Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush

I came to this novel in much the same way that I came to Michael Winter’s The Architects Are Here: both Winter and Catherine Bush read at an event at the University of Toronto a few months back, and their performances compelled me to pick up some of their stuff. Bush read incredibly well that night from a work in progress: I found myself mesmerized by the ease of her language, the effortless cadence of her sentences and by her descriptive prowess. A few weeks later, I ordered her 2000 novel The Rules of Engagement so I could check out the full extent of her chops.

The book is set in the late 1990s and is a lamentation on the nature of war and personal conflict. Arcadia Hearne, originally from Toronto, is a theorist working for a London-based organization called the Centre for Contemporary War Studies. She is deeply immersed, at least at a theoretical level, in the geopolitical conflicts plaguing the world during that decade – Bosnia, Rwanda, etc. But the real story is the confrontations that brew in both her past and her present. She gets embroiled in a scheme by her current lover, Amir, to help immigrants escape to England and Canada from war-torn countries. One woman that Amir helps, named Basra, becomes an obsession for Arcadia as she tries to find out what happened to her once she successfully sneaked into Toronto. Arcadia travels back to her home city in search of Basra, and this, predictably, causes her to confront her own past and the reasons she had exiled herself to England in the first place: two other former lovers that she had had as a young woman 10 years earlier, Neil and Evan, had fought a duel over her, with the former getting shot. The two separate stories converge and intertwine in elusive but thematically related ways.

I suppose it was that elusiveness that ultimately turned me off The Rules of Engagement, even after it finally found its legs about 80 pages in. Whereas the passage that Bush had read from her work in progress at the U of T was succinct and compelling, the bulk of The Rules of Engagement is written in an overwrought and self-consciously literary style. Her flurries of purple prose were probably aimed to mask the relative improbability of the novel’s two narrative threads and the contrived manner in which she braids them thematically. This is a novel that’s all about atmosphere: so much of its success hinges on the reader buying into Arcadia as a complex woman with a troubled past, a past so awful that it’s hard to face directly. And yet when we finally arrive at what that past entails – two young, silly men looking to resolve a love triangle with guns – the reader is left asking: Sorry, what was the big deal?

As with any novel that’s trying too hard to be “literary”, the real victims (other than its readers) are the characters and what happens to their dialogue. Verisimilitude goes out the window in favour of scoring easily identifiable thematic points. Take this snippet for example, coming shortly after Arcadia and Neil have made love:

“What’s important,” Neil said, as we lay folded side by side in the bed, “is the nature of the encounter between two people – the attempt to truly recognize the other, which means that you approach any encounter in the spirit of openness in order to see what will happen, which includes being open to the possibility of risk or danger.”

I mean, who talks like this after sex? Who talks like this at all? Look up from that bed, readers, and you’ll see the thematic club with which Bush is beating you over the ears.

I think what Bush has on her hands here is not a novel at all but two separate short stories – one about a woman worried about an immigrant she helped sneak into Canada illegally, and one about a woman who had two guys fight a duel over her – and then a whole lot of padding. That padding includes incessantly purple ruminations on the nature of war as well as some pretty yawn-worthy descriptions of the geography of Toronto. This is a novel that just quite isn’t one.

But please, let me know when she publishes the book that she read from at the U of T. Because I will definitely be the first in line to buy it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Blank Page

Got a very cool comment over the weekend on last month's review of Tristram Shandy, drawing my attention to a project called The Blank Page. Apparently, this initiative invited 73 contemporary artists to create a work that interprets Laurence's infamous blank page from Vol. I of the novel. Lots of neat musings on 18th century publishing/engraving, and a whole lot of grief over the death of our poor, poor Yorick. Good stuff - you should go check it out.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review: The Architects are Here, by Michael Winter

I got to see Michael Winter read from The Architects are Here a few months ago at an event at the University of Toronto and picked up the novel as a result. It was a fun evening, mostly because of Winter’s show-stealing performance at the microphone: In typical Atlantic Canadian fashion, his humour, levity and down-home charm was a counterpoint to the more somber and austere readings from Ontarians. Winter writes the kinds of books I love to read, and struggle to write myself: novels that are infused with both pathos and comedy, rich in character and with a tone that is mostly ironic but also knows when to settle into itself and be deadly serious.

