Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Stasiland, by Anna Funder

There is a pivotal point near the end of The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s critically acclaimed 2006 film about the East German secret police known as the Stasi, where the movie changes from a pre- to a post-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall period. In one swoop, the paranoia, the personal treachery, the surveillance, and the grim monotony of communism that marked the German Democratic Republic are washed away, as if they had never existed. The secret police are made instantly irrelevant. The country itself ceases to exist. The people embrace the freedoms of their western neighbours, and never look back.

Anna Funder has a much different take on German reunification and the lingering effects of the Stasi and communism on eastern German society. Her nonfiction book, Stasiland, researched and written between 1996 and 2000, paints the portrait of a country struggling to let go of the past and move beyond a system that held, in a clearly demonstrable way, human control and social conditioning as its chief tenet. Funder goes out of her way to find both victims of the Stasi who are still seeking justice and the men and woman who were part of the regime who refuse to let go of the political beliefs that define their identities.

Funder provides us with a rich cast of these characters. There is Miriam, a woman whose husband was taken away by the Stasi and died in a East German prison. The authorities claimed he committed suicide but Miriam is convinced he was murdered. There is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the face of the regime’s propaganda machine, who was beamed into the television sets of East Germans for decades for the sole purpose of critiquing western media. He remains a committed and unapologetic despot when Funder finds him. There is Hagen Koch, who at 21 was the young man who drew the line with a bucket of white paint that eventually resulted in the Berlin Wall itself. When Funder finds him, he has turned his honeycomb apartment into a shrine to the Wall. And there are the ‘puzzle women’, a group of workers whose sole job it is to re-assemble, with excruciating attention to detail, the thousands of documents that the regime had hastily shredded as communism was collapsing.

With each of these people, Funder tells a rich and robust story. Much like Barbara Demick’s recent book on the real lives of North Koreans (see my review of it here), Funder knows that historical background and broad geopolitical descriptions can get you only so far. The real story resides in the people who suffered under—or dedicated their lives to—the brutal regime that was the GDR. There is a warmth and openness to Funder’s storytelling, even when she’s describing the most heart-wrenching scenes.

What’s more, Funder also takes a rather nonconventional approach to assembling her narrative. There are times when Stasiland does not feel so much like a memoir of the GDR’s secret police as it does a memoir of a woman who is writing a memoir of the GDR’s secret police. At first this insertion of herself and her research methods into the story felt a little intrusive and narcissistic. But over time, the reader realizes how key it is that we see just how Funder goes about assembling her story. That method, in its own right, tells a lot about how the Stasi presence continues to hold a grip over the subjects of this book.

In an age where the chief struggle facing the west is religious extremism and our responses to it, it’s good to be reminded of a time when the threat we faced was far more secular and geographic. Stasiland is a wonderful window into the Cold War and its lingering impact on real people. It is also a cautionary tale about a world we may not yet have completely escaped.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Acceptance: This magazine (Toronto)

I was excited to get word late this week that I've had at least three poems, possibly four if there's room, accepted for an upcoming issue of This magazine. This has been around since the 1960s and is available across the country, and I'm really excited about my work appearing in its pages. I'll keep you posted when I find out exactly when the magazine comes out.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: The Master, by Colm Tóibín

If you read Jeet Heer’s recent G&M essay on kid-versus-adult lit, you were probably left with the impression that Henry James was a fuddy duddy. And while reading Colm Tóibín’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Master may not disabuse you of this notion, it will certainly give you a more in-depth portrait of this singular—and singularly complicated—literary heavyweight.

