Sunday, December 16, 2007

Home Land

Review of Sam Lipsyte’s novel Home Land; this was in early 2005 in the Toronto Star.

Novelists have always found rich material in characters who are at odds with the world. But in North America in the years since World War II, an entire sprawling genre of alienated-young-man fiction has taken shape. Everywhere there are confessions of grownup Holden Caulfields adrift in a world of affluence. They disdain business and society and fetishize their own failures, yet somehow they rarely seem to suffer any real physical privation – their pain is the existential itch of the privileged.

Sam Lipsyte’s second novel belongs to that category, but to its credit, it’s firmly in the black-comedy subgenre. And it’s organized around a conceit so fitting and simple that I can’t quite believe it’s not been done before (though I confess no examples leap to mind). Home Land is narrated by a thirtysomething layabout, and it’s made up of letters to his high school’s alumni newsletter.

Eastern Valley High School of New Jersey has produced gods of the guitar and the baseball diamond, as well as rising stars in politics, business, and science. It’s also produced the underemployed Lewis Miner (class of ’89), who, as he declares at the outset, “did not pan out.” Over several weeks and a couple hundred pages, Lewis entertains his former classmates with painfully honest accounts of his masturbatory misadventures and drug-dazzled ambles about town, Or rather, he tries to entertain them: none of Lewis’s updates make it into the pages of “Catamount Notes,” to his growing frustration.

Lewis’s shoulders are stacked with chips that more earnest writers would build whole novels around: his mother’s dead, his father’s brutish and estranged, and his girlfriend’s ditched him to be closer to her own movie-star brother. Lewis keeps himself in drug money by writing “FakeFacts” for the in-house newsletter of a cola corporation, but mostly he hangs out with his best friend, Gary, a fellow class-of-’89 wastrel who has issues of his own. Gary (who first appeared in Lipsyte’s short-story collection Venus Drive) disgraced his parents with accusations of ritual sexual abuse, then sued his psychiatrist after deciding that his recovered memories were (probably) false. Lewis semi-affectionately refers to him as “the Retractor.”

With its offhand accounts of days and nights wasted away, the novel nicely captures the kind of relationship in which close friends encourage each other’s worst habits – what the shrinks call codependency. It’s also rich in secondary characters, such as Fontana, the former principal of Eastern Valley High, who suggests a couple-decades-older version of Lewis. There are also threatening drug dealers, preppie princesses, and blusteringly self-involved parents – a steady parade of bit players enlivens the action, and one never has the sense that they’re mere foils to Lewis.

They might be foils to Sam Lipsyte, though. Home Land isn’t really a character study and it isn’t really a state-of-our-culture satire (unlike its predecessor, The Subject Steve, which combined a light comedic touch with DeLillo-isms that strained to be epoch-defining). Mainly the novel’s a venue for its author’s twitchy wordplay. Literary types typically show their skills with lyrical swooning, or with painterly descriptions of everything that passes before their characters’ eyes. Lipsyte, though, prefers stylized, funny dialogue and off-kilter aphorisms. And he draws laughs from the kind of exposition that would be mere narrative pollyfiller to most writers: “Home from the garland, I found the latest issue of Catamount Notes in my mail slot, got myself nooked up on the sofa for a visit with my cougar kin. Some alums had acquired new coordinates of toil on the corporate slave grid. Others were celebrating the advent of poop-smeared approximations of themselves.”

As that passage indicates, Lipsyte’s style does run the risk of being overly glib. Home Land’s wry tone of emotional vacancy is certainly preferable to woe-is-me victimhood, but it does tend to keep the stakes small as the story moves to its climax (which is, inevitably, an Eastern Valley High class reunion). When Gary’s horrific relationship with his parents is rendered at the same insouciant pitch as, say, Lewis’s idle lust for a barista, it’s hard to genuinely care about either – or, indeed, anything. The novel’s resolution, which sees Lewis’s smirking and mugging burned away by raw and painful feeling, is a powerful moment, but a small victory.

Specimen Days

Review of Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days; Toronto Star, 2005.

It’s still early in the critical jousting over Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s new novel, and already several reviewers have accused him of recycling his last one. That would be The Hours, the 1999 blockbuster hit made up of three interwoven stories about people in varying stages of emotional distress – one of those people being Virginia Woolf, whose style, themes, and situations are reworked in the book.

Cunningham’s new novel is also made up of three connected stories to which a dead literary figure – poet Walt Whitman in this case – serves as a kind of godparent. Still, the cries of “retread” are unfair. In Specimen Days, Cunningham genre-hops from historical fiction to suspense thriller to science fiction, and whatever the book’s flaws, it’s clear that in style and subject he’s pushed himself onto new ground (at least, new to him).

In fact, the book that Specimen Days really calls to mind is David Mitchell’s hit novel Cloud Atlas. Both of them dabble in various genres and hopscotch across various time periods, and both tease the reader with clues and echoes that link the various stories. I don’t mean to suggest that the similarity is anything but coincidental (Mitchell’s book was published only last year, after all), but Specimen Days does suffer in comparison: it lacks Cloud Atlas’s giddy, propulsive plotting, and Cunningham’s connective webs feel less clever and energizing than Mitchell’s.

One of the disappointments of Specimen Days is the way Cunningham handles his discrete narratives. In The Hours they were intertwined, with the reader pulled back and forth among three time periods in a manner that, while it may have been contrived, at least seemed organic during the reading. The stories were also nicely brought together at the end, in a way that managed to seem satisfyingly inevitable rather than manipulative. In Specimen Days, in contrast, each story ends before the next begins, and most of the connections between them are slight – such as the recurring character names, or variants of them, and the Whitman motif, which feels like an add-on more than an integral part of the proceedings. The overall effect suggests a collection of novellas more than a novel.

Still, for the most part Specimen Days is engaging enough that it’s tempting to overlook the structural jerry-rigging. And one common link to the novel’s three parts is the Manhattan setting – a lovingly rendered backdrop that goes a long way toward providing narrative continuity and momentum.

“In the Machine,” the first piece, is set in the 1800s, among New York’s desperately poor. Lucas, a sickly 13-year-old, takes over his brother’s job at a metalworks plant after the brother is crushed in the workings of a machine. Lucas divides his energy between trying to provide for his frail, ghostlike parents and mooning over Catherine, his dead brother’s fiancée; his only solace lies in reading from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at night. (He also quotes from the book in conversation, compulsively and convulsively – his spasms provide a comic touch that doesn’t quite feel intentional.) The boy’s situation gets more desperate when he hears the keening voice of Simon, his dead brother, emanating from the machines around him – the gears at work, his mother’s music box – and becomes convinced that malevolent ghosts are reaching out to ensnare the living.

The portentous gloom of “In the Machine” makes it the most ponderous of the three pieces here. But it also makes for a nice parable about the anxieties of the industrial age – and the theme of paranoia runs deeper as the novel progresses. In the second story, “The Children’s Crusade,” the time is now, with New York City enshrouded in dread by the still-fresh World Trade Center attack. The protagonist is Cat, a forensic psychologist who works with the FBI, logging and interpreting terrorist threats. A group of child suicide bombers are striking at random throughout the city, and they share an obsession with the poetry of Whitman – and with Cat, who’s drawn into their eerie campaign.

The final section, “Like Beauty,” is set about 120 years from now, in a distinctly dystopian New York. A sinister private-sector plutocracy calls the shots, and the city has become a kind of theme park. Simon, a sentient android, makes his living as local colour for the tourist trade, simulating muggings on demand (shades here of the stories of George Saunders). But it turns out that Simon’s creator imprinted him with a hidden homing impulse, and when it kicks in, Simon flees New York for Colorado in search of his maker – in the company of Catareen, a female lizardlike creature from another planet.

The vision of the future here is a familiar one, from its jargon (“hoverpods” float by overhead) to its facile satire (children are named “Tomcruise” and “Katemoss”). But if Cunningham doesn’t exactly reinvent his genres in Specimen Days, he does show a certain fluency in them. “The Children’s Crusade” subtly escalates the suspense, as Cat’s own safety is compromised, while “Like Beauty” deftly avoids overexposition, parsing out just enough detail about the state of the world circa 2120 to keep the story coherent.

Ultimately, though, the novel shows little cumulative power, mainly because of the handling of the Whitman motif. The Leaves of Grass quotations that various characters spout are lovely in and of themselves, but the poet’s influence never really seems encoded in the novel’s DNA. And Whitman’s relation to the overall theme – the search for beauty and transcendence in an age of everyday dehumanization – remains superficial.

Again, in fact, the advantage goes to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell focused on the battle between altruism and avarice within human nature, and while his message wasn’t necessarily any more profound than Cunningham’s, it seemed more vivid and deeply felt, rooted in character rather than abstract ideas. Specimen Days, which essentially presents good people battling the vague and faceless spirit of the age, is not nearly as haunting.

