Tuesday, June 28, 2011

England, here I come

Well, RR and I off later tonight on a good old-fashioned English holiday. I for one have never been on that side of the Atlantic ocean and am very much looking forward to soaking up some old-world charm. It's going to be a fairly jaunty trip (see, I'm picking up the lingo already) with excursions to London, Oxford and Manchester. Highlights for me will be the London Museum, pretty much all of Oxford, and a visit to this place while in Manchester.

So needless to say, things may be a bit quiet here on FRR for the next little while. But barring any overdoses on real ale, accidents on left-handed motorways, or insanity caused by an inconsistent use of the metric system, I should be back here before too long. You may even see an update or two from while on the road. Wish me luck everyone!


Review: Disarmament, by John Terpstra

Recently, I was reading a series of articles in The National Post that asked a group of poets in the lead up to this year’s Griffin Prize if there is such a thing as a “perfect poem.” At the time the question struck me as a little daft, but then I read John Terpstra’s 2003 collection Disarmament and had second thoughts. His piece “Planetary Lives” may never achieve poetic immortality, but it nonetheless stopped me in my tracks to marvel at its perfections. The poem, which deals with trajectory, memory and the revolving nature of life, is perfect - perfect in the way that a figure skating routine can be perfect: where there is no perceptible gap between what is intended and what is achieved, where beauty and technical skill are one, and where the landing at the end is nailed – nailed – without the slightest whiff on a stumble.

Disarmament goes against the poetic grain in a number of delightful and refreshing ways. Terpstra has no qualm with eschewing concision for the sake of expansiveness: several of this book’s best poems do not rely on one singularly distilled image or motif, but rather on a succession of lengthy, cascading images that build to an understated but no less powerful crescendo. There are many deeply specific or personal narrative poems in the collection, such as “Jaws” and “The Easy Part”, but these are never told simply as stories with line breaks included. Terpstra is forever looking for the poetic rhythm to stories, the muscular ways that experience can reveal itself to us in moments of reflection.

The other unabashed aspect of this collection is its religiosity. At a time when atheism and a fascination with the secular, natural world are making inroads in Canadian poetry, it was neat to read a book that dared to take poetry back to its religious roots, to help illuminate the supernatural for the mortal. Several of Terpstra’s poems, including “Humus”, “Logos” and “How It All Goes Around” begin with the same line: “In the church where we go to now”, which can speak to the ever-fluctuating nature of one’s spirituality. The last poem in the book, a lengthy piece in four parts, brings a contemporary rendering to the origins of Christian faith, to “a benevolence/ beyond my imagination.” While I don't share the collection's fascinations in the regard, I was still willing to follow them wherever they led me.

Terpstra’s poems are skillful and yet beautiful, brave and willing to take their risks happily. His work will indeed leave you disarmed, in all the good ways.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: The Shadow of the Sun, by A.S. Byatt

It’s fascinating to go back with an author who has enjoyed a very long and productive career, a career twinkling with awards and accolades, and read her debut novel, written at a time when her talents were clearly evident but not yet fully formed. The novelist in question here is A.S. Byatt. I’ve read a couple of her other works – Possession and Babel Tower – and consider them two of the most serious, well-structured, and gripping literary novels around. The Shadow of the Sun, first published in 1964 and containing sections that Byatt composed while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, displays many of the abilities that have become her hallmark: the nuance of character, the methodical pacing and structure, the unapologetic bookishness. And yet like so many debut novels, The Shadow of the Sun is barnacled with flaws that are difficult to ignore.

The book tells the story of 17-year-old Anna Severell, daughter of a critically acclaimed but profoundly eccentric English novelist named Henry Severall, as she tries to get out from under her father’s shadow and find a place for herself in the world. The Severells’ domestic situation is glaringly old-fashioned in its pre-feminist rhythms: mother Caroline organizes the household entirely around Henry’s creative processes and idiosyncratic behaviour: she can’t even fathom her life having any other function. His work must take precedence over everything and he is not to be bothered with the dull, quotidian trivialities (or capricious, day-to-day emotions) of his family while writing.

