Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch

There is something to be said about reading the debut novels of accomplished writers you love to see what their work was like the first time out of the gate. I’ve done this recently with A.S. Byatt and again with Anthony Burgess, and I’ve done it here with Iris Murdoch. The discovery has generally been the same each time—flashes of the genius yet to come trapped inside a deeply flawed first effort.

In Murdoch’s case, the book in question is Under the Net, published in 1954 and sub-labeled “A comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame.” The emphasis definitely should be on the ‘comic’: Under the Net is a wild and often hilarious picaresque about one Jake Donaghue, a shiftless hack writer trapped in a love tryst between a singer named Anna, her film-star sister Sadie, and a film studio owner named Hugo. Their central tension revolves around a book that Jake published years earlier called The Silencer, which he basically cribbed from ideas espoused by Hugo during a series of heady conversations they once had together.

Under the Net, while deeply comic, is rooted in philosophy—specifically, the philosophy of Plato’s The Republic. This manifests itself in a number of ways. The Silencer, for example, is written in a kind of neo-Platonic dialogue between a sage teacher and a group of eager students. What’s more, every interaction/misunderstanding that Jake experiences over the course of Murdoch’s novel is a kind of play on Plato’s Myth of the Cave: his perceptions of Anna and Sadie, his strained relationship with Hugo, and even his faith in his own work, are all nothing more that flickering shadows on the wall of a reality he never quite has access to. For good measure, the book also wrestles, as The Republic did, with the poet’s role in a utopia: in this case, the socialist utopia strived for by a rabble rouser (predictably) named Lefty, whom Jakes meets in bar while on one of his adventures.

These allusions, at least to my eye, were all a little too obvious. And while the novel’s saving grace is its humour—and there are many laugh-out-loud set pieces here, including one involving a pub crawl of epic proportions—in the end, the humour is all we’re left with. The relationships and social commentary don’t really hold together, and the revelation between Jake and Hugo at the end is too neat, too easily summed up as a simple misunderstanding.

Murdoch would go on to publish some of the sharpest and most comic novels of the 20th century (see  my reviews of two of them here and here) but this debut shows her as a novice still getting a handle on her power.              

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reminder: Reading and launch party tonight for The Puritan

Just a little reminder that I'll be reading tonight at The Supermarket here in Toronto at an event called "Black Thursday" to celebrate The Puritan's new fall issue, to launch its recently published Best-Of compendium, and to honour the winners in the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literature, for which I took first place in the poetry category. Here are the details - if you're in the Toronto area, please come out and say hello:

When: Tonight, Thursday November 22, at 7:30 pm.
Where: The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto. (map)

There will be many readers taking part and, if the Facebook invitation is any indication, a huge crowd, so please come early.

Oh, and of course if you want to read my winning poem, it's now available in the Fall 2012 issue of The Puritan. This issue also includes work from Nathan L. Pillman, Nathaniel G. Moore, Daniel Scott Tysdal, and others. Enjoy!

By the way: Tonight's event kicks off a busy weekend for me. RR and I will be off to Ottawa on Saturday, as she's doing a reading at the Carlingwood library there in the afternoon. See details here. If you live in Ottawa, come on by!


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Works in Progress: The Next (or in my case, the next next) Big Thing

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I have a certain aversion to canned interview questions and other forms of lazy journalism, but there's a fun little internet meme going around and I can't help but participate. Writer Julia Zarankin wrote this one and tagged me in it, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. Note that these answers pertain to my actual current work in progress, and not the novel that has been accepted, placed in the queue and will be released a year and a half from now. Sigh. Such is the nature of the publishing world.

1.     What is the working title of your book?
The Secrets Men Keep.

2.     Where did the idea come from for the book?
It's actually a collection of short stories, so it's not so much one idea as thirteen. Most of them came from various experiences of my own and those of my friends or family - distilled, rearranged and ultimately rendered into works of fiction, of course.

3.     What genre does your book fall under?
Again, it's a short story collection. I guess the genre, though, would be straight-up literary fiction.

4.     Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
It would depend on the story, I suppose. The oldest one, which I wrote in 2001-2002 and was published in the December 2002 issue of Pottersfield Portfolio (Volume 22, number 3 - visit your library, people!) has as its protagonist a sculptor named Marlyn, and I've always thought a young Ed Harris could play him. There is a love interest in it too, a waitress named Natalie, and I always imagined her played by a young(er) version of Carrie-Anne Moss, best known (at least to me) for her role in the film Memento. As for the other stories, I'm not sure. I suppose Seth Rogen could play any number of my bumbling, shambolic heroes.  

