Monday, March 9, 2009

Strange and Stranger

Review of Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell. Toronto Star, July 2008.

Even the most casual of comic-book fans know who Stan Lee is. As the main writer at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Lee helped create countless costumed icons, from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four to the X-Men. Now less active as a writer, he’s still the public face of Marvel, accepting tribute in the form of ceremonial cameos in the company’s Hollywood blockbusters. (Most recently, he can be spotted in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.)

Less well known – and less well compensated – are the artists who rendered Lee’s fantasias, and sometimes served as unofficial co-writers, too. So there’s a distinct air of redress in a couple of recent large-format art books devoted to other Marvel creators. Kirby: King of Comics, which appeared earlier this year, hailed the late Jack Kirby. Now Toronto writer Blake Bell has published Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko.

Ditko’s legacy mainly rests on his co-creation, in 1962, of Marvel’s single most celebrated character, Spider-Man. Bell argues that Ditko developed not just the hero’s powers and look, but also the series’ focus on Peter Parker’s teenage travails, so crucial to its appeal. There’s more to Ditko than the webslinger, though. Before joining up with Lee and Marvel, he illustrated horror and suspense comics in the 1950s. At Marvel, he helped created at least one other memorable hero, Dr. Strange. And in the 1960s and ’70s, he worked on a host of lesser-known titles for various comic publishers, while also publishing more personal work in fanzines.

All of this work is well represented in Strange and Stranger, which above all is a lavish objet d’art, stuffed with covers, pages, and panels in Ditko’s hand. Psychedelic characters like Shade the Changing Man burst off the page in vivid colour, but the black-and-white stuff is scarcely less striking, marked by Ditko’s clear line and solid draftsmanship. The images are occasionally crude, but they actually benefit from being pulled from their original context. Without having to follow along with the clunky pulp storylines that Ditko’s work accompanied, readers can better appreciate the drawings as a kind of pop art.

Bell’s analysis is a crucial aide to that appreciation. In both the main text and the crucial image captions, Bell charts the evolution of Ditko’s style. He notes the artist’s early influences and shortcomings – such as a tendency toward clutter – and highlights his many innovations. These may have been throwaway tales of mad scientists and hoodlums, but even non-fans will be duly impressed as Bell shows how Ditko varied his page and panel layouts, captured light and shadow, and played with cinematic shifts of perspective.

Ditko is a fascinating figure for other reasons, too. From early in his career, he was enthralled by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy, which touted the ennobling virtues of brazen self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism. In Ditko’s work, the Rand influence found expression in a black-and-white sense of morality, an infatuation with vigilante justice, and a disdain for do-gooder liberalism. These themes coloured much of Ditko’s work, but were most apparent in two similar characters, the hard-ass urban crime-fighters The Question and Mr. A, who were only too happy to leave small-time hoods to their deaths. (The Question was later the inspiration for the Rorschach character in Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel Watchmen – another facet of Ditko’s legacy, however tangential.)

Where Strange and Stranger is weak is in capturing any real sense of its subject as a person. Bell runs down Ditko’s childhood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and his early years in New York, but about Ditko’s adult life we learn practically nothing. This can largely be put down to a lack of access – now 80 years old, Ditko has always been reclusive and suspicious of the media. But unavoidably or not, Strange and Stranger is something less than a full portrait of the man.

However, Bell does amply cover the way Ditko’s personal quirks manifested themselves in his career path. After battling Lee for creative control over Spider-Man, Ditko left the series less than 40 issues in. This dynamic would be repeated throughout his career, and a series of standoffs left Ditko struggling for meaningful work by the 1980s. For a devotee of Rand’s principles of self-interest, Ditko was also surprisingly cavalier about money: one witness says he used his old original drawings as cutting boards, and he reportedly turned down a large cash offer from Marvel during the run-up to the Spider-Man film, claiming disinterest, although he did fight to be recognized as the character’s co-creator.

