Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Libra, by Don DeLillo

Pick a broad canvas and let your exuberance fly. This seems to be the overarching philosophy of Don DeLillo, author of nearly 20 books and doyen of what we might label the postmodern American novel. The canvas, in his case, is the United States of America itself, its vast and various contradictions. In Libra, DeLillo’s 1988 masterpiece, he tackles one of the watershed moments in the history of his country: the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy, told to a great degree through the perspective of the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

If the highly public murder of JFK was, as it has been said, the very birth of 20th-century sensationalism, then Libra looks to cut through our macro response to November 22, 1963 and get at the underlying motivations behind the day. Indeed, the fictionalization of motive is one of Libra’s chief concerns, and one of its greatest strengths. We will never know for sure what compelled the actions of Oswald, who most likely was the sole sniper shooting at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository as the president’s open-car motorcade passed through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza below. Nor will we know the exact motives of nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald on national TV two days later. Nor will know the precise driving force behind the broader conspiracy, if there indeed was one, for Kennedy’s killing.

DeLillo takes great pains over 450-plus pages to use the liberties and artifices of fiction to fill in these blanks, and does so with tremendous literary acumen. For the record, in Libra’s version of events, a pair of disgruntled CIA agents plan to orchestrate an attempted assassination—and only attempted; the shooter(s) were meant to miss—of Kennedy in order to blame it on Fidel Castro and get a second US-led invasion of Cuba back on the geopolitical table. This premise is no more or less implausible than anything else you might hear from the crop of JFK conspiracy theorists who have been around since the sixties (and many of whom were heartened by the 1991 Oliver Stone film). Yet DeLillo treats his own (fictionalized) theories as mere guy-wires to support the novel’s true preoccupation: that of character.

And what a tour de force of characterization Libra is. DeLillo works us through the various milestones of Oswald’s life—his time in the US marine corps, his deep immersion into Marxist theory and subsequent defection to the Soviet Union, his return to the States with his Russian wife Marina, his struggles to find work, his attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker—in order to put him within a meaningful context when he aims that notorious rifle out that notorious window at Kennedy. While our historic perception of Oswald is one of an immature and naïve patsy in a bigger world event, DeLillo’s picture reveals a complex man with deeply complicated values and motivations.

And Oswald isn’t even Libra’s sole protagonist. What astounds me about this book is the way DeLillo can shift gears so effectively in between chapters and really inhabit the minds and hearts of his other main and secondary characters. We get breathtaking portraits of Win Everett, one of the disgruntled CIA agents behind the plot; of Jack Ruby, depicted here as a feckless businessman who still maintains a façade of unshakeable integrity; of FBI agent Guy Banister and supporting characters George de Mohrenschildt and David Ferrie. Even General Walker, a racist and jingoistic Texan, is given his own brief but insightful moment in the spotlight. The novel ends, gut wrenchingly, in the perspective of Oswald’s mother after Oswald has been killed as she tries to piece together the death of and the multiple meanings behind her son’s existence.

Libra is not without its missteps, of course. I never quite bought into the narrative’s contemporary-period frame of Nicholas Branch, a CIA man trying to piece together a definitive story of JFK’s assassination. There are a few times when DeLillo’s dialogue becomes wooden and more expository than it needs to be. And the actual killing of Kennedy seems, at least to my knowledge of events and understanding of DeLillo’s take on the scene, a bit inaccurate. Specifically, Libra appears to contend that Oswald managed to squeeze off two shots in the span of less than two seconds (an impossibility, based on the rifle’s make and how it fired): one that hits Kennedy in the upper back and exits his throat, and a second that hits and wounds Texas Governor John Connally, who was seated in front of Kennedy.