Indeed, that is the whole point. Tóibín’s expansive if somewhat dense tome captures the inner turbulences and emotional life of Henry James (1843-1916) during the years 1895 to 1899, when he was living in England and Italy. The historical detail captured therein is impressive—we get to see, for example, James following the machinations of the Oscar Wilde trial with the quietly rabid interest of both a rival and closet homosexual—but it is the workings of James’s creative mind that draws us in the most. Tóibín’s intention is nothing short of showing us how James could manipulate, alter or otherwise distill experience into fodder for his art. In one flashback, he meets a young and sharp-minded girl named Minny Temple, and her personality and circumstances go on to inspire—sort of—the character of Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady. Or how an anecdote, about two women who have charged themselves with protecting a literary legacy, went on to inspire The Aspern Papers:

The implications and possibilities of this story filled Henry’s mind for some time afterwards. He took note, as soon as he went back to his quarters, of the picture of the two fascinating, poor and discredited old Englishwomen living on into a strange generation, in their musty corner of a foreign city with the letters their prized possession. But as he considered the core of the drama, he saw that it lay in the hands of the scholar. The story of the three figures locked in a drama of faded memories and desperate need would take time and concentration. It could not be done in the mornings in Florence. Nor could he set his story in the city without everyone there believing that he was merely transcribing a story already known and often recounted. He would move the story to Venice, he thought, and, as more invitations came in, he decided he would move himself to Venice also, and work there on a story whose properties he came more and more to relish.

This one passage has it all—the capturing and manipulating of a idea, as well as the challenges a writer faces in the implementing of it. Anyone who has tried to write creatively will see shadows of their experience in The Master.

There are other delights. Tóibín’s loyalty to the period lies not only his attention to historical accuracy but also in the very style of his prose. There is a certain 19th-century quality to the interactions between characters, the dialogue and exposition, where implication through body language and what is not said is just as important as the exchanges themselves. It’s remarkable how Tóibín’s prose is able to conjure the tone of a previous century without making itself seem antiquated.

The other great strength of this novel is how Tóibín handles James’s hidden sexuality. There is no overt reference to the author’s gayness or even his latent desire for certain male characters. Instead, The Master uses more covert means to show us what James was struggling with. Examples include his obsession with the Oscar Wilde trial and especially what will happen to Wilde once he’s convicted of sodomy, and the awkward bodily joys James feels as a young man when he is forced to share a bed with another lad.

While there’s much to love about The Master, there’s also some elements that frustrate. I sometimes felt there wasn’t enough narrative arc, or even narrative raison d’etre, to hold the various chapters together and propel them forward. The novel, upon lengthy reflection, feels like an overly episodic read. It also relies a lot on flashbacks and memories, and this often divorced me from what was supposed to be the “present period” in the book. I’m not sure whether it was a good strategy to centre the novel on these specific years of James’s life when so much of the story relies on his history. Perhaps it should have followed the model of something like The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston’s fictional take on the life of Joey Smallwood, which examines its subject from a much higher chronological perch.

While these are not small quibbles, they don’t undermine the novel as a whole. There’s no mistaking the power of this exploration of a literary giant, or of Tóibín’s skill as a stylist. The Master is truly masterful.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In which I'm so starved for attention...

... that I'll even link to a (mostly) negative review of Off Book. I'm not sure what's up with the universe these days, but this makes two reviews of my obscure, hard-to-find 2007 novel in as many months. What gives? This one comes courtesy of fellow blogspot blogger/CNQ contributor/thoughtful curmudgeon Brian Palmu, who knows his stuff and whose knives come rarely sheathed. Lord knows where he found a copy of the thing. Anyway, I find it hard to argue with anything he says - good (and there is some good) or bad - about the book. What to say? I was (and still am, frankly) a rookie with no mentor.

The one saving grace is that Palmu, like the previous reviewer, alludes with pleasant curiosity to the status of my Korean novel. Yes, it is completed; yes, I am trying to find a publisher; no, it hasn't been accepted yet; no, I haven't abandoned hope; yes, I am drinking more than I was this time last year. But so what? I also have a poetry manuscript I'm peddling around; I'm writing short stories again after a half-decade hiatus; I'm blog-reviewing pretty much every book I read; I'm freelancing; and I work a full-time office job. The planet rotates, you're 36 and this is what your life is.

