Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stereotypically, I don’t conform to stereotypes

Last weekend I was trolling through my various book-related news feeds and came across this well-written review by Randy Boyagoda in The National Post of Sandra Birdsell’s new novel, Waiting for Joe. The review could best be described as “tough love” but that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, it was this gem of a sentence appearing about two-thirds of the way through the piece:
Finally, we encounter some First Nations people who, stereotypically, don’t conform to our usual stereotypes about them.

Boyagoda is probably alluding to a flash of disingenuousness that he’s spotted in Birdsell’s novel, but for me this sentence stirred up some bigger questions about the craft of writing itself. Authors are, or at least ought to be, forever ensnared in what Martin Amis calls ‘a war on cliché’, but I’m wondering if this war be taken to an unreasonable extreme. Has literature, especially here in Canada, gotten to a point where undermining stereotypes in characters has itself become stereotypical?

Now, I haven’t read Waiting for Joe, so I’m unfamiliar with the scene(s) that Boyagoda is referring to. But we might assume that Birdsell deliberately eschewed First Nations stereotypes – after all, everything in a novel should, in the end, be deliberate – and did so because she either a.) was sincerely aiming to avoid cliché and preconceived notions about First Nations people in the hopes that her portrayals of them would be seen as fresh and unconventional, or b.) she was merely concerned that if she did present them in a stereotypical light, her work would be construed as politically incorrect. But is either of these rationales necessarily honest? And isn’t this what we want of our literary authors – to present characters and situations as honestly as they can, regardless of whether that presentation is clichéd or offensive?

Speaking as an author, I’d say this is part of what makes creating believable, vibrant characters so bloody difficult. On the one hand, you want a character to be as individual and multidimensional as you can make her. On the other hand, you want to capture those extremely telling details that create instant recognition of that character in the reader’s mind. It’s a tricky balance. Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I had with my initial editor at Norwood Publishing during our first meeting about Off Book. We both got on a tangent about family and she finished hers by saying, “Of course, my mother was the type of woman who wore her best pearls all the time, even in bed.” I was struck dumb by this description. I mean, it’s a pretty horrendous way to talk about your own mom, but on the other hand– wow. Doesn’t that one line just tell you everything else you need to know about that person – what her house looked like, what kind of magazines she read, what sort of driver she was, how she might have felt about the monarchy? It encapsulated a whole human being in a one-line quip.

Of course, there’s no easy answer. Both the indulging in and avoiding of stereotypes can result in some disastrously fraudulent writing. I look at my own background and wonder what aspects of it would typify me if I were a fictional character. Yes I grew up on Prince Edward Island, but don’t bother swaddling me in seafaring images or tales of life on a farm: both of my parents were civil servants and I had a relatively standard suburban childhood. On the other hand, if I told you that my dad says ‘slippy’ instead of ‘slippery’ and my mom serves potatoes at every evening meal and can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t, do these details necessarily scream ‘Islander’ at you?

I have very little advice to offer other than this – always err on the side of honesty. In the end, that’s what long-term readers will judge you by. Details – especially the small ones – should always have a ring of truth to them, a bigger truth that paints an honest picture.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A.J. Somerset's Toronto launch for Metcalf-Rooke winner Combat Camera tonight

Hey Free Range Readers,

If you're in the Toronto area, I want to draw your attention to a very special literary event happening tonight in the west end. A.J. Somerset will have the Toronto launch for his Metcalf-Rooke Award-winning novel Combat Camera tonight, starting at 7:30 pm. The event takes place at The Garrison (1197 Dundas Street West) and will feature an interview with A.J. conducted by none other than fellow novelist and G&M columnist Russell Smith. The evening will also include an on-stage conversation between the two men behind the award, John Metcalf and Leon Rooke, moderated by critic James Grainger.

I've seen A.J. around a few time now at various literary events - he came to a reading of mine back in the spring - and I've been anxiously awaiting the launch of this book. By all accounts, Combat Camera is one helluva read and I'm looking forward to getting a copy. (I'm also looking forward to finally meeting John Metcalf in person, whom I've been exchanging some letters with regarding an essay I've got forthcoming in CNQ.)