Needless to say, Anna finds her father’s domineering presence and unpredictable behaviour stifling in the extreme. She is desperately trying to determine her fate: will she follow in her father’s footsteps (she possesses some literary abilities of her own) and become a writer? Will she even attend university? Or will she resign herself to her mother’s path and become some man’s subservient and (mostly) docile wife? Her dilemma is complicated by the arrival of Oliver Canning in their lives, an academic acolyte of Henry’s who has come to do a study of him. While on a visit, Oliver strikes up an affair with young Anna behind the backs of the Severell family and Oliver's hysterical wife Margaret. Without spoiling too much, Anna and Oliver’s coupling takes a turn that jeopardizes Anna’s very future, and Henry needs to be roused from his profound self absorption to do his fatherly duty and come to her rescue.

The problem with all of this is the sheer blatancy of what Byatt is attempting to say in this novel. Thematically speaking, everything in The Shadow of the Sun is glazed with a slipshod obviousness, right down to the novel’s title. Byatt is clearly – perhaps too clearly – positioning Anna in an unstable interregnum between the more traditional role of a woman and the burgeoning opportunities that are coming with the dawn of feminism. Henry is himself a symbol, one of a (now mostly bygone) age where a man is not only the head of a household but the very centre of all things, the sun around which the familial planets revolve. And the fact that Henry struggles to live up to the double-edged responsibility of that privileged position, to come and support Anna in her time of trouble, lends a predictability to both the novel’s plot and its themes.

Having said all that, The Shadow of the Sun is remarkably well written and paced for a literary novel written by someone still in her twenties. Throughout the text, Byatt keeps many of her talents right at her fingertips: the fluid modulations in narrative perspective; the finely drawn tinges to her characters’ personalities; the depth of her descriptive writing. It’s all there, even if it’s slightly undermined by an unseasoned, still-nascent approach to theme.

In the end, this novel is definitely worth checking out – not only for its own merits but as a study in Byatt herself, and the later greatness she will achieve.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Robert Kroetsch: 1927 - 2011

I was very saddened to hear the news this afternoon that Robert Kroetsch, famed Canadian novelist, poet and critic, was killed in a car accident last night following a literary event in Alberta. As I mentioned in my review of his novel Badlands last year, I met Kroetsch a couple of times during my time as a graduate student in Winnipeg in 2000-2002. I know there are many writers -especially poets - around Canada who considered him a wonderful mentor and a big influence on their work. His seminal 1977 poetry collection Seed Catalogue continues to inform and inspire a lot of verse in this country, especially verse coming out of the prairie provinces. My sympathies go out to his family and friends during this time of loss.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Pigeon, by Karen Solie

I came to Karen Solie’s 2009 collection Pigeon with some pretty high expectations, not only because of the cavalcade of awards it garnered (including the 2010 Griffin Prize) but because I loved her first book of poems, Short Haul Engine, so much. The great strength of Solie’s writing, evident in many places throughout Pigeon, is how she creates just enough of a gap between authorial intention and what ends up on the page for the reader to create his own meanings, his own moments of recognition. It’s a tricky balance for any poet – to keep one’s verse within that sweet spot between a precise experience and the universal resonance of any experience.

Pigeon is rife with exactly this kind of poetry. Solie can describe a high school reunion, a tractor, an air show or gardening, and blow out a specific detail into a shared moment of illumination. Take, for example, an early poem in the collection, “The Girls”:

… The high school reunion
was a disaster. Our husbands got wasted
and fought one another, then with an equanimity

we secretly despised, made up over
anthem rock, rye and water.
Our grudges are prehistoric and literal.

It seems they will survive us. The girls
share a table, each pitying the others their looks,
their men, their clothes, their lives.

It’s the “we secretly despised” part that makes this passage, this poem, a knockout for me. It’s ostensibly about a high school reunion, but in those three simple words Solie makes it a poem about gender, about how men and women process conflict – and each other – differently. It’s amazing how, with a few well-chosen and very specific details, she’s able to imbue this poem with three-dimensional characters: the fact that the husbands are listening to anthem rock and drinking rye and water tells you everything you need to know about them, and about this situation.

There are similar brushstrokes of brilliant description throughout Pigeon, using the subtlest of metaphor with uncanny skill. In the piece “In New Brunswick,” Solie says: “My industry fails me. The first person fails me/ utterly, again and again, like a landlord.” Her poem “The Cleaners” describes the absolute blandest that resides between late fall and early winter: “November was grey/ and December moreso, light adopting/ a Scandinavian economy, but without/ the social programs.” These kinds of comparisons do what they’re supposed to – bend the reader’s brain with a newfound tendon.