On a COMPLETELY unrelated note: Have you, ahem, seen that Arc magazine has posted its shortlist for its $5,o00 'Poem of the Year' Prize? You have, ahem, until April 15 to go to the website and vote in the 'Readers Choice' portion of the award. And you should. Cough. Ahem. Yes, you really should.


Friday, March 16, 2012

My Q&Q review of Dave Margoshes' A Book of Great Worth

... has been posted online. I love writing reviews for Quill and Quire but one of the drawbacks is that the word count often limits how much I can praise (or damn) the book in question. Margoshes' latest, a collection of interconnected stories about his father, deserves every accolade it gets. I could go on and on about how much I loved A Book of Great Worth, but you should just go check it out for yourself when the collection is released later this spring. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: The Warhol Gang, by Peter Darbyshire

What can we say about books, even demonstrably good books, that wear their influences on the outside? Are we to diminish them just because they bow so low to their antecedents? Think of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a novel that is in no way lessened by the obvious fingerprints left all over it by Nabokov, Rushdie and Amis. In fact, influence may be the sincerest form of progress. After all, could there by any Kafka without Dostoyevsky? How far does Beckett get without Joyce?

Peter Darbyshire’s The Warhol Gang is one of those books that doesn’t make any attempt to hide its influences – in this case, we’re talking about the works of JG Ballard and Chuck Palahniuk: Ballard for the magnification of consumer and media culture and its odious effects on the human psyche; Palahniuk for the stripped down, smash-mouth writing style. Ballard once described himself as nothing more or less than a scientist dissecting the cadaver of the human condition. I doubt Darbyshire would go that far in assessing his own work; indeed, it often feels like The Warhol Gang is deliberately excluding the human condition because it doesn’t want to get its hands dirty. But in terms of a novel that feeds off the vacuum-sealed reality it has created for itself, the book succeeds in what it’s attempting to do. What’s more, it’s also a ripping good read.

The Warhol Gang tells the story of a man named “Trotsky” (at least, that’s what it says on his name tag at work, though it has no actual relation to his real name) who, in some possible future or warped version of the present, is employed by a market research company that uses hologram-generating pods on its employees to test products for future consumers. It’s commercialism taken to the point of neurosis, since Trotsky feels like little more than an automaton placed in full servitude of the reality that his employer is carving out for him and for the world at large.

Yet he soon learns of a rebellion brewing against this hyper-inauthentic society. With a strident (if somewhat vague) mantra “Resist!” spray-painted across various ads and products, the revolution declares itself in opposition to the hyper-consumerism that has taken over the world. Trotsky soon falls in with members of this opposition, and through various highly publicized acts of disobedience and criminality they find themselves dubbed the Warhol Gang.

The novel then follows an engaging if somewhat predictable track. The Warhol Gang’s antics get increasingly out of control and soon it too becomes obsessed with its own positioning and ‘brand’ in the eyes of society. Soon copycat groups that have nothing to do with the gang’s mandate (if they ever had one to begin with) begin committing more and more violent crimes in their name. The group loses its sense of itself and Trotsky begins to think the gang is morphing into everything it hates. There’s more Animal Farm to this (“Four legs good … two legs better!”) than there is Fight Club, by Darbyshire manages the arc of Trotsky’s realizations wonderfully.

The problem with this novel, though, is that it often feels as if Trotsky is the only one with any sense of what it means to be human. Everyone else, it seems, is a kind of robot too over-programmed to come to the realizations that Trotsky comes to. There isn’t, to make a Ballardian allusion, the messiness of the human condition to deal with here. The morality play that could exist falls flat because no one but Trotsky seems capable of feeling much beyond what society wants them to feel.

Having said all that, Darbyshire is a sharp satirist and taut writer who knows how to keep his chapters moving along with short, percussive clips. The Warhol Gang is fast and fast-paced, and can be read strictly at the level of a post-modern adventure novel. There may be something cold, even blasé, left in its wake, but perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps that’s how it separates itself from the books and the writers that have influenced it.