The Sleeping Father

Review of Matthew Sharpe’s novel The Sleeping Father; Toronto Star, sometime in 2004. One good thing about putting all this old stuff here is that it’s made me realize I give in far too often to a certain rhetorical tic: a series of consecutive sentence fragments, set off by “Or” or “And,” to list characters or elements of a book. Must stop that.

The reception of Matthew Sharpe’s newest book must gladden indie publishers across the land. The New York author has previously published a short-story collection and a novel with imprints of the Random House empire. But his biggest success has come with the tiny New York house Soft Skull Press, which released The Sleeping Father early this year. That novel has become a sleeper hit, propelled by strong reviews and word-of-mouth and an appearance on the Today Show’s TV book club.

The buzz is understandable. In his tale of a Connecticut family in crisis, Sharpe creates awkward, stress-jangled characters, sets them in an up-to-the-minute social context, and watches them collide, maintaining throughout a strict dedication to the reader’s enjoyment.

The crisis-beset family is the Schwartzes, as singular in their misery as anything Tolstoy could have imagined when he set out his famous aphorism about each unhappy family being unique. Mother Lila has fled to California after multiple infidelities; depression-addled father Bernard spends much of the novel in a coma after a prescription mixup; teenage son Chris is a high-school misfit with the gift of irritating everyone around him; and teenage daughter Cathy has renounced her family’s Judaism in a quest to Catholicize herself.

That the above paragraph is absurdly reductive is a compliment to the book. Too many novels rely on one easily summarized defining dilemma per character, but the foibles of the Schwartz family intersect and multiply in unpredictable ways, and their wobbly orbits pull in intriguing secondary characters. Like Lisa Danmeyer, an ambitious neurologist with some daddy issues who indulges Chris in a weird battle of wills. Or Frank Dial, Chris’s sole friend from high school; their relationship is complicated by race (“Frank was one of five blacks matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians”), vague homoerotic yearnings, and, eventually, Frank’s feelings for Cathy.

The Sleeping Father is primarily a black comedy, and the book is an unfailingly fun read. Sharpe’s narrative voice is snappy but not quite smarmy, and at its best and most confrontational, the dialogue hums electric. In structure, too, the book is eager to please: while the scenes and situations are mostly domestic in nature, Sharpe builds suspense thriller-style, with quick scene changes and 59 short chapters.

On the downside, the author apparently believes that he must drop a bravura apercu into every paragraph to keep readers impressed. A line like “Each of them gave [their grandfather] a kiss, which meant penetrating with their faces the almost tactile bolus of smoke that encased his head” is wonderful, but nearly every scene is rendered at the same pitch – which means that the tone becomes monochromatic and those glittering one-liners lose a bit of their patina. Also, Sharpe’s guiding hand can sometimes be too easily discerned behind the speech of the characters. Chris, Frank, and Cathy occasionally veer toward the kind of hyper-articulate teenspeak that invites mockery when we see it on TV shows.

Still, Sharpe’s willingness to pursue surface effects accounts for much of The Sleeping Father’s appeal. The book’s third-person narration jumps among various points of view but also encompasses an omniscient voice. That voice pokes fun at the characters: “Cathy made a gesture at her brother that was definitely not a sign of the cross.” It renders lyrical their raw feelings: “Walking so lightly in the world was a source of intense frustration for Chris.” It brazenly withholds information for dramatic effect: “Lisa Danmeyer … was speaking with someone she considered to be an ally at the hospital, a sympathetic ear.” In short, it does anything necessary to entertain for the moment.

That’s an untrendy approach, thought by many to be a relic of pre-modernism. But it can resonate with readers, as shown in the popularity of John Irving’s novels, or of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And unlike many others, Sharpe somehow pulls it off without sacrificing the novel’s emotional punch. I chuckled at the many contrivances in the telling of The Sleeping Father’s story, but I found that its characters and their problems long outlived the turning of the last page.

Elsewhere, Part 2 / Elyse Friedman

On Steven Beattie’s site last month, he and I did a joint “dialogue review” of Elyse Friedman’s short-story collection Long Story Short. Here it is. And here’s a profile of Friedman (well, one of those weird and slightly awkward review-profile combos) done for eye weekly back in 1999.

In person, Elyse Friedman offers little hint of the brash energy on view in Then Again, her debut novel. Sitting meekly in a Random House boardroom, the 36-year-old author seems quietly amused at the novelty of being an interview subject, and her responses are refreshingly free of stock sound bites. That unpretentious quality also informs Friedman’s fiction – but at a much higher pitch. Then Again is a spirited romp, full of outsized emotions and marked by a manic narrative voice.

The novel centres on a bizarre family reunion. Joel Schafer, a stinking-rich Hollywood crap merchant (think Joe Eszterhas with a Canadian birth certificate), summons his two sisters, Michelle and Marla, to their childhood home in the suburbs of Toronto. He’s restored the house to its exact 1970s state, and has even hired actors to stand in for the long-dead Schafer parents. In narrating the action, the lonely shut-in Michelle alternates the increasingly flaky present with the emotional detritus of her past, highlighted by a doomed teenage love affair that still haunts her, 20 years later.

Friedman’s work has already earned admiration from the Toronto author Paul Quarrington, who set her on the path to publication. After enrolling in a correspondence course at the Humber Writer’s Workshop, Friedman was paired with Quarrington (Whale Music, The Spirit Cabinet), who praised the short stories she turned in. Emboldened, she turned to the long form and sent her erstwhile mentor a draft of Then Again. “After the course was long over, he was kind enough to read the manuscript,” says Friedman. “And then, doubly kind, he gave it to his agent.” But the matchup was fortuitous for creative reasons as well as career ones: “I think we have a similar sensibility. I love the fact that he can write something very funny but also very poignant.”

Friedman walks that line pretty well herself in Then Again, which veers from cartoonish satire (Joel’s absurd pranks, Michelle’s dating misadventures) to grim drama (a mother lost to cancer, a father to suicide). The novel isn’t wholly free of first-fiction missteps – the prose sometimes lacks finesse, and the denouement seems contrived – but it’s readable and affecting throughout. And Joel’s mad wish to reclaim the lost suburbia of his youth gives Friedman plenty of thematic play. “One thing that interests me is selective memory,” she says. “I’ve talked to a lot of siblings who’ve grown up in the same house, and some remember it as being an utterly hellish experience, while others remember it warmly and fondly.”

The streets of Friedman’s own childhood – she was raised in North York – don’t fare well in her memories. “I didn’t enjoy the suburbs particularly. I felt like our family was just too weird to survive there. And when we moved downtown, and I saw the weirdos thriving on the street, I felt like we had come home.” Not surprisingly, in Then Again Friedman renders the downtown core much more affectionately – and compellingly – than she does the ’burbs. The novel may be a raspberry to suburbia, but it’s also an ode to Toronto life, right down to the fictional stand-ins for Book City and the By the Way Café.

While Friedman’s already started a second novel, she’s keeping her artistic options open. A graduate of a Canadian Film Centre screenwriting program, she’s written five feature-length scripts, mostly comedies. None have been produced, but Friedman’s currently negotiating to option one. She’s also sold a proposal for a TV sitcom, although no broadcaster is yet attached. “I think writing is writing,” she says. “I write poetry as well. I want to be able to move from format to format, and not get categorized or stuck into one role.” Different mediums offer their own advantages; Friedman cites film’s visual nature and narrative compression, but notes that fiction allows for time-shifting and more ambitious structure. While writing Then Again, she never slipped into screenwriter mode. “It’s all about the rhythm of the words when I’m writing fiction. I hear it, I don’t see it.”

She might have to start thinking in pictures now, though – she’s mulling over an offer to pen a screen adaptation of her own novel. “Adapting from a novel is a whole other matter,” says Friedman, swallowing with trepidation. “Obviously, I’d have to go back and revisit the story and relive it again, and try and divorce myself from the structure and the format that it’s in now and play with it. You really do have to radically alter fiction to put it on the screen.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

King of Infinite Space

Review of King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry by Siobhan Roberts; review was in the Toronto Star in fall 2006.

King of Infinite Space is a book about geometry, so it’s fitting that it’s a little oddly shaped itself. Nominally a biography of a famous Toronto mathematician, the book is equally concerned with geometry’s larger role in math, science, and art. Ostensibly aimed at a general readership, it’s back-loaded with 150 pages of appendices and endnotes. And ultimately it’s structured as not a life story but a series of interlocking subjects and episodes – evoking nothing so much as one of the complex theoretical figures that come up so often in the book’s pages.

