. It’s a city I love very much. — Michael Christie, on CBC Radio
Image of Michael Christie by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
We speak with Michael Christie about his novel If I Fall, If I Die.
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Michael Christie’s debut collection of short stories, The Beggar’s Garden, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction, and won the Vancouver Book Award. He holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Prior to his MFA, he was a sponsored skateboarder and travelled throughout the world skateboarding and writing for skateboard magazines. Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he now lives on Galiano Island with his wife and two sons. If I Fall, If I Die is his first novel.
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