Anyway, if you're in the area and can come out, you definitely should. It promises to be an enriching night of literature.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Baldur’s Song, by David Arnason

I was back in Winnipeg for a wedding during the long weekend in August this past summer, and while in town I was very pleased to pick up a copy of David Arnason’s new novel, Baldur’s Song. Dr. Arnason, as way of full disclosure, was my Creative Writing professor during my masters degree out there, and I considered him a bit of a mentor as I found my voice in the art of literary fiction. His wisdom, humour and generosity have stayed with me over the years and were some of the highlights of my time in Winnipeg. Baldur’s Song is his first novel since publishing the Stephen Leacock Medal-nominated King Jerry in 2001.

The book is a bildungsroman framed around the idea of an Icelandic saga. It’s set at the turn of the last century and tells the story of Baldur, an ambitious young man from the village of New Iceland in Northern Manitoba who comes to Winnipeg to make his name and fortune. While Baldur shows an aptitude for music, his real future lies in Winnipeg’s booming real estate market after he gets wrapped up with a mysterious young capitalist named Johnny Ashdown. Ashdown challenges Baldur’s sense of himself and pushes him out of his comfort zone as they chase down one big deal after another. Their exploits take Baldur from Winnipeg to Toronto and Reykjavik and back to Winnipeg again. All the while, he is haunted by his one true love, a young woman named Lara who has been a reoccurring presence in his life since childhood.

Baldur’s Song is a novel about the complexities of obligation – obligation to one’s family, to one’s roots, to one’s true love, but also to the debts one incurs while climbing the ladder of success. Baldur is a richly realized character who fights to preserve his identity in the face a rapidly changing (and increasingly competitive) world.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Arnason possesses a great deal of passion for and near fathomless knowledge of his Icelandic heritage. This novel is a great homage to those roots. But it also contains attributes that long-time readers would expect to find in his work: the humour, the light shading of postmodernism and the great sense of play that he brings to his method of storytelling. Baldur’s Song is a wonderful addition to an already impressive body of work.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Top 10 Banned Books

Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week in the United States (September 25 to October 2), an annual event that, as the American Library Association website puts it, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” How very a propos: With right-wing extremism once again on the march in the U.S. as well as here in Canada (and even, sadly, here in Toronto), it’s important to reflect on the effects that censorship can have on the marketplace of ideas and creativity.

Indeed, if we think that the days of people expressing their bigotry and superstitions through censorship are decades behind us, we’re dead wrong. From crackpot pastors looking to burn copies of the Quran to public schools pulling The Origin of Species from library shelves, the attack on free-range reading is very much alive. And don’t think I put the blame entirely on the shoulders of the Religious Right: liberals have had their own checkered past when it comes to sequestering books because they offend our politically correct sensibilities. My feeling has always been that anti-intellectualism is never a neutral state – it’s always an attack on intellectualism itself and the freedom to think deeply and multifariously, regardless of which side of the political spectrum the attack is coming from.

With all this in mind, I present to you my Top 10 List of Banned Books. Sleazy, sexual, sexist, violent, blasphemous, racist – the list of crimes go on and on. Going through these works again last night, I had to marvel at how I count many of them among my favourites. I think it’s a fairly diverse list, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all been held up at some point in their history as paragons of corruption and sin, and have been banned, burned, or otherwise censored.

