Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Diviners

Review of Rick Moody’s novel The Diviners; Toronto Star, fall 2005.

Like Philip Roth before him, the American writer Rick Moody has shown that you can go a long way on sheer energy. His prose style has its lapses – it’s often pretentious and careless – but usually his writing transports the reader with sheer propulsive force. Unlike Roth, though, Moody tends to polarize critics: some delight in his cleverness, while others find his work contrived and showoffy.

Count me among those who’ve enjoyed his stuff. Moody’s best previous books, the novels The Ice Storm and Purple America, were family dramas that played out over the course of a few days, chronicling the spiritual malaise of the well-off, and for all their stylistic tics they carried an emotional density and charge. His new book, though, has a broader canvas and is more overtly comical in its ambitions.

Ostensibly, The Diviners is Moody’s most ambitious book yet, with all the trappings of a Major Statement. It has 500 pages of heft. It has nearly two-dozen characters, ostensibly representing a cross-section of American society. Its ostensibly complex plot features mysterious complications and byzantine connections. It ostensibly satirizes major social institutions, and ostensibly intertwines the struggles and wishes of its characters with those of the larger world in which they live.

The problem, as you might have guessed, is that in fact The Diviners only appears to do these things. The novel is like nothing so much as a model home in a swank subdivision: the fixtures are gorgeous and the countertops gleam, but the house is unlived-in and unloved, and even basic functionality is in question (do those faucets really work?). All of this is ironic indeed for a novel that purports to satirize the emptiness and superficiality of modern American life.


The Diviners takes place in the last months of the year 2000, the time of the post-election recounts. At its centre is Means of Production, a low-tier film production house in Manhattan that’s run by a bullying striver named Vanessa Meandro. In search of a project that will get her noticed, Vanessa fixates on “The Diviners,” the screenplay for a sweeping TV miniseries that will follow migrating tribes over many generations and countries, ending up in latter-day Las Vegas. (The title, of course, refers to the semi-mystical art of locating underground water, and the fact that Moody’s publisher considered it fair game is a measure of how little lasting impact Margaret Laurence has had beyond Canadian borders.)

The problem with “The Diviners,” the screenplay, is that it doesn’t actually exist. The idea was thrown together as a lark by one of Vanessa’s employees, Annabel Duffy, and another associate, action-movie star Thaddeus Griffin. Yet the project quickly takes on a life of its own, with agents, network executives, investors, and even romance novelists all wanting a piece.

That conceit provides the connecting tissue for the story, which is episodic in the extreme. For much of the novel, each chapter brings a new or previously incidental character to centre stage. Some are drawn realistically, like a reverend haunted by a past indiscretion who seems to have stepped from the pages of an Updike novel. Others are more cartoonish, like an Indian cabdriver who talks himself into a job at Means of Production with over-intellectualized babble about television (“This is where the myths and stories for the future must be sewn”).

Each new character or backstory carries a light sheen of social reportage – two frequent motifs are the election recount and the Krispy Kreme donut chain – and plot tangents sprout everywhere. Probably the most dramatic one involves Annabel’s brother Tyrone, a mentally ill bike courier who’s suspected to have attacked a woman on the street with a brick: as the victim lies comatose, Tyrone flees the police and falls in with a cultlike group of revolutionary students planning a firebombing campaign.

The problem with all this is that the tangents rarely intersect in meaningful or interesting ways, and no narrative momentum builds. For example, at first much is made of the absence of a genuine “Diviners” script, but as the project proceeds apace, that lack never seems to cause any problems, or even to come up at all. And no sooner do we learn that a romance writer named Melody Howell Forvath has written a long-ago novel also called “The Diviners” than she (and her presumed claim of authorship of the nonexistent miniseries) promptly disappear from the story completely. She seems to have been in there in the first place only to allow Moody to write an account of a Hollywood Botox-injection party.

It’s clear that with the interconnections among the book’s many characters, Moody would like to convey an impression of intrigue. But again and again, that impression turns out to be false, because he can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting of actual plotting. This makes The Diviners essentially a 500-page collection of riffs.


That Botox party is emblematic of the novel as a whole. Such an event, after all, is a pretty easy target, and most of the satire here is on a similarly facile level. I mean, how could anyone in the year 2005 think that having corporate media executives babble about “synergistic marketing” is still incisive? And for a novel about the entertainment industry, The Diviners rarely feels informed by any real insight into, or knowledge of, the world it purports to skewer. Moody’s tin ear is especially evident in a climactic set piece in which he describes a special Thanksgiving episode of “The Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit primetime soap with sci-fi/supernatural overtones. Weirdly, the lengthy summary of the episode is neither close enough to typical television to ring true nor exaggerated enough to be striking or funny.

Adding to the overall sense of cheap laughs is Moody’s apparent contempt for his characters. The most extreme case is Randall Tork, a pompous and narcissistic wine critic who considers himself “the greatest wine writer in history” and who assaults hapless vintners with deep-purple prose. The Diviners is Moody’s first book since literary critic Dale Peck notoriously called him “the worst writer of his generation,” and for anyone who wondered whether Moody would retaliate in his fiction, Randall Tork is the answer.

Tork is hardly an anomaly, though. At times Moody seems to debase his characters with outright glee. Early in the novel, we’re shown Vanessa’s mother sitting on the toilet and guzzling malt liquor to the point of insensibility even as her bowels, afflicted by some colitis-type disease, explode in blood and gore. Vanessa herself, described for the record as “plus-sized,” has a cabdriver take her all over Manhattan, from one Krispy Kreme to another, so that she can obsessively stockpile donuts.

A novelist need not treat his characters like hothouse orchids, and certainly the people in The Ice Storm and Purple America made fools out of themselves often enough. But because we lived and breathed with those people for 200 pages or more, they also earned our indulgence and sympathy. The hapless folk in The Diviners are given no time to do so, since there’s always another character waiting to catch our attention.

Which means that when Moody does strain for some kind of emotional payoff near the close of the novel, by manufacturing a test of human empathy for Vanessa, it only feels forced and false, unearned. Similarly, a bizarre coda featuring an unnamed but thinly disguised Antonin Scalia – the Supreme Court justice who’s about to help hand the presidency to George W. Bush – seems mainly like a lazy attempt to puff up the import of all the hurlyburly that’s gone before. “How do you end a story about god and country,” Scalia asks a friend as the novel finishes. But whatever The Diviners is about, it’s a good deal sillier and more trivial than god and country.


In Moody’s defence, it should be noted that while The Diviners has many faults, tedium is not one of them. This is a maddening book, but it’s entertaining on a superficial level. Yes, Moody can be pretentious: the book opens with 10 superfluous pages describing sunlight moving across the entire planet. And careless, too: in one chapter a goldfish that’s fallen from its bowl is described as wriggling “like a comma trying to slip between two clauses” – and this supposedly from the point of view of a developmentally challenged child!

But Moody also has an ease with phrases and sentences that keep tugging the reader along, and he can write some funny dialogue, and the sheer number of characters and scenarios in The Diviners does help to energize the proceedings. Hopefully next time out Moody will marry his skills to a fuller and more realized vision. But for now, he’ll have to content himself with having written what may be the most readable bad book of the season.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rip It Up and Start Again

Review of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, by Simon Reynolds. Was in the Toronto Star, 2006.

It used to be that the Velvet Underground was the universally acknowledged grandfather of alternative-minded rock. Today, though, trendy young bands like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are more likely to find inspiration in Joy Division’s ghostly vocals and brittle guitars, or Gang of Four’s jagged groove, or the Talking Heads’ jittery polyrhythms. All of those bands had their heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s, that fertile few years that followed the punk rock explosion. Other groups from the same period are finding new audiences, too; some, like Wire and Mission of Burma, are even touring and recording again after long hiatuses.