Siobhan Roberts, the author, is a freelance journalist, and the book grew from a profile she wrote for Toronto Life in 2003. The subject was Donald Coxeter, a well-known University of Toronto geometry professor who died that year at the age of 96. Coxeter was born in the U.K. and studied geometry at Cambridge University; in 1936 he immigrated to Toronto to accept a teaching post at U of T, and he remained there ever after, publishing books and papers, travelling to conferences, inspiring acolytes, and becoming a legend in the field.

The Coxeter that we glimpse in Roberts’ book is a mildly eccentric and intriguing figure, but his was not an especially dramatic life and this is far from an in-depth character study. Coxeter’s politics and social values are touched on a little, his relationships with his wife and two children somewhat less. Whatever personal problems or crises he may have had are all but ignored. (One comic high point is a throwaway list of the Coxeters’ grievances with successive maids in the 1930s and ’40s.) Despite its subtitle, King of Infinite Space is too academic, cautious, and respectful in tone to really function as a biography.

Which is fine, because it’s clear that Roberts would rather talk about Coxeter’s work anyway. She writes with enthusiasm about his intellectual and aesthetic interest in symmetry and shapes and in diagrams and models, in a time when much of the mathematical establishment was hostile to visual aids. And she discusses at length a couple of his major legacies: Coxeter diagrams, which are a kind of shorthand for describing complex shapes using points, lines, and numbers, and Coxeter groups, which are groups of symmetrical shapes generated by reflection.

At least, I think I have those descriptions right. Enthusiasm or no, Roberts’ book is rather heavy going for those without much geometry background (i.e. me, admittedly, but presumably many other general readers too). Her passion for the subject is obvious, but at times I wished she had a little more of, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s gift for breaking down complicated insider concepts into graspable and enlightening outsider lingo. Roberts herself seems to tacitly address this shortcoming by liberally stacking the book with rather mushy testimonials from Coxeter’s colleagues and admirers. “Coxeter’s perspective and ideas are in the air we breathe,” says one younger geometer, Ravi Vakil. “It’s not that his ideas are used to solve problems, it’s that the fundamental problems grow out of his ideas. He’s the soil, part of the substrate, part of the building in which we work, in which we live.” This and similar passages seem designed to reassure readers that Coxeter is a towering giant even if we can’t get our heads around exactly why.

Still, Roberts pursues some tangents that will intrigue even the uninitiated. In the 1950s, Coxeter formed a friendship with the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, who was no math expert (“[Coxeter’s] hocus-pocus text is no use to me at all,” Escher complained) but managed to apply complex geometric principles to his drawings through sheer work and will. And although Coxeter was a pure mathematician, mainly concerned with investigation for its own sake, some of the most interesting parts of the book cover the way geometry intersects with other fields. The familiar problem of how best to stack spheroids, for example, came in handy for early efforts at electronic information transmittal. And the shapes of different proteins are relevant in designing drugs to combat disease.

Some important larger themes emerge, too: the declining position of geometry within the mathematical cosmos, and the declining interest in the visual within geometry. Bourbaki, a group of French mathematicians, was openly hostile to classical Euclidean geometry – the group was associated with the battle cry “death to triangles” – and mistrustful of Coxeter’s beloved visual teaching and learning, considering it inferior to pure logical reasoning. And Roberts notes that geometry’s struggle to hold the interest of the academy could have long-term consequences, as future scholars are forced to rediscover lost knowledge that their forebears already had. King of Infinite Space rarely hits heights of urgency and approachability, but at times it’s quietly invigorating as it looks at the joys and rewards of the pursuit of knowledge.

Elsewhere, Part 1: Q&Q Reviews

Links to some book reviews that were written for Quill & Quire.

Liam Durcan’s short-story collection A Short Journey by Car (November 2004 issue)

Diane Schoemperlen’s Names of the Dead: An Elegy for the Victims of September 11 (August 2004)

Brian Busby’s Character Parts: Who’s Really Who in Canlit (October 2003)

John Armstrong’s punk rock memoir Guilty of Everything (January 2002)

Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance 1985-1995 by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider (September 2001)

Sparrow Nights by David Gilmour (July 2001)

The Lion, the Fox & the Eagle: A Story of Generals and Justice in Rwanda and Yugoslavia by Carol Off (January 2001)

Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America by James Laxer (August 2000)

The Next Canada: In Search of Our Future Nation by Myrna Kostash (June 2000)

Friday, November 9, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You

Miranda July’s debut short-story collection; review was in the Toronto Star in spring 2007. Might have been a bit soft on this one, as it hasn’t really stuck in my mind much since I read it.

The short-story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is Miranda July’s first book, but it’s hardly her first step onto a public stage. July, who lives in Los Angeles, has already had a varied career as a performance artist, sometime musician, and most notably filmmaker and actress, having directed and starred in the indie hipster fave Me and You and Everyone We Know two years ago.

Happily, though, July’s writerly debut doesn’t read like the work of a dilettante. The book is uneven – what first collection of 16 stories wouldn’t be? – but often enough it shows both care and talent, and its best it will leave readers both laughing and brooding.

Though the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You range widely in situation, some generalities can be made, and they won’t surprise anyone who saw Me and You and Everyone We Know. Nearly all of the stories are told in the first person, and nearly all of those narrators are female. A typical July protagonist is a lonely, wide-eyed misfit, aching to connect with someone but unable to. She may have vague artistic ambitions and she may be intelligent, but she’s strangely diffident and seems to be off in some way, as if some essential circuit has shorted, hampering her ability to interpret and navigate the world.

The very first story sets the tone. Here a woman ponders her neighbours, a young couple named Vincent and Helena: “What if I borrowed her clothes and she said, That looks better on you, you should keep it. What if she called me in tears, and I had to come over and soothe her in the kitchen, and Vincent tried to come into the kitchen and we said, Stay out, this is girl talk! I saw something like that happen on TV; these two women were talking about some stolen underwear and a man came in and they said, Stay out, this is girl talk! One reason Helena and I would never be close friends is that I am about half as tall as she. People tend to stick to their own size group because it’s easier on the neck. Unless they are romantically involved, in which case the size difference is sexy. It means: I am willing to go the distance for you.”

There are laughs in there both broad (the easier-on-the-neck non sequitur) and subtle (I find the colon in the last sentence inexplicably funny), but it still manages to sound like a weirdo talking, not like an an abstract comic exercise. Throughout the book, July tests that line with more oddball characters. Some are merely goofy, like the woman in “The Swim Team,” who gives old people “swimming lessons” on her kitchen floor, using bowls of warm water; others may actually be deranged, like the woman in “Making Love in 2003,” who believes she was violated as a teenager by a disembodied “black shape” and spends her adulthood trying to find its human configuration.

As that suggests, there’s a fair bit of bad sex in July’s stories, too. Not bad as in laughably described – on the contrary, even a few lines of throwaway dialogue in one story, “I Kiss a Door,” are startling in their economy and immediacy – but bad as in unsatisfying, messy, odd. A grown man nurses at his wife’s breasts like a child; a young woman masturbates to her sister’s tales of debauchery, recounted over the phone. These quirks are presented nonjudgmentally, but there’s no celebratory, diff’rent-strokes-for-diff’rent-folks air, either. Rather, the characters’ sex lives seem like another expression of their pathologies and miseries.

The downside to No One Belongs Here More Than You is that its tonal palette occasionally seems limited, tedious. Several of the stories are miniatures, only a few pages long, and the weaker ones seem more like sketches, telling us things we’ve already been told in a flat, compulsive monotone.

It’s probably no coincidence that two of the most affecting stories are also two of the longest in the book. In “Something That Needs Nothing,” two teenage girls move to the big city (Portland, Orgeon) and try to make a life together, but fall out; the narrator ends up working in a peepshow booth in back of a porn video store. “How to Tell Stories to Children” is about a bizarre family relationship – a couple is too absorbed in their own battles and affairs to care about their young daughter, so the narrator, a friend of the husband’s, becomes the girl’s de facto mother. Both of these stories take their time, allowing us to settle in with the characters. And they’re both also refreshing because their narrators are relatively clear-eyed; the stories get their effect less from the loopiness of the narrators own perceptions than from the complications of their situations.

Thieves Like Us

Interview with Janice Kulyk Keefer in Saturday Night, early 2004. Her novel Thieves, about Katherine Mansfield, had just come out.

The act of writing fiction, mostly made up of pondering and chin-stroking, can by no stretch of the imagination be considered a dramatic one. So it’s no surprise that popular culture has fixated on other fields, like police forensics. Still, the writing life continues to hold an endless fascination for – well, writers.