  • The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence. Canada’s religious right came after this Canadian novel not long after its publication in 1974, and Laurence was never quite the same again. In fact, The Diviners was the last full-length novel for adults she ever published, even though she lived for another 13 years. It’s hard to say, looking back now, what exactly got the churchies’ underwear in a knot – the extramarital sex, a woman who put her artistic ambitions ahead of the needs of her daughter, or the novel’s infamous “ride my stallion” line (page 365 of the mass market paperback edition, not that I keep track of such things). It doesn’t matter. The Diviners has endured, going on to be ranked #1 on various “best novels in Canada” lists.
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Whenever someone says something silly like “men can’t write women characters” to me, I always point them in the direction of D.H. Lawrence. I’d argue that he knew just as much about the female psyche and its desires as Austen, the Brontes, Mansfield or Woolf. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, about a woman who cuckolds her war-vet cripple of a husband with a burly gamekeeper, probably holds the record for the longest ban for a contemporary novel , at least in England – 1928 to 1960. I read this novel only a couple of years ago, and for some reason went in expecting the sexy bits to be not all that sexy. Boy was I wrong.
  • Multiple novels by Stephen King. Okay, I admit that this counts as more than one book, but it’s hard to limit oneself to a single King novel when so many of them have been banned. From the parental violence of The Shining to the 6-on-1 preteen gangbang in It, King has always pushed the boundaries of what society finds acceptable in books targeted at teenaged boys. Earning an annual eight-figure salary for at least two decades now, King has devolved into a sort of parody of a parody of himself in recent years. But his early works did ruffle a lot of feathers back in the day and found themselves excluded from library shelves around the world.
  • A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Ah, did you think I’d exclude my main man from a list this size? Not a chance. Burgess often went out of his way to offend people in his novels – women, minorities, the British populace in general – but this book was banned pretty much for its straight-up violence and dystopian world view. Much like King’s novel Rage (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), A Clockwork Orange has often been accused of encouraging/glorifying senseless brutality among teenage males. Well, you know what I always say: come for the laddish violence but stay for the ingenious linguistic engineering.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I’m not going to say a whole lot about this one right now: 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication and I’m hoping to write a lengthy post about it before the year is up. But let me say this: to hear that this novel continues to be banned in certain areas of the United States merely attests to the sheer delirium affecting the brains and hearts of the hysterically intolerant.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. One of just a few books on this list attacked more by the left than by the right, Huck Finn continues to offend 125 years after its publication. I’ve never understood why some readers haven’t been able to get past the novel’s repeated use of the N-word and portrayals of a 19th-century black man, as these were vital to the accuracy of the time period about which Twain was writing. (Many people forget that this is a historical novel: while published in 1885, it was actually set in the 1840s.) Twain writes with a deep sense of empathy and passion in this book, and it is one of the most scathing indictments of slavery every published. People who censor (or even censure) this book on the grounds above give liberalism a bad name.
  • Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. For me, the most memorable image from this novel is probably its most eyebrow-raising: that of Portnoy contorting his body into a position that allows him to masturbate onto his own tongue. (You may remember a similar feat achieved in the opening sequence of the film Short Bus.) This novel pulls no punches when it comes to describing the joys and follies of a teenage boy discovering his sexual appetites for the first time, but this wasn’t the only thing that got the censors up in arms. Roth has been accused numerous times of anti-Semitism (a “self-hating Jew” and all that) and a lot of the attacks seem to focus on Portnoy’s Complaint. But this is one of his finest novels, and not for the prudish.
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. No list of banned books would be complete without this landmark of world literature, which describes with stunning verisimilitude the twisted justifications and delusions of a confirmed pedophile. Nabokov was an expert at taking the kernel of an idea and following it all the way through to its conclusion, no matter where it took his writing. Lolita has always been accused of being too much – just too close to the bone in terms of its portrayal of child seduction and the mental machinations behind it. Like any good book on a banned list, Lolita ferries in an unmistakeable and relentless atmosphere of discomfort. Why? Because we are in Humbert Humbert’s head the entire time, and cannot escape his darkest desires.
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce. Boy, ask me how proud I was of myself when I managed to finally read this classic back in 2003. Now here is an example of a novel where I felt that the sexy bits weren’t all that sexy. But considering the timeframe of Ulysses’ first publication (1918 to 1920) it’s not surprising that this book came under attack from entire governments for being scandalous. Joyce’s magnum opus is one of those books I admire for the sheer revelry of its risk-taking. In this case: the risk of having an 800+ novel set in a single day; the risk of portraying the entire human condition in a relentless stream-of-consciousness mode; and yes, the risk of delving in complex undulations of female infidelity. This book was banned and then heralded as a literary masterpiece. Today, most people are perfectly free to read it but very few people do.
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. The term ‘unflinching’ gets overused a lot when it comes to book reviews/summations, but it’s wholly earned in The Color Purple – and that, of course, is what got it into so much trouble. It’s not simply the abject violence in the novel that put it on the radar of censors; it was also the source of that violence. The Color Purple has been chastised for the negative light in which it portrays black men, which essentially means that this masterpiece of African American literature has been accused of racism. I’m of course baffled that anyone would see this book as anything other than a justifiable indictment of White America and its treatment of blacks in the South. Walker writes with beauty and with grace, even when she’s describing the most horrific of circumstances.