The Architects are Here is the second novel that I’ve read in Winter’s series of books featuring protagonist Gabriel English: the other is called This All Happened. While that first book more internal and understated, The Architects Are Here is loud and over the top. Here we find Gabriel dividing his time between Corner Brook and Toronto and getting embroiled in the various entanglements of his sometimes-friend, David Twombly. As a character, David draws both our sympathy and our ire: on the one hand, he watched his own brother drown in a boating accident when they were young and is left deeply traumatized by the event; on the other hand, he’s a wheeler and dealer and philanderer who finds himself enmeshed in an endless vendetta with Corner Brook’s infamous family of miscreants, the Hurleys. At the centre of David’s relationship with Gabriel is the alluring Nell. She spends a great deal of the novel as Gabriel’s girlfriend but has been sleeping with David on the side for years. To complicate matters, Gabriel accompanies David on a long road trip back to Newfoundland shortly after learning about the infidelity.

The Architects are Here has no shortage of action and forward momentum. The story is populated by guns and a Taser, a stabbing or two, a violent accident at sea, and a breathtaking description of what it’s like to hit a moose with your car. Winter’s great strength is the way he can successfully flesh out a simple scene by layering in weird and seemingly unconnected detail. For example, here’s an episode shortly before he and David set out on their road trip:

I checked the rate for local calls and it was a dollar twenty-five, so I went down to the lobby and used the payphone. There was a woman there with a boy watching a cop show on TV. The boy looked like he’d never seen TV before. He was talking about it and she said to him, Use your indoor voice.

David, I said, I’m all for getting out of here today.

My friend let us drive our troubles away.

I hung up and the boy had turned from the TV to ask his mother a question.

Mother: Throw them in jail is an expression, honey. They don’t really throw them in jail.

Are the mother and the boy integral to what’s going on in the scene? Absolutely not. But Winter is aware that Gabriel coming down from his hotel room (staying there because his apartment blew up; it’s a long story!) to call David lacks a certain gravity, and so he plugs in this wonderfully random, realistic detail in order to give the scene some dimension. Winter does this over and over again, and the cumulative effect gives The Architects Are Here its own rich atmosphere, a limber life of its own. These are not random dobs of minimalism; this is actually an incredibly expansive style of writing.

Alas, The Architects Are Here ends up with too much momentum for its own good and completely falls apart in the last act. David’s confrontation with the Hurleys after he and Gabriel arrive back in Corner Brook borders on the absurd. (One of the Hurleys has sent David’s dad into a coma after T-boning his car with a van with a moose bar on it.) The action gets away from Winter and fumbles into the realm of the unbelievable. It’s a shame. The book started out with such charm but then gave in to the baser impulses of the narration.

Despite this book’s disappointing ending, I’ll be reading other Michael Winter novels as they continue to land on my radar. He has a knack for storytelling and a style all his own. It’s easy to overlook flaws when someone writes with as much zest as he does.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: A Kiss is Still a Kiss, by Barry Callaghan

Barry Callaghan’s 1995 short story collection A Kiss is Still a Kiss is one of those books that starts out with extraordinary potential but then goes rapidly downhill with each successive piece. The stories here, often taking their names from song lyrics or titles, are unified by the reoccurring use of song, often chimed out by characters in a way that’s meant to elucidate broader themes or metaphors. But these gimmicks also speak to the overarching problem with the collection as a whole: these tales are meant to be read as gritty and hardscrabble but are often undermined by bursts of cheap sentimentality that ring out like a chintzy song sung out of hand.