Authors have always made up an unduly high proportion of fictional characters. But the current trend goes one further by drawing on real-life scribes. Michael Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf, The Hours, was a blockbuster hit; this spring Irish novelist Colm Toibin will release The Master, a novel about Henry James. And Toronto writer Janice Kulyk Keefer has just given us Thieves (HarperFlamingo Canada), which centres on the life of New Zealand-born short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

One knock against books like these is that they tend to over-rely for their effect on the reader’s own knowledge of, and feelings for, the writer in question. Against this charge, though, Keefer is fairly secure: it’s unlikely that most of her readers will be familiar with her subject. In her lifetime, Mansfield was a literary rival to Woolf, known for pointed domestic dramas and frank treatment of subjects like childbirth. Today, though, she’s a cult figure, lacking the iconic status of many of her contemporaries. Still, her life story is rich in material: she moved from crisis to crisis with various lovers and fought a long, losing battle with tuberculosis. (Mansfield died in 1923, at the age of 34.) “She was a classic bad girl in some ways,” says Keefer. “The thing that fascinated me was her incredible zest for life.”

That fascination began at a short-story conference in France in 1988 (the centenary of Mansfield’s birth), where Keefer saw a short film about the author’s life. From there, she devoured journals, letters, and biographies, gradually zeroing in on one minor figure: Garnett Trowell, a former lover of Mansfield’s who settled in Windsor, Ontario. Trowell, it turned out, had kept a cache of letters from the author, which were donated to the University of Windsor’s library after his death. Those letters inspired Keefer: Thieves alternates an account of Mansfield’s life with a contemporary storyline involving a failed academic’s search for lost letters.

While Thieves was gestating, though, Keefer was busy with other books. A professor at the University of Guelph, she’s published poetry, short fiction, novels, and literary criticism. Her most recent subject has been eastern European immigration to Canada, explored both in her Governor General’s Award-nominated novel The Green Library (1996) and in a biography of her family, Honey and Ashes (1998).

On the subject of Mansfield, Keefer is voluble and excitable, though also clear-eyed about her subject’s personal and literary flaws. “I tried to restore the full humanity of this person,” she says. And if comparisons to Cunningham’s The Hours are perhaps inevitable – Mansfield’s own publisher is only too happy to get them started – that has Keefer a little uneasy. “I think I’m doing something very, very different,” she says, adding that Cunningham’s attempts to capture Woolf’s prose style left her irritated. “Who can write Virginia Woolf except Virginia Woolf?”

The World Without Us

Toronto Star, summer 2007. I saw this book in a catalogue or something in advance of pub and thought it looked intriguing. I knew the topic was “hot,” but I was caught by surprise when the book came out and was covered, like, everywhere.

Visions of planetwide disaster dance through our culture these days. Thanks to scientists, journalists, and Al Gore, we know more than ever about the ecological, economic, and political stresses we’re placing on the world. And novelists are fond of foretelling a complete breakdown of social order, whether through spectacular catastrophe or slow attrition, that leaves the remnants of humankind scrabbling viciously for whatever paltry resources are left.

Even in the most horrific of apocalypse scenarios, though – such as Cormac McCarthy’s Oprah-touted blockbuster The Road – the concern is what life’s like for the survivors. True speciesists, we apparently consider the prospect of the Earth enduring after complete human extinction to be either inconceivable or irrelevant.

Not Alan Weisman. With The World Without Us, the American science journalist has written an entire book about what a post-human Earth might look like. It’s an intriguing, attention-grabbing premise – albeit a strictly hypothetical one in this case. Weisman imagines the human race disappearing more or less overnight, leaving the rest of the global ecosystem in the very same shape it’s in now, unravaged by, say, the fallout of a nuclear war. Barring some supernatural rapture, that’s unlikely to ever happen: if we all go at once, it probably won’t be quietly or unobtrusively. And even a deadly new specieswide disease, for example, would still leave some survivors to carry on, as Weisman notes late in the book.

Still, the abstract premise makes an excellent springboard for an often fascinating look at our planet’s biology and ecology. And on its most basic level, The World Without Us appeals to sheer human curiosity about what kind of record we’ll leave of ourselves, and how long it’ll last. Individual homes will go quickly, as untended roofs collapse within decades and moisture attacks from within, and even skyscrapers and bridges will fall after a few centuries, returning cities to their original forest or jungle states. (We can forget all about those sci-fi imaginings of perfectly preserved underwater downtowns, a la Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence.)

Posterity will be better served by underground dwellings, like the cavernous multi-level cities discovered at Cappadocia, Turkey, which date back 10,000 years. Mount Rushmore should last for 72,000 years or so – likely long after anyone’s around who will be able to recognize its faces – and copper-based sculptures like the Statue of Liberty could hang on practically indefinitely, albeit toppled and lying underwater.

Weisman’s MO is to zero in on specifics. He looks closely at the fate of Manhattan, for example, but says very little in general about which metropoli might outlast others. And he offers no cohesive single-chapter overview of the world’s fate. Which means that readers should not come to The World Without Us expecting much of a synthesis or unifying narrative – the book feels like it’s all tangents and little centre. Weisman’s prose is often dry and he’s not exactly a master storyteller; the strengths of this book, rather, are the breadth of his research and his gift for presenting a huge array of information clearly and quickly.

Which, despite the above caveats, is enough. Those tangents are usually fascinating, whether they cover the engineering and design of the Panama Canal or speculations about the fall of the Mayan empire or descriptions of the long-gone giant animals that roamed the prehistoric Americas. And there’s something exhilarating about skipping from a Turkish resort town left eerily abandoned after a war to the gigantic industrial oil complex of the Houston area to Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.

And to be fair, there is one notable recurring motif in the book: our ugly chemical and nuclear legacy. Besides the 400-plus active reactors ready to spew radioactivity into the environment without maintenance, there are underground caches of nuclear waste that could make nasty surprises for unsuspecting future visitors. (At one such site near Denver, officials plan to leave warnings engraved in seven languages on 25-foot granite blocks.) And tiny airborne particles of plastic have already entered the food chain at many levels, which could affect the future evolution of other species in hard-to-predict ways. “What will survive of us is love,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin, but what will really survive of us, it turns out, are polymers.

It should be noted, though, that The World Without Us doesn’t read like a primarily environmentalist text. Weisman’s tone throughout is cool and dispassionate, that of a scientific observer rather than an activist, and when he does argue that we should take care of our planet, it’s in basic terms that are nigh impossible to dispute. Nor does he celebrate or advocate the end of our existence – though he does give some space to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which argues that the best thing for the Earth and for us would be human-wide sterility. Founder Les Knight gets a little dreamy as he suggests that our final generation would live in an idyllic paradise marked by less competition for resources. (Apparently he never saw Children of Men.)

The flipside to Weisman’s dispassion is that The World Without Us is a book of facts more than ideas; it’s rarely illumined by the philosophy or poetry that its premise would seem to invite. The closest it comes is a chapter that covers some of our poignant efforts to send a sort of cultural time capsule into outer space. The Voyager space probes contain gold-plated disks bearing images and sounds that represent human life, including musical selections ranging from Mozart to tribal rhythms to Louis Armstrong. Long after the very Earth has been swallowed by the sun, Voyager and its cargo – “the last remaining fragments of human aesthetic expression,” in Weisman’s words – should still be travelling the spaceways. And the broadcast waves we’ve been sending into space for the past hundred years or so will also keep on marching indefinitely; it’s not inconceivable, says Weisman, that some extraterrestrial intelligence will one day encounter the I Love Lucy TV show. “They may not understand Lucy, but they will hear us laugh.”

Coureurs de Bois

Debut novel by Canadian author Bruce MacDonald. No relation to the Canadian filmmaker of the almost-same name, Bruce McDonald, though I don’t think I ever clarified that in the piece. (The Toronto Star wisely added a line to that effect when this appeared in spring 2007.)

A familiar Parkdale landmark figures prominently in Torontonian Bruce MacDonald’s debut novel. But the Gladstone Hotel in the pages of Coureurs de Bois isn’t the trendy, scrubbed-up nightspot that’s been hosting book launches and cocktail parties for the past two or three years. Rather, it’s the rough flophouse of an only slightly less recent past, home to barflys and hookers. MacDonald is telling a Parkdale story, but it’s Parkdale before the first tendrils of gentrification began spreading, or at least before anybody noticed them.

That’s reflected in the title, which reinforces the sense of a wilderness that hasn’t yet been tamed (but will be). The two pivots of Coureurs de Bois – modern-day equivalents of the French fur traders of yore who went renegade and allied themselves with the natives – are Cobb, a hulking native fresh out of prison (tax evasion), and Will, an academic prodigy fresh out of the University of Ottawa (economics). The two settle separately in Parkdale, they meet, and they fall into a business partnership, selling black-market cigarettes. Cobb provides the inventory and the street sense, while Will provides the business acumen, and soon enough the two have set up a proper corporation, dumping bucketfuls of cash into its coffers.