To Bell’s credit, he doesn’t try to claim that Ditko was purely a misunderstood genius. Strange and Stranger is probing and acute about its subject’s limitations. Bell outlines how Ditko’s later characters often served clumsily as mouthpieces for his Randian views, and argues that the artist’s work-for-hire was increasingly tossed-off, as the pencilled pages grew sparse, leaving more work for the inkers to fill in. While Bell is sympathetic to Ditko, his book leads the reader to a melancholy realization: that the artist’s storytelling sensibilities never achieved the same level of sophistication that his visuals did.


Review of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Toronto Star, November 2008.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is monumental in more ways than one. A 900-page opus that spans decades and ranges from Europe to Mexico, the novel is the most potent distillation yet of its creator’s themes and techniques. Sadly, the book also serves as a monument to Bolaño himself. The Chilean-born author died of liver failure in Spain five years ago, at the age of 50, while still putting the final touches on 2666.

Not that the book feels unfinished – or, at least, it doesn’t feel any less finished than its predecessors did. Since Bolaño’s death, as his work has marched forth in English translation and garnered rightful acclaim, it’s become clear that he had no interest in neatly groomed little narratives. Whether sprawling like The Savage Detectives or short and concentrated like By Night in Chile, his novels are shaggy by nature. They’re structurally haphazard and unpredictable in tone; they can be demanding and willfully perverse. They also tend to be unforgettable.

2666 is no different. It’s made up of five discrete sections that build on each other thematically but not necessarily narratively. In typical Bolaño style, the novel’s title is never explained or even mentioned in the text itself, though it does come up in the earlier novella Amulet, whose narrator imagines “a cemetery in the year 2666” – a vision of death, neglect, and moral decay.

As the various sections of 2666 echo off of each other, the novel’s shape and meaning gradually gather around two main elements. The first is Benno von Archimboldi, a mysterious and reclusive German novelist who’s nearing the end of a long life. In the book’s first section, a clique of European academics tries in vain to locate the elderly writer. In the last section, we see Archimboldo as a young man, wandering amid the apocalypse of World War Two and forging himself as a writer.

The book’s other major force is Santa Teresa, a lawless and hellish Mexican border city to which all narrative roads seem to lead. Beginning in 1993, Santa Teresa is plagued by unsolved murders – dozens and dozens of them, going on for years. The victims are mostly young women who work in the city’s many maquiladoras, thrown-together factories churning out cheap goods to meet the implacable appetites of NAFTA. (Appallingly and staggeringly, this is not just some grim fantasy of Bolaño’s. Santa Teresa is modeled on Ciudad Juarez, a real border town in which literally hundreds of women have been murdered.)

By placing the German genius and the desert cauldron of modern industry in implicit opposition, Bolaño works his favourite theme: the pursuit of art and the way it collides and overlaps with the messy, ignoble, and sinister aspects of real life. His novels are full of fictional poets, but they’re also haunted by the Pinochet coup in Chile; one of his early books, Nazi Literature in the Americas, is a mock encyclopedia of imaginary fascism-enthralled writers.

The terrifying centrepiece of 2666 is the fourth of its five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Nearly 300 pages long, it’s primarily made up of short episodes that relate the discovery of one corpse after another. Wounds are described and clues are sifted in a terse, documentary prose style, making for a kind of police procedural parody. It’s a black and bitter lampoon, though – we see no real law and order at work, just apathy and corruption and outright depravity. Bolaño intercuts this material with several horrific side stories: an American sheriff scours the city in search of a missing woman, and an aloof German immigrant is charged with one of the murders and thrown into a Boschian pit of a prison.

There are other sections and other characters, but to summarize 2666 any further is both difficult and unnecessary. Suffice to say that Bolaño stuffs the novel with anecdotes that open up into other anecdotes – everything from the story of a mad artist who hacks off his own hand to the long church sermon of a former Black Panther. These tangents are usually intriguing, though their relevance sometimes seems subliminal at best. The prose has a similarly freewheeling quality. Sometimes it’s lyrical and striking and sometimes it’s offhand and artless, more testimony than narration. Bolaño is fond, too, of long sentences with clauses that wiggle and multiply – the rhetorical effect is of a steady murmur that you have to work to keep your attention on.

