Saturday, November 7, 2015

My review of Arvida, by Samuel Archibald ...

is now up on the Numero Cinq website. As I mention in the piece, and as many of you no doubt know, Arvida is on the shortlist for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced next week. While some consider Archibald's book an odd choice by the jury - it's a linked collection of stories, partially about the titular town in Quebec where Archibald grew up, but also full of a variety of styles and influences, from magic realism to Hemingway, right up to Stephen King-style horror - I'm not terribly surprised it's there. This is one of the better books I've read this year, and as I say in the review, it really does push the envelope in terms of what a linked story collection can and should do.

I'm also happy to announce that I've been added to the masthead of Numero Cinq as a contributor. The piece on Arvida marks my second review for this venerable online literary journal, and I'm looking forward to doing more of them in the coming months and, hopefully, years.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell - My first dedication

Well, here's something you don't get to report every day: RR and I have had a book dedicated to us! Yes, it's true. Our good friend, J.J. Steinfeld, has affixed our names to his latest short story collection, Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell (Ekstasis Editions, 2015). The book, which arrived in the mail yesterday, has a fantastically Steinfeldian title and a creepily gorgeous cover. We're both looking forward to tucking in to what I'm sure will be a madcap array of stories inside.

For those of you who don't know, J.J., who is based on PEI, has been a full-time fiction and poetry writer since 1980 and has published some 16 titles in that time. He and I met about 10 years ago when I was briefly back on PEI during one of my international jaunts. I've reviewed two of his previous titles here on the blog: his 2009 poetry collection, Misshapenness, and his 2010 story collection, A Glass Shard and Memory. I also spent a good chunk of this past summer writing a lengthy academic essay on his 2009 novel Word Burials for a forthcoming anthology on his work. Whenever we're back on the Island, RR and I always meet up with J.J. and his wife, visual artist Brenda Whiteway, along with the group I have come to affectionately refer to as the "PEI Writers Mafia."

Anyway, we're both very moved to have received this dedication from J.J. You should check out his new book, available where better books are sold.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

Social climbers are a fascinating and appalling phenomenon to watch. As a (somewhat) writer living in the (somewhat) literary city of Toronto, I have witnessed my fair share of this curious practice while whiling away hours in the mostly warm and welcoming author community that exists here. There was the time last autumn when, attending an industry event at the behest of my publisher, I encountered a go-getting thirtysomething woman, a well-known novelist and book reviewer, who took one look at my name tag and said, “Oh sorry, I just wanted to see if you were someone worth talking to.” I’ve people-watched people who know how to work the room at the Press Club. I’ve witnessed those who come to their fellow authors’ book launches for the sole purpose of networking. I’ve, erm, received many a “conversation” from writers (mostly working in the less attention-attracting genres of poetry and short stories) for whom it would never occur to talk about anything other than themselves and their own writing. For the express careerist, social climbing appears to be a kind of corporate due diligence, but I always wonder what the long-term personal consequences might be of treating people like rungs on a ladder. Sadly, I think the answer is often none.

So it’s great that we have fiction to posit a variety of what-ifs. The 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac, despite his mind-boggling prolificacy (he published some 20 novels in the period 1832-35 alone), still managed to be a regular and observant presence in the Parisian social scene. He seems to have channeled his take on the mores and vicissitudes of networking into his 1835 novel Père Goriot, the stand-out work in his colossal, multi-volume magnum opus La Comédie humaine. Père Goriot is a sardonic, biting take on social climbing, with a cast of characters who cover the gamut on the moral spectrum. One passage in particular, spoken by the wise Madame de Beauséant, captures the landscape of this fiction well, and may hit a cord for anyone who has encountered the nose-in-the-air types at a literary event:

There are women who love the man someone else has chosen, just as there are poor middle-class women who hope to acquire our manners by copying our hats. You will be very successful. In Paris success is everything, it is the key to power. If women believe you to have wit and talent, so will men, unless you disillusion them. Then you can set your heart on anything, every door will open to you. Then you will learn what the world is really like: an assembly of dupes and knaves. Don’t be counted with either.