Despite all this, I have to admit that there were times when Pigeon left me a little disappointed. There are certain poems – “Migration,” “Geranium” and “X” come to mind – that felt a little too self conscious, a little too much like something trying to sound like a brilliant poem without really being one. Again, a delicate equilibrium for any poet – to make sure each piece reads like it bubbled up organically from the soil rather than forged with a heroic (and often contrived) act of will. Solie is not always successful on this count in Pigeon. In the end, despite the collection’s many accomplishments and moments of delight, I found myself enjoying it slightly less than Short Haul Engine.

Of course, don’t take my word for it. Poems – indeed, whole collections – often morph after multiple readings, becoming something more or less than what you thought the first time around. The best thing to do is go away and read both of these books yourself, and others by Solie. I for one have no doubts that I’ll come back to her work, again and again and again.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle has done something remarkable with his new short story collection, Bullfighting: he has taken the precepts that normally govern the best of women’s writing and turned them on their heads – or more accurately, turned them around to face the other direction. His subject here is the emotional worlds of men, the deep, inscrutable undercurrents of middle-aged males who feel betrayed by both progressiveness and the forward thrust of early 21st-century capitalism. These are men preoccupied with how their attempts at goodness – particularly goodness in the domestic space – can leave them hollowed out and dissatisfied, defeated and alone. It’s a daring, almost brazen play on Doyle’s part, to graft these typically feminine anxieties onto modern-day men. And it’s so wonderfully successful, so brilliantly fresh.

The quintessential example of this is Doyle’s story “The Joke.” It tells the fairly straightforward tale of a man who becomes emotionally unraveled by an off-the-cuff remark from his wife. She’s in the other room, talking on the phone, when he overhears her say, “No, no. He’ll come and collect you.” He doesn’t even know to whom she’s speaking – her sister, perhaps, her mother, a friend, his mother maybe. All he knows is how that one flippant remark – “No, no. He’ll come and collect you …” – sets off an emotional eruption within him, an awareness of how taken for granted he feels, how his devotion has left him exploited, emasculated and deprived of the ability to say no. This irrational response is compounded by the fact that he once helped a friend of his wife flee an abusive relationship with the same uxorious faith expected of him here. It’s a subtle story, but jarring in the way it flips the gender dynamic we typically expect from short fiction.

Doyle enjoys doing this a lot. The title piece, “Bullfighting,” is a masterstroke of satire on multiple levels. Its title may conjure up a connection with the nonfiction of Hemingway, but its subject matter certainly doesn’t: it tells the story of a group of middle-aged Irish men who travel to Spain together for a vacation of male bonding. Doyle not only plays with our perception of male bonding but also with our perception of women’s perception of what male bonding is, or isn’t. Here’s the protagonist Donal, leading in to an exchange with his wife:

His friends never talked about sex, or health. They never had. Or problems – they didn’t really talk about their problems.

Other people didn’t really get it. Especially women. Grown men getting together like that, as if it was weird or unnatural. Or a bit silly.

- Are you meeting the lads tonight?

- I’m not answering, if you’re going to sneer like that.

- Like what?

- The lads.

She even asked him once, when he was putting his shoes on.

- What use are they?

- What?

- The lads, she’d said. – Your friends.

- What about them?

- Why are they your friends?

- I’m not answering that.

- Don’t be so touchy, she said. – I’m curious.

- Well, stay curious.

- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.

- Why do I have to defend myself?

- You don’t.

- I have to explain why my friends are my friends. Why the fuck should I?

- Don’t, if you don’t want to.

- I never ask you about your friends, he said.

- I know, she said. – You don’t even know their names.

- I do.

She smiled.

- I do, he insisted. There’s Mary and—

- Stop, she said. – Listen. I suppose what I’m wondering is. What do you talk about?

He looked at her.

- Football, he said.

He knew she’d hate that answer.

- Is that all?

- No.

- What else? she said. – Help me here.

He didn’t know what else to give her. He didn’t know how to explain it. How what they talked about wasn’t important. How they could sit and say nothing much, for most of the night. And he’d still come home feeling great. Appreciated.

It’s wonderful how this exchange skirts so close to a genuine argument and yet stays within the realm of the comic, of the satirical. It also manages to finish on a point of poignancy that wraps it all together, to leave the reader – at least this reader – relating to precisely what Donal is talking about in that last paragraph. The mysteries of male friendship.