All of which is to admit that reading Bolaño can sometimes be a struggle. But he’s a true original, and the struggle is a rewarding one. 2666 is a fascinating and powerful book, in the end a hallucinogenic portrait of a great evil gathering on the surface of the world. A reader completes most 900-page novels with some measure of relief, and this one is no exception. But it’s also hard to think back on the book without itching to read it again.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Another Side of Hugh Dillon

Cover profile of the actor and former Headstones frontman, from Driven magazine, September 2008.

There’ve been two Hugh Dillons jostling around in my head lately.

First there’s the spiky-haired rock and roller who fronted the Headstones. In my memory I see them racing through a set at a dive bar in 1993. Dillon snarls and spits, swinging the mic stand, singing about digging up his baby at the cemetery, while the band slams through power chords behind him.

Then there’s the Dillon who’s been on TV all summer, playing a police sniper on Flashpoint. Poker-faced and taciturn, slow to smile. He’s in fit, fighting shape: his head is shaved, his body always tense with checked energy. He crouches on a rooftop and his eyes narrow as he draws a bead on some lunatic waving a gun.

On a café patio on a hot August morning in downtown Toronto, a third Dillon takes shape: a rising actor with a hit TV show, backed by the veritable star machine. Cautious and image-conscious, but still proud of his rough edges, he displays a curious mix of humility and bravado, and he has the star athlete’s habit of dropping ready-made sound bites. (On the intensity of his performances: “Life is intense, except when it isn’t.”)

To be fair, Dillon has earned some bragging rights. After premiering in July, Flashpoint, which centres on a Toronto emergency response team, scored solid ratings both on CTV here in Canada and – more improbably and, Dillon admits, more importantly – on CBS in the States. It isn’t Dillon’s only TV cop gig, either. He also stars in the dark drama Durham County, playing a Toronto homicide detective who moves out to the suburbs to escape big-city violence, only to be caught up in a serial-killer case.

Dillon actually dabbled in acting throughout his Headstones years, most memorably in Bruce McDonald’s 1996 cult classic, Hard Core Logo. He played Joe Dick, a down-and-out punk singer driven by rage and desperation; the role seemed to barely stray from his own stage persona, and initially, he says, “I had no desire to do it at all.” McDonald eventually convinced him, says Dillon: “He is one of those guys, there’s no hidden agenda – they just see something in you that you don’t see in yourself.”

By 2003, Dillon started chasing screen time in earnest. The Headstones had split after five albums, and he’d married his longtime girlfriend, Midori Fujiwara. He’d also kicked a longstanding heroin habit. “You realize that you can no longer put your family through that kind of torment,” says Dillon, who was five years clean and sober this past summer. “You realize that you’re going to die.” He credits Fujiwara and his sisters with convincing him to get help – and admits he didn’t make it easy. “The denial is fucking outrageous,” he says. “Especially being in a rock band, where that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Determined to reinvent himself as an actor, Dillon moved to L.A., land of bit parts and waiters. (Sound bite: “I started over; I like starting over.”) Here’s the twist: after moving to the States, Dillon landed breakout parts in two made-in-Canada productions. Another twist: in both of those roles, the rock and roll animal and former junkie is playing, well, The Man.

Not that Dillon considers it a stretch. “These guys have an incredible job and nobody ever gives them credit,” he says. For him, cops have been humanized since before the Headstones hit, when he worked as an orderly at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and saw police in action on a regular basis. The result, he says, is that he learned to “see them on a different level, as opposed to just authority figures.” To prepare for Flashpoint, Dillon hung out with ATF officials in the U.S., took weapons training and studied the Israeli hand-to-hand combat technique Krav Maga. (Sound bite: “You’ve got to totally invest. If you’re not invested, what can you expect?”) He still keeps in touch with some of the cops by phone.