The novel, set in 1819, has two main protagonists: the young law student Rastignac, who moves into a Paris rooming house and is anxious to climb the city’s social ladder; and the titular character, “old man” Goriot, who lives in the rooming house despite having wealth because he is financially supporting his two conniving and ungrateful daughters, Anastasie and Delphine. Rastignac is genuinely tugged in various directions on his moral compass – to stay true to himself and be a decent person, to abandon politesse altogether and do whatever it takes to succeed, or work to find some seemingly impossible chimeric middle ground between the two.

The plights of both men are very much wrapped up in the successes and excesses of a capitalistic, perception-obsessed society. How much you make and how you are viewed by society are clearly paramount. Rastignac’s inner commitments strike a cord that sound both idealistically hopeful and breathtakingly naïve:

Doesn’t it mean agreeing to be a lackey of those who have already done their lying, bowing, crawling? Before becoming their accomplice you must first be their servant. Very well, I say no! I want to work  with honour, with integrity! I want to work day and night, owing my success solely to my own efforts. Success will come very slowly that way, but every day I will be able to lay on my pillow with a clear conscience.

Of course, there is a devil sitting on Rastignac’s shoulder for much of the novel, and it takes the form of the cynical and manipulative escaped convict Vautrin. A recurrent character in La Comédie humaine, Vautrin speaks pristinely evil maxims into Rastignac’s ear as the young man attempts to navigate his own path through the frustrations of social-climbing and success in Paris. “There are no such things as principles, only events; no laws, only circumstances,” Vautrin tells him. “Your exceptional man adjusts to events and circumstances in order to control them. If there really were fixed principles and fixed laws, nations would not keep changing them as we change our shirts.” Vautrin has a plan to help Rastignac achieve success, one that involves subterfuge and murder.

So what are the consequences of treating people like stepping stones? Old man Goriot becomes the very embodiment of that victimhood. He is like the angel on Rastignac’s shoulder, supportive of the young man’s extracurricular interest in Delphine. But Goriot is clearly being played by his two daughters and their cruel husbands, and when he finds out that Anastasie has sold the family jewels in order to pay the debts of her lover, Goriot suffers a massive stroke out of his grief.

In what must be one of the most harrowing death scenes in literature, Goriot lies on his deathbed pleading for his daughters to come visit him, but they refuse. The realization that he has been exploited and taken advantage of is truly crushing, and the old man eventually dies without seeing his girls again, and is buried in a pauper’s grave with his funeral attended by only Rastignac, a servant, and two paid mourners.

In Père Goriot, Balzac is able to twine his themes of ambition, desire, social mores and deception effectively. There is enough intrigue involving the on-the-lam rogue Vautrin, but the novel’s true power comes from its exploration of what damage can be wrought when we put social success ahead of all else.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Secrets Men Keep gets its first Canadian review

I'm so elated (and a little relieved) that my short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep, received its first Canadian review today, over on the literary journal Malahat Review's website. I was getting a touch nervous - the book was released back in mid April - as the room to publish proper reviews continues to shrink. Thankfully, writer Colin Loughran does a thorough, thoughtful job probing the themes and ideas captured in these thirteen stories, and makes some lovely observations about the book's prose as well.

Here's a taste of what he has to say:

What’s on display in many of these stories is not only the quiet lives of desperation of these men, but also the dreadful personal and social consequences of clinging to fantasies of virility. In “Snoop,” a man carries on a petty, one-sided rivalry with a former lover—first via an alumni magazine and later by way of social media—that serves to expose his own deep-seated loneliness. And “Malware” shows us a nightmarish parody of the men’s rights movement, in which young men play a videogame called “Rape Her Now!” and participate in a “Take Back the Night counterdemonstration” dressed as a character from A Clockwork Orange and bearing slogans that read “NO MEANS buy her aNOther drink.”  
The secrets men keep are often small ones in the grand scheme of things, yet these stories feel timely in how they engage with our contemporary crisis of masculinity.

Anything, thanks again to Loughran and The Malahat Review for the time and the effort. Read the full review here.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Unlimited Dream Company, by J.G. Ballard

There is, at last, very little to say about this 1979 novel by British science fiction writer J.G. Ballard. It’s one of those books where the back-cover blurb does most of the work for us, which is to say that there isn’t much that happens beyond the blurb worth talking about. The “story” involves a roguish 25-year-old named Blake who steals a small plane from an airfield in London and crashes it into the Thames near the town of Shepperton (which is more of a suburb of London, and the place where Ballard himself lived in a semi-detached for nearly 50 years). The crash precipitates a (very) prolonged dreamlike sequence in which strange flora and fauna begin appearing around the town, its citizens start partaking in all manner of strange sexual rituals, and Blake himself falls for a young doctor named Miriam St. Cloud.