And how about you? What are your favourite banned books?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: A Splinter in the Heart, by Al Purdy

I’ll say up front that this was a rare instance of me coming to a book knowing fairly well that it was going to be bad. I have a few friends who’ve read A Splinter in the Heart, Canadian poet Al Purdy’s only published novel, and their condemnation of it has been universal. Still, I wanted to see for myself if this book, written by one of Canada’s most revered men of verse, was as dreadful as all that. I’ll also say up front that I am a huge fan of a lot of Purdy’s poetry, and there’s virtually nothing that could sully my opinion of his work in that medium.

But oh my. A Splinter in the Heart really is a piece of shite. I mean, you would need to have won a couple of GGs in another medium before your publisher would release such a travesty, or even touch it with a barge pole. If this manuscript of hysterical amateurism had come in on the slush pile, nobody at M&S would have gotten past page two.

The story is set in the town of Trenton, Ontario in 1918. Sixteen-year-old Patrick Cameron is coming of age just as the First World War is winding down: he’s fallen in love with a new classmate, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jean Tomkins; he’s struck up a (mostly internalized) rivalry with fellow long-distance runner Kevin Morris; and he’s watched his mysterious, slovenly grandfather Portugee die from the outbreak of Spanish Flu. The historical backdrop to all of this is the real-life explosion that occurred at Trenton’s British Chemical Factory in October of 1918, and the novel’s various threads lead up to this one, pivotal tragedy. The model for such an approach is, of course, Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, which used the infamous Halifax Explosion (occurring some 10 months before the accident in Trenton) for similar purposes.

Only, Purdy’s novel possesses none of MacLennan’s careful structuring and occasional flourishes of nuance. Each subplot of A Splinter in the Heart is crudely conceived and strewn through the book without much thought to purpose. Patrick’s adolescent obsessions – with Jean, with his grandfather, with the perceived successes of his rival Kevin – are told adolescently, as if Purdy (nearly 72 when he published this book) couldn’t separate his own well-seasoned, experienced mind from the naïve, immature one that inhabits Patrick’s head. Consequently, the third-person narration is a dog’s breakfast of bad analogies and unearned portent. Add in countless sections about the history of Trenton, cropping up pointlessly throughout the text, and you’ll be tempted to throw this book across the room more than once. It’s as if Purdy is writing for MacLennan’s Canadian audience of 1941 – back when any literary novel set in Canada was a rarity and we were more willing to forgive bad dialogue, inane bursts of historicism, and embarrassing sentimentality in our nation's literature.

Indeed, it is the prose that undoes A Splinter in the Heart at every turn. Never mind that the dialogue is infested with countless examples of “exposition monkeys” (a wonderful term that RR taught me) and Patrick speaks like no sixteen-year-old ever would. It’s the actual narration that drove me to distraction. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Purdy was ignorant of the rules for crafting good sentences. A random example from early in the book:

Dizzily he’d regain his desk, face slightly red. Kevin Morris’s eyes would be on him inscrutably, Billy Coons’s eyes knowingly. And the girls, demurely working away at Miss Gothard’s class assignment, would have their own eyes modestly lowered. Harold Wannamaker, star football player, winked at him delightedly from the corner of the room.
A shiny nickel for anyone who can point out the type of word, which every writing manual says to use sparingly, contributes a whopping 13.2% of that entire passage.

Also, for someone so gifted at poetry, Purdy is an utter clod when stirring a little bit of metaphor into his prose. Take this example:

Patrick had his own monster to contend with, and decided the monster was himself. Before the June exams, after which Grade 10 students were allowed to sniff the rarified air of upper academia, he dreamed his own dream. In it he failed the examination … They were all watching him, fearfully, shrinking away from the failed monster. Patrick sobbed, his mother sobbed. And he swam to safety through ten-foot waves of his own tears.

Oh, we’re crying ten-foot tears ourselves over here, Al.

The saddest thing about A Splinter in the Heart is that there is a shorter, better novel buried deep inside this one. It’s only when Purdy introduces the character of Red MacPherson – a long-lost friend of Patrick’s grandfather who shows up after the old guy has died – that the story takes on any intrigue. Red, along with his cadre of misfits, paints for Patrick a much different, much more noble picture of his grandfather for the young lad. To me, this was the heart of the book and would have made a much more interesting story. I didn’t care for an instant about beautiful Jean Tomkins, or the stresses of long-distance running, or how they went about making T.N.T. at the British Chemical plant. But I did care about how Red and his buddies undermined Patrick’s ideas about his own grandfather. I wish Purdy had thrown out the rest and just focused on that.

