Friday, November 25, 2011

My Q&Q review of Eye Lake, by Tristan Hughes

Ack, I lied! My other Quill & Quire review, that of Tristan Hughes's wonderful novel Eye Lake, is indeed online - over at Coach House's website. (Just goes to show one should check Google before checking anything else.) Anyway, I've seen hardly ANYTHING else out there about this splendid book, which is a shame. But you should definitely go pick up a copy; you won't be disappointed.


My Q&Q review of The Return by Dany Laferrière

Quill & Quire has posted my recent review of The Return, by Dany Laferrière. You may recall this novel, translated from the French by David Homel, making the long list for this year's Giller Prize. I wasn't exactly blown away by the book, but I still think there's enough in it to make it worth reading.

I have another review in the pages of Q&Q right now, but it doesn't seem to be online yet. I'll post the link as soon as it is.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Verbatim, by Jeff Bursey

I had the great pleasure of reading with Jeff Bursey back in August at Type Books here in Toronto, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading his 2010 novel Verbatim. The event at Type was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done, as it involved myself and others participating in Jeff’s portion of the show by assuming a role from Verbatim and reading out lines like a kind of play.

The need for this approach to a reading is evident as soon as you crack Verbatim’s pages. The book is written almost entirely as transcriptions from Hansard, the apparatus that records and transcribes the proceedings of a Westminster-style parliament. Jeff’s novel is set in an unnamed and fictitious Atlantic Canadian province in the 1990s and lays out with incredible verisimilitude nearly a year of debates—sometimes heated, sometimes inane—between the incumbent Social Progressive party, the official opposition the Alliance Party, and various other smaller players.

Of course, the real story is not what’s happening on the floor of the House but rather what’s happening behind the scenes, at Hansard itself. A new director has been hired, known in the novel strictly by his initials “SV”, and he’s looking to shake up the institution and drag it into the modern age. Needless to say the editors and transcribers, several of whom have worked there for decades, are not enthused by his plans for change. The conflict between SV and his colleagues takes the form of emails that intercut the transcriptions from the House at random intervals.

It’s a fascinating conceit and one that Jeff executes brilliantly. What impresses about this book is how much it can convey through this very tight narrative constraint. We have a sense of the characters, their motives and their feuds. We have a sense of the province itself: it’s larger than Jeff’s current home province of PEI (where he himself works for Hansard) and has several industries, but it is also suffering through a lengthy and brutal recession with no relief in sight. There is a whole world created here, one with its own history and its own angst.

Jeff has great fun playing with the instability of his narrative, especially once SV begins making some radical decisions that impact the transcriptions themselves. Some seem innocuous enough – he begins allowing the use of contractions, for example, for those instances when Members actually use them – but others are more drastic. At one point, he releases an unedited version of the House’s proceedings to prove a point about the value of Hansard, which exposes the ignorance of both the elected members and the transcribers who record them. The Speaker uses the word “irregardless”; elected officials backpedal and muddle their way through speeches; a transcriber fumbles the phrase “fin de siècle” to hilarious effect.

The satire here is sharp and reveals something darkly comic. While the House argues endlessly about all manner of provincial minutiae, and Harsard practically collapses under SV’s devious pedantry, we can see this province truly struggling with some serious social and political issues.

What a reader can ultimately walk away with from Verbatim, I think, is the idea that backbiting, spin and outright lies dominate the political discussion in this country, and yet somehow we keep moving forward and functioning (more or less) as a society. This is equally true of the white collar environment, where change is slow and progress is often nonexistent, and yet it keeps working, somehow, through all the conflict.

It was a joy to see these ideas explored through a work of fiction with such a demanding constraint put on it. Verbatim is a strong work from a writer with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster held the rare distinction of being a modernist writer without writing much like a modernist. While Joyce was going insane with recreating stream of consciousness on the page and Woolf with the quotidian detail of everyday life, Forster was busy with far more classical ambitions. His work tackled big-P Picture ideas through the lens of Flaubertian realism, and this put a lot of his writing at odds with his modernist contemporaries. Indeed, there is a passage in A Passage to India, his 1924 magnum opus that took 10 years to write, that pretty much sums up Forster’s take on the so-called modernist condition:
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
Take that, Virginia Woolf.

Starting with his earlier works like Howard’s End and A Room with a View, Forster was deeply preoccupied with the idea of cultures or mindsets butting up against other cultures or mindsets as a result of British imperialism, and this was no more so the case than in A Passage to India. It tells the story of an Indian doctor named Aziz who is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a visiting white woman from Britain named Adela Quested while on a tour of India’s fabled Marabar Caves.

