"Kerfuffle: A Novel That Speaks Spoof to Power"
Reviewed by Denise Noe
The 2012 G20 summit protests were a series of events in Toronto, Canada in which people demonstrated for varied causes including anti-globalization, anti-poverty, pro-environment protection, and pro-gay rights. Most protests were peaceful but there was also a riot that included the vandalism of several businesses.
Luckily, no one was killed, although over 20,000 Canadian police officers and military and security personnel were deployed and several people were injured with over 1,000 arrests being made. Those arrested included some who were peacefully protesting, leading to a class-action lawsuit. A settlement was reached by which claimants received financial compensation for the unfair detention. This event, or series of events, inspired author Dorothy Ellen Palmer to write Kerfuffle: A Novel That Speaks Spoof to Power. Palmer dedicates it:
“To all those who attended the Toronto 2010 G20 protests, for all the work you did before, during and after it, with especial recognition to those who were kettled and incarcerated, this book is dedicated with my abiding respect and gratitude.”
The novel is about an improvisational comedy troupe called Kerfuffle, the members of which perform on stage during the 2012 G20 Toronto summit protests; they also take part in those protests. It seems appropriate that they participate in these events since, as a performer explains in the troupe’s signature stage introduction, “Kerfuffle is a tasty old Scottish word for commotion or disturbance.” The characters of Kerfuffle are a varied group that include a Jewish comic who invented “Jesus Toast” — yes, toasted bread boasting a silhouette of a “longhaired man, raising his hands in what could pass for the ecstasy of prayer.”
Another Kerfuffle character is a talking sword. Also talkative is Blakkat Theatre which is by turns a cat of the four-legged variety and a theatre building. For nothing is precisely as it seems in this deliberately and delightfully wacko novel that gleefully hops between realism, surrealism, and satire. It is also significant that one of the most important characters is, like the book’s author, disabled. Palmer describes herself as, among other things, “a disabled senior writer and disability activist.” She wrote a memoir, Falling for Myself, in which disability figured prominently.
Palmer also won the 2020 Helen Henderson Award for disability journalism. The aforementioned disabled character is nine-months pregnant Nellie Gabrielle Wolfe who, as the back cover relates, cheekily “wields her crutch as both prop and weapon.” Our feisty Nellie calls reality “Crutch World” as she “lays a shielding hand over her nine-month baby bump and clenches her crutch” and muses how “when the sword in the display case began to speak, Nellie did not question her sanity, only his motives.” At one point, the chatty sword promises Nellie it will “spin you a tale” in exchange for its “freedom” from its display case.
Palmer draws the reader close to Nellie by laying bare the childhood wounds so common to handicapped youngsters as Nellie recalls how other kids calling her “Nerdy Gimpie Weirdo.” The writer makes clear the special day-to-day challenges Nellie faces as she is aware that fellow commuters view "a disabled woman struggling to manage a crutch and a heavy guitar case” as “nothing but an inconvenience.”
Nellie measures distances in “crutch length” and realizes the demands she makes of others leads them to see her as “Curmudgeonly Crutch Lady.” Nellie has learned to “read the abled gaze” and sees how her single crutch “gets scorn, doubt, blame, and shame” since “it’s clearly not temporary” but “an extension of her Borg body.” Disabled people often yearn to be among the abled, something Palmer dramatizes when Nellie fantasizes a “parallel universe” in which she lives as “Normal Nellie” even as she realizes she is stuck in “Crutch World.” Palmer underlines how a fear of disability permeates the language when she describes a disappointed Nellie as “feeling so lame.” Kerfuffle underlines tensions in the ways disabled people are treated in modern society.
Stigma remains strong as does the classic attitude of pity but breaking through both is a raised consciousness among the disabled and others who recognize both stigma and pity toward the disabled as prejudice.when Nellie is arrested, along with other protestors, a female jailor calls her “Gimp Girl.” As she is released, she overhears a superior officer discussing news media reports about “the arrest of a deaf protestor and a guy with a prosthetic leg.” Then he scolds, “You’d have to have the brain of a dragonfly’s dick to arrest a knocked-up cripple!” When calmer, cops “debate whether or not they can release her crutch, or if it’s a weapon that must be kept as evidence.” Later, Nellie wittily relates, “A cop with the brain of a dragonfly’s dick called my crutch a concealed weapon.”
As a novel, Kerfuffle lives up to its title: it is filled with commotion and disturbance.
It also lives up to its subtitle: it is a spoof that questions power.
Several reviewers have written appreciatively of its merits. The “overview” of it on the Barnes and Noble website states, “Jumping on-and-off-stage, the diverse, five-member improv troupe called Kerfuffle make sense and nonsense of their complex lives and the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.”
Author Lindsay Wong praised Kerfuffle as “an intellectually bold and comedic tour-de-force into the intriguing world of theatre improvisation” and compared its “cerebral ingenuity” to that of the celebrated poet Sylvia Plath. Columnist Shawn Micallef lauded Palmer for revisiting the G20 “with humor, compassion, and a keen sense of the city’s [Toronto] history, geography, and neighborhoods.” Writer Gary Barwin wrote, “Kerfuffle boils over with the energy, (re-)invention, truth-telling, and wit of great improv.” Disability activist Melissa Graham, who co-founded the Toronto Disability Pride March, lauded the novel for “wit and charm” in dealing with “a very dark time in Toronto’s history.” Graham further stated, “With disabled characters written as a disabled person might want their story told, this is a tale built on the delicate composition of community and friendship, leaving you on the edge of your seat until the curtains close.”
Writing specifically for Breath and Shadow, disabled Denise Noe praises Kefuffle as a fine work that showcases Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s vivid imagination and her deep understanding of the psychology of the disabled.
Denise Noe is multiply and severely disabled. She lives in Bolivar, Missouri and is the author of several books including "Voices from the Inside: Letters from Famous Prisoners," "Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd: The Extraordinary Contributions of American Jews to Christmas," "The Bloodied and the Broken," and "Justice Gone Haywire." Her fondest dream is to have a regular and steady job.