Which means that Rip It Up and Start Again is well-timed. The book throws a spotlight onto the “postpunk” scene – or scenes, rather – by touching on dozens of groups from the U.K. (most of them) and the U.S. (a smattering), including the five named above. In doing so, author Simon Reynolds, a music writer originally from Britain but now living in New York City, is looking to correct a rock-history imbalance: the brief punk movement has been much mythologized, but its musical aftermath, less iconic but more interesting, has been under-considered.

Unlike punk, though, postpunk is fragmented and diverse – a stew of sometimes contradictory ideologies, aesthetic impulses, and musical styles. So Reynolds must look for some common ground from which to start. To that end, he reminds readers that the punk of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols was essentially regressive, backing away from the bombast and pretensions of modern rock in favour of primal three-chord riffery. Postpunk, he argues, is not just the music that followed punk, but the music that followed punk and was also progressively “futurist,” or self-consciously innovative rather than imitative.

And where better to begin than with John Lydon, first known to the world as Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten? After the Pistols broke up, Lydon formed a new band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), that purveyed rousing rock noise influenced by Jamaican dub, German art rock, and disco. He also billed his new project as a “corporation,” showing that he’d learned something about public-relations theatre from notorious Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.

From PiL, Reynolds moves on to other first-wave postpunk acts that sprang up all over England in the late 1970s, like Joy Division, the Fall, Throbbing Gristle, and many others. Though dissimilar in style, these acts shared a keen hunger for new sounds (often incorporating electronic and funk grooves), a disdain for rock and roll conventions, and in many cases a passionate left-wing political stance.

The downside to all this is that since bands like the Pop Group and Gang of Four tended toward the shrill and had a fondness for lecturing, a dour and dutiful feel sometimes creeps into the first half of Rip It Up. So it’s a welcome development when, in the book’s second half, Reynolds broadens the focus into “new pop” – acts that worked unabashedly retro influences into their sonic mix and/or cultivated a poppier, radio-friendly sound. His consideration of the ska-revivalist Specials, the synth-pop giants the Human League and ABC, and the fame-craving Orange Juice (whose classic soul-flavoured single gives Rip It Up its title) varies and warms up the tone considerably.

Reynolds has done a great deal of research here, and Rip It Up is a valuable reference. But since it’s essentially a series of miniature band histories, it has limitations. The emphasis is on reportage, not analysis; a few more startling or thought-provoking insights here and there would have given us strength for the long march from group to group (more than 50 groups in all). Similarly, Reynolds’ workmanlike prose struggles to capture or spread a sense of real excitement. He lauds many bands I haven’t listened to in years and others I’ve hardly heard at all, but he rarely inspired me to go back to the records, and I’m usually a soft touch for that kind of thing.

The book’s conceptual rigging sometimes feels a bit shaky, too. Most of the American chapters especially seem like arbitrary detours (even when the bands are undeniably important, like Pere Ubu) and might better have been dropped. And as we get further into the 1980s, decisions about who gets covered, and how much, start to seem like a nightclub bouncer’s velvet-rope whims. Many omissions are perfectly understandable; no one needs to read another few hundred words about how the Clash grew from straightforward punkers into an uncommonly ambitious and adventurous band. Still, for such a wide-ranging book, Rip It Up ends up having a strangely cloistered feel, offering little acknowledgement that this allegedly world-changing collection of groups existed within a wider milieu of rock – even of postpunk British rock – at the time.

All of that said, there’s no other book out there quite like this one, and Reynolds has done some important work in putting together this vast collection of information. (He did more than 100 original interviews for the book, and they go a long way toward enlivening the text.) And he tells plenty of good stories along the way. Like that of Scritti Politti, who began as scruffy agit-prop deconstructionists and later morphed into the smooth MOR-pop stylists that they’re mainly remembered as here in North America. Or the creepy case of Bow Wow Wow, in which Malcolm McLaren took a malleable young pop band, appointed a 14-year-old girl as the lead singer, and marketed their records with a relentless and vaguely sinister campaign of titillation. For students of rock history, an abundance of anecdotes like this should be reason enough to read the book.

Heavier Than Heaven

I wrote about Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross, for my friend Jep’s website. This was back in early 2002, I think. In retrospect I’ll have to concede that my “nobody cares about or listens to Nirvana any more” lede was probably a case of wishful thinking on my part, though I do still think they were wildly overrated.

Nirvana’s Nevermind album, which propelled Kurt Cobain and his bandmates to multinational superstardom, was released 10 years ago last fall. The rock press duly tried to make an event out of the anniversary – there were retrospective features in Rolling Stone and Spin – but without much success. Over the past few months, we’ve heard more about Courtney Love’s business dealings than Kurt Cobain’s importance in rock history.

Which may be fitting, since the critical adoration of Nirvana probably has more to do with lucky timing than with the music’s quality or lasting relevance.

After all, Nevermind was released in a climate of “death of rock” hand-wringing, in the year of Vanilla Ice and “Rico Suave.” So rock writers who feared that the electric guitar would soon become a historical relic wept with relief at Nirvana’s popularity: here was a chart-topping hard-rock band free of embarrassing heavy-metal associations. Never mind that Nirvana were only one pop-punk act among many, hardly the most innovative or even the most tuneful. Never mind that much of the “grunge” that followed the band to the charts was no more creative or ambitious than a typical New Kids on the Block single. Nevermind saved rock and roll!

But for rock and roll saviours, Nirvana made some pretty unremarkable records. Most of their celebrated songs seem half-written, with modest riffs mercilessly overworked and all surprises gone by the third listen. Even “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band’s signature song, now sounds like a mediocre tune greatly flattered by its arrangement. (Who could dispute that the most thrilling moment is that little drum flourish that heralds the roaring guitars?)

Still, Kurt Cobain’s story is a poignant one: a lonely, alienated youth achieves his lifelong dream of rock stardom, only to succumb to heroin addiction and kill himself at the age of 27. In a recent biography, Heavier Than Heaven, Seattle journalist Charles R. Cross methodically documents Cobain’s short and unhappy life. Cross’s extensive research – well integrated into the narrative – is augmented by a close look at Cobain’s private journals, courtesy of widow Courtney Love. With affection and respect, the biographer captures the human tragedy at the core of the story.

But Cross also remains admirably clear-eyed about his subject’s foibles, and the resulting portrait should debunk any illusion that this was a rock and roll visionary. Throughout Heavier Than Heaven, Cobain comes off as a grasping poseur obsessed with pleasing the cool kids. And in his later days, he was little more than a stupefied junkie.

At least Cobain’s early childhood was relatively idyllic, marked by artistic leanings and a love of music. But his parents divorced when he was nine, and his adolescence was troubled: he tested boundaries and wound up shuttling between parents, relatives, and friends. But he did not, Cross points out, live under a bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen – both Cobain’s sister and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic discredit that enduring legend.

In fact, Cobain’s talent for mythmaking becomes one of the book’s major themes. The phrase “despite what Kurt would later tell reporters” recurs often, and “Cobain, Kurt Donald, exaggerations by” is one of the heftier index entries. Some of these revisions are minor and even charming: Cobain claimed that the first band he saw in concert had been West Coast punk godfathers Black Flag, while Cross shows that in fact Cobain’s first live rock experience involved the somewhat less cool Sammy Hagar.