But no theorist, as far as I know, contends this. Either you believe that a single shot caused all the wounds to Kennedy’s back and throat as well as all the wounds to Connally, or you believe that the bullet that struck Connally was a different bullet fired from a different gun a split second after Kennedy was hit in the back/throat—hence the conspiracy of two shooters. (Those who believe this latter premise often cite what has been called the “magic bullet” theory to dismiss the former premise. But recent computerized forensics, discussed in this documentary, show how likely it actually is that one bullet did manage to cause all that damage. Those who hitch their conspiracy beliefs to the magic bullet theory do so with an incorrect presumption on the position of Connally vis a vis Kennedy in the car, and when Connally was hit versus when he thinks he was hit.)

These are, ultimately, minor flaws to Libra’s narrative. DeLillo has written a fierce and highly engaging page turner that is also one of the best structured works of literary fiction I’ve ever read. It was an absolute joy living in this novel’s world and immersing myself in its thoroughly designed characters. Libra is, in the end, a work of fiction, but its effects on the reader are very real.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


And no, I'm not talking about that recently deceased polemicist named Christopher. RR and I tied the knot about a week and a half ago at the lovely and awesome Liuna Station in Hamilton. Easily the happiest day of our lives, and we threw a fantastic party to celebrate it. Here's a pic - those smiles say it all.

We also just got back from a wonderful week-long honeymoon in Costa Rica. With the exception of a rather nasty 12 hours of food poisoning on my part, our time there was fabulous. The people were warm and generous, and there were lizards and butterflies galore. (And one cat!)

In other news: I don't tend talk much about my other life here on the FRR, but I did want to mention that I got laid off from my job in July - exactly one month to the day before the wedding. I'm on the prowl for new employment now, so if anyone spots openings in Toronto's downtown core for senior-level jobs in web content management, editorial management, online writing, editing, SEO, etc. please let me know. Here's a link to my LinkedIn profile.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Acceptance: The Nashwaak Review

Just got word that two poems of mine, called "Cleve" and "Sullivan's Pond", will appear in the next issue of The Nashwaak Review, out of New Brunswick. I'm especially pleased, since these pieces represent a slight departure for me, style-wise, from my other poems, and also this is a great journal to associated with. I'll keep you all posted when the work appears.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Every now and then a book comes along that feels like a game changer, that so completely rewires the way you think about fiction and what it’s capable of, that re-energizes your belief in the power of literature. A Visit from the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “novel” from 2010, is one of those books for me. It has been a huge topic of conversation between RR and me around our house here, as we have both read it over the last month or so and have equally become enamoured of it.

A big part of the love for me is structural. The reason I put “novel” in quotes above is that while Goon Squad is marketed as a novel, it really is a collection of interconnected short stories. “Linked” collection seems too weak, and even interconnected seems inadequate. It’s probably better to say it’s a collection of intersecting and interwoven short stories that achieve the broader arc of a true novel.

Egan’s incredible feat of temporal game-playing really puts to shame any other interconnected short story collection I’ve read. The 13 stories that compromise Goon Squad take place over about a 45-year period: from about the early 1970s in the fourth story, “Safari”, to the near-future, sometime around the year 2020, in the last two stories. The pieces are organized out of chronological order and are written from 13 separate points of view. Yet it does form a single cohesive narrative, one that does not become fully apparent until you’re well into the book.

The intersection of the characters’ lives is what gives this book a lot of its narrative torque. Rather than summing up how the lives of the various protagonists of Goon Squad overlap with one another, let me simply refer you to the 2010 New York Times review of the book, which did it far better than I could:  

The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law.

If this complex interlacing of characters turns you off, don’t let it. There is so much else to love about Goon Squad. The theme here is the passage of time—time being the goon referred to in the title—and about how lives can grow and then wither, how aging awaits us all, and how both crushing failure and exalted moments of success can be waiting right around the corner for us at any moment.