The best story in the collection is obviously the first one, “Because Y is a Crooked Letter.” Here, Callaghan tells the tale of a privileged, artsy couple (he’s a poet; she’s a sculptor) who has their tony Toronto home broken into and ransacked. The violation is brutal and permanent: priceless artifacts from their lives together have been destroyed, and the couple tries to piece together why they were made victims in such a horrendous and random way. It’s a story about the meaning we infuse into our material objects and what happens when those objects are brutalized or destroyed. It’s a story that balances its metaphors quite well, even though it races to an improbable conclusion.

The rest of the stories are not as lucky. Callaghan is aiming for pathos in tale after tale, but he lacks the skill to avoid the puddles of cliché that stand in his path. He gives us drug addicts, a mother and son in mourning, a corrupt but lovable politician, gay men reaching out for connection – but cannot take these short story standards and turn them into something fresh. Too many of these pieces are overcome with their own nostalgia and sappiness, which come off as incongruous with the hard-edged plots that give the stories their structures. Even the titles themselves drip with syrup: “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, “Never’s Just the Echo of Forever”, “Mellow Yellow” and (I kid you not) “Buddies in Bad Times.” I’m sure a more intrepid reviewer than I could track down the songs where each of these titles originates and then comment on them, but I just didn’t care enough about the short stories themselves to do that.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Review: The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch

This was, I’m ashamed to say, my first foray into the fiction of Iris Murdoch and I can’t say exactly what I was expecting. Only, it wasn’t this. Maybe I had visions of some gentle, august reflection on love and self a la Margaret Drabble, or a cerebral tour de force a la A.S. Byatt. What I got instead was a rip-roaringly hilarious voice novel, tongue planted firmly in cheek, and a love story that skillfully embraces and relishes its own wacky, preposterous plot line.

The particulars: Bradley Pearson (the ‘black prince’ of the title – the initials are the same, get it?) is 58 years old and by any measure a failure in life. Divorced young and never remarried. Published one unsuccessful novel at age 25 and a second at age 40. Then, for 18 years, nothing much else happened. Suddenly, the flood gates of Bradley’s past open up all at once. Francis, the brother of his ex-wife Christian, shows up at his door one day to inform him that Christian is moving back to London from America, and Bradley flies into a narcissistic panic attack over whether she'll want to contact him. Simultaneously, Bradley gets a desperate phone call from his friend and former protégé Arnold, a prolific and much more successful poplar novelist, asking him to hurry to his house: Bradley and Francis rush over to discover that Arnold has clobbered his wife Rachel with a fireplace poker during a domestic dispute and nearly killed her. Shortly after that, Bradley’s hysterically materialistic and mentally unstable sister Priscilla arrives in his life after fleeing her marriage from cruel-hearted Roger, who, unbeknownst to Priscilla, has impregnated his mistress Marigold and is intending to marry her. In the midst of all this, Bradley encounters Arnold and Rachel’s 20-year-old daughter Julian and, eventually, falls in madly love with her. She eventually returns his affection and Bradley goes on a Humbert Humbert-esque quest to seduce and marry the young nymph. But not, of course, before he has a little tryst with Rachel and is propositioned by Christian to return to their marriage after several decades apart. Oh, and Arnold has an affair with Christian. And Francis is gay, and so might Bradley be as well. (Many of the characters’ names are deliberately androgynous – Francis, Julian, Christian, etc – and the story’s atmosphere carries an understated homoeroticism.) The novel culminates with a suicide, a murder most foul, and Bradley (spoiler alert) ending up in jail.

Did you get all that?