(A tiny digression here. However thematically apt it may be, the title probably does the book no favours. Its history-class associations are unlikely to compel the attention of young readers who by all rights should be the natural audience for a contemporary urban novel like this one.)

As the setting and central plot premise suggest, the novel has its share of grim, seriocomic realism – but only a share. MacDonald isn’t afraid to throw in broader touches, like the chance meetings that propel the various secondary characters’ destinies, and even a little straightfaced wackiness, as in Will and Cobb’s scheme to use their cash to buy land in Costa Rica, convinced that oxygen-generating greenery is the great cash crop of the future. At the same time, Coureurs de Bois also traffics in vague spiritual themes. Both Cobb and Will are propelled by visions involving a crow – Cobb’s came in a dream, Will’s during a cleansing fast – that they view as signposts to their purposes in life, even if the directions aren’t always clear. This sets up many ruminations about “the dream economy” and the symbolism of contracts and transactions.

Those ruminations are grounded in a gritty portrait of Parkdale – its variety stores, diners, bars – and an engaging cast of secondary characters. Persey, a suicidal medical student who works at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Centre, falls into a friendship with Will and has a consequential one-night stand with Cobb. Paddy Pape, Cobb’s gay parole officer, struggles with both cancer and his unrequited infatuation for Will. There are others, too: a mentally disturbed woman, a prostitute, a cop, a homeless man. All of them orbit each other, their paths occasionally – and increasingly – intersecting.

MacDonald shows skill in balancing his various characters, motifs, and tones. The novel moves at a quick, punchy pace, the story told in short chapters and scenes that alternate among storylines. At the same time, I sometimes wished MacDonald would go deeper into his themes and his characters. It’s debatable how much the vision-quest stuff really gels; often it seems more like a kind of garnish on the main action. And at certain crisis points, we could use more access to characters’ motivations: their actions seem staged, the emotions behind them ignored or taken for granted.

This is even true of Cobb, to a certain extent, though in general the native ex-con is still MacDonald’s most memorable creation. He’s manipulative and criminal-minded, but he also has a sense of responsibility, a respect for his role in the economy of life. In one delightfully hammy scene, he bumps into a businessman on the street, knocking him over, and then literally picks up the terrified man and brushes him off, apologizing profusely. “Accidents were omens to Cobb; and he behaved accordingly, seeking the goodwill of the victim, hoping to cure quickly any hard feelings that might come to a curse.” If the novel never quite coheres, there’s at least plenty of entertainment along the way.

A [ampersand] R

From the Toronto Star, way back in September 2000. Review of Bill Flanagan’s novel about the rock & roll business, A&R.

“A&R,” explains the protagonist of Bill Flanagan’s new book, is a recording-industry term referring to “artists and repertoire,” a holdover from the days when companies matched songs and performers in an effort to churn out hits. These days most pop stars write their own stuff and aspire to artistic integrity, but the A&R tag has stuck – perhaps because the industry continues to view its talent as pawns to be moved willy-nilly on the march to the Top Ten. Flanagan, a longtime rock journalist and current VH1 exec, offers a breezy satire of that perennial campaign in his first novel.

His hero is Jim Cantone, a naive talent scout who’s just made vice-president at WorldWide Records, run by the aging maverick “Wild Bill” DeGaul. While Cantone struggles to remain aloof from the shadowy power struggles that define WorldWide’s corporate culture, the label’s recent signings prepare for their shots at the charts. The punk-pop outfit Jerusalem is Cantone’s pet project; Black Beauty, a seven-woman “cultural collective” of black lesbian folkies, seems destined for the delete bin; and Cokie Shea, a confident young country singer, is discovered after she slips her demo tape into an exec’s pocket at a bar.

Readers will doubtless look for signs of roman à clef, and there are some. (DeGaul’s backstory – he built his “Tropic Records” label into a success, then sold it to a mega-corporation – is a clear nod to Chris Blackwell and Island Records. And the circumstances of Shea’s discovery echo Mariah Carey’s.) But most of A&R’s characters seem modelled less on specific real-life rockers than broad, recognizable types: the temperamental soul diva, the has-been heavy metal star. Unfortunately, the non-musician characters are similarly stereotypical and sketchy. Cantone never seems to develop beyond bland affability, and secondary players, like his wife, barely register at all.

With its hidden agendas, shifting loyalties, and commerce-of-art backdrop, A&R calls to mind Turn of the Century, Kurt Andersen’s fictional funhouse ride through high tech, high finance, and high-concept showbiz. But the book can’t match Andersen’s restless wit or exhilarating pace. In fact, Flanagan – who’s produced some insightful rock journalism – turns out to be a disappointingly artless novelist. His prose rarely rises above the level of serviceable, and his dialogue, uniformly stilted, groans under the burden of exposition. The plotting is haphazard, too. One of the few unpredictable characters, the bitter WorldWide staffer Zoey Pavlov, disappears from the narrative altogether just as her story arc’s getting interesting. And few readers will fail to foresee the book’s “surprise” plot twists.

A&R’s best moments come when Flanagan concentrates on the venalities of the business. As when a talentless arena-rocking oaf blithely steals a promising song from one of his sidemen. Or when Pavlov surveys her gathered underlings with perfectly pitched scorn: “This crew of nitcombs, fanboys, and wanna-bes included ambitious student directors of college radio stations, a couple of badly ironed music editors of alternative weeklies, and two or three self-improving secretaries from WorldWide field offices in secondary markets.” And although references to the Internet threat are few, they do lend the novel an elegaic feel. “A hundred years of keeping ninety-five percent of the money and all the rights! Who’d have believed it? How can we complain?” asks one character, waxing philosophical about the forthcoming death of the industry. A&R makes a convincing case that few should mourn its passing.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Review of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders (who, after In Persuasion Nation, I have now given up on for good). Toronto Star, 2006.

To say that it would be easy to parody George Saunders is no insult. It means only that he’s managed to developed a distinctive and recognizable writing style. After all, the American writers who’ve been lampooned the most over the years – with annual contests devoted to the stuff in each case – are Faulkner and Hemingway, which is good company indeed.

The danger, though, is that writers with idiosyncratic voices may start to sound like they’re parodying themselves. Flourishes become habits, and the fresh becomes familiar. Eventually, a highly distilled style that remains more or less unchanged over several books comes to have the same effect as no style at all, so acclimatized do readers become to the author’s tics.

George Saunders is approaching that point. He’s known for his two short-story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, and slightly less known for his excellent children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His new novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, will seem familiar indeed to readers of his past work.

Partly this is because of the subject matter. Like all of Saunders’ work, Reign of Phil is a black comedy about regular folks struggling to get by in a world that’s vaguely surreal but is still burdened with all the punishing monotony and soul-deadening bureaucracy that marks our own. The main difference is that in the new book, the surreal qualities are more obvious and dramatic.

Reign of Phil is about two countries, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, the former being “so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” While in Outer Horner, the Inner Hornerites are confined to a Short-Term Residency Zone that’s apparently only a few square feet in size.

Trouble starts when some kind of minor earthquake shrinks the borders of Inner Horner to the point where no one can stand within them, and the seven Inner Hornerites are forced to encroach on Outer Horner land. In response, the local Outer Hornerites “tax” them – stripping them of what little money they have, and after that their clothes – and threaten worse, eventually embarking on a mini-genocide. All of this under the direction of “Phil,” an Outer Hornerite of no particular accomplishment who takes the changed borders as a chance to warmonger his way to leadership.

This is all related in the typical Saunders style, which is marked by some very specific comic devices. There’s the abundance of official terms and labels that the characters have to deal with – like “Short-Term Residency Zone” – and which no one ever seems to shorten, even in casual conversation. There’s the repetition of deliberately clunky phrases like “octagonal shovel-like receptacle.” There are the folksy qualifiers, the use of “That is” to begin explanatory sentences and “sort of” in the descriptions of people or actions.

All of this can be funny for a while, of course. But at this point, I for one hope to someday read a George Saunders story without any capitalized corporate/political jargon, and one that isn’t set to exactly the same narrative pitch as all the others.

Still, as a political satire set in a fantastical otherworld, Reign of Phil does manage some broad but effective humour. All of the characters are imagined as sort of semi-humanoids, each with their own bizarre, sketchily described physiognomy. For example, Phil’s brain is precariously mounted on a rack, and whenever it falls off the rack and onto the ground, as it often does, he begins bellowing violently jingoistic platitudes “in a suddenly stentorian voice.” And the media, which shamelessly promotes Phil’s power-grab and sadism, is represented by “three handsome well-groomed squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles.”