In laying down the lives of these characters, Egan shows an incomprehensible amount of versatility in her writing. She can do young and old; she can do male and female voices; she can do first-, second- and third-person narration to great effect. She can also write in a variety of modes: while the majority of the pieces here are written in traditional realism, one is done entirely as a PowerPoint slide deck (and, strangely, is one of the most emotionally powerful stories in the collection); another is done as a piece of very effective gonzo journalism. Indeed, finishing the last page of Goon Squad, you’re left with the impression that this book must have been written by not one writer, but seven or eight writers—all incredibly talented.

There is no higher compliment to pay a writer than to say his or her book alters the way you’ll look at subsequent books you’ll read. But I can definitely say this about Goon Squad: it has wrecked the curve for other short story collection professing to be linked, interconnected or otherwise intertwined.

Related reading

Allow me to point you in the direction of a few other books that play similar games with either time, intersecting stories, or both. While Goon Squad tops them all, these other titles are definitely worth reading:

  • Lord Nelson Tavern, by Ray Smith. (What Smith does in this 1974 novel is very similar to what Egan does. See my lengthy essay about this book in CNQ #81.)
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.
  • Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. (Not about intersecting stories per se, but definitely a novel that has a lot of fun telling a story out of order.)  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Six years ago I acquired a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a hefty reference tome organized chronologically that provides short descriptions of literature from Aesop’s Fables (published 4 BCE) to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (published in 2005). Like a studious reader, I flipped through the text, marking off books I had read and checking out books I had never even heard of. One of the latter was Jeanette’s Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Yes, I admit it: I was completely unfamiliar with this book. I remember being intrigued by its bizarre title and subject matter, but for whatever reason the novel soon dropped off my radar.

It came roaring back earlier this year. It seems like Winterson has gotten a lot of play over the last several months in the various literary media outlets that I follow, and I decided to pick up her debut novel to see what all the hubbub was about. Little did I know that if you’re of a certain nationality (i.e. British) and of a certain generation, then you would have definitely heard of this book and would think it strange that others had not. When Oranges was first published in 1985, when Winterson was still in her mid twenties, it was a colossal bestseller and later turned into a successful TV miniseries. She stands alongside other contemporary authors who showed great precociousness in their twenties—think Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, among others—and was duly rewarded for it.

The kudos were well earned. Oranges is a powerful and touching portrait of love, family and religious extremity in rural England. It tells the very autobiographical story of “Jeanette” who is adopted as a baby and brought up by an ultra-fundamentalist Christian mother. The mother’s beliefs, with their concomitant superstitions, suspicions and value systems, permeate all aspects of their lives—it’s practically in the drinking water. And Jeanette spends a good portion of the novel blindly proselytizing this religion to others while still only a child. The novel’s actions are complicated by Jeanette’s discovery during adolescence that she is, in fact, a lesbian. And this awakening disrupts her entire world and puts her on a collision course with her family and her community.

The theme here, while slightly obvious, is worth stating: the nature of passion, and the hold it can have on us and the meaning it can bring to our lives. With unassuming yet artful prose, Winterson really gets under the hood of passion to explore what makes it work and how it can shape the sense we have of ourselves. Jeanette’s transformation over the course of the book is, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, made more believable because of the ardor she showed towards her mother’s beliefs.

This novel impresses on a number of fronts. I love the fact that the title—at first blush a cheeky reference to homosexuality—is not overplayed in the text itself. Indeed, oranges become a central trope throughout the book; but with a skill that belies her age at the time of writing, Winterson is able to work it in subtly, leaving enough gaps around the trope for us as readers to fill them in. I also love the way the story is structured: each section is named after a book of the bible, and even as Jeanette reaches the apex of her bildungsroman, it feels appropriate that her journey be framed within a religious context.

Overall, Oranges was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m happy report that Jeanette Winterson is back on my radar, and for good this time. I’m sure I’ll be back to read more of her novels in the years ahead.          

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Some kind words from Open Book Ontario

Just got word that Open Book Ontario featured the blog and its most recent post on its website earlier today. It was really nice to get some kind words about the reviewing I've been doing. Thanks Open Book Ontario!