Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Upcoming event: Racket at the Rocket

Just a heads up that I'll be doing a reading, alongside my lovely wife, in May at a new reading series in the east end of Toronto called Racket at the Rocket, put on by Open Minds Toronto. We attended one of their events a couple of weeks ago and had a splendid time, so we're looking forward to participating ourselves later this year. Here are the details:

When: Friday, May 17, 2013. 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Rocket Coffee - 1364 Danforth Ave (near Greenwood Subway Station), Toronto.
Cost: PWYC
Featuring: Me and RR, followed by a brief open mic.

I haven't made up my mind yet, but I'll probably read something from the new short story manuscript I've been squirreling away on for the last 16 months. Stay tuned for more details.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: What We All Long For, by Dionne Brand

There is a long tradition in novels of treating cities not only as settings for plot but actual characters that play an irreducible role in the story. Dickens did it with London; Joyce did it with Dublin; numerous (perhaps too many) writers have done it with New York City. Dionne Brand, darling of the Toronto writing scene for many years, attempts to do it in this 2005 novel What We All Long For, a book obsessed with the polyphonic pulses of Canada’s largest urban area. But can Toronto—with its wide but shallow roots, with a multiculturalism so inexorable and yet so very, very siloed—achieve enough staticity to actually become a character? It’s a conundrum that Brand’s novel struggles with, and it is within that struggle that the book accomplishes both its beauty and its frustrations.

Brand is best known as a poet (see my review of her most recent collection, Ossuaries) but in What We All Long For she displays a deftness for the structured arc of prose and the shadings needed to create believable characters. The book’s two protagonists are neighbours in a rundown apartment building on College Street: Tuyen is a young gay installation artist whose family fled Vietnam in the 1970s; Carla is a black, relatively asexual companion of hers whose family has been torn apart by infidelity, suicide and crime. What unites these girls’ narrative trajectory is an issue with their respective brothers: Tuyen’s is a boy named Quy who got lost during the madness of her family’s flee from Vietnam and grows up in the Thai underworld; Carla’s is a young thug named Jamal (the best drawn character, incidentally, in the whole novel: Brand captures his irrational, immoral inner world with frightening verisimilitude) doing time in a Toronto prison. And how these two brothers’ stories will intersect at the novel’s climax drives the majority of the book’s narrative.

And this intersection, however improbable, makes What We All Long For worth reading. But the joys of this book are often undone by its predictable and reflexive politicizing, by its hackneyed ruminations on multiculturalism, ethnicity and “the immigrant experience.” These have become the staple preoccupations of Canadian literature’s long and protracted adolescence, and Brand does nothing to move these concerns to where they belong—in the subtext, in the undercurrents of a work for which the primary concern is plot. What’s more, these emphases lend an unintentional focus, not only on Tuyen and Carla’s immaturity but also on the possibly shaky morality of the novel itself.

Example: Early in the book, there is a flashback scene of the girls in school with their friends that turns into a clichéd rant against the inherent ‘Eurocentrism’ of their curricula. The girls feel excluded from school, marginalized, forced to study things that have nothing to do with their world; and yet despite this history of perceived prejudice against them based on their ethnicity, they are not afraid to unleash a little prejudice of their own. Here’s a snapshot of Carla’s mental world years later, on her bike as he heads home after visiting Jamal in jail:

She hurtled through the upscale region of High Park, the old British-style houses. The people who must inhabit these with their neat little lives made her sicker to her stomach than usual because she’d just left her brother … The trees held nothing. The manicured circle of flowers, the false oasis of the park, only made her sicker.

There are many times when Carla engaged me as a protagonist, but scenes like this really ripped my sympathies away from her, transforming her into an unpalatably naïve character through whose eyes I did not wish to view the world. (Tuyen has similar moments of prejudicial indiscretion. She aims most of her animus, impulsively, at the Toronto neighbourhood of Richmond Hill where her parents have settled. For two girls living in the prismatic cauldron of downtown Toronto, they really do have a black and white way of looking at things.)

Carla has a similar moment later in the novel. She confronts her father Derek in arguably the book’s most powerful scene, blaming him for her mother’s suicide and failing to guide Jamal toward a better life. This altercation is gut-wrenching, especially since Brand does such a magnificent job showing how far apart Derek’s view on this family history is from Carla’s. Yet the power and significance of this scene is undermined by what happens as Carla, hysterical with rage, leaves Derek’s house:

Outside on the sidewalk she searched her jeans for her keys. The shiny black Audi sat at the curb. Beginning at the closest tail light she scored the skin of the car all the way square to the far tail light. “Fucking prick!” she yelled at the house. An old neighbour digging up his spring garden looked at her, surprised. He and her father used to come outside on Saturdays in the summer and polish their cars together. “What are you looking at, asshole?” she screamed at him.

I have no issue with her keying Derek’s car, but does she have to rip the old guy next door a new one? This knee-jerk reaction, much like her scene hating rich people as she bikes through High Park, defuses any emotional connection we have with her. The fact that she verbally assaults the neighbour lends a morally questionable undercurrent to the scene, one that can be found scattered throughout What We All Long For: a justification for a victim to become, in turn, a victimizer. These moments are allowed to stand without nuance, without transcendent shading from (presumably Brand’s) narrative voice.