More troubling is the larger hypocrisy on which Nirvana’s career was built. After Nevermind broke, Cobain dutifully played the rock-star game –­ the press, the MTV appearances, the arena tours – while complaining at every juncture that the rock-star game was beneath him. Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, Cobain wore a homemade T-shirt reading “Corporate magazines still suck.” But as Cross shows, Cobain was only too willing to let the corporate rock establishment manage his career. After recording In Utero, a harsher followup to Nevermind, Cobain bowed to label pressure and allowed producer Scott Litt to create more radio-friendly remixes of a couple tracks. As Cross writes, “Once again, when challenged by a problem that might affect the success of his record, Kurt acquiesced to the path of least resistance and greatest sales.”

Ironically, one such acquiescence proved to be a seminal moment in the band’s artistic development – though it came too late to be built upon. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance in November 1993, only five months before Cobain’s suicide, is discussed at length in Heavier Than Heaven, and rightly so: the show served as the basis for the band’s most affecting record. Cobain’s misery found expression in the sombre stage design and downbeat song selection, and the acoustic format forced the band to open up its sound – drummer Dave Grohl played with brushes instead of sticks. Nirvana’s quieter songs (“Polly,” “All Apologies”) were always among their strongest anyway, and here they were spliced with well-chosen covers, including Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and the Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” In a nicely weird move, the band also did three Meats Puppets songs in a row (all from Meat Puppets II) – for which the Puppets joined them onstage.

Cross himself doesn’t look too closely at Nirvana’s music in Heavier Than Heaven. Most rock bios feature long and windy exegeses of each record, but Cross mostly restricts himself to trolling Cobain’s morbid lyrics for clues to his state of mind. (He points out that five of the six MTV Unplugged cover selections mention death, for instance.) But he is capable of striking insight. In relating a funny story about Cobain’s late discovery of the Knack’s wretched Get the Knack, Cross notes that Krist Novoselic “had a better grasp of the larger rock oeuvre…. Krist knew what was kitsch, while Kurt sometimes erred in this category.” Occasionally one wishes Cross would offer more such musical perspective.

The book’s only major failing, though, is its kid-glove treatment of the monstrous Courtney Love. No one who has followed Cobain’s career (or Love’s) could fail to see her as manipulative and opportunistic, but Heavier Than Heaven is heavy on oh-please lines like “He was a mystery to her, and Courtney was attracted by the unexplained.” There’s some evidence here of Love’s materialism – she pushed Cobain to buy a Lexus, and to headline Lollapalooza “to shore up their financial future” – but Cross consistently downplays such episodes, and readers have to pay close attention to catch them. It’s hard not to assume that Love’s co-operation with the biography – and her forking over of Cobain’s journals – explain the author’s uncharacteristically soft touch on this subject. (Speaking of those journals, in February 2002 Love negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal to publish them separately – despite the fact that, as Cross’s book shows, they’re often mortifying to Cobain’s memory. Reportedly she has never read them in entirety herself.)

Still, Cross charts Cobain’s life with a strong instinct for narrative and detail, and crafts a perceptive portrait of a conflicted and often fascinating man. (Though Cobain craved stardom and excess, he remained shy and awkward throughout his life – he’s doubtless the only rock giant whose sexual conquests failed to number in double digits.) And the closing chapters, detailing Cobain’s spiral toward suicide, effectively combine suspense, dread, and sadness. Cobain’s importance to rock and roll may be overstated, but his story of suffering is still powerful.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Black Swan Green

Review of David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green; Toronto Star, spring 2006.

Does anyone think back to their early teens without wincing? Even for the most self-confident and socially successful of kids, those are bewildering and exhausting years. There are the ever-shifting codes and conventions of peers to keep up with, the demands of the adult world to adjust to, and of course the search for one’s own sense of self to get on with.

Jason Taylor, the 13-year-old narrator of David Mitchell’s new novel, is not at all self-confident or socially successful.

In Black Swan Green, Jason recounts a year in his life – 1982 – as he grows up in a sleepy British village. “Sleepy” being relative, of course. Certainly life is dramatic enough for Jason, who’s buffeted by the usual schoolboy sturm und drang: his parents feuding with each other, bullies stalking him for sport, the girl of his daydreams ignoring him. Throw in some anxiety about the Falkland Islands war (it’s 1982, remember) and a nasty stammer (which Jason anthropomorphizes as “Hangman,” as in, “Words beginning with N have always been one of Hangman’s favorites”), and the boy’s having a rough year indeed.

Things aren’t all bad, though. We also see Jason recognizing and developing his own budding literary talent, first as a poet and eventually as a writer of narrative prose. Mitchell does a nice job here of illustrating Jason’s flair for language with striking but plausible flourishes; he wonderfully describes a Roxy Music song as “kazookery,” for instance. And as the year passes, Jason grows in other ways, too, coming to discern the contours of his own principles and to see where they bang up against the dilemmas of the larger world.

All of which is to say that Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age novel. And this seems to be the place to mention that like Jason, David Mitchell grew up in smalltown England, turned 13 in 1982, struggled with a stammer in his youth, and, obviously, found his vocation in writing. But I’ll make no more of all that, except to note that, unsurprisingly, Mitchell’s rendering of time and place in this new book has a warm and lived-in feel.

In any case, the novel is a sharp departure for Mitchell. His three previous ones have been nothing if not audacious and fanciful, culminating in Cloud Atlas two years ago, an epic that hopped giddily from genre to genre and storyline to storyline, from the 19th century to the far future. Smart and exhilarating, the novel won Mitchell a raft of new readers (including me). Black Swan Green is neither audacious nor fanciful, but what Mitchell has set out to do here – to capture the flux of youth, and to dazzle the reader with everyday, awkward human interaction rather than clever narrative conceits – is risky and rewarding in its own way.

Not that Mitchell has lost all interest in form. In fact, Black Swan Green seems to deliberately set the natural interiority of Jason’s first-person narration against more transparently dramatic storytelling strategies. The novel is structured as a series of semi-discrete episodes, with larger story arcs progressing incrementally in each – much like a TV series. Many of the set pieces are heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue sometimes does exposition duty, catching the reader up on recent developments. Some sequences even seem like celluloid-ready montages, such as this quick-cut description of a school hallway thronged with students: “School was all skiddy floors this morning, damp steaming anoraks, teachers telling kids off for screaming and first years playing illegal tag in the corridors and third year girls trawling the corridors with linked arms singing a Bananarama song.”

Occasionally, Black Swan Green is a little too transparently dramatic. Early in the novel, the narrative ducks are so blatantly set in a row – Jason’s parents have an uneasy marriage; the father’s facing changes at work; a town boy has enlisted in the Royal Navy – that waiting for them to fall is downright distracting. Also, Mitchell winks at his readers probably more than this particular story calls for when he improbably deposits a character from Cloud Atlas into the village for one chapter. (He also can’t resist at least one cheap historical-hindsight gag – “Betamax, of course! VHS’s going extinct” – although to be fair, he does show much more self-discipline in this regard than many others would.)

Often enough, though, Mitchell’s obvious efforts to please the reader work wonderfully, and the novel’s never less than tremendously engaging. He creates a fully realized village community that’s populated with a vivid and large cast of supporting characters. (And how refreshing that is, after so many literary novels in which the protagonist seems to know three people in the world.) Jason’s various predicaments entertain us without straining believability, and at its best the dialogue snaps without seeming too stylized. One comic highlight is a chapter called “Relatives,” in which an aunt and her family visit for the day. The dinner-table conversation is dominated by competitive, posturing back-and-forth between Jason’s father and uncle, and at every turn our perceptions of Jason, his family, and his extended family fluctuate, even as Jason’s do not.