Alas, he didn’t. And alas, this book remains a singular novelistic blight on an otherwise admirable literary career.

Sniffles, festivals and the great god Giller

So I made it back to Toronto last night from the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, and had a fantastic time despite being nearly debilitated by one of the worst chest cold of my life, a completely unrelated but no less horrendous case of dyspepsia, and a badly bruised wallet from spending so much money on books. Okay, that last bit's a touch hyperbolic - I bought exactly four books and received a fifth (advanced reading copy) for free. But the nightstand here at home now resembles a rather competitive game of 'Book Janga'; and my heartburn was so bad last night that I was actually hoping Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would tip over and kill me in my sleep.

The highlights of the festival included:
  • Seeing Leon Rooke read from his newly released novella Pope and Her Lady, which is written in this bizarre strand of Glaswegian street slang. Rooke apologized in advance for his attempts at the Scottish patois, but as far as I could tell he nailed it.
  • Popping by the Biblioasis table and talking to publisher Dan Wells about the various titles he's released this fall, including Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (which has, it was announced this morning, made the long list for this year's Giller) and A.J. Somerset's Combat Camera, this year's winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award.
  • Chatting up Kim Jernigan, editor at The New Quarterly, about the hidden messages embedded in the old vehicle featured on the cover of the new issue. (You'll have to visit your nearest news stand to see what I mean.)
  • Seeing the ever-talented Kerry Clare read from her short story “You Can’t Run a Show on Stage Management Alone” as part of the Fringe show.
  • Having a grasshopper land on my hand as RR and I lay in the long grass listening to Dionne Brand read from her poetry collection, Ossuaries, at The Mill. It was a rather fitting incident, actually: we marveled at the intricacies of the little critter's body as the intricacies of Brand's words filled the air around us. Also fitting: As soon as the poetry ended, the grasshopper jumped off my hand with surprising vigour and returned to the greenery from whence it came.
As mentioned above, the Giller long list was announced this morning. I was impressed to see good representation among the smaller and mid-sized presses; let's hope it follows through when the short list is released. You can check out the full long list here.

Okay, enough happy reminisces for now. Time to find my bottle of Pepto Bismol and go back to the couch.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Eden Mills Writers' Festival

It's been a wild-and-crazy week here in Toronto and now that Friday is finally here I find myself exhausted, aching in a variety of odd places and, most sadly, plagued with a minor head cold/fever. But it's been a good week - Wednesday was actually my birthday, and was thus full of joy and surprises - and the weekend is also shaping up to be excellent. RR and I are off to The Eden Mills Writers' Festival, and if you are in the area and have the time, I recommend you check it out. Here's the schedule of events.

We'll be overnighting in nearby Guelph, a city I lived in for about a year back in 2006/07. I'm looking forward to getting together for drinks with some friends there tomorrow night, and also popping by the glorious Bookshelf bookstore. (They still had copies of Off Book for sale the last time I was there.) All in all, it should be a wonderful couple of days.

Hoping it doesn't rain.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Review: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark

Catholicism plays a big role in the majority of Muriel Spark’s fiction, and this is no more so the case than in her 1960 novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It tells the story of the “devilish” Dougal Douglas, his arrival in the small London neighbourhood of Peckham Rye and his nefarious influence on its benighted but good-hearted residents.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, novelist William Boyd warns us not to read the book as a strict apology for the Catholic religion: “To see Dougal as a devil or devilish sprite leading the good but dull people of Peckham astray is a red herring.” I’m not sure there is any other way to read this novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Spark has created an engaging story about a small community corrupted and divided by one smooth-talking and deceptive huckster. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is both a Catholic and a catholic tale: told through a rare third-person omniscient narration, it explores the temptations of each of the key characters as they came in contact with Douglas, a shadowy figure hired on as an ‘arts man’ by a textile company to try to understand the rampant absenteeism among the employees and try to rectify it.

Douglas’ story is not simply about seduction. This novel explores a great deal about the post-war years in Britain, about industrial relations and the rise of the trade union class, and about the petty gossip that can often undo a small community. This is not a straight ‘the Devil comes to town’ story as you would expect to find in, say, The Master and Margarita or Needful Things. At no point does Douglas take on any supernatural or magic realist qualities. In his most literal form, he is just a brash young man exploiting a cushy employment opportunity to write a book about Peckham Rye on commission for a little old lady. But he is also the embodiment of corruption, destroying relationships in his wake and testing the moral fibre of virtually everyone around him.