The emphasis on prep is no accident: Dillon has to work hard at acting. (Sound bite on Flashpoint’s success: “It just makes me work harder.”) Music, on the other hand, always came naturally. The quick release of writing and playing songs still tugs at him. “There’s no thought put into it, and that’s the joy of it,” he says. “It is the art, because it just happens.”

Not that there weren’t compromises along the way with the Headstones, and Dillon admits that “there might have been a record that we weren’t thrilled with.” (DRIVEN elects Nickels for Your Nightmares.) But the group went out strong with its 2002 swan song, The Oracle of Hi-Fi. “We recorded an outstanding rock record,” says Dillon. “We walked away with our heads held high.” Characteristically, he also takes a little punk-rock glee in the fact that the Headstones’ major-label ride coincided with the near collapse of the record biz. “I was leaving as Rome was burning,” he says. “I had a smile on my face. It’s like my spaceship crash-landed in Los Angeles.”

He may have escaped the major-label machine and found his niche on the small screen, but Dillon isn’t ready to give up on rock. “I’ll do music my whole life,” he says. “I’ll always write songs.” That’s no idle boast. His second post-Headstones album, Works Well With Others, is about to come out. And if Dillon feels pressure about his acting (sound bite: “You put that pressure on yourself”), when it comes to music, the pressure is now definitely off. “I’m older, I don’t have as much to prove,” he says. “I’m not writing songs for a paycheque, or a record company, or to fit into a genre, or other people’s perceptions of who they think I might be.”

Dillon’s hoping to get a few live gigs together this fall in support of the new album, but his time is in high demand these days. After finishing out the summer filming Flashpoint’s initial 13-episode run, he’ll spend the fall shooting Durham County’s second season in Montreal, joined by new cast member Michelle Forbes. Her credits include Homicide: Life on the Street – one of the few cop shows Dillon admits to liking – and Dillon says the second season will be “very, very sophisticated, darker than the first one.” (For the record, season one was already quite dark.)

In the new year, he will be back at work on Flashpoint. Beyond that, he’s open to whatever comes his way, including a rumoured four sequels to Hard Core Logo. (Sound bite: “There’s no neutral. You’re either going forward as a performer or just backwards. And for me there’s never been any backwards, either. It’s just forward.”) He and Fujiwara divide their time between L.A.’s hip Silver Lake district and their house in Toronto’s Danforth area. Dillon’s recent success seems to gratify him for her sake as much as his own. “She’s somebody who never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself,” he says.

“My life is what I want it to be. It’s been a long haul.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Review of Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile by Toronto journalist Tim Falconer. A slightly condensed version appeared in the Toronto Star in May 2008.

Is a car simply an appliance, a tool that performs a task, or is it a ticket to life-affirming, life-altering experiences? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Drive, Tim Falconer’s consideration of car culture. As for Falconer’s book itself, it’s more appliance than experience – dependable, sure, and stocked with information, but decidedly short on thrills.

Falconer, a Toronto journalist, wants to write about how cars have sprawled our cities, made us lazy, and complicated our lives. And he’s done plenty of research to back it up. But he also wants (quite sensibly) to bring some sense of narrative to that research, and also to understand the deep connection so many people feel with their rides. And so a road trip is born. Falconer sets out from Toronto in his ’91 Nissan Maxima and drives all the way to California, reporting on his progress and interviewing various auto enthusiasts and industry types as he goes.

Drive thus proceeds along two fronts. Falconer doles out background on everything from the history of car design to advertising through the decades to professional car racing, while theoretically using his own experiences and encounters along the way to add colour. It all reads as a bit of a grab bag, but one main theme does emerge: car culture is bad for urban planning, but folks sure do love their cars. For much of the book, these ideas are repeated more than expanded upon.