On the more introspective side, the descriptions of Jason’s struggles with “Hangman” are insightful and fascinating, as he explains how his stammer favours certain letters, situations, and even times of year. “Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they’re as different as diarrhea and constipation,” he says. In their matter-of-fact tone, these passages pull off the nice trick of stirring our sympathy without appearing to try to do so.

In the end, though, Jason is a little too sympathetic. He may be socially timid and inept, but he’s also talented, kindhearted, and morally and ethically precocious – “not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right,” he says at one point. Though tested by the aforementioned various predicaments, he always does the right thing, and still feels guilty if he doesn’t do it quickly enough. These are false notes in a novel in which so many small details ring true.

Eventually, the idealized air spreads from protagonist to plot. As Jason’s year passes and he either accepts or outwits many of his torments and tormentors, one gets the unavoidable sense that Mitchell is asking the reader to collude in a kind of joint wish-fulfillment exercise. It’s impossible not to like Jason. But by the end of this very likable novel, it’s not quite possible to believe in him.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Review of Christopher Sorrentino’s novel Trance; appeared in the Toronto Star in summer 2005.

It’s been more than three decades since a group of California far-left radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and then threatened, bullied, and abused her until she joined their cause. But the story continues to haunt us – perhaps because the SLA was in the news again a couple of years ago, when several of its members finally went to prison for a 1975 murder, or perhaps because the subject of urban terrorism in America has acquired a fresh urgency lately.

Whatever the reason, Hearst and her erstwhile comrades keep turning up in the culture. Two years ago Susan Choi published American Woman, an excellent novel based on the summer that Hearst and three other fugitives spent hiding out in a rural cottage. Early this year PBS aired a fresh documentary film about the case called Guerilla. Even comedian Margaret Cho has borrowed from Hearst lore for the title and cover of her upcoming book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight.

And now here is Christopher Sorrentino’s second novel, Trance, based on Hearst’s fugitive days. It’s an ungainly but gripping piece of work – a postmodern experiment that reads like a thriller.

Sorrentino has stuck closely to real-life characters and events, and you can hardly blame him: the true story is so outlandish, crowded, and eventful that the novelist’s task is not to embellish but to simplify. The SLA came together in Berkeley, made up of white upper-middle-class college students or grads and led by an escaped black convict, Donald DeFreeze. Though they numbered less than a dozen, they believed they were about to incite a revolution and overthrow the American government, restoring power to “the People.” What they lacked in political sophistication or strategic sense they made up for in stockpiles of weaponry and in long-winded communiques to the press; their official slogan was the punchy “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

After murdering a popular Oakland school superintendant to no apparent political purpose, the SLA made national news by kidnapping 19-year-old Hearst in 1974. Two months later, she announced to the world that she’d joined her captors and rechristened herself Tania, and shortly afterward was caught on film robbing a bank with her comrades. The SLA then relocated to Los Angeles, where the police soon found and cornered the cadre; six members, including DeFreeze, died in the resulting shootout.

Circumstance had separated Hearst from the group the day before, along with two other members, Bill and Emily Harris, and now the three of them fled back to Berkeley. Sympathetic acquaintances – including a sportswriter who dreamed of an SLA-related book deal – spirited them to the Pennsylvania countryside, where they hid out for several months along with another wanted radical. Eventually, they returned to the Bay area to start a “second team” SLA; bombings and bank robberies followed before Hearst and the Harrises were found and arrested, more than a year and a half after the kidnapping.

Like any novel dealing with familiar real-life scenarios, Trance must navigate an uneasy relationship between invention and fact. Sorrentino renames the Hearst character “Alice Galton,” for example, but still uses her Tania alias. The Harrises are likewise given pseudonyms, but are mostly identified by their real-life noms de guerre, Teko and Yolanda. Some characters, like the dead SLA members, bear their real names, while others don’t, even when their models are obvious. These are small decisions, but they reflect Sorrentino’s overall strategy of highlighting the novel’s relationship to the historical record – both the conflicts and the confluences.

Trance picks up the story in L.A., at the point when Tania, Teko, and Yolanda are separated from the rest of the SLA while on a supply run. Teko is spotted shoplifting at a sporting goods store, and Tania shoots out the storefront windows to scatter the security guards. The three revolutionaries then embark on a series of carjackings, bickering about what to do next and how to hook up with their comrades. Meanwhile, DeFreeze leads the rest of the cadre to a new safehouse, where the L.A. police close in around them.

Sorrentino’s work in this section sets the pace for the rest of the novel with suspenseful storytelling, a strong ear for dialogue, and wry situational humour. American Woman was sombre, but Trance finds the comedy in the material – much of it at the vainglorious Teko’s expense – without trivializing the impact of the SLA’s idiocies and crimes.

If there’s one disappointment, it’s that Sorrentino allows the public record to set the narrative agenda so rigidly. Nearly all of the events in Trance, even many tiny details, are drawn from existing accounts. The underreported aspects of the SLA case, such as the formation and earliest days of the cadre, would seem to be ripe for fictionalizing, but they’re ignored here. Even the last hours of the Los Angeles safehouse siege are related not from the point of view of the doomed SLA soldiers, but from that of Tania, watching events unfold on a motel room TV.

Not that the book is unimaginative. Rather, the fictionalizing comes in textures, in tangled skeins of motivation as we leave and return to various characters’ minds. Like Hank Galton, Tania’s father, befuddled by helpless love and concern; Guy Mock, the fugitives’ sportswriter friend, balancing sympathy, skepticism, and self-interest; and Joan Shimada, a Japanese-American radical who falls into the SLA ambit but is openly scornful of their pretensions.

All of them orbit the central figure of Tania. To Sorrentino’s credit, he doesn’t pander to the question that launched a criminal trial and a thousand op-ed pieces in the 1970s: that of whether Tania was a coerced victim or a willing accomplice. In fact, that angle is barely acknowledged in the novel, which presents a Tania who more or less believes she’s acting freely (but still might not be, anyway). More interesting are the dynamics between Tania and the other revolutionaries, and her growing friendship with Joan Shimada.

There’s a huge cast of background characters to deal with, too, and Sorrentino gives spark to them all with judicious use of anecdotes and minor details, as when one SLA soldier recalls an argument at her sister’s “bourgeois” wedding. Most impressively, even the briefest cameos don’t just solidify our conception of the character for the sake of expediency – rather, they suggest a rich and real life lived off the page.

Indeed, for such a long and sprawling book, the major tension that emerges is between what’s included and what’s not. Although Tania’s fugitive exploits provide a narrative throughline – Trance essentially ends with her arrest – that narrative is full of tangents, tone shifts, multiple perspectives, and stylistic experiments. At one point, Sorrentino even uses concrete poetry to represent a shooting victim’s last, jumbled thoughts. In the absence of a classically seamless structure and consistent point-of-view, the overall form of the story comes to seem arbitrary: we may wonder, for example, why we turn to Lydia Galton, Tania’s mother, so late in the action. It’s fitting that in a novel so entwined with the historical record, the reader is invited to speculate on what’s been left out, and on how further additions and subtractions would change our understanding of the play and its players. A risky move, but it’s one that Sorrentino can afford to take – after all, what’s been left in Trance is plenty satisfying.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Changed Man

Review of Francine Prose’s A Changed Man. Was in the Toronto Star in early 2005.

