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.

Street Life

Mini-profile of Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall; was in Saturday Night in, I think, the April 2004 ish.

It’s a common journalistic exercise: a reporter tries out life on the street for a few days, then returns to middle-class comfort to pronounce on What It’s Like to Be Homeless. But don’t put Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall in that category, even though his first book chronicles his own stint in a notorious urban shantytown.

For one thing, Bishop-Stall stayed put in Toronto’s Tent City for nearly a year, relying only on whatever resources he could scrounge. And for another, Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown (Random House Canada) is refreshingly free of political or sociological theorizing. “I wanted to write an adventure story,” says Bishop-Stall, and so the book’s focus is squarely on his daily struggles – and those of his volatile new neighbours.

Located on a patch of unused lakeside land, Tent City was home to dozens of Toronto’s homeless, who slept under canvas, slapped together homemade shacks, or lived in donated “prefabs.” Bishop-Stall joined them in late 2001 and remained until the following September, when police evicted all squatters and closed Tent City for good. For Bishop-Stall, surviving those 10 months meant building a livable shack on his own, earning food-and-booze money, and mastering the obscure social codes of his new world. (“Goof,” he learned, was the worst insult imaginable.)

The 29-year-old journalist cultivated his sense of adventure early on. Raised in Vancouver, he left home at the age of 17 to hitchhike to Costa Rica, and since then has lived at various times in Mexico, Italy and Spain, using Montreal as his on-again, off-again home base. In the fall of 2001, crisis hit as a book project and a relationship both collapsed, so Bishop-Stall decided to live in Tent City for a year and produce a book about it. “Things had kind of blown up for me in general,” he says. “I’d lost my place and my girl and my dog – living in a tent didn’t sound so bad.”

Not so bad if you don’t mind being at the mercy of rats, rainstorms and cold, not to mention everyday aggression stoked by widespread alcohol and drug abuse. “There was a particular complexity to the violence,” says Bishop-Stall. “You win a fight and you’re gonna get stabbed that night. There’s no real way to win until you have friends.” Those friends and their stories give the book much of its power. Jackie, an early ally, regularly disappears into crack binges and prostitution; another, Eddie, dreams of going straight and raising his newborn son, but instead ends up in thrall to Tent City’s dealers.

To gain the trust of those around him, Bishop-Stall was careful not to fall back on outside resources. “It’s impossible to get the story of people on the street unless you spend enough time there that you become part of it,” he maintains. He arrived in Toronto with only a small amount of money, which he quickly spent on supplies, and when he signed a book deal midway through his Tent City year, he had the advance deposited in a trust that he couldn’t access until his stay was over. He did take some precautions, though: once a month, he would meet up with his agent to turn over the notebooks he’d been filling.

Those notes form the basis of Down to This, which is presented in diary format. The day-by-day reportage does make for a long and repetitive book: at times the narrative seems an endless parade of incoherent arguments and senseless fistfights. But the form also creates a cumulative portrait of the punishing lifestyle, and captures a sense of growing dread as Tent City’s crack trade grows in power.

Post-eviction, Bishop-Stall lives in Toronto, working as a freelance journalist and working up other book ideas. He’s checked in with his old neighbours at two reunions, one six months after Tent City closed and another on the first anniversary. But he’s also suffering, he admits, from both survivor guilt and culture shock: “The hardest thing to do is relax, not be on the edge.”

Then We Came to the End

Review of a debut novel by Joshua Ferris; Toronto Star, early 2007.

Joshua Ferris’s debut is billed as a comic novel about office life, and it is, sort of.

But don’t get the wrong idea. The Brooklyn-based writer’s book doesn’t make reaching jabs at the absurdity of corporate America. It isn’t cluttered with satirical acronyms and company jargon à la George Saunders or David Foster Wallace. It doesn’t try to impress upon us how numbing and dehumanizing the capitalist superstructure is. (If anything, its characters are all too human.)

In fact, what Then We Came to the End has to say about office life is so straightforward and modest that it hardly needs to be said: Work is a force that gives us meaning, except when it doesn’t.