Whereas the novel opens with a kind of false gentility on the part of the occupying Brits, a weird sort of proto-political correctness in their interactions with the natives, the assault on Adela exposes the inherit racism and superiority they feel. Adela’s fiancé, the deeply bigoted Ronny, breaks off their engagement after she retracts her accusations against Dr. Aziz. (Ronny sees this as a betrayal of the white race.) His mother, Mrs. Moore, who befriended Aziz before the assault, finds the trial against him a strain on her humanist beliefs. And even Aziz’s closest friend, Cyril Fielding, finds that far too much now separates them, culturally speaking, than unites them as the trial takes its toll on their friendship.

I admire Forster and keep returning to his work for two chief reasons, one of which I could never pull off in my own writing and one of which I do attempt to do in my own way. The first is his ability to create fully formed, flesh-and-blood characters who also simultaneously represent various ideas about something. This is incredibly hard to do and Forster is a master at it. Everyone in A Passage to India encompasses some broader aspect of the social or even geo-political situation of the setting, but this is in no way heavy-handed or reduces the dimension that the author gives each of his creations. In this way, Forster probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf that some critics would have you believe. He is great at capturing the very spirit of his characters while still allowing them to represent some idea larger than themselves.

The second aspect is his skill with what I might call metaphoric modulation. I love the way certain scenes or interactions in his writing call to one other in subtle but powerful ways. For example, the Marabar Caves are literally a disorienting place (indeed, Mrs. Moore abandons the tour of them due to claustrophobia, which effectively leaves Dr. Aziz alone with Adela) but they are also meant to represent the vague, disorienting nature of Britain’s relationship with India, and with the indeterminate events that pass between Aziz and Adela. These metaphors get modulated throughout the text, echoing through various passages and helping to lend a level enrichment to the writing. Again, it isn’t heavy handed or obvious; but for close readers, these echoes make for a more rewarding experience. They also help to give the narrative something different (and better) than a traditional ‘arc’ of plot. You become more concerned with how certain strands of metaphors will come together and work themselves out than you are with any preoccupation with ‘what happens next.’

Forster spoke disparagingly about this novel in his later years, calling it dated once the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in the late 1940s. But contemporary readers will see how this text stands up, how it exposes the very personal affects of colonialism and the tensions that arise from the post-colonial hangover. A Passage to India, more now than ever, reveals how prejudice can echo endlessly around the caverns of our ignorance, and how we can lose sight of our deepest beliefs when falsehoods are allowed to reverberate unchecked.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

It’s probably no accident that the cover of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, looks a bit like an incomplete Facebook profile. The notion of an online persona looms large in this book about an erstwhile hockey enforcer named Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr. who uses email to confront an old university chum named Adam after Adam has filched part of Rank’s life story in a novel he's published. Rank is at once a wholly realized character and an incomplete online presence, and it is a testament to Coady’s literary power that she can make this dichotomy come off not as a flaw in her novel but rather as its great strength, a big part of its raison d'être.

I’ve been a huge fan and advocate of Coady’s work since reading her first novel, Strange Heaven, more than 10 years ago. I can tell you without a gram of hyperbole that The Antagonist is her finest work to date by a good country mile – and that’s saying a lot, considering how brilliant her other books are. Indeed, allow me to borrow RR’s comment about short story collections and Alexander MacLeod’s Lift Lifting: if someone were to go about tailoring a novel for my exact and specific tastes, the end result would resemble something like The Antagonist.

The reasons for this are many. The book’s epistolary style, first and foremost, is inherently risky, and I love that Coady faces its challenges head on. She builds an entire world for us within the boundaries of email and then extends those boundaries with such skill that we hardly sense how effectively she’s suspending our disbelief. I also love that Rank doesn’t tell his story in chronological order but instead adheres to his tale’s own sense of arc, one that transcends chronology and mirrors the jumbled, back and forth way we often convey stories to each other.

I also love the way this book balances its humour (and there’s a lot of it – huge passages that left me laughing out loud and holding my sides) with its moments of sadness. Rank, so misjudged for his hulking, goonish aura, is acerbic when describing the trials he must endure. His father, Gordon Sr., hires him to work at his fast food joint, ostensibly to flip burgers in the kitchen but mostly to “bust punks’ skulls,” and the resulting scenes are hilarious. But there are moments in this book where Rank’s hurt – the damage he has caused to himself and others because of the prejudices over his size and strength – is so palpable that you’ll have to stop reading to take a breath. The scene where he injures an opponent on the ice and then literally vomits in guilt back in the locker room is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read. It lends a sad and tender shading to this caustic, laugh-out loud tale.

