Saturday, November 24, 2007

King of Infinite Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, Part 1: Q&Q Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparrow Nights by David Gilmour (July 2001)

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

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

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

Friday, November 9, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thieves Like Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Without Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coureurs de Bois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A [ampersand] R

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

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

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

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

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

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