That’s one problem with Drive. Another is that the colour isn’t very, well, colourful. Falconer writes about highway traffic, about auto-themed tourist attractions (like the Cadillac Ranch, a handful of cars upended and stuck into the Texas desert), and about the ups and downs of the historic Route 66 in the southwest U.S. He also records his impressions of the various cities he passes through, rating them on how inviting they are. But while Falconer’s prose is serviceable enough, he struggles with setting a vivid scene or capturing the spark of a personality. He introduces just about everyone he encounters, for example, with a superficial physical trait or two – descriptions that range from nearly meaningless (“a small, thin, fey man with bleached blond hair”) to laughably absurd (“a small, dark-haired man who wore running shoes and jeans without a belt”).

The author himself strikes a position somewhere between amiable and altogether edgeless. He throws out general disapproval over traffic volume, suburban sprawl, and our car-enabled sedentary lifestyles. But the more specific the subject gets, the more his own opinions seem to retreat. After describing a crass TV ad that plays on parental anxieties, Falconer offers this hard-hitting analysis: “Some people found these spots offensive because they seemed to suggest that people who didn’t pony up for the expensive service didn’t care about the safety of their family.” It’s not the last time we hear from these mysterious “some people” or “more than a few people.”

As an argument, the book is strongest in its final chapter, which makes the case that downtown traffic tolls would both acknowledge the true societal cost of congestion and generate revenue for improved public transit. London, England, has tried this approach with some success. but here in Toronto, Mayor David Miller toyed with the idea and then quickly backtracked. “Miller is just one more politician without the guts to make tough decisions against cars and drivers,” writes Falconer, in a rare but welcome flash of fire.

Drive has other pleasures here and there; they come and go like rest stops on the highway. One charming section recounts a night at a family-friendly drive-in outside Picton, Ontario; another intriguingly describes the way technology is used to track traffic patterns. Overall, though, the book keeps to the middle of the road: it’s informative enough but not fascinating, entertaining enough but not captivating.

Falconer ends Drive with a playlist of rock and roll car songs, including Chuck Berry and the inevitable Springsteen but also the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.” It’s a bit of fun that seems out of place, and ironically, it reminds the reader that the book itself could have used some more rock and roll energy.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Black Postcards

Review of indie-rocker Dean Wareham’s memoir Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance. Appeared in the Toronto Star, spring 2008.

Dean Wareham is a rock star – sort of. Like countless indie musicians before and after him, Wareham has spent his career in a no man’s land somewhere between obscurity and mainstream success. His fans are numerous enough that he can earn a living with regular club gigs, but not quite numerous enough to make that living an enviable one.

All of which makes Wareham a refreshing rock memoirist. The genre’s usually given over to tales of fiscal excess and champion debauchery, but Black Postcards, Wareham’s new book, is about as far from Motley Crue’s The Dirt as you can get.

Wareham’s known as the frontman for two cult bands: Galaxie 500 in the late 1980s, and then Luna from 1992 to 2005. Both groups blended dreamy pop and rock-snob taste in influences (Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Modern Lovers) with Wareham’s expressive guitar solos and somewhat less expressive vocals. He may not seem like a likely author – his doggerel lyrics were usually the weakest thing about his records – but the book shows him to be an observant guy with a wry sense of humour.

A New Zealander by birth, Wareham moved to New York City as a teenager with his family, and began his musical career while attending Harvard. As Black Postcards recounts, in Cambridge he learns the guitar and begins playing with an old high school classmate, Damon Krukowski. Eventually the two of them form Galaxie 500, with Krukowski on drums and his girlfriend, Naomi Yang, on bass.

Galaxie 500 made three cult-classic albums, but the personal dynamics were tense; in one of indie rock’s more legendary breakups, Wareham quit the group suddenly in 1991, deeply embittering his former bandmates. In Black Postcards, Krukowski and Yang do not come off well. Wareham paints the couple – convincingly, it must be said – as controlling, petty, and insecure. They constantly outvote him on band decisions, even though he writes most of Galaxie’s songs. And it’s hard not to seethe on Wareham’s behalf when they berate him just for playing a solo charity gig or, even more absurdly, for stepping into a spotlight onstage.