A few years back, the novelist and critic Francine Prose provoked some literary debate with a Harper’s essay on fiction and gender roles. There’s an unspoken critical assumption, she wrote, that male writers are more likely to show ambition and innovation, while female ones are content to be unassuming and sentimental. To debunk that preconception, Prose highlighted contrasting passages from various well-known writers’ work – Flannery O’Connor versus Frederick Exley, say – and she had little difficulty illustrating that male and female “voices,” if indeed they’re distinct at all, overlap a great deal in both style and subject matter. (Some accused her of stacking the deck, but she certainly didn’t have to go far for her examples: all the writers she quoted were well known, and some, like Hemingway, were downright canonical.)

The essay may have raised more questions than it resolved, but it’s no surprise that the subject so exercised Prose: her own fiction is itself an eloquent rebuke to facile literary dichotomies. A typical Prose novel covers big ideas about ethics, art, and social structures, but presents them with minutely observed single-point-of-view narratives that emphasize a character’s day-to-day (and often minute-to-minute) thoughts and feelings. The first half of that equation tends to be more highly valued by prize juries and reviewers, but the second is arguably more crucial to aesthetic success in literary fiction. In any case, Prose at her best is both more readable and more memorable than alleged deep thinkers like Don DeLillo.

Prose’s new book, A Changed Man, fits the pattern above – except that it’s unusually nuanced in its negotiation between theme and character, and it may be her most successful novel yet.

At the story’s outset, a neo-Nazi skinhead named Vincent Nolan arrives at the Manhattan office of Brotherhood Watch, a human rights NGO, and offers his services with a rehearsed line: “I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” Meyer Maslow, Brotherhood Watch’s founder and a famous author and Holocaust survivor, quickly senses the potential for outreach and publicity, and talks his chief fundraiser, Bonnie Kalen, into boarding Vincent while they figure out what to do with him. So the newly reformed neo-Nazi becomes houseguest to a suburban, Jewish single mother and her two sons, the older one sullen and the younger fearful and baffled.

The character of Vincent is tricky to pull off, since we’re meant to find him essentially sympathetic. So we quickly learn that his association with the Aryan Resistance Movement was only half-hearted; it’s put down to bad luck (he was adrift after losing a job and splitting from his wife) and the wrong crowd (he landed on the couch of his cousin, a more enthusiastic neo-Nazi). We also learn that Vincent’s conversion to racial tolerance began with a dose of Ecstasy at a rave, though he shows his public relations skills by inventing more suitable epiphanies at various points throughout the novel.

Some may accuse Prose of sweetening the medicine by minimizing Vincent’s history of hate, but I think she’s achieved a necessary balance in making both his dalliance with racism and his abandonment of it emotionally plausible. And late in the book, a section focusing on Vincent’s cousin does allow us into the paranoid, petulant thoughts of an unreconstructed neo-Nazi, who’s depicted as odious but not quite cartoonish.

Unlike many of Prose’s novels, A Changed Man is an ensemble piece, with point-of-view shifting back and forth between Vincent, Bonnie, Meyer, Danny (Bonnie’s older son), and other supporting players. All are deftly sketched, particularly the bewildered Bonnie, still recovering from a split with her swinish husband and now coping with her own feelings for the ex-skinhead in her spare room. Meyer Maslow, too, is a memorable creation, vacillating between frustrated idealism and wounded ego as he broods about the meaning of his work and his own declining celebrity.

In rendering these people Prose is not a striking, er, prose stylist – she does not do new things with language or serve up quotable bravura metaphors – but her writing is taut and confident nonetheless. Her strength is in character, in capturing the tortuous flow of inner vanities and insecurities, the tug between self-recrimination and –justification.

Prose records these mental meanderings so deeply and sympathetically, in fact, that readers may barely notice that she’s also lightly working in some heavy ethical questions. Books like Blue Angel and Hunters and Gatherers targeted specific hypocrisies (academic political correctness and new age feminism, respectively), and what they lost in subtlety, they gained in sting. A Changed Man is more shaded, less pointed, as characters ponder the nature of heroism, courage, and self-improvement, as well as the difference between genuine integrity and the theatre of surface charisma. On the latter point, it’s no accident that the story’s crisis moments all involve public-speaking events: a fundraising dinner, a TV talk show appearance, a high-school graduation ceremony.

That graduation concludes the novel with only a partial sense of emotional resolution. Closure is often missing from Prose’s work; many of her stories seem to end arbitrarily rather than organically. That’s somewhat true here, too, though not egregiously so. A Changed Man does leave a few loose ends, but if its finish is less than wholly satisfactory, it’s mainly because Prose’s characters have become so real that readers may wish to follow their lives a little more.

Twilight of the Superheroes

Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheoes. Was in the Toronto Star in early 2006.

It’s been fashionable for years to complain about the “workshop effect” on the contemporary North American short story. The argument goes that the recent rise of creative writing programs has honed young writers’ technical proficiency while discouraging ambition and idiosyncrasy. So we get solidly and stolidly constructed stories from which anything that might raise the reader’s eyebrow or muddy the author’s intent has been removed. The characters and their dilemmas are outlined in bold, the appropriate backstory is expertly filled in, and the epiphany pulls sleekly into the station at the appointed hour.

The workshop effect (or at least its recent hegemony) has probably been overstated, but it’s still fair to say that when it comes to fiction about the way we live now, we could use a little more narrative weirdness mixed in with our real-world anxieties. And for that, the work of New York City writer Deborah Eisenberg is as good a source as any.

Take the title piece of Twilight of the Superheroes, Eisenberg’s new book. It’s about a group of twentysomethings housesitting in a Manhattan loft before and after the 9/11 attacks, about how young people struggle to make their way in the world and how that’s distorted by paranoia and grief. But it’s also about Lucien, the uncle of one of those twentysomethings, who’s lost in grief for his dead wife and lost also in terror, convinced that 9/11 portends an apocalypse.

What makes the story notable is that there’s no sense that any of these elements is a metaphor for any other one – all of them are simply there, bumping up against each other. By the story’s end, no understanding or resolution is reached, no comfort (warm or cold) offered.

Or take “Like It or Not,” another piece in the new book. It follows Kate, a schoolteacher visiting Italy who falls into a weekend trip to the countryside with an Italian man, a friend of a friend serving as impromptu tour guide. Most of the story tracks Kate’s shifting feelings and preoccupations: she’s exasperated with her guide, broods over her ex-husband’s illness, and picks at her own loneliness. Near the end, though, the point-of-view moves suddenly to the guide, and it’s the switch in perspective, not the actual events (what follows is hardly a surprise) that gives the story a disorienting twist.

Like Alice Munro, Eisenberg has stuck to short stories throughout her career – Twilight of the Superheroes is her fourth collection since her debut 20 years ago – and similar motifs and techniques tend to recur in her work. Her narrators are often befuddled by their own conceits about themselves, and often we catch them trying (without much success) to navigate a strange land – American innocents in Latin America is a favourite Eisenberg starting point. Her stories can slide into a mood of unsettling threat without warning, but they also have a Chekhovian spirit of capturing small details and tangential conversations as they come up, apparently without propelling the narrative forward.

When all of this works, it works beautifully – most notably in the terrifying title story of Eisenberg’s 1992 collection, Under the 82nd Airborne., in which a self-involved former actress visiting Honduras is menaced by a thuggish American mercenary. Or “Mermaids” (from 1997’s All Around Atlantis), in which a family trip to New York leads to overlapping agendas and individual agonies, all of them observed by a young girl who doesn’t fully understand them.