Little details like that are funny in a superficial way. But on the downside, they also push the story, which as an allegory is already once removed from reality, further into the level of abstraction. It’s hard to completely visualize any of the characters – we can picture only discrete details of their bodies – or even to imagine what the land they live in is supposed to look like. Our bewilderment in this regard may be fun, but it’s a minor, second-rate kind of fun, one that distracts us from the deeper pleasure of considering how the events in Outer Horner mirror those in our own world.

Not that there are any clear answers to that last question (and nor should there be). Saunders’ overall point is clear enough – best summed up as “be nice to other people and don’t listen to warlords,” I guess – but readers will have their own interpretations of specific elements in his story. Such as the Greater Kellerites, a race of affable, giant coffee-drinkers who reluctantly save the day. Or the even more deus ex machina coda, which is best left for readers to discover on their own.

The book has its strong points, and Saunders isn’t completely relying on familiar tricks. Near the end, he very cleverly and funnily renders the garbled thoughts of Phil, who’s been without his brain for too long. Unfortunately, the good stuff here can’t dispel the feeling that this was an exercise more than a fully realized novella. Anyone who hasn’t read Saunders should – but they should start with any one of his three other books. Reign of Phil will likely be remembered as a footnote to his catalogue.


Review of Kurt Andersen’s novel Heyday; Toronto Star, spring 2007.

Kurt Andersen’s first novel, Turn of the Century, was all about zeitgeist. Set in Manhattan at the height of the first Internet boom, it had its characters juggling complicated lifestyles and eating in trendy restaurants while embroiled in schemes and ventures in the tech and entertainment fields. Andersen, a co-founder of Spy and former editor-in-chief of New York, was well poised to recreate that milieu for fictional purposes, and the book was a lot of fun, enlivened by an inside feel and a breezy pace.

Andersen’s second novel, Heyday, is all about research.

For Heyday is a prime specimen of the Historical Yarn. It’s set in 1848, when a young Englishman named Benjamin Knowles renounces his family business and sets off to find his fortune in the rough, protean new society of America. (Some recent misadventures in Paris have stirred Ben’s taste for adventure; although he doesn’t know it, he’s left a dead gendarme in his wake and there’s another one on his trail, looking for revenge.) In New York City, Ben falls in with a motley group of friends: part-time prostitute and aspiring actress Polly Lucking; her brother Duff, a traumatized vet of the Mexican War with a secret compulsion for arson; and Timothy Skaggs, a dissolute but kindhearted journalist who’s the old man of the group at 35.

Ben and Polly fall in love, they quarrel, and she leaves New York in search of a rural Utopian community where she might make a new home. Soon afterward, Ben and Duff and Timothy set out to catch up with Polly, tracking her west. Eventually all of them make their way to California, looking to get in on the Gold Rush action. And all the while, that murderous Frenchman is still chasing Ben.

In telling this tale, Andersen bows to several of the historical yarn’s obligatory conventions:

1. Scenery, scenery, scenery. From cobble-stoned Paris streets in the middle of a riot to New York’s endless parties to San Francisco rising up from the mad scrabble of the Gold Rush, Heyday is stuffed with description and information. This extends well beyond judicious scene-setting or well-chosen colourful details, to the point that the narrative becomes one long exhausting, droning guided tour – a big reason for this book’s inflated page count.

2. Famous people everywhere. Just as believers in reincarnation tend to insist that they lived their own past lives in precincts of power and celebrity and intrigue, characters in historical yarns must inevitably encounter some of the most storied figures of the age. And so the exploits of Andersen’s happy wanderers feature a carousel of cameos: Charles Darwin and Friederich Engels and de Tocqueville and Walt Whitman and songwriter Stephen Foster and detective Allan Pinkerton. For scale purposes, imagine how absurd it would look if every second contemporary novel had its characters bumping into Al Gore and Britney Spears.

3. Protagonists who are more enlightened than their times. The U.S. in 1848 is a land of ruthless Manifest Destiny, and even the northern states are unduly accommodating toward their slaveholding southern neighbours. But don’t worry. Under the enveloping wisdom of Skaggs (Ben is “pleased to have an American friend to enlighten him about America’s flaws and impurities”), our heroes understand the same things that we readers do: that war and imperialism are bad and that people are the same under the skin and that human rights are inviolable.

4. Showy but superficial nods toward contemporary relevance. About the States’ recent military history, Skaggs reflects that “patriotic hoopla annoyed him, as did the spurious argument that Polk was obliged to attack Mexico before Mexico turned its weapons against the United States.”

To complain about all these things feels like a sour-hearted attempt to spoil the fun; this is simply a yarn, after all. But there’s surprisingly little fun to be had in Heyday. Mostly the novel just feels bloated and clunky. Andersen’s prose moves with a mere serviceable reliability rather than reverberating with the warp and wobble of fiction. And throughout the narrative he’s a hovering, intrusive presence – reminding us of our history (even when the characters don’t understand what’s going on themselves), pointing out connections we can make on our own, explaining motives that are obvious. If a character teases, he must be described as “teasing.” If he nods emphatically, he must “nod emphatically in agreement.”

Nor is there much to catch hold of in the characters. The villain – that vengeful gendarme – is a real moustache-twirler, while Ben and his American friends quickly fall into a bland fellowship that might as well be something out of the Bobbsey Twins for all its nuance and believability. To be fair, Andersen does pretend to complicate these relationships with little episodes of unhappiness or minor disagreements, but these are the quick skips of a tiny, smooth stone along a placid surface.

The only potentially interesting character, in fact, is Duff, who secretly deserted the American army and took up arms alongside the Mexicans, and who’s now wracked by pyromania, self-righteous murderous impulses, and deepening religious fervour. But because his torment is described in the same flat tones and breezy pacing as the rest of the story, it lacks much power or depth and only comes off as out of place and jarring. Heyday isn’t a novel to be taken seriously – few historical yarns are – but nor is it as entertaining as it should be.

The Namesake

Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Toronto Star, fall 2003.

Jhumpa Lahiri made her name four years ago with her first book, the superb short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Impressive for its crisp prose and close attention to physical and emotional detail, Lahiri’s work also showed a strong grasp of the narrative economy of the short-story form. But these days it’s assumed that young writers will “graduate” to novel-writing as quickly as possible, and she’s done so with her second book, The Namesake.

While the novel shares no characters or plotlines with the nine stories in Lahiri’s debut, it flows so naturally from its predecessor that it still has the feel of a sequel. Interpreter of Maladies is full of Indian immigrants and their Westernized children, settled in the northeastern U.S. and struggling with cultural confusion as well as faltering relationships. The closing story, “The Third and Final Continent,” has a tone of resolution: the narrator’s acclimation to America, and the wary first days of his arranged marriage, give way to a warm but believable declaration of love for both his adopted country and his wife. Still, The Namesake shows that Lahiri isn’t done with the dilemmas explored in the collection.

The novel centres on Gogol Ganguli, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968 to recently arrived Indian immigrants. His father, Ashoke, is a young university professor; his mother, Ashima, dotes on memories of Calcutta while regarding her new home with suspicion. Gogol grows up surrounded both by American white-bread culture and by his parents’ ever-expanding network of Bengali-American friends. His unusual name springs from family history – Ashoke, a devotee of Russian literature, credits his absorption in Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” with saving his life during a train wreck – but to Gogol it only represents one more obstacle in his quest for self-assimilation.

The story follows the first 30-odd years of Gogol’s more-or-less-ordinary life. He discovers the Beatles, graduates from high school, changes his name to the less conspicuous Nikhil, becomes an architect, falls in and out of love, and copes with a death in the family. Each chapter tends to skip a few years ahead of the last, but that doesn’t mean the story moves from one dramatic pivot to another. In fact, not much actually happens; for a book about identity crisis, the conflict here is pretty low-key. Gogol’s parents aren’t particularly oppressive, the travails of his struggle to fit in not especially stinging. After all, the central drama of the first 100 pages is a teenager not liking his name – hardly stop-the-presses stuff.

Yet The Namesake is surprisingly readable, propelled by Lahiri’s expert description. As in her short stories, she snares the reader with a patient layering of detail – from the dirty lining in a kitchen cupboard to the layout of an apartment complex – that never slips into mere information. At her best, she combines that detail with sharp observation of character, making for bold insights, subtly presented. Probably the book’s strongest section recounts Gogol’s affair with a pampered Manhattanite WASP who lives with her rich parents – fully Americanized at last, he’s dating a lifestyle as much as a person. An episode near the end of the book also convincingly captures the pain and confusion of a collapsing marriage. And although these bits stand out, the entire novel is extremely well-written.

Perhaps, in fact, a little too well-written. Throughout the book Lahiri relies on an excessively formal tone, evident in small word choices that start to add up: “contain” rather than hold, “obtain” rather than get, “converse” rather than talk. (When the conversing is especially good, one character even “expresses interest.”) That the novel includes a textbook-ready phrase like “a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names” is telling; that the wording hardly seems out of place is even more so.

