Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Cocaine Nights, by J.G. Ballard

I’m back on a J.G. Ballard kick and decided to pick up Cocaine Nights, one of his later and less surreal novels. After my panning of Crash and a more praiseful review of his collected short stories, I continue to be fascinated by this strange and enigmatic British writer who died a few years ago.

Cocaine Nights is framed like a literary murder mystery—call it a why’dunit rather than a whodunit—but it possesses many of the tropes that Ballard was well known for. These include passive sex and drug use, empty swimming pools, perspectives on consumer culture, violence as entertainment, and a grab at prescience by setting his work in a very near but off-kilter future.

The book tells the story of travel writer Charles Prentice who arrives in the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar after his brother, Frank, who runs a bar on the resort called Club Nautico, has confessed to murdering five people in a brutal house fire. Convinced that his brother could never have committed such a heinous crime, Charles launches his own investigation and gets sucked into the resort’s dark underworld. There, he discovers a lolling leisure class so anesthetized that it takes vicious acts of cruelty to stir its members from their somnolence.

The novel is written in Ballard’s trademark style—the vast, sweeping diction, the plumy vowel usage, the grand blasts of description. While I did find that some of writing could have used a better edit (I lost count, for example, of how many times Cocaine Nights uses the obscure adjective ‘louche’), there can be no doubt that Ballard had his own unique and engaging voice. This book is clearly the best written, sentence for sentence, of the three of his I’ve read.

Unfortunately, though, Cocaine Nights is undone by painful leaps in plot and its own internal implausibility. Charles goes to visit Frank in prison early in the novel to interrogate him about why he would confess to a crime he clearly could not have committed. Rather than have the two brothers hash the whole thing out right then and there, Ballard makes Frank aloof and cryptic in a very artificial and unbelievable way. This behaviour is necessary to set Charles on his mission to solve the mystery himself, and thus instigate the novel’s action, but it is a huge contrivance: this never feels organic to the world or circumstances that Ballard has created.

Once you realize that the plot possesses this false front, it becomes incredibly difficult to invest yourself in the twists and turns of Charles’s odyssey. Along the way, he ends up sleeping with one of his brother’s lovers, getting attacked by the man who is really behind the strange violence in Estrella de Mar, viewing a rape during the filming of a porn movie, and various other misadventures. But none of it rings true, even in the book’s deliberately bizarre firmament. Of course the whole novel is a falsehood, but it still needs to be true to that falsehood.

Cocaine Nights hasn’t turned me off J.G. Ballard—I’ll most likely be back for more of his strange, transgressive writing—but in the end I can’t really recommend this book to fans of honest and well-structured fiction.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen

BC poet Catherine Owen’s writing landed on my radar last year when we both placed in FreeFall magazine’s annual poetry contest. (She took first place; I took second.) Her winning poem, called “Reincarnation Redux”, is a beautifully unsentimental imagining of her deceased spouse coming back to life in the form of a fly. This powerful poem stayed with me, and when I heard that she was publishing a nonfiction book about various aspects of her writing life, I made sure to acquire a copy.

Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse collects 17 of Owen’s essays written over the last dozen years or so, exploring the various travels – both literal and metaphorical – that she has taken in life, in love and in her art. While the medium here is prose, Owen (who has published nine collections of verse) brings to bear many of the hallmarks of great poetry in telling her stories, including elliptical narration, analogy and a deep engagement with the sounds and cadences of language itself.

The book opens with a delightful and thorough romp through Owen’s childhood reading. (This type of beginning reminded me somewhat of John Metcalf’s Kicking Against the Pricks and Stephen Henighan’s When Words Deny the World.) Owen establishes early on that she had a profound relationship with the written word, and this played a pivotal role in not only the poetry she would write but how she processed the world around her. From there she delves into a number of her poetic preoccupations – some relatable and familiar (a family home, a plot of land from her childhood, concerns about ecological catastrophe), others uncommon and a little obscure. A large section of Catalysts is devoted to Owen’s travels through Europe to research a troupe of female troubadours called trobairitzes who were active in Occitania in the 12th and 13th centuries. While I found my interest in the subject matter waned over the course of the essays, I was always engaged by Owen’s language and her sense of narrative drive.

For me, the strongest parts of this book are when Owen dedicates herself to serving up her core aesthetics and artistic underpinnings of her poetics. I love the fact that she doesn’t pull punches or dilute her explanation as to what she feels poetry is and why a lot of it in Canada is lacking. This is taken from her 2010 essay “Circuitry: Poetry as an Energy Field”:

Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form. Poets who fail to allow their poems to propel themselves to and on the page through the channel of language … are, quite simply, not just limiting themselves as artists but betraying the unique characteristics of their chosen art.

This kind of fearlessness is peppered throughout Catalysts as Owen digs deep into what poetry and the poetic process mean to her. Even when she’s challenging, through the form of a review, her baffling exclusion from a recent anthology of British Columbia poets called Rocksalt, she keeps her argument focused on fundamental aspects of poetry and what it can tell us about ourselves and our sense of place.

There isn’t a great deal in Catalysts about the death of her long-time partner, and the parts that are there maintain that cool, unsentimental distance at work in “Reincarnation Redux.” Still, one is left with the sense that Owen is a writer who feels deeply, questions everything, and channels her emotions and experience through a rigorous poetic aesthetic. Catalysts is a testament to a life immersed in poetic forms, a searching for truth through the prismatic (and often cruel) facets of circumstance and self.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Spoiled Rotten, by Mary Jackman

One of the benefits of getting picked up by a new publisher is that you’re welcomed into the family pretty quickly. Just shortly after signing with Dundurn Press back in May, I was invited to attend the launch for Mary Jackman’s debut mystery novel Spoiled Rotten, which they’ve also published. I hadn’t read a mystery in more than 15 years, but I picked up hers at the launch and decided to give it a whirl.