So Wareham splits the scene and forms a new band. Luna’s story is not as ugly as Galaxie 500’s, but in some ways it’s even more dispiriting. The band begins with promise, but by Wareham’s own estimation, they peak with their third album, Penthouse. They go on to record four more, but Wareham seems to find the process increasingly painful, and to take less and less pride in the end result. And a commercial breakthrough eludes the group: they shuffle from one record company to another and tour constantly, usually playing the same clubs again and again.

Wareham’s candor about these frustrations is the greatest strength of Black Postcards. With a light and self-deprecating touch, he thoroughly debunks standard rock mythologies. The touring life? A thankless grind punctuated by band bickering and misadventures, enlivened only by drugs or tawdry one-night stands. Luna’s recorded legacy? Wareham can barely muster any interest in most of his own albums. The adulation of fans? “If you wanted to try and pick up a girl, you had to make an effort,” he explains. “You had to wade out into the audience immediately after the show, pretend to look busy, and then answer a lot of stupid questions from guys who wanted to know what kind of distortion pedals we use.”

Amid all the cheer, the intra-band dynamics are regular points of interest. The various Galaxie 500 psychodramas stand out, of course. But Sean Eden, Luna’s Ontario-born second guitarist, is also a memorable figure. He comes off as mainly benign but hopelessly neurotic, rerecording his own guitar parts for hours on end in the studio while his bandmates twiddle their thumbs.

Lest readers assume the subtitle of Black Postcards must be sarcasm in action, genuine romance does bloom with the arrival of a new Luna bassist, the beautiful Britta Phillips. She and Wareham fall for each other on the tour carousel and eventually become an item. Wareham, however, is already married, with a young son. After much agonizing and some psychotherapy, he leaves his wife for Phillips. Since Luna’s 2005 breakup, Wareham and Phillips have recorded and toured as a duo.

The torn-between-two-lovers stuff is quite affecting, helped by Wareham’s bold honesty. (To his considerable credit, Black Postcards never once reads like he’s trying to court the reader’s sympathy.) But it would all be much more affecting if we had even the barest sense of either woman’s personality. Throughout the book, both Phillips and Wareham’s wife, Claudia, remain near-total ciphers. Perhaps this springs from an admirable impulse to protect their privacy, but the decision does Wareham’s narrative no favours.

In fact, whatever Black Postcards’ merits as an honest document of an intriguing career, it doesn’t exactly mark the arrival of a major new literary talent. Stylistically, Wareham mostly relies on flat, offhand declarations that give the book the feel of an as-told-to. (“I was a father now. It was exciting and scary.”) And for content, he relies too much on his tour diaries; huge patches of the book are devoted to tedious city-by-city summary. Black Postcards is a must-read for any fan of Wareham’s music, and should engage general indie-music fans too, but its appeal outside those boundaries will be slim.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Review of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, from the Toronto Star in December 2007.

I suspect many people will take a pass on Stewart O’Nan’s new book for the subject matter alone, which is about as prosaic and downbeat as you can get. Last Night at the Lobster is a slim novel that recounts a day in the life of a Connecticut Red Lobster outlet, from the perspective of Manny, the manager. The last day in its life, actually – the branch is about to close in a corporate downsizing move.

Readers who avoid this one will be missing out, though. True, O’Nan’s book is sombre in mood, unleavened by the comic hijinks that we’ve come to expect from workplace tales, and much of the narrative is built on the mundane details of restaurant work. But Last Night is surprisingly affecting and charming: O’Nan takes his milieu seriously and treats his characters with compassion.

On reading O’Nan’s first novel, Snow Angels, many years ago, I was impressed by how well he captured his working-class characters without slipping into the “I sing of the common man” tone sometimes found in, say, Russell Banks. In the early pages of Last Night at the Lobster, I wondered if that balance had tilted. The book is set at the height of the Christmas season, in what seems like an open bid for pathos, and it’s dedicated partly to “everyone who works the shifts nobody wants.” Obviously, O’Nan is keenly aware that while chain restaurants and retailers are unavoidable fixtures of North American public life, they rarely get written about in serious fiction. But a writer on a mission doesn’t always bode well.