The book is made up almost entirely of long, flowery descriptions by Blake of these dreamlike visions, and we're soon treated to Blake rabidly masturbating over everything as he strolls Shepperton’s streets and fantasizes about raping children and having sex with animals. All the while, he is haunted by the notion of how long he had stayed submerged in his crashed plane before being rescued, and whether there was somebody else hidden away in the cockpit with him at the time. Blake dwells, inexplicably, on the bruises left on his chest from the CPR that revived him, as if they might lend a clue to the mysteries behind his near-death experience.

This book was obviously written in the wake of Ballard’s break-out novel Crash (turned, in the 1990s, into a disturbing film by Canadian director David Cronenberg). But unlike Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company is provocative without being particularly interesting, and there is nothing here for a discerning reader to hang his hat on. The sexual deviance captured on its pages rings hollow and lacks the evocative imagery that Ballard was able to create in his earlier, more successful book. I’m still trying to be a fan of this writer’s work, but this tome wants to steer me in the other direction.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Reminder: Reading next week at the Kingston Writersfest

So just a friendly reminder that I'll be in Kingston, Ontario next week to read at the Kingston Writersfest and promote my new short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep. Next Friday I'll be sharing a stage with Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman as we take part in a panel discussion called "Explore/Experiment/Invent: Short Fiction." It's on Friday, September 25th from 4:30 to 5:30 in the Bellevue Room at the Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront. For more details, see this page on the festival's website. If you're in the Kingston area, come on out for what I'm sure will great readings and a lively discussion about short stories.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma, by Iris Murdoch

I was keen to get back to some Iris Murdoch over my summer vacation this year (a nice long trip home to PEI, which explains, if explanations are needed, why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a month), as I’ve loved other books I’ve read of hers, and figured she would make for great holiday reading. I picked up The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma more or less at random, not knowing what to expect beyond Murdoch’s penchant for off-kilter love entanglements and deep philosophical/moral cores in her books.

Both novels were, in a way, a disappointment. The Bell (1958) is by far the better of the two books: it was dull and hard to follow for about the first third, before it miraculously pivoted during a two-and-a-half-page section and became engrossing. It tells the story of a religious community ensconced around an Anglican abbey in rural England and the motley assemblage of characters involved with it. Its protagonist is the adulterous wife Dora Greenfield, who reluctantly returns to her lout of a husband, an art historian, just as he needs to travel to the abbey on a research project. We meet other characters in the process: Michael, the closeted homosexual who makes a pass at young Toby, who in turns has a brief and torrent tryst with Dora while in the community; the alcoholic Nick and his nun-to-be sister, Catherine.

The thematic landscape of The Bell is clear. We have a crew of deeply flawed and even immoral characters piously parading around a religious commune and getting into all manner of mischief. The image of the abbey’s bell – a new instalment aiming to bring much-needed attention to the church, and its competition with an older bell submerged in a nearby lake – is as an effective symbol of sire-call morality as anything. Despite its dry and often predictable turns, this novel was enough to keep my attention at a crowded beach.

I could not say the same thing about Jackson’s Dilemma, which I didn’t even get to until vacation was over. Published in 1995, just a few years before Murdoch’s death from Alzheimer’s, it is a rat’s nest of poor planning and weak prose. It’s basically about a woman named Marion and how she came to abandon her fiancé Edward at the alter. The key to this “mystery” is a needlessly complex tangle involving Edward’s servant Jackson, a former lover of Marion’s from Australia, and a bottle of wine that has been tainted by what is essentially a date-rape drug. (Murdoch makes no commentary on its use. There is even a unintentionally comic scene in which Jackson accidentally drinks some of the dregs of this tainted wine.)

The machinations of the plot bring about an array of cringe-worthy melodrama and twists and turns that even the most tolerant reader will find dull. Jackson’s Dilemma contains virtually no tension; the characters are drawn with the most ungenerous flicks of the wrist; and the ending, such as it is, just kind of peters out. It’s a shame, since this was Murdoch’s last published novel before her death, and is an embarrassingly bad capper on an otherwise extraordinary literary career.