What fun! Jackman is a natural storyteller and she puts together her tale of murder in Toronto’s dining scene with a good structure and strong, serviceable prose. Spoiled Rotten tells the story of Liz Walker, a restaurateur whose star chef is accused of the brutal killing a meat supplier in Kensington Market. Liz, plucky and self deprecating, takes it upon herself to clear her chef and her restaurant’s name by investigating the crime herself. Along the way, she strikes up a cheeky romance with Detective Winn, the police officer in charge of solving the case.

What ensues is a fun – albeit sometimes grisly – romp through dismemberments, food poisoning, runaway gentrification in Kensington Market, thwarted love, municipal politics, and nasty blows to the head. Jackman provides a loving and diverse picture of the restaurant business as well as her native Toronto. Her descriptions of the city in all its frenetic charm are well done, as are her descriptions of Liz’s cramped office, popular-but-struggling restaurant, and less-than-perfect personal life.

But the real strength here is the story. Jackman ramps up the tension without giving up too much plausibility as Liz becomes the real killer’s next target. The ending is satisfying and leaves the door open for more Liz Walker Mysteries, one of which I hear is already on the way. Spoiled Rotten is a great book to check out if you’re a mystery fan, or just in need of a fun, fast read.      

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: Conversations with Anthony Burgess, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll

Readers of this blog will know that I have a real soft spot when it comes author interviews. While the vast majority of the ones found on the blogosphere these days are uniformly awful—often choked with stock questions that could be asked of any writer at any time, cringe-inducing obsessions with process, lots of literary back scratching, and a relentless need to fetishize the writerly life (“Do you have a day job? … “Do you write in the morning or at night?” … “Where do you get your ideas? … “Isn’t that interesting …” etc) rather than focus on the writing it produces—it’s good to be reminded of a time when author interviews were still treated as serious journalism. A good interviewer will ask questions that prove conclusively that he or she has read the author’s work closely. A good interviewee will provide answers that are thoughtful, engaging, tangential and most importantly, unique to the interview at hand.

Readers also know I have a real soft spot for Anthony Burgess, so when I discovered this collection of interviews edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll, I jumped at the chance to read it. The editors wisely acknowledge in their introduction that Burgess had a penchant for mythomania, and part of the fun of reading these interviews (which run from 1971 to 1989) is catching him in his various flights of exaggeration, contradiction, playfulness and outright apocrypha-making.

One of the great feats of the Ingersolls’ anthology is compiling interviews with Burgess that cover a wide range of the polymath’s interests. There are interviews revealing his frustrations over the success of his best-known novel, A Clockwork Orange; there is an interview discussing his views on education (Burgess worked for many years as a teacher before devoting himself to writing full-time); there is an interview detailing his literary criticism on Joyce (his analysis of the inconsistent diction of the Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses is inspired); and there are lots of disclosure about his personal life.

One aspect of these interviews that stuck out for me was the emphasis and importance that Burgess put on book reviewing. He saw it as another form of journalism, which it is. Indeed, there are several instances where Burgess says he engages in journalism to “pay the bills”, and what he means by that is book reviewing for pay. He says that reviewing did his fiction no harm, and in fact made him a deeper thinker and more astute reader. Reviewing also earned him his fair share of enemies, which of course good reviewing always should.

Still, despite the wide swath of this anthology, I did feel there were a few areas of Burgess’ life that the book beats to death. There are too many interviews, for example, that deal with the subject’s capital-C Catholic background and not enough that deal with his small-c catholic interests. After all, this was a man who spoke at least a dozen languages fluently. He composed music and had vast chunks of the classical repertoire committed to memory. He was an expert on D.H. Lawrence, various areas of linguistic theory, and East Asian culture. He also reviewed wine, food, films and even cars for the popular media. Yet the interviews tend to spend too much time on Burgess’ exploration of good and evil and free will through the prism of his Catholicism that helped shape his fiction. When the questions surround his magnum opus Earthly Powers, they at least come off as a propos. But there are times when the theological discourse just goes round and round, and come off as repetitive.

I was also curious to see how the Ingersolls transcribed Burgess’ 1985 audio interview with Don Swain, which is available freely online. Here Swain’s various flubs (he at one point confuses Monte Carlo with Monaco; at another he accuses Burgess—wrongly—of leaving Styron out his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939) have been cleaned up, and much, I have to say, to the detriment of the interview.

Still, this was a deeply enjoyable read and a great portal into the life, work and thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and enigmatic writers. As a Burgess fan, I found this anthology to be a welcome addition to my growing shelf of Burgess texts.

The quotable Burgess

Here are some wonderfully aphoristic blurbs from the interviews that, for whatever reason, really resonated with me:

  • “It’s typical of a young man brought up in the provinces, living in the provinces, that he should try and make a bigger man of himself than he is by indulging in fantasies and by lying.”
  • “I like authority, because children can rebel against authority. It’s much more difficult to rebel against red tape.”
  • “The counter-culture is producing a vacuum into which anybody can march.”
  • “The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency.”
  • “The U.S. presidency is a Tudor monarch plus telephones.”
  • “Always invent your own dialects if you can.”
  •   “One should go through a great deal of trouble to be cunningly clumsy. Joyce is cunningly clumsy … In fiction there should be an element of doubt in the sentence.”