I needn’t have worried. O’Nan does openly court our sympathies, and he sounds several earnest notes about corporate indifference: “The whole place may be disposable, and everyone in it,” thinks Manny early on, “but you can always find a use for a rubber band.” (Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, is transferring Manny and four other staffers to a nearby Olive Garden; everyone else at the Lobster is being pink-slipped.) But while the premise has sentimental undertones, O’Nan doesn’t overplay them – instead, he focuses squarely on the responsibilities and worries and minor crises that make up Manny’s last day at the helm of the branch.

That day is complicated on several counts. Several employees don’t bother to show, and some of the ones who do are surly. A blizzard worsens throughout the day. And Manny is distracted personally, too: while he has a pregnant girlfriend who’s waiting for some kind of commitment, he’s still tormented by a recently ended affair with a Red Lobster waitress, Jacquie, who’s not going to Olive Garden and who is working at the Lobster on this last day.

Over the course of the novel, O’Nan sketches several scenarios that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a restaurant: the daily regular who’s there when the doors open to order his usual; the huge party that arrives without warning in the middle of the lunch rush; the neglectful parent who blames her child’s bratty behaviour on the staff. Having put in several years at a chain pizzeria myself, I can testify that O’Nan also shows a strong grasp of the casual bickering and camaraderie that employees share. He even throws in another staple of restaurant life, the late-night bull session.

Mostly though, he focuses on the work itself. Last Night is full of patient, deliberate descriptions of Manny and his co-workers carrying out their various duties, from clearing the ice in the parking lot to heating up the deep fryers to cleaning the washrooms. Although one of the book’s regular refrains is “as always, Manny tries to lead by example,” O’Nan manages to stop short of idealizing his protagonist. The messy affair with Jacquie is an obvious humanizing strategy, but it works, helping to create a measured portrait of a decent, confused man.

It’s not lost on the reader, of course, that Manny’s decency is unremarked upon and unrewarded. He’s undoubtedly too loyal to his work: as he admits to himself, “he can’t stand a job left undone,” and it’s downright startling when he idly muses, midway through the novel, about a possible future that doesn’t include Darden Restaurants. Last Night at the Lobster is a small, quiet story with no epiphany or resolution, and Manny’s absorption in his unglamorous everyday tasks could be seen as futility. But the novel dares to suggest that even drudgerous work can still offer us enough purpose to get through another day, and sometimes that’s important enough.


Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, from the Toronto Star in September 2002.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book isn’t the only long-awaited second novel coming out this season – Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man will be along in October – but it’s the one with the most to live up to. After all, Eugenides’ nine-years-ago debut, The Virgin Suicides, was a more promising book than, say, Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Both of them balanced literary ambition with crowd-pleasing camp, but ultimately Eugenides’ sad, creepy tale carried greater resonance.

While The Virgin Suicides was slim and compressed, Eugenides works on a new scale with Middlesex. It’s a 500-pager, a long family saga spanning most of the 20th century and stuffed with Big Themes: personal turmoil and political cataclysm, incestuous love and familial guilt, labour unrest and immigrant unease, crime and capitalism. Small wonder that it’s been gathering pre-publication buzz.

Like its predecessor, Middlesex also concerns sexual confusion amid the leafy streets of Grosse Pointe, Mich. As the very first sentence informs us, the novel’s hero is a hermaphrodite: Callie Stephanides is born a girl in 1960, but reborn at the age of 14 as a boy. The adult Cal, a male diplomat living in Berlin, relates the story of his/her own early life, culminating in that traumatic rebirth. He also looks back in time, recounting the adventures of his parents and paternal grandparents.