There’s nothing that strong or fully realized in Twilight of the Superheroes. Instead, the new book gives us moments here and there worth savouring: the raging contempt of an aging lawyer for his family in “Some Other, Better Otto,” or a teenage boy’s almost hallucinatory culture shock as he readjusts to urban privilege after years abroad in “The Flaw in the Design.”

Unfortunately, though, when several Eisenberg stories are read together in a collection, her limitations become more apparent, and the overall effect can be stultifying and muddled. Partly this is a question of voice. Twilight of the Superheroes features people young and old, male and female, rich and middle-class and poor, coldly practical and near-lunatic. But this doesn’t lead to the giddy multiplicity of styles that you might expect. Some characters are more given to exclamations, and some hold to a more flat affect, but for the most part the diction and pitch vary little throughout the book.

For example, early in one story, “Window” a 19-year-old woman flees a small town and a dead-end job, and her dissatisfaction is described thusly: “When she was little there had been moments like promises, disclosures – glimpses of radiant things to come that were so clear and sharp they seemed like erupting memories.” That’s some nice writing, sure. But the point is that Eisenberg’s prose always maintains a ruthless elegance, whether it’s actually appropriate to the situation and character or not.

Eisenberg also has little interest in quotidian detail: she’d rather ruminate on someone’s inner angst or secret fears than ground us in their daily life. Factor in the aloof prose as well, and many of her characters seem more like artist’s conceptions than real people. (Similarly, at times her Manhattan resembles some Woody Allen-style fantasyland that’s removed from the grit of the real world.) And while Eisenberg’s stories are spiky and unpredictable in structure, often the character dynamics behind the action can be summarized all too easily, stuck in some limbo that’s neither singular nor universal.

That’s quite the pile-on of complaints, I realize. In Eisenberg’s defence, in small doses her fiction is more powerful, and her weaknesses seem less like weaknesses. Twilight of the Superheroes isn’t her best work, but readers may still get caught up in her characters’ mental oscillations, and admire the elegance of her prose – especially if they take the book one story at a time, over time.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Scavenger Hunt

The Globe’s Toronto section had this department called “City Diary,” for tiny little slices of life. Nothing like some (self-)righteous rage to get ones energy up.

I was walking to lunch at the St. Lawrence Market on a bright late-May day when I passed an addled and presumably homeless man holding court on Front Street. He stood in a kind of half-crouch, yelling garbled imprecations at passersby, singling each one out in turn. (To one young woman: “You look good, baby! That’s just what I like!”) People traded wry smiles as they walked in semi-circles around him.

Inside, the place was awash in uniformed schoolchildren – probably in Grade 8 or 9, all wearing white shirts, purple-and-grey kilts, grey slacks. Not an unusual sight at the market, but these children were more purposeful than most. They moved briskly in little groups, wrote on pieces of paper. “That’s three down,” said one. They all seemed to have blue popsicles.

After I bought my food, I stepped out into the sunshine on Esplanade and into another wave of uniformed kids. One small group had just crossed the street and was particularly jubilant; fists were pumping. “We got it,” a boy called to his friends. “We got a hobo’s signature!”

I finally realized that they were on a scavenger hunt. And it occurred to me that in the year 2004, these 14-year-olds probably hadn’t come up with the word “hobo” on their own: a teacher or organizer would have done that for them. On the far corner stood a man I took to be the autographer, holding a cup out, standing stoic and unmoving. The schoolchildren moved into the market, sucking their popsicles, having learned the happy lesson that poor people were put on this Earth to amuse them.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

I Thought My Father Was God

A review of the Paul Auster-edited anthology I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project. This would have been written in 2001, when the book came out, but I’m not sure this was ever actually published anywhere; I have a feeling it was killed for some reason or fell through the cracks or something. Oh well, here it is now.

It may not have halted wars or fostered continent-crossing goodwill, but the storytelling impulse is surely one of humanity’s most universal characteristics. Nearly all of us share a knack for refining the irregular circumstance of life into some sort of coherent narrative. And if we’re born storytellers, we’re also born listeners: it’s a jaded soul indeed who doesn’t perk up a little upon being asked, “Do you want to hear a story?”

So the National Story Project – conceived for National Public Radio by author Paul Auster and his wife, Siri – was a genius move. In 1999, Auster began asking NPR’s listeners to forward brief, true stories drawn from their own experience. In a regular feature for the program All Things Considered, he reads the most striking submissions on the air. He’s now collected 179 of them in I Thought My Father Was God.

Though it draws only from Americans, the collection contains an exhilarating range of author and experience, with contributors of all ages, backgrounds, and regions. The book is apt to skip from Dust Bowl prairie to modern-day suburbia to the Second World War, from beach to courtroom to hospital ward. In the title story, a California youth witnesses an argument between his father and a crotchety neighbour. “Drop dead!” cries the father, and the neighbour, stricken with a sudden heart attack, obliges. Auster has organized the pieces by theme – under such chapters as “Family,” “Slapstick,” and “Strangers” – though there’s considerable overlap among categories.

In his introduction, Auster warns, “Only a small portion of [the book] resembles anything that could be called ‘literature.’ It is something else, something raw and close to the bone….” He’s right, and the book’s appeal is wildly uneven. Much of the writing here is terse in pacing and artless in style; the stories that work rely on conviction and immediacy, not technical skill. In fact, the ones that do betray artistic ambitions – most of them found in the closing “Meditations” section – are among the least engaging, overwritten and lacking narrative drive. (With few pieces more than two pages in length, though, the reader’s investment in the clunkers is a small one.)

Unfortunately, despite the wide range of source material, a samey tone permeates the collection. Auster is a sucker for urban legend-style tales of eerie synchronicity – no surprise, considering his own fiction. “What interested me most,” he writes, “were stories that defied our expectations about the world. Anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls.” So more than a third of the pieces here hinge on outrageous coincidences, psychic premonitions, messages from the grave, or long-lost heirlooms miraculously recovered. Readers who don’t share Auster’s sensibility – who suspect that some such tales say more about the storyteller’s need for psychic comfort than “mysterious and unknowable forces” – may grow impatient.

Many pieces here also share an unabashedly maudlin quality, displaying a sentimentality that recalls the most mawkish of Hollywood fantasias. It seems churlish to single out individual contributors, so suffice to say that the Christmas tree and the wedding ring are narrative devices that will have thoroughly wearied all but the most earnest of readers by the last page.

The most powerful stories in I Thought My Father Was God are the ones that confront the world’s random cruelties and shy away from easy resolutions – in short, the ones that most resemble sophisticated, realistic fiction. A young woman who’s moved to L.A. to seek stardom ends up “auditioning” for a porn producer in a grimy motel room. A wartime photographer views his own near-execution on a colleague’s video footage. Teenage siblings devastated by their mother’s murder take solace in lazy summertime binge drinking. A soldier watches a V-J Day celebration mutate into a riot and near-lynching. Startling and unnerving, these stories – and others like them – are the pearls to be pried from I Thought My Father Was God.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment

A review of Ken Kalfus’s novel The Commissariat of Enlightenment; appeared in the Toronto Star in 2003.

Ken Kalfus’s first novel takes revolutionary Russia as its backdrop, and vividly depicts the horrors of the period. At one point, the protagonist of The Commissariat of Enlightenment considers the state of his country, wracked by war and famine: “Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them.”

A perfectly plausible observation for that character in that situation – but also a clear allusion to Stalin’s famous line about one death being a tragedy, a million a statistic. Blending a sense of immediacy with an authorly wink at the modern reader, the passage is emblematic of the book as a whole.

