Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Vinyl Café Unplugged, by Stuart McLean

My sister gave me this book as part of my Christmas present this year, presumably because she knows that I had listened to and been a fan of Stuart McLean’s radio show for a while there. (I even got to interview him once, back in the `90s when I was an undergrad in journalism.) Truth be told, I haven’t tuned in to The Vinyl Café in quite some time but was willing to give this, a collection of 14 of McLean’s Dave and Morley stories, a chance.

What struck me when reading Vinyl Café Unplugged was how much of McLean’s signature charm is lost on the printed page – in some cases, quite badly. Anyone who has listened to the show knows that McLean recites his stories with a strange (but often endearing) kind of cadence, as if his sentences are delightfully marred with ill-placed em-dashes and italics: “The rhythms of Geechie Wiley’s voice—uncorked the bottle of time. Dave was—hit with the same—wave of emotion that…” etc. And often, when the audience begins to chuckle in advance of his inevitable punch lines, McLean will chide, “Now don’t get ahead of me!”

After reading this book, I realize what function these aspects of his show serve: to mask an appalling amateurism to McLean’s prose style and storytelling skills. I mean, good grief. It wasn’t just the unearned sentimentality and all the Privileged Boomer Nostalgia that annoyed the hell out of me. It was so much more. McLean has a tin ear for the music of a well-chosen detail: random irrelevancies are lobbed into the text without so much as an explanation or hint toward meaning. Characters (including animals) don’t think or act in ways that resemble anything belonging to the real world, which would be fine provided they maintained their own kooky inner cohesion to go along with the improbable leaps in logic and subsequent slapstick. Except, they don’t. Dave’s neighbour Mary Turlington, for example, is presented as a tight-ass and conservative chartered accountant, and yet allows her criminal lawyer husband to invite gangsters home for dinner. At one point, Dave thinks that the Turlingtons probably don’t earn much more than he and Morley. Really? He runs a used record store and she works for a theatre company. I mean—come on.

I must admit, Vinyl Café Unplugged did get marginally better as the stories went on. “Susan is Serious” ends quite beautifully, with a touching scene between Morley and her son Sam that possesses just the right amount – i.e. a light dusting – of pathos. And McLean achieves an eerily powerful ventriloquism in the letter that makes up the bulk of “Love Never Ends” – even if the story itself devolves into cringe-worthy sappiness by the last page.

McLean needs to learn that less is often more when it comes to good prose, and that real humour, enduring humour, comes not from cheap antics and implausible scenarios, but from the kind of writing that allows the reader’s imagination to do ninety percent of the work.

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