Which is just fine. Because the real insight that drives this novel is of a different, more behind-the-scenes nature: Since a workplace brings together many people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to associate with one another, it’s a prime window onto human nature under minor stress, and is full of possibility for drama and comedy. That this actually seems like a fresh idea says more about the failings of contemporary fiction than it does about the wisdom of Ferris; for example, the makers of the American sitcom The Office – surely one of the best things on TV right now – have already figured out the same thing. But it’s a welcome starting point nonetheless.

The workers in Then We Came to the End work at a large Chicago ad agency in the year 2001. They have fond memories of the recent boom – a smorgasbord of comradely late-night work sessions and fat bonuses – but now business has dried up and management has begun to lay people off. So the employees who are left pretend to look busy: they surf the Internet; they write bad screenplays; they photocopy entire novels and read them at their desks.

And they gossip. Mostly they gossip. About Tom Mota, who’s been issuing threatening mass-email proclamations ever since being laid off. About Carl Garbedian’s nervous breakdown. About Chris Yop, who after his own layoff still skulks around the office, trying to pitch ideas. About Amber Ludwig, who’s pregnant with Larry Novotny’s baby and hasn’t decided whether to have an abortion (Larry is married). About Janine Gorjanc, whose daughter has been murdered. And especially about the boss, Lynn Mason, who may or may not have breast cancer and who may or may not have backed out of a mastectomy at the last minute.

All that gossip is relayed in first-person plural narration, evoking a kind of group consciousness. (Jeffrey Eugenides used the same technique to strong effect in The Virgin Suicides.) The novel’s opening lines set the tone: “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. This happened all too infrequently.”

It’s tempting to read that stylistic choice as a comment on the submerging of identity in a corporate setting, but Ferris seems to be going for something fresher than that. What’s most striking is the way the mass viewpoint fails to transcend the individual characters’ neuroses and blind spots. If anything, the group narrator’s understanding of the various crises that beset employees seems even more faulty, gap-riddled, and confused than any singular narrator’s would be. The herd’s wisdom adds up to something less than the sum of the parts.

Which is no doubt the point: Then We Came to the End emerges as a book about the frustrations of partial information, frustrations that are only exacerbated in a large and complicated social milieu. At its best, the novel raises this theme to an almost existential pitch. A simple line like “We hated not knowing something” refers to petty office squabbles and personal catastrophes, but also evokes a continuum of not knowing that points all the way to big meaning-of-life questions – which the characters pointedly ignore. Not knowing is the human condition.

Happily, though, the narrative is also grounded in specific detail and texture, and built on overlapping, small-scale anecdotes. That includes some entertaining descriptions of the business at hand; Ferris worked at an ad firm himself, and the campaigns he describes bear the mottled hues of verisimilitude. Some of the office hijinks are low comedy (a sushi roll left to rot behind a bookshelf), and some of them creak a bit (there’s a long episode about the battle to scavenge the more-comfortable desk chairs of laid-off colleagues), and some of them are brazenly whimsical (a nebbishy art director inherits a giant totem pole from a dead co-worker), but somehow together they all work within the novel’s insular world.

Despite the book’s episodic nature, a growing urgency does gather around two things: Tom Mota’s mental state – will he show up armed and angry one day? – and Lynn Mason’s cancer. At the same time, the pacing is leisurely enough that we live with the characters awhile, which is one of the book’s greatest charms. At first, those characters seem to be built on sitcom shorthand – the brassy one, the fearful one, the eager one – but many of them transcend those origins, becoming rounder and more nuanced as time passes. Or rather, as time circles: another of the book’s charms is the way its incidents and anecdotes range back and forth but return again and again to the brief span of a couple weeks in the spring of 2001.

If there’s a disappointment in Then We Came to the End, it’s that Ferris doesn’t quite have the will to stay within the world he creates. A chapter in the middle of the book is related solely from Lynn Mason’s point of view on the eve of her mastectomy, and while it’s a careful and sympathetic portrait of her mental state, it would have worked better as a short story – here it only subtracts from the novel’s cumulative power. Similarly, an epilogue set in 2006 provides a cozy sense of summing up, complete with the revelation that one of the minor characters has legitimized the group’s experiences by writing a novel about them. The only novel we readers need, though, is the one we’re reading; in a book about uncertainty and and missed connections and elusive meaning, these steps seem too much like a retreat.