It’s not that Lahiri’s writing is either clunky or showy. On the contrary, her prose carries undeniable grace, and she’s confident enough to avoid the kind of capital-W Writing with which so many young authors overinflate their work. But the ever-careful language tends to hold us at a reserve, limiting our emotional investment. As the critic James Wood has complained of John Updike, we are not immersed in the characters’ experiences and feelings – rather, we get an author’s very elegant essay about those experiences and feelings. (The book’s summary-style structure, in which many pages pass with little to no dialogue, doesn’t help in this regard either.) At its worst, the disconnect is comical: “He is shocked and discomfited by the news.” Not shocked and discomfited!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dry, detached style. But it’s unsuited to a novel that’s meant to showcase a central character’s inner journey. Finishing The Namesake, no reader could fail to admire Lahiri’s skill in exploring her themes, in balancing various motifs, in closing the story with a tidy nod to Gogol’s past and his family history. But all that admiration won’t erase the nagging wish that we’d gotten to know Gogol a little better, come to care for him a little more.

The Fortress of Solitude

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude. Was in the Toronto Star, fall 2003. The generalization in the first para makes me wince on rereading, but what are you gonna do?

The author Louis Begley, who took to fiction late in life, has said he waited so long because as a young man he felt he had no milieu to document. As far as excuses for creative inactivity go, that’s a pretty good one. Surely the most compelling novelists are the ones who draw on a strong sense of their corner of the world, whether Faulkner’s secession-haunted south or Richler’s hardscrabble Montreal. A writer without that sense is, at the very least, starting from a disadvantage.

Jonathan Lethem has lived in Berkeley and in Toronto, but his real corner of the world is Brooklyn, New York. You’d never know it, though, from his first several novels, which include Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape. Those were gene-spliced genre pieces that mixed science fiction with the tropes of the western, the detective yarn, the campus comedy. Fun stuff, and often intriguing, but when Lethem turned his fiction to his home streets for the first time, with Motherless Brooklyn in 1999, it felt like a breakthrough.

Like Lethem’s other novels, Motherless Brooklyn leaned toward the high-concept: it was narrated by a Tourettic would-be detective looking to avenge the murder of his thug boss. Funny and readable, the book was distinguished by an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of the titular borough and, not coincidentally, by fuller and warmer characterization than that of its predecessors. Lethem builds on that with The Fortress of Solitude. His love of quirk, his devotion to premise, are still in place: this may be the world’s first rock-and-roll superhero urban-jungle coming-of-age prison drama. But it’s also the author’s most expansive and emotionally ambitious novel yet.

It’s the story of Dylan Ebdus, a white kid who grows up in a black-and-Hispanic area of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Ignored or patronized by his emotionally removed parents, Dylan settles into an uneasy relationship with his ’hood; at best the other kids tolerate him, and at worst they bully and rob him. Eventually an ally arrives in Mingus Rude, the black son of a burned-out soul singer who moves onto the block. Mingus navigates his new world effortlessly, and becomes Dylan’s confidante and sometime protector. But as they grow older, their friendship is strained by Dylan’s growing alienation from his surroundings, his gradual awareness of the opportunities his skin colour affords him.

The first half of this long novel covers Dylan’s childhood and adolescence, and the jittery third-person narration manages the nice trick of relating a child’s discoveries in an adult’s voice and vocabulary. Lethem’s descriptions tend to be showy and self-conscious – an abandoned house “wore cinderblock bandages over the windows and doorway like a mummy with blanked eyes and stilled howling mouth” – but usually end up seeming more apt than contrived. And while the perspective is mainly Dylan’s, it occasionally shifts to others, deepening our sense of the community. Like Isabel Vendle, a rich white woman bent on gentrifying the neighbourhood. Or Barrett Rude Jr., Mingus’s father – a sort of amalgam of soul greats, modelled most obviously on Marvin Gaye but with a personality of his own.

In its second half, the book fast-forwards to Dylan’s thirties and takes on a first-person narration. The tone becomes more conversational and accessible, but the switch also deliberately tests our sympathies. The adult Dylan – living in California, scraping by as a music journalist but dreaming of selling a movie pitch – turns out to be selfish and standoffish, less than likable. It’s a risky but laudable move: for those readers who need reminding that we need not admire someone to appreciate their internal struggles, Lethem offers it here.

All of this makes The Fortress of Solitude sound like a 500-page character study, but it has other charms, too. One is the tension between the naturalistic setting and an overlay of supernatural whimsy. At one point, Dylan discovers a mysterious ring that grants its wearer the power of flight, and he and Mingus, their fantasies fed by comic books, become a sort of superhero team, breaking up the odd mugging and small-time drug deal. But the device doesn’t overwhelm the book: superpowers turn out to be not all that life-changing, and the ring drops in and out of the story.

More important to the novel is Lethem’s love of lore, social and cultural. The narrative is crammed with information: on Marvel comic books, kids’ street games, science fiction book-jacket illustration, graffiti technique, avant-garde art, and above all pop music. (The two main characters are, of course, named for musical icons, one white and one black.) But while the Brit James Wood has led a critical campaign against this kind of thing – having coined the term “hysterical realism” to describe it – Lethem convincingly shows that such accoutrements can delineate character, not just obscure it.

This is most apparent in the hinge of the book, the bridge between the first and second sections. It’s an essay composed by Dylan for inclusion with the liner notes to a Barrett Rude Jr. compilation CD, and the piece perfectly nails the smug, pseudo-intellectual condescension of rock criticism at its worst, made creepy by Dylan’s (unacknowledged) relationship to his subject. “It’s odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Philippe Wynne and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews,” goes one typical flourish of rhetorical excess. Without ever addressing Dylan’s life directly, the liner note makes its points – about his complicated views on race, his relationship to art and his childhood and Mingus – so well that the second half of the book seems to merely amplify them.

Still, the narrative holds attention throughout, and Dylan’s climactic reunion with Mingus, set against an attempted prison break, is adequate payoff. Here and throughout the novel, Lethem’s treatment of racial dynamics is earnest but nuanced. And while Lethem has already drawn not-quite-fair charges of political correctness from some reviewers, The Fortress of Solitude still shows him to be bolder than many young novelists.

Men and Cartoons

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s short-story collection Men and Cartoons. Was in the Toronto Star.

There’s an old Kids in the Hall sketch called “Premise Beach.” While two of the Kids shimmy away to surf music on a beach, they take turns coming up with some outlandish conceit: a politician with a slab of meat for a hand, say, or people with gift-wrapped packages for heads. Each what-if leads into its own skit, but that skit turns out to be only seconds long – the actual execution is clearly beside the point.

The short stories of Jonathan Lethem take place on Premise Beach.

Lethem is better known as a novelist; in recent years he’s produced his most giddily entertaining book (Motherless Brooklyn) and his most emotionally ambitious and affecting one (The Fortress of Solitude). Men and Cartoons, his new story collection, furthers some of his recent motifs, particularly comic-book superheros and damaged childhood friendships. But mostly it seems a throwback to his previous collection, 1996’s The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. In his short fiction both then and now, Lethem tries out lots of quirky ideas, many of them fantastical in nature. But he tends to develop those ideas so economically that the resulting narratives feel starved and slight.

There are exceptions. In Lethem’s best pieces, he manages to play with his high-concept starting points in intriguing ways and invest them with emotional heft. A highlight of the earlier book was “Vanilla Dunk,” about a futuristic basketball league in which the players wear high-tech suits that allow them to download the skills of past greats. Lethem has lots of fun working out the logistical details of that premise, but he also crafts a gripping story about an obnoxious young white star and his brooding black teammate, encompassing themes of loyalty, integrity, and race.

In Men and Cartoons, the class of the collection is “Super Goat Man.” The narrator, Everett, is a striving Brooklyn-raised intellectual (not unlike the hero of The Fortress of Solitude, or Lethem himself) who repeatedly encounters the title character, a retired superhero. In the 1970s, Super Goat Man moves into Everett’s neighbourhood and befriends his parents; years later, he ends up teaching at the same New Hampshire liberal arts college that Everett attends. It’s to Lethem’s credit that the story’s central novelty, the idea of a humanoid goat moving through an otherwise-realistic milieu, is quickly superseded by Everett’s complicated feelings toward his semi-mentor. Those feelings are a little overexplicated in the end, but “Super Goat Man” remains a memorable portrait.

Most stories in Men and Cartoons, though, are draped on thin conceits and add little to them. In one, a magical police spray is used to identify missing items after a burglary; when the police leave the spray behind, it turns out to also reveal ghostly images of a couple’s past lovers. Another piece summarizes a man’s years-long semi-obsession with a woman he meets at a house party, culminating in an awkward dinner.