I usually bristle at such improbable plot twists, but in Murdoch’s expert hands it all comes off as one big, satirical, lunatic farce. The title of the novel is of course a reference to Hamlet, a subject that Bradley and Julian discuss at length during their courtship. But Bradley is no Hamlet figure. Even within his own first-person narration, he is a repugnant and untrustworthy narcissist so lacking in judgment that we can’t help but root for him out of sheer pity. The Black Prince is not merely a self-referential novel; it is a self-conscious novel. Deliberately so. Bradley gives us a heads-up when something interesting or shocking is going to happen; he pulls himself out of his story on occasion to talk directly to us and plead for our sympathy; he undermines his own perspectives in countless small ways, which speaks to the bigger undermining that frames the story.

Murdoch sets her tale up with an “editor’s foreword” and then Bradley’s own introduction, as if what we’re about to read were an account of true events being published after the fact. This destabilizes the narrative from the get go, which paradoxically gives us permission to buy into the many absurd twists and turns of the novel itself. Then the book ends with postscripts from each of the key secondary characters, (as well as a postscript from the editor), all of which challenge the very veracity of everything we have just read. This technique reminded me a little of Life of Pi.

I don’t think it’s particularly important to focus on what Murdoch is clearly spoofing here – the stereotypical British novel of manners. Nor is it important to tie one’s brains into pretzels over how Murdoch takes the notion of an “unreliable narrator” and flips it on its head. The important thing here is to point out how The Black Prince so successfully makes us suspend our disbelief – another attribute it shares with Martel’s novel. You get absorbed into The Black Prince’s maniacal romantic entanglements, suck up its ridiculous improbabilities, and then you come for air wondering what the hell you’ve just read. It’s genius in it’s own way.

Don’t be lured into thoughts about “what really happened?” when you finish this book – who killed whom and who really loved whom and who was lying the whole time. Just sort of go limp and let yourself reflect on how Murdoch carried you off with this novel’s fully contained and realized ludicrousness. Phew!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Shout-outs, awards and a wee bit of tipple

I was pleased to see a little mention of Off Book on A.J. Somerset's blog earlier this week. A.J. says he read the novel while on a flight to Edmonton and it made him reminisce about Halifax. This is wholly apt, I'd say, considering the story is about someone who abandons Halifax for a soulless (unnamed) city in Western Canada. Not that I would ever slag Edmonton, but Mordacai Richler did refer to it as "Canada's boiler room" once. Ouch.

Of course, I also want to add my voice to the chorus of congratulations to Karen Solie, who won the Griffin Poetry Prize last night here in Toronto. I have not yet read Pigeon, but I did read her earlier collection Short Haul Engine and was impressed by many of the poems therein.

Finally: with it being the noon hour on a Friday, I find my mind turning to thoughts of booze and boozing, and perhaps you do as well. If so, allow me to recommend this fun article on gin from I'm a big proponent of G&Ts this time of year (with preferance to Gordon's on a Friday afternoon; Bombay Sapphire is more a breakfast gin) and the article has several great summations of books on the glories of gin. I was a bit surprised, however, that there was no mention of The Distilled Kingsley Amis, a book which I reviewed earlier this year. The Kingster and I share the same philosophy towards G&Ts - i.e. served with lemon, not lime, and a whole whack of it at that. In fact, in closing let me leave you with my recipe for the perfect gin and tonic:

Mark Sampson's recipe for the perfect gin and tonic (adapted from The Distilled Kingsley Amis):
  • Put three ice cubes in the bottom of a tumbler.
  • Pour in one shot of Gordon's gin.
  • Pour in tonic until there is about a half-inch left before the rim of the glass. The tonic should be cold from the refrigerator and fresh. If your tonic has gone flat, throw it out.
  • Cut a lemon in half. Take one of the halves and slice out a healthy wedge and drop it into the glass. Then take the rest of the half lemon and squeeze it directly into the drink. (Yes, you read correctly, greenhorns. Squeeze an entire half lemon into the drink. It should very nearly fill up the remaining half inch left in the glass.)
  • Stir the entire concoction with the blunt end of the knife you used to cut the lemon. (Women and metrosexuals may fetch a clean spoon from the drawer if they prefer.)
  • Serve.