Kalfus, an American, comes by his subject matter honestly. He lived in Russia for several years, and he’s previously published a short-story collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, set entirely in that country, ranging over various periods in its history. In his first novel, events leading up to and following the Russian Revolution illustrate the sweeping cultural changes of the early 20th century – changes still being felt the world over, long after the demise of the Soviet state.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment begins in 1910, as journalists and other opportunists converge on the isolated village of Astopovo, where Leo Tolstoy lies dying. It’s a proverbial media circus, with reporters, agitators, entrepreneurs, and Tolstoy’s wife, children, and disciples all jostling and competing. A couple of revolutionaries are in Astopovo, too – Lenin and Stalin watch the action from the sidelines with vague notions of using Tolstoy’s death to stir civil unrest. (As Kalfus notes in an afterword, he takes some liberties with the historical record here.)

Also on hand is Gribshin, the book’s central character. A young Russian dazzled by the new medium of film, he’s working as a cinematographer for the French news company Pathé Frères. As he vies for footage, he learns some important lessons about the iconic power of the moving picture, and the ways it can be manipulated. After Tolstoy’s death, the action fast-forwards to the early years of the Communist regime, and Gribshin puts those lessons into action. Now renamed Astopov and serving as an official in the state’s propaganda division (the commissariat of the book’s title), he seeks to sell the people on the glory of the revolution.

The latter half of the book takes the form of a series of set pieces: a standoff with peasants in a rural church, an avant-garde theatre troupe’s rehearsal, a disastrous attempt to recreate the seizure of the Kremlin for a propaganda film. All are exciting, and Kalfus’s prose is sharp and sure-footed throughout, displaying the skill he honed in his short stories. The dawn of the motion picture makes a nice hook for an exploration of iconography, celebrity, and propoganda, and the way each affects the others.

The book’s discrete episodes aren’t really integrated into a larger narrative, though, and often they strain to make thematic points. When Yelena, a subordinate of Astopov’s, shows him a proto-porn film, he has a vision of the MTV age, a future “where unconnected images were ubiquitous and drenched in sex and noise. Here men were buffeted by so many visual representations, so much experience, that they were unable to make sense of their lives.” Like most of the book’s significant musings, this one depends for its effect on the reader’s historical hindsight. The subject is then closed and filed away; Yelena, who had seemed an important character, is never seen again.

In fact, there is little sense of Kalfus’s fictional people struggling with personal dilemmas that illuminate the novel’s political background and themes. He can pull that off – he’s already done so expertly in the novella “Peredelkino,” the highlight of Pu-239. The tale of a complacent Brezhnev-era novelist and writers’ union official, the piece renders a milieu of court intrigue while grappling with questions of literary worth and the free market, artistic envy and community, state support and repression. Resisting easy conclusions, “Peredelkino” is both a novella of ideas and a believable character study.

In Commissariat, in contrast, Gribshin/Astopov remains eternally flat and affectless, and Kalfus shows little interest in the personality or fate of his protagonist. Which is perhaps the point. The novel’s final chapter lingers over Lenin’s embalmed corpse, playfully evoking an image of individual will powerless before the march of history. The narrative as a whole makes a similar point – but makes some sacrifices to do so.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Name Game: How Books Are Titled

A piece about book titles that ran in fall 2005 in Saturday Night – the second- or third-last issue ever, I think.

Last year, the Toronto publisher ECW Press released an anthology of autobiographical essays by Italian-Canadian women – reminiscent of the Carol Shields-edited Dropped Threads books, but with a more niche appeal. There were launch parties in multiple cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax, but the festivities followed a stormy history. Before the collection was even published, several contributors, including the original editor, had pulled out of the project in a bitter fight with the publisher. The issue wasn’t royalties, or some disagreement over the editing of the text, but rather the name of the book.

ECW had come up with Mamma Mia: Good Italian Girls Talk Back, arguing to contributors that it encapsulated the subject matter and created a sense of conflict and drama. But Gina Valle, the anthology’s editor, wanted no part of that title. “I raised it with them the same day,” she says. Valle objected on several fronts: that “mamma mia” played to ethnic stereotypes, that “girls” was demeaning, and that “talk back” implied disrespect for older generations. Over months of to-ing and fro-ing, more than 30 other possible titles were put forth, and one other serious contender emerged: the milder Bravo Bella: Stories of Growing Up Italian. But the publisher’s sales force insisted that Mamma Mia was getting more enthusiastic reaction from bookstores.

So ECW stuck to that one – and also designed a cover showing a woman gesticulating with her hands, further enflaming the stereotype issue. As a result, Valle split from the project, along with about half of the original 20 contributors. One of those who stayed, Maria Coletta McLean, took over as editor and began soliciting new pieces, and ECW published the book in the spring of 2004. Since then, Mamma Mia has gone on to sell close to 5,000 copies – very respectable for a small Canadian press – while Valle has written letters of protest to various funding agencies and media outlets. Says Joy Gugeler, the ECW editor who dealt with the book: “The title was meant to express exasperation on one level, and that certainly summed up everyone’s feelings at the end of this negotiation.”

Of all the decisions that go into publishing a book, the title is one of the most fraught. It must be short, catchy, and memorable, and it has to capture the spirit of the book while also evoking intrigue or tension. At a large house, editors, publishers, sales, marketing, and publicity types might all weigh in on any given book’s title. Art directors, too, pushing for something they can work with visually. And if the book-buyers at major chains aren’t sold, the agonizing continues. But naming a book is an art, not a science, and the process tends to be driven by intuition and superstition. Ask industry veterans what makes a strong title, and their answers tend to fall along you-know-it-when-you-see-it lines. Focus groups or detailed market research? Forget it, there’s no money for that in publishing.

Small wonder that so many books leave a trail of discarded titles in their wake. In some alternate universe, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel is known not as The Great Gatsby but as Trimalchio in West Egg, and Joseph Heller is remembered for Catch-18 rather than Catch-22. Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel was called Pale Flags, not Anil’s Ghost, and Miriam Toews won the Governor General’s Award last year for Swivelhead, not A Complicated Kindness.

Or maybe she didn’t. Back in this reality, after A Complicated Kindness took the prize, Michael Schellenberg, Toews’s editor at Knopf Canada, asked her only semi-jokingly, “Do you think your novel would have won if it had been called Swivelhead?” That early title referred to Toews’ teenage narrator’s watchful gawking, but it lacked, Schellenberg suggests, a certain CanLit gravitas. Several more titles were tossed back and forth, and at one point Toews even suggested Abattoir Life, but she dryly recalls that “everybody at Knopf shot that down pretty fast.”

Still, A Complicated Kindness has been one of the biggest Canadian hits of the past two years, so nobody’s complaining. When a book doesn’t do well, the second-guessing starts. A few years back, Random House Canada published a debut novel by British writer Eleanor Bailey, which Random publisher Anne Collins characterizes as a reader-friendly multigenerational saga. The book was called Idioglossia, a technical term for nonsense babbling, and Collins now believes the title was “completely terrifying” to readers and a crucial factor in the novel’s commercial failure.

In some ways, fiction writers and publishers have it easy when searching for a title: an evocative and not-too-specific phrase will usually do. Scan the season’s big novels – David Bergen’s The Time in Between, say – and you’ll notice that most of their titles sound nice but are essentially meaningless. With non-fiction, there’s more pressure to be clear, there’s the tricky dance between title and subtitle, and there are often more specific marketing niches to consider.