Spark is able to channel her Catholic predispositions into an engrossing prose style and narrative arch that gets us invested in what’s happening in her tale. She challenges the reader to explore his or her own morality, and explores the very human conundrum of facing the seductive power of corruption dressed up as charm. Very much worth a read.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: The Pianoplayers, by Anthony Burgess

The Pianoplayers is the second Anthony Burgess novel I’ve read this year (you can read my review of Nothing Like the Sun here), which, if you know anything about my obsession with the man, is not surprising. While The Pianoplayers is in many ways a deeply flawed book (more on that later), it certainly verifies the preternatural versatility and mad genius of its author.

The novel, published in 1986, tells the story (in an impressive first-person narration) of Ellen Henshaw, a retired prostitute who reflects back on her troubled childhood, where she was raised by her musician father who was not appreciated in his own time. Most of the book details her father’s days playing in sleazy pubs and movie houses, often pulling 20-hour musical sessions while Ellen is left alone to discover her own sexuality and the path that would lead her to a life of selling her body to men. The novel has a thesis as it were: the connection between being able to play a musical instrument and to please a woman sexually, and this is a metaphor that Ellen carries with her for the duration of her story.

Despite the use of a female protagonist, this is one of Burgess’ most autobiographical novels: like Ellen, he too lost his mother and an older sibling to the Spanish Flu of 1918; and like Ellen’s dad, Burgess’ own father was a two-bit piano player working in pubs of dubious reputation in Manchester. After reading The Pianoplayers, I now have to wonder if Burgess wasn’t also sexually compromised as a young teenager by an older person, as this is the second of his protagonists that this has happened to. (The other instance I’m thinking of is with Kenneth Toomey, his homosexual lead character in Earthly Powers, who is seduced by an older man – oddly enough, on the same day in history that James Joyce’s Ulysses is set.)

There are some real flourishes of narrative brilliance in The Pianoplayers, but they’re ultimately undone by the book’s many structural flaws. Burgess sets up a frame for the novel – Ellen is actually telling her story to a wayward writer she meets in Paris, since she herself is not all that literary or articulate – but it’s a frame he never follows through on. Once the sections about Ellen’s dad have run their course, the novel inexplicably shifts gears and focuses on a second-hand tale about Ellen’s son, who is on a disastrous continental holiday with his wife and mother-in-law. The mother-in-law kicks it halfway through their road trip, and the story deteriorates from there into a kind of prototype for Weekend at Bernie’s. At no point is Burgess able to lace together this bizarre narrative tangent about Ellen’s son with the great storytelling about her dad from earlier in the book, and then the novel suddenly ends with no clear conclusion or sense of meaning. It’s almost like he had two short novels that he decided to mash into one.

Having said all that, The Pianoplayers exhibits the many hallmarks of Burgess’ best writing: the obsession with music, the obsession with both high and low culture, the endlessly twisting word play, and the theme that became the cornerstone of his life’s work – that connection between creative impulse and the impulse for violence/destruction.

The Pianoplayers is one of the weaker members of the Burgess canon but it was definitely a fun read. If you were coming to the man’s books cold and had no sense of what he was truly capable of (think Earthly Powers, think A Clockwork Orange, think Enderby’s End), then The Pianoplayers would be an adequate primer to the man’s literary capabilities and life-long fascinations.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The 85,000-word sweet spot

I have no grounds on which to base the following rant. Indeed, I have no facts, no statistics, no actual numbers or evidence of any kind to offer. All I have is an invisible line in the sand that I crossed yesterday sometime around 11:17 in the morning, and it has caused me no small amount of angst since. I have known this moment was coming for a long while; really, I’ve known it for two or three or five years now, depending on where you start counting from. I knew this line would be unavoidable, but I just wish I’d girded myself a little bit better before I crossed it.

I am of course speaking of the 85,000-word mark for the second draft (which is, really, the first readable draft) of my new novel. Eight-five thousand words – and I still have five chapters to go!

For me, 85,000 words is a significant milestone. Don’t ask me why – I have no idea where I’ve gleaned this arbitrary length. I know there are countless novels out there longer than 85,000 words. Brilliant novels. Breezy, ebullient, engrossing novels that get scarfed down in three days flat. But I feel (again, no evidence) that I have wandered into some scary frontier now where my book will be judged by potential publishers on a whole other plane. The long novel plane. The plane where editors say – What, it’s longer than 85,000 words? Well, it better be damn good, then. I’m in that phase where I’m really starting to doubt whether the book is anywhere near damn good, or good at all.