Those grandparents are Desdemona and Lefty, who flee the Asia Minor village of Bithynios after the Turks invade in 1922. Narrowly escaping a mass slaughter at the city of Smyrna, the two board a boat bound for the U.S. and marry en route. They settle with relatives in Detroit, and while Desdemona struggles to adapt her silk-growing skills to the new world, Lefty puts in a brief stint at a Ford factory before opening a bar. Their son, Milton, becomes a restaurateur himself, marrying and raising two children of his own. His younger child is our narrator, Callie/Cal.

It’s best not to dwell on the fact that in these early sections, the narrative voice relates events in more detail than a not-yet-born Cal could possibly possess. Cal playfully alludes to this disconnect at times, but that doesn’t make for anything approaching an unreliable narrator subtext. In fact, the technique seems like nothing more than a device to allow Eugenides his epic scope while also making room for a chummy, conversational tone. Cal is a patient and indulgent storyteller, constantly saying such things as “shall I get right to it?” and “so, to recap” and “surely you’ve guessed by now.”

Such asides are symptoms of the novel’s major problem: There’s something a little undignified about its relentless attempts to ingratiate itself. Eugenides tends to formally announce his themes and motifs, as if to spare us the effort of looking for them. (Cal on the subject of Berlin: “This once-divided city reminds me of myself.”) He splashes ellipses liberally to lubricate the suspense. He shows a weakness for cute visual metaphors: the movie reel, the snapshot, the diorama. And the book has more than its share of Lovely Images that seem calculated to provoke sighs of delight. (“It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water.”)

The hyperactive plotting also suggests a pathological fear of flagging readerly interest. The sacking of Smyrna and the 1968 Detroit riots provide natural crisis points, and make for two of the book’s most charged and gripping sections. But calamity is never really far: The dominant mode here is melodrama, the dominant strategy plot contrivance. On the night Callie is born, a stroke hits her grandfather, but it’s not fatal – he has more strokes in store, conveniently timed for key moments in Callie’s life. Unlikely coincidences and flamboyant demises abound. We can’t even get through the performance of a school play without somebody dropping dead.

I’m all for (fictional) people dropping dead, and Lord knows The Virgin Suicides had a high body count. But with a story as long and busy as this one, a surplus of crises makes for diminishing returns. Middlesex is always readable and entertaining – for all his apparent insecurities, Eugenides is a natural storyteller – but most of its characters and events seem too arbitrary to really haunt the reader’s consciousness.

The pace does slow down a bit as Callie approaches puberty. Ensconced in a futuristic Grosse Pointe mansion on Middlesex Boulevard and enrolled in a private girls’ school, Callie frets about her body’s increasingly obvious strangeness and moons over a redheaded classmate, dubbed only The Obscure Object. A close attention to the minutiae of teenage life – a page-long description of a school bathroom, say – helps ground the action, and the affair with the Object is particularly well rendered, surreal yet plausible. There’s also a tart section in which Callie’s worried parents fall under the sway of Dr. Peter Luce, a hipster sexologist.

Callie’s resistance to Luce and her own dramatic gender switch form the core of the novel. She flees to San Francisco and takes a brief tour of the underground sex industry, but her adventures feel strangely truncated after her family’s long and winding story. In fact, Eugenides never really reconciles the whimsy and excess of the novel’s first half with the psychological realism he aims for in the second. It doesn’t help that after a tremendous build-up to Callie’s “coming out,” he skimps on describing its aftermath. A predictable subplot involving the adult Cal’s halting romance with an American photographer is sketched as thinly as possible.

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Eugenides’ talent. His writing can be sharp and funny. There are nice riffs in Middlesex on German compound words and on the horrific qualities of public men’s rooms. He can move a complicated story along economically. And his obvious affection for his characters (even as he refuses to indulge them) is charming. Middlesex may be underwhelming in the end, but as a diversionary yarn it’s more beguiling than most. At the very least it should inspire curiosity about what Eugenides will do next. I hope we won’t have to wait nearly 10 years to find out.