Lethem’s prose throughout is capable but perfunctory. In any given scene, there’s little in the way of sensory detail or startling character notes – just the cold outlines of the tracks of the plot leading forward. The people in these stories tend to be limned only by the vaguest of dissatisfactions; they’re clearly afterthoughts to the situations into which Lethem thrusts them.

Still, much of Men and Cartoons is at least superficially entertaining – but when even Lethem’s inventiveness fails him, the result is sheer tedium. “The Glasses” reads like a comedy sketch that wouldn’t survive the first table read. And the dystopia “Access Fantasy” relies on such already-exhausted sci-fi tropes as advertising run amuck.

If Lethem’s made a recent breakthrough in his novels, he’s still struggling to bring a new resonance to his work in the short-story form. One strangely promising development may be “The National Anthem,” the closing piece in Men and Cartoons. Written as a letter from one old friend to another, it’s unwieldy and exposition-heavy. But it’s one of the few pieces here that feels like it was born from some churning emotional impulse, not just from idle speculation.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

After the Fall

One of the fruits of my very brief (like, two-issue) stint as the books columnist for Chatelaine. This was from September 2006. The folks there were nice and the coin was good, but I wasn’t too sad to see the gig go – I found it logistically stressful, and the short word counts (usually much shorter than this particular piece) were a little bit cramping.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the horrors of that day and its aftermath are turning up in popular culture with more frequency, and with fewer hand-wringing cries of “too soon.” Hollywood turned to the subject only recently, but fiction has been leading the way – there’ve been earnest novels about terrorism (Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamour of the Night), about citizen anxiety (Ian McEwan’s Saturday), and even about the families of 9/11 victims (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

The key word, though, is “earnest.” And that raises a question: Is the world ready for a novel that uses the 9/11 attacks as a backdrop for black comedy?

Ken Kalfus decided to find out. The American cult writer is known best for a couple of books set in Russia, but for his new novel he’s found inspiration closer to home. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins) is the story of Joyce and Marshall Harriman, a thirtysomething New York City couple in the middle of a bitter divorce fight. While the lawyers haggle over the terms, Joyce and Marshall keep sharing their apartment, divvying up the care of their two small children while shooting each other silent, seething bolts of hatred.

That would be grim enough – or funny enough – but there’s more. The novel opens on September 11, 2001, with both Joyce and Marshall narrowly escaping death: he flees the burning World Trade Center, while she misses a business-trip flight on what turns out to be one of the hijacked planes. For each of them, the day’s horror is mingled with a brief flash of ecstasy over the other’s presumed demise.

That pretty much sets the tone. As Joyce and Marshall inch closer to finalizing their divorce and parting ways, their vanities and jabs of petty malice are played out in a world of anthrax scares and plans for war. The couple’s antics are funny if excruciating, from Joyce’s hapless attempts to flirt with an FBI agent to Marshall’s vindictive schemes to disrupt his sister-in-law’s wedding. All of it is lively enough – and Kalfus gets us into the characters’ heads enough – that the proceedings never seem pointlessly mean-spirited, which they easily could.

You can’t get too comfortable with this book, though. You might think Kalfus is simply playing the twin stresses of a marriage and a country off of each other, using each as a metaphor for the other. But then you start to notice that the metaphors are getting more intrusive and jarring, the events more surreal, the geopolitical backdrop more and more divergent from reality as we know it. What starts off as a straightforward if tart black comedy slowly turns into something disturbing and dreamlike, and like so much good fiction, Kalfus’s novel is a delightful but unnerving experience.

Related reading

Ken Kalfus isn’t the only fiction writer to pair domestic stress with international security issues lately. For example, the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (Farrar Straus & Giroux), is a raw whimper of post-9/11 despair and fear, focusing on a group of jittery Manhattan twentysomethings trying to go on with their lives.

Sharper and more acerbic is Carolyn See’s novel There Will Never Be Another You (Random House), set in near-future L.A. A subplot about impending biological attack provides the book’s suspense and timely frisson, but it’s the everyday desperation of the two main characters – a hapless doctor and his bitter, widowed mother – that will stay with you. Especially recommended for Joan Didion fans.

John Updike gets points for audacity with his latest novel, Terrorist (Knopf), whose main character, Ahmad, is an 18-year-old Muslim living in northern New Jersey. Ignoring those who reach out to him, including his high-school guidance counsellor, Ahmad slowly becomes entangled in a bombing plot. Updike’s descriptive powers are as effortless as ever here, but he strains for social relevance, and the dialogue is heavy with political and philosophical speechifying. Not his best work.

Black Hole

Review of Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, from the Toronto Star, fall 2005. Burns was at the IFOA here in Toronto that year, and my book club did Black Hole that month. I liked the book, but boy oh boy, did they hate it; it broke down a bit along gender lines, as I recall.

The North American teenager has been a boon to horror writers, right up there with Jack the Ripper and the atom bomb.

Above all else, the teen years are years of anxiety – about identity, about status in the weird demi-monde that is high school, and about future roles in the larger community (“the real world,” as the constant reminder goes). Teenagers also tend to obsess over their emotional states and to magnify the importance of their personal relationships – which represent, after all, one of the only real staging grounds in which they can assert themselves.

Oh, and in many cases their own bodies are still mutating on them.

Small wonder, then, that Stephen King’s very first novel, Carrie, was set in high school. Or that one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the past decade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brilliantly presented deformed monsters and otherworldly demons as metaphors for more prosaic teenage terrors.

Even as Buffy was spellbinding TV critics, Charles Burns was producing Black Hole, a long graphic novel that also mixes horror tropes with teen romance ones. Over the past 10 years, the Philadelphia-based writer-artist has serialized Black Hole in a 12-issue series of comic books; now, the Random House imprint Pantheon has collected the complete story in a beautifully packaged hardcover book.

It’s hard to imagine taking in Black Hole as its original readers did, at a rate of only a chapter or two per year. Although the story’s made up of brief vignettes, their power is cumulative rather than discrete. And the book’s greatest strength – its eerie, nightmarish mood – is best appreciated with sustained reading over a sitting or two.

Black Hole is set in the 1970s in a Pacific Northwest town, where a sexually transmitted disease referred to only as “the bug” is spreading among the local teen population. The bug causes physical deformities, but afflicts each victim in a different way, from the subtle (one girl grows a tail) to the dramatic (one boy’s face is transformed into an inhuman mass of tentacles). Some are able to mask their mutations and pass for normal at high school classes and bush parties. Those who can’t are ostracized, reduced to living in a makeshift campground in the woods outside of town.

The metaphorical power of this premise is obvious – plague terrors, body terrors – but as the story wears on, the nature and meaning of the bug remains undeveloped. Adults are almost entirely absent in Black Hole, and we learn nothing about the larger community’s reaction to the disease. There is no sense of anyone questioning or fighting it, only a matter-of-fact resignation. This flat treatment both encourages and discourages thematic resonance: on the one hand, readers are left free to superimpose just about any of their own fears or preoccupations onto the proceedings, but on the other, the deformities caused by the bug are so singular – rendered almost lovingly in Burns’s black-and-white inks – that they resist any comforting abstractions, insisting on their own reality.

That’s not the only tension that vibrates through the narrative: there’s also a sense of some kind of creepy collective unconscious bubbling and boiling beneath the everyday teen angst of the characters’ waking lives. The story comes together around a sort of love triangle: an amiable doofus named Keith adores an aloof girl named Chris, who in turn adores an amiable doofus named Rob. As Black Hole opens, Rob is already infected; he’s grown a second mouth in the middle of his neck, one that has a habit of moaning his secrets as he sleeps. Early in the story, he infects Chris, whose entire skin begins moulting and shedding. She retreats to the woods, while Keith finds his own way to the community of outcasts there. Soon secondary characters are drawn into the orbit of the main trio, and various alliances and desires gradually push the plot toward bursts of horrific violence.

But just as important to the narrative are the many dream sequences, filled with images of decay and degradation. Dream descriptions often seem superfluous in films and novels, but in Black Hole they feel integral – mainly because of Burns’s expertise as a graphic storyteller. A skilled draftsman, he works in black-and-white with no shading or tones, employing a sharp, clean line and liberal use of solid black. The resulting images are surefooted and readable (or whatever the graphic-novel equivalent of “readable” might be), but can also shift into dense, hallucinatory dreamscapes smoothly and without warning.

Most impressive is the way Burns manipulates the reader’s perceptions and emotions at an almost subsonscious level, moving us back and forth in time and offering grim foreshadowings – all with the use of visual cues (a gun, a mutilated doll) that orient and disorient us in the same way language does in all-text books. The dialogue and narration in Black Hole is straightforward, even mundane; it’s the imagery and the pacing that creates a powerful mood of dread and melancholy.