Now believe me when I tell you, a guy like me knows that length isn’t everything. And I know I’ve come a long way since finishing the first (and extremely rough) first draft of this book last November. I won’t even tell you what the final word count of that version was. Okay fine. It was 135,000 words. Yes, you read correctly. So in one sense, I’ve made tremendous headway, cutting like mad during this first key rewrite. Out went that whole section on Korean shamanism for which I spent weeks researching three years ago. Gone is the long, contrived coffee-shop discussion on the Iraq War. Whole chapters have been combined and scaled back. Characters have had their entire backgrounds expurgated. I’m talking a 20% purge across the board. And still this thing is going to be over 100K before I’m done with it.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve crossed the 85,000-word threshold. Hell, I’ve published a novel longer than that. Off Book tipped the scales at 114,000 words, and my editor at Norwood Publishing assured me that he was comfortable with it at that length. But still. I look at other novels on my shelves and wonder if their authors have been able to show more restraint. Mind you it’s hard to tell with formatting – leading and kerning and all that – but the books I’m talking about seem to be 85,000 words (or shorter). Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy, Dennis Bock’s The Ash Garden, Lisa Moore’s Alligator. These are books that I admire so much, books that I feel are at once concise and expansive, books that are rewarding without being daunting, books that wear their length well. I ascribe to their level, and yet part of me just feels so damn – long winded.

I guess what I want is for someone to tell me that I’m being paranoid. That it’s okay if the second draft of my new novel will most likely clock in at 106,000 words. That it’s no crime. Books need to be as long as they’re going to be. And if you tell your story well, if you make every word count, then it doesn’t matter how long it is. An editor won’t care about an extra 21,000 words if she’s engrossed in the world you’ve imagine. Make it riveting, and people won’t care how long it is.

Yes. That's exactly what I need to hear.

Okay. I’ll stop there. I promised myself not to make this post longer than 700 words. Back to work.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review: Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

It’s funny how some books land on a person’s radar. This novel, which won the 1984 Booker Prize, caught my attention after I read a recent essay about it by U.K. literary critic Mark Lawson. In his piece, Lawson discussed how he couldn’t stand Brookner’s work as a younger man (he found Hotel du Lac especially galling to read) but he has since ‘grown’ into her writing as he has gotten older. He had some pretty curt things to say about this novel, which, paradoxically enough, made me want to pick it up.

Lawson is bang on when he says that nothing much happens in Hotel du Lac. It tells the story of aging spinster romance writer Edith Hope and how she has fled London to a hotel on a lake in Geneva after abandoning both her groom-to-be at the alter and the married man with whom she’s been having a listless affair. Her time at the hotel is supposed to be a kind of ‘probation’ for her, but the mousy, self-absorbed, frayed cardigan-wearing Edith cannot help observing the other guests at the hotel and creating long, ruminative narratives for them in her head. These guests include the uber-materialistic Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, as well as the mysteriously alluring Mr. Neville, with whom Edith strikes up a queerly anemic sort of romance. This is a quintessential ‘novel of manners’, with its narrative voice quietly analyzing and judging everyone’s words and actions. It’s slow-paced and dry, with most of the ‘action’ – though I hesitate to call it that – happening at an internal level.

For a book so short (just 184 pages) and so withered, there was a lot in Hotel du Lac to both impress and annoy this reader. There’s no doubt that Brookner can write beautifully and deeply about female psychology and the small, subtle undulations in a conversation between women who have their own agendas and biases. There is some great aphoristic writing in Hotel du Lac (“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything”) and some beautifully rendered descriptions of the lake and of the hotel. What’s more, for an author whose writing has been accused of excessive austerity, Brookner is capable of pulling off some subtly humourous bits. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which Edith, prior to fleeing to Geneva, has lunch with her literary agent, Harold. In this passage, it’s almost as if Brookner is openly addressing those who would criticize her writing’s approach:

"Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically,’ she cried, her voice rising with enthusiasm. ‘Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation."

I must have read this excerpt a half dozen times, chuckling a bit more forcefully with each pass. I think it’s the “axiomatically” that gets me, every time.