5.     What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Hey now, don't make me do my future publicist's job! Oh fine, here goes: The Secrets Men Keep is about the secrets men keep, the comic possibilities that can arise from our shifting sense of what it means to be a man and the lies men tell themselves and others to keep their dreams and identities afloat.

6.     Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither, probably. I take self-publishing to mean vanity presses, which I have no interest in and consider a blight on the industry. As for an agent, it goes without saying that most literary agents have no interest in short story collections, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) you've already published one novel and have a second on the way. I think the best I can hope for is to get enough of these stories published in small literary journals, then use that track record as the shoehorn to get in with a small press that wants to put them all out in a book. That's usually how these things work.

7.     How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
That's a bit of a tricky question considering that I'm not writing the twelve stories in the collection in a single span of time. Indeed, two of the stories (including the one mentioned above) were written and published in journals years ago, before I published my first novel. Another three were written in between my first and second novels. The remaining eight are being written now, with five and a half more or less done, and two and a half to go. But even if I were writing them all together, it would be hard to say. The length of time it takes me to pound out a first draft varies from project to project. It really depends on the work. And what is a first draft anyway? I often joke that, when it comes to my stuff, it's usually a 7,000-word outline to a 4,000-word story.

8.     What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I have stumbled upon many short story collections that continue to inspire this particular work. David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan is a book that shares a kinship with what I'm trying to do, as does the more recent collection Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle. I think there's some T.C. Boyle that has affected me as well. I even see an influence in something like Lisa Moore's Open (which, to be fair, could be subtitled "The Secrets Women Keep"). I love that book for the way it shows how elision and ellipsis can pack a emotional wallop in a story.  

9.     Who or what inspired you to write this book?
So much. Each story has its own unique impetus. One uses magic realism to satirize the theory of the "male gaze." Another is inspired by the death of one of my relatives. One came out of my failure to be there for certain friends at certain key moments in their lives. One is based on a story a friend told me about finding a dead hawk in Union Station in Toronto. Another is pure Ballardian futurism, conjuring a world that takes hacker culture and the industry of computer viruses to an extreme. So the inspirations are all over the map, but I'm hoping they'll fit into a cohesive whole once the book is done.  

10.   What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?
You can find a few of the stories hither and yon. As mentioned, the earliest one was published in that 2002 issue of Pottersfield Portfolio (again, go to your library, people!); another of them was published in this 2009 issue of the online journal paperplates. And another one will show up in the next issue of PRISM International, due on newsstands in January.

Okay, I know I'm supposed to be tagging other writers who have blogs to participate in this meme, but I think my contact list is pretty thin on the ground in that regard. So instead, let me just say that if you want to play along, leave a comment below and then come back here and share the link with us.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Kudos to Hilary Mantel for winning the Man Booker for both this novel and (more recently) for its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. And kudos to her for tackling such a shopworn and over-exploited topic in Wolf Hall: the role Thomas Cromwell played in securing the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in defiance of the Catholic Church. It’s no overstatement to say that this was one of the most pivotal moments in not just English history but in all of Western civilization. The marital machinations that transformed England from a papal fiefdom to a modern state have spawned a whole host of trashy historical novels, and what Mantel has done here is a cut above.

Still and all, I don’t get it. To my eye, Wolf Hall possesses the bloated heft of a dramatic exposition rather than the sinewy nimbleness of a novel alive to its time and place. Too often, this book gets overrun by talking heads devoid of a physical environment and used exclusively for the dissemination of historical data. As the novel’s key characters—Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas More—engage with one another over 650 pages, I kept asking myself: where are they, physically, as these interactions are happening? Why do we not have a sense of the space they occupy as they rattle on and on in these long expository exchanges? Things do improve as the novel builds to its climax, but it takes a long time before you really get a sense of the corporeal reality of living in 16th century England.

Make no mistake: Mantel is a superb stylist and there are passages in Wolf Hall that left me breathless by their sheer poetry. What’s more, the fall of Wolsey is handled with such passion and heartache that I had to put the novel down for a day or two to collect myself. Still, these strengths could not overcome the long and disembodied tedium that I found through most of the book. I wanted Wolf Hall to grip me with the implicit significance of its characters and plot. Instead, I found myself at a lost to understand what makes this novel a novel.