As well, there are hundreds of little verisimilitudes scattered throughout The Antagonist that will cause fireworks of recognition to go off in your brain. This is especially true if you grew up in a small town in Canada, or attended a small liberal arts university, or been in a fight, or gone inside a club where middle-aged women are standing on the bar leading a sing-along and/or doing a half-hearted striptease. Coady captures it all, holds this entire world on her page at once, allowing you to lose yourself in a place that is so very familiar and yet so very surprising.

The Antagonist is up for this year’s Giller Prize, announced next week, and should Coady win it will give her some much overdue recognition. She is one of our finest novelists and someone whose work should be read over and over and over again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: The Perfect Order of Things, by David Gilmour

I am probably not the target audience for David Gilmour’s new book, The Perfect Order of Things, and yet I am, paradoxically perhaps, an ideal reviewer for it – considering that I haven’t read any of his previous works before. The Perfect Order of Things borrows narration from Gilmour’s previous books to create a sort of neo-meta-narrative strategy, in which an unnamed protagonist revisits the places and times in his life where he has experienced some form of suffering or another. This conceit may be fascinating for readers of his previous books, but how would it stand up for someone like me, who is coming to his work cold? (Which isn’t even true: I did read his brilliant essay on Tolstoy in The Walrus a few years back, and was fascinated – and a little skeptical – to hear that he had baked it into the work of fiction on offer here.)

At first blush, my answer is: not well. On the surface, this pseudo memoir (it would be wholly improper to call The Perfect Order of Things a novel) comes off as scattershot and disorganized, a rat’s nest of a text with no unifying vision. When you haven’t read Gilmour’s other books, a lot of questions come up as you’re reading this one. Questions like, why does one ex-wife (“Rachel”) get a full first name while another (“M.”) is reduced to a single initial? Questions like, why does the narrator say in one chapter that he has read Proust but in another, later chapter say he hasn’t, describing the French writer’s work as something “only a stiff prison sentence could accommodate”? Questions like, if the narrator is such a phenomenally under-appreciated author, why does he write a nonsensical sentence like this, “Fifteen years earlier, he’d been the biggest star on television, the action hero of an absurd futuristic series where he played half man, half cyborg”? (Isn’t a cyborg already a “half man”? What would a “half cyborg” be compromised of?) Maybe these questions get answered in Gilmour’s previous books, but they aren’t answered here.

The problem is that Gilmour’s narrator is practically intoxicated on his own vanity and self-absorption; and consequently, I had real trouble finding a comfortable place to settle inside the world he was attempting to create. Part of this may be generational. When it isn’t hitting its solipsistic buttons, The Perfect Order of Things comes off as a kind of soft-core Boomer Porn. And I’m not just talking about the long and mostly pointless chapter extolling the virtues of The Beatles. Gilmour’s narrator is like a distillation of the very worst qualities of his generation, a man blithely oblivious to how privileged his cohort as a whole has been and how easily he’s getting through life, a man who is convinced that the universe ceases to exist each and every time he closes his eyes. (A fact verified by the final paragraph of the book.)

But just when I’m ready to write this memoir off, to dismiss it as a 220-page wank by a man belonging to a whole group of Canadian writers fading into a much-deserved obsolescence, Gilmour clobbers me with some incredibly sharp prose and vivid description. While the narrator’s observations of random people are almost always petty and mean-spirited, I can’t help but marvel at how apt they are. Take this description of film critics that Gilmour’s narrator spots while attending the Toronto International Film Festival:
Badly dressed, overweight social cripples ambled through cinema lobbies, often in twos and threes, quiet in their superiority, their “knowing” better than anyone else, so subtle in their condemnation that it made your heart hammer to tell them you liked something. They didn’t tell you you were wrong; they just dropped you into a Rolodex of inferior creatures and returned their attention to each other.
I was also thoroughly entertained by “The Pigeon”, a chapter in which Gilmour’s narrator goes stalking after an odious book critic named Rene Goblin (based, apparently, on contributing Globe and Mail reviewer and overall CanLit whipping boy Andre Alexis) after he’s received a bad review in the national paper. While the reoccurring symbol here – a stain on the narrator’s couch as a stand-in for the stain the bad review has left on his book – is heavy-handed and amateurish, I still found myself getting wrapped up into the arc of this chapter’s tale.

The Perfect Order of Things is bound to be forgotten five minutes after you’ve finished the last page, and rightfully so. Still, many readers will emit little titters of delight along the way before consigning it to a final guffaw of dismissal.