Still, Lawson is right to point out the numerous flaws in Brookner’s writing that are on display in Hotel du Lac. She has numerous clumsy sentences and a penchant for redundancy and repetition. I mean, how many times does she alert us to Mr. Neville’s ‘ambiguous smile’, or repeat some five-dollar word she’s plucked from the thesaurus? Worse, most of her characters come off as more of an embodiment of ideas and biases rather than real flesh-and-blood people. This is no more true than with Mr. Neville himself. He seems to exist for the sole purpose of challenging Edith’s perceptions of herself and the world; he seems to hold no other agenda. Perhaps Brookner wanted to raise him up as a paragon of low-grade misogyny, especially with quotes like this one, of him speaking to Edith:

“You are not the sort of woman of whom men are afraid, hysterics who behave as though they are the constant object of scandal or desire, who boast of their conquests and their performance, and who think they can do anything so long as they entertain their friends and keep a minimal bargain with their husbands.”
“Women too are afraid of that sort of woman,” murmured Edith.
“No,” he said. “Most women are that sort of woman.”

Alrighty then. If alluring Mr. Neville, with his ‘ambiguous smile’, actually feels this way about the entire female set, then why would I even bother to care whether dried-out old Edith ends up with him?

That, in a nutshell, is my biggest problem with this book, as it is with many so-called ‘novels of manners’. If each character is meant to ‘represent’ something – an idea, a stereotype, or some odious prejudice in the world – rather than be a full-blooded human with all of the concomitant complexities and contradictions, then why should I care about him or her? And if I don’t care, then it won’t matter what happens in the novel, or even if something happens at all, because it will ultimately feel as if nothing important is at stake. That is my biggest criticism of Hotel du Lac: if each character is a wind-up toy set in motion, do I really care what the outcomes will amount to?

Mind you, a book of manners can be done very well. I’m thinking most recently of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (read my review here.) Oddly enough, this book was overlooked for this year’s Booker longlist. Ms. Brookner was infinitely luckier with her novel. I am of course too young to know whether Hotel du Lac caused any controversy when it won that prize 26 years ago. But I suspect that there were some critics out there (Lawson among them) who thought that if this the best writing that the Commonwealth could produce that year, then the Commonwealth needs to do better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: Pandora, by Sylvia Fraser

Sylvia Fraser’s 1972 novel Pandora had been one of those old, dusty NCL paperbacks that I’d constantly seen kicking around used bookstores for years. I’d always passed it over, mostly because the novel, with its bland, colourless cover, looked rather dull – or worse, dated. But I finally picked it up earlier this summer, mindful of that tired adage about books and their covers.

And boy, was I glad I did. Pandora is a rich, compelling and oddly sublime read – a sturdy, well-crafted novel that captures so many of the tortures of being a young child adrift in an adult world.

The book’s titular protagonist is the improbably named Pandora Gothic, a girl born in 1937 in the fictional town of Mill City, loosely based on Hamilton, Ontario where Fraser herself grew up. Almost the entire of the novel’s narrative revolves around Pandora’s first two years in elementary school, where she observes the cruel and cryptic machinations of both adults and children. Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kakfaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

The backdrop for all of this is, of course, the outbreak of World War II. With finely tuned satire, Fraser points to the inherent hypocrisy of adults who denounce the brutality of the Nazis and yet cannot refrain from exacting small, quotidian cruelties on each other. This involves a lot of intricate thematic lacing on Fraser’s part. Here’s a sample of how she does it, from early in the novel:

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.
If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, and they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker, who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

How audacious this satire is, to compare fascist atrocities to the Crucifixion of Christ in such a stylized (and yet childlike) way. But Pandora is chock-a-block with so many of these thematic braidings. They are what compel us through the story, waiting to see how and when Pandora will make the connections between the injustices of the macro world and the injustices in her own backyard.

It’s not all bleakness and torture, mind you. This novel is full of keenly observed detail that will make any reader reminisce about being a curious seven-year-old. Fraser does not give in to the temptation of making Pandora more precocious than she needs to be. But her mind, accessible to us through a brilliant display of indirect third-person narration, is one worth inhabiting for the duration of the book. There are wonderful moments of childhood naivety as well as sharp observations about the human condition.

So don’t be fooled by its dull cover: Pandora is a novel made of sturdy stuff and definitely worth reading.

Now THAT's what I call a book review