There are other moments like this in the collection, subtle recognitions of what it’s like being male, the small toils involved in being a decent men. A couple of the stories deal with household pets and the emotional strain it can put on a father when they die. The opening tale, “Recuperation,” has a man burying his children’s dead pets, pets he didn’t even want. The story “Animal” blows this idea out even further, becoming a lament about mortality and a father’s obligation to deal with both the physical and emotional consequences of dead pets.

In the end, Bullfighting is exactly the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Roddy Doyle: funny and sad, brilliant in the way it balances small details with large concerns, and infinitely, compulsively readable. I strongly recommend it – for men and women alike.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe

It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a novel as much as Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. I mean, wow. This book is so bad that it can’t help but acknowledge – inadvertently or otherwise – its own awfulness at odd intervals. It tells the “story” of pathetic fortysomething Londoner Max Sim who quits his job as a customer service rep at a department store to become a salesman of environmentally friendly toothbrushes and then travels north to the Shetland Islands in a Prius as part of an advertising stunt. It’s also about the financial crisis of 2008, Max’s estranged relationship with his poet father, a boat race around the globe, Max’s strained romances with a variety of indistinguishable women (he seems to fall in love every 40 or 50 pages), his obsession with a Chinese mother-daughter combination he spies at an Australian restaurant, and a subterfuge involving his ex wife. Naturally, none of this bullshit holds together and I was tempted several times to quit on this book and throw it across the room. I managed to finish it, knowing that I’ll never see the $31 I paid for this hardcover again.

You realize early on that you’re in for a long slog, not simply because this novel tells you you’re in for a long slog (and it does!) but because you find yourself wanting to line-edit the first 20 or 30 pages. Many of Coe’s sentences at the beginning of this book are in desperate need of tightening up and expose an occasional slip into questionable grammar. (From page 4: “But they didn’t seem to be entirely absorbed in each other, the way the Chinese woman and her daughter did.”) There are also several inconsistencies of character that undermine the book’s narrative credibility: at one point Max tells us, “I hardly ever read novels, never mind trying to write one” – this, despite having used the word “mellifluous” in the previous paragraph. Small quibbles, maybe, but these examples of sloppy articulation and jarring, hairpin turns in characterization do a lot to keep the reader from settling comfortably into the world of the novel. It’s not that we can’t trust this unreliable narrator (and Max is about as unreliable as they come); it’s that we can’t trust Coe to handle that unreliability well.

One of the more annoying shticks of this novel is the contrived way it creates opportunities for Max to take a break from being the narrator. He stumbles upon several lengthy pieces of writing that play tangential roles in his story, which he shares with us in full: a letter given to him by a woman he meets (and falls in love with!) while in transit between Sydney and London; a short story by his ex wife; a confession written by an old flame; an excerpt of memoir from his troubled father. I have no idea what Coe’s thinking was behind this recklessly obvious approach to structure (to say nothing of the novel’s subsequent reliance on absurd coincidences); all I can say is that it leaves the impression that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim was perhaps stitched together with excerpts from six or seven aborted novels that the author just couldn’t let go. The wire meant to bind up these half-cooked ideas is the banking collapse of 2008 and the moral conundrums that it revealed. But as Richard Ford once put it so eloquently about 9/11, this historical moment hasn’t had time to sink down into the soil and bubble back up into something one can use in real literature. Coe’s preoccupation with the credit crisis will date the novel horribly.

I do want to say something positive, though. There are points in this book where Coe shows that he can write quite beautifully. Here he is, for example, describing a wealthy neighbourhood: “The car glided in its usual silent manner through these quiet, dark, secretive streets. The houses seemed massive and imposing, and there were few lights on in any of the windows.” And there are sections, particularly in the memoir excerpt from Max’s father, that show a fluidity, depth of character and skillful descriptions that are deeply pleasurable. But I suppose this is what makes the book all the more frustrating; that Coe couldn’t implement and maintain this understated poise from the first page to the last.

I won’t even speak of the ending to this novel. It is cheap. It is trite, contrived, lazy and an absolute cop-out. Through it, Coe shows his complete disregard for his readers. And readers of this blog will be lessened intellectually if I even describe it. All I say is that was an awful kicker at the end of an awful, awful book. Let’s just leave it at that.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nobel prizewinners say the darnest things

Yep, it's true: V.S. Naipaul thinks there's no female writer who can hold a candle to him. Gad.

Thankfully, you can now test yourself to see if you're as smart as Naipaul at picking male writers from female writers. (I scored 6 out of 10.)