One general principle? As in comedy, incongruity is a plus. “Words that bang up against each other and set off shock waves tend to be good,” suggests John Pearce, a Toronto literary agent and longtime editor, citing John Ibbitson’s fall book about Canadian politics, The Polite Revolution. It’s also a truism that small changes can make a big difference. This fall, authors David Bercuson and Holger Herwig are releasing a book about Winston Churchill’s war conference with Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Originally it was to be called Christmas in Washington, but that led to some confusion about the book’s identity, says the Canadian publisher, Kim McArthur of McArthur & Company: “Was it jingle jingle, decorating the Christmas tree, or was it Paris 1919?” So the book has now been renamed One Christmas in Washington, in the hope of tilting readers’ perceptions toward the latter.

Paris 1919, in fact, is itself the result of a title makeover. Margaret MacMillan’s book about the Treaty of Versailles was first published in the U.K. as Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War – a monicker the author was quite happy with. For the American publication, though, her New York editor “said anything with ‘Paris’ in it sells really well in the United States,” recalls MacMillan, who grudgingly acquiesced. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World has since become a blockbuster international hit.

Certainly, title talk can incite strong emotions. In Another Life, New York editor Michael Korda relates the story of a terse telegram from Graham Greene: “Easier to change publisher than title.” Since her own split with ECW Press over Mamma Mia, Gina Valle has collected a new anthology of stories covering the Italian immigrant experience across North America, to be published next spring by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

The title has not yet been determined.


Outtake #1
When there is disagreement, an editor must turn gut feelings into compelling arguments – or bargain for a solution. Last year, Thomas Allen published the English translation of an Alberto Manguel memoir with the tricky title “Chez Borges.” Manguel wanted to call it “With Borges,” but that sounded clunky to Crean, so the two compromised. “It was a tradeoff between him accepting our design,” says Crean, “and me accepting his title.”

Outtake #2
If “changed the world” has a familiar ring, it’s because you’ve probably seen it in other book subtitles. Recycling of title tropes is endemic, from books that promise “a brief history of” something to those that cover things you must see or eat “before you die.” Numbers, too, are always popular in business and self-help books (a la The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). And just as Paris is apparently a magic word, publishers admit to some other truisms: when Random House published Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s memoir Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown last year, Collins took care to keep “Toronto” out of the title, for fear of alienating readers in the rest of the country.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Swing Batter Swing: Baseball Novels

A piece about baseball novels for The Globe and Mail’s “Three for Thought” department in the books section; published in March 2004, I think.

With the launch of the new major league baseball season this week, several hundred players will set out on this year’s campaign in a spirit of great hope. For most of them, that hope will be slowly crushed over the next six months.

The bards of baseball tend to sing of the game’s ties to tradition, its contemplative pace, its verdant summertime outfields – it presents itself as the most idyllic of the major sports. But with a long and grinding season and a relatively exclusive playoff format, it’s also the one most spiked with disappointment and frustration.

So it’s no surprise that it holds a special appeal for novelists. There are other reasons, too: the game is rich in lore and legend, and its status as “America’s pastime,” though by now more theoretical than actual, lends a sense of larger import to even the most straightforward ballpark yarn. Some authors exploit that resonance for sentimental fantasy (now batting, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe), while others favour a naturalistic tone (on deck, Mark Harris’s Henry Wiggen series). The most haunting baseball novels, though, are the ones that play off the game’s mythology while acknowledging the dread that hangs over the diamond.

Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952) is the story of Roy Hobbs, a 34-year-old rookie driven by dreams of riches and stardom. Roy first tried to make the big leagues as a young pitcher, only to be shot by a mysterious woman on the eve of his tryout. After a 15-year interregnum of drifting and odd jobs, he’s reinvented himself as a slugger and found a slot with the fictional New York Knights. Despite Roy’s age, his gifts are astounding: in his first big-league at-bat, he literally knocks the cover off the ball.

The Natural was Malamud’s first book, and its slightly surreal air prefigures his later work, as does its preoccupation with frustration. Roy is furious in pursuing all that he feels entitled to – baseball glory, money, and a beautiful but aloof society woman. But though he becomes a phenomenon, leading the Knights to a showdown for the pennant, his appetite is never sated. In one dreamlike scene, his hunger is made literal, as his epic gluttony at a team banquet puts him in the hospital.

At the novel’s climax, the pennant race comes down to a single game, which comes down to a single at-bat featuring our hero – Malamud is unabashed in exploiting the clichés of sports suspense. The crucial difference, though, is that his payoff offers no uplift, only a bellow of despair. In the last sentence of the novel, Roy weeps “many bitter tears.” Here and throughout the book, Malamud pitches with more force than finesse, but his raw prose is a fitting expression of angry ambition and failed promise.

As a prose stylist, Philip Roth is a power pitcher who also boasts pinpoint control. In The Great American Novel (Vintage, 1973), he’s at his funniest and most manic; where Malamud is bitter, Roth is giddy with satiric possibilities. Here he’s invented the Patriot League, which once co-existed alongside the American and the National but was disbanded after the Second World War, its records destroyed and its history suppressed. Much of the action centres on the 1943 season, when the Ruppert Mundys of Port Ruppert, New Jersey, are forced to play all their games on the road after the government leases their home ballpark as a soldiers’ camp. But the setup is really just an excuse for Roth to get busy with tall tales and comic characters. Like Gil Gamesh, a star pitcher (of proud Babylonian background, of course) who’s banished from the league after wounding an umpire with a deadly throw, and who reappears 10 years later as a Soviet spy. Or Frank Mazuma, a carnival barker of a team owner whose stunts include signing a midget as a pinch hitter. (He evokes real-life owner Bill Veeck, who once did the same thing.) Or Isaac Ellis, a teenage genius who’s dying to manage a big league team according to his own convoluted mathematical principles.

The book’s narrator, aged sportswriter Word Smith, claims to be writing a historical expose, but sees himself as competing with The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the like. Hence the “great American novel” conceit, which allows Roth to work in plenty of writerly in-jokes as well as baseball ones – he lampoons everything from Hemingway’s “The Killers” to Melville’s Typee. The literary canon motif, beautifully captured in the idea of a forgotten major league, also pokes fun at baseball’s own high opinion of itself. And while nothing in The Great American Novel is to be taken seriously, Roth finds improbable poignance in the plight of the luckless Ruppert Mundys, a once-mighty team now made up of misfits and losers, wandering a world that rewards only winners.

Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Plume, 1968) is also about an imaginary league. Henry Waugh, a 56-year-old low-level accountant with no family and few friends, is devoted to a virtual baseball game of his own devising, in which the roll of three dice determines every play. Henry plays entire seasons by himself this way – when the novel opens, his UBA is in Year LVI – and to give meaning to the statistics he amasses, he imagines player biographies, team and league histories, even off-the-field political intrigues.

Coover’s premise presages the explosion of fantasy leagues, and more than the other authors considered here, he ponders the fan’s place in the baseball cosmos. In one very funny scene, Henry invites Lou, an oafish co-worker, to play his dice game with him. Lou grasps none of the game’s grace or subtleties; his response is the bored incomprehension of the uninitiate. The density of Henry’s dream world, though, will make even a baseball aficionado feel like an outsider: with its babble of unfamiliar player names, the novel is deliberately disorienting. And while the Roth and Malamud books are both full of allusions to actual players and events, Coover’s novel throws no such winks at the reader.

Instead, we get deeper into Henry’s obsession, into the ever more elaborate – and creepy and distasteful – scenarios he invents. The eerie final chapter appears to represent Henry’s final surrender to psychosis, but also evokes our own complicity, as we’re asked to consider the needs we project onto the players on the diamond. Happy thoughts indeed for Opening Day.