This lack of nuance butts up against the novel’s greater agenda, which is to be a messy, multidimensional love letter to the messy, multidimensional city of Toronto, at least as Brand perceives it. In this effort, she succeeds in many places and fails in others. I loved, for example, the way she captures Koreatown during the World Cup fervor of 2002 (where the main action of the novel is set), the sheer energy of that moment. I loved how she reveals that much of Toronto’s multiculturalism is merely, as Doug Saunders recently put it, “a diversity of isolated islands” with not nearly enough cross-pollination between them. But there are rote observations as well, especially of life downtown—this idea that everyone’s an artist, everyone lives in lofts, nobody actually works very much for their living, etc. All this belies the reality of what it’s actually like to try and survive in this large and largely hardhearted downtown core.

But if we can scrape enough of Brand’s municipal boosterism out of the way, what we find underneath is an emotionally powerful and skillfully paced novel about familial bonds about to be strained to their limits. The interstitial scenes of Quy coming of age in the Thai and Malaysian underworld are exquisitely rendered. The corresponding scenes of his family struggling to locate and be reunited with him will break your heart. Carla’s attempts to connect with Jamal despite his criminal leanings are singularly devastating. And how all of these threads coalesce into the novel’s violent climax is well-earned.

Indeed, so much of What We All Long For works very, very well. But it would have worked even better had the whole Toronto-as-a-character approach—and its concomitant rants about the city’s patchwork identities—not been placed so clumsily, so predictably, in the foreground.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Time to Re-Joyce: An Update

So now that I've wrapped up the Cohabitational Reading Challenge with RR, I'm ready to move on to the second big campaign I want to do this year: A Time to Re-Joyce. (Although I did manage to squeeze one other novel in between these two initiatives; review to come soon.) As you may recall from my original post about it, 2013 marks 10 years since I tackled for the first and only time James Joyce's monumental work Ulysses. This is a novel that has been on my mind a lot lately, on account of a recent BBC radio dramatization I listened to, various essays I've read, and a handful of intriguing videos about the phenomenon that is Ulysses that I've been spot-watching on YouTube. So I figured the time has come, in the paraphrased words of my main man Burgess, to indulge in a little Joysprick and partake in some Re-Joycing.

What's more, someone actually answered my call for others to play along. Fellow book blogger Brian Palmu, who also read Ulysses a few years back, has expressed interest in reading the novel along with me and posting various ruminations on his own blog. For those of you who don't know, Brian is a dedicated and wide-reading blogger who is known for his detailed, thought-provoking and occasionally confrontational reviews of books, with a focus on Canadian poetry. His writing has also appeared in CNQ and other publications. Welcome aboard, Brian! Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this tome.

So let the Re-Joycing begin. And to tide you over until the next post, allow me to leave you with this hilarious short film done a few years back of Joyce and Samuel Beckett playing golf together. Sure, it's historically inaccurate (Beckett would have been 16 in 1922), and sure, it presents the relatively genteel Joyce as a smash-mouth asshole, but hey - it's still worth watching. One either gets the humour this video or doesn't; but if you get it, you totally get it. Cheers.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Conclusion: The Cohabitational Reading Challenge

So I finally finished The Information the other day and my verdict is clear – the book is a work of genius. Unlike some other rereads I’ve done over the last few years, this one really does hold up to a more mature set of eyes. In this novel, Amis is at his most caustic, most hilarious, and (dare I say) most subversive. The story of Richard Tull and his odyssey to destroy his oldest friend’s career is breathtaking in its complexity, humour and relentless eschewing of literary cliché.

With so many complicated threads going on all at once in the novel, I feared that the ending could in no way satisfy or live to my expectations. But Amis managed to pull that very difficult feat - to have gratifying closure to a very long novel. The book's final betrayals - one involving Richard pinning plagiarism onto Gwyn using the resources at vanity press where he works, another involving Gywn and Richard's wife Gina - feel neither contrived nor predictable. We aren't given a pat conclusion to Richard's situation, nor are we left feeling that all of the subtext about cosmology and our place in the vast universe was for not. This is the midlife crisis writ large, and it works on multiple levels.

Since I quoted the opening line of The Information in one of my other posts, I see it as only right to quote the last here. I had forgotten how beautifully this novel closes--I love this line almost as much as the first. I'll leave it here for you, giving Amis himself the last word on this series. "And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night."

Acceptance: Pithead Chapel

Woke up this morning to the wonderful news that my short story "Snoop" has been accepted for publication in the March issue of the online literary journal Pithead Chapel, published out of Michigan. This marks my first acceptance from a journal in the United States, which I'm very excited about. I'm looking forward to seeing this piece out in the world, and I'll make sure to let you all know when it's online.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Another update on the Cohabitational Reading Challenge

So RR and I have pushed through to part 3 of Martin Amis' The Information and we're on the home stretch in our Cohabitational Reading Challenge. We had a discussion about it tonight over dinner and we're agreed that, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, the book is a work of genius. We're still waiting to see if Amis is able to pull it all together at the end, to make the complex cosmogony he's established for his characters to fit together; but I must admit that at this point, I've been enjoying myself so much that I don't care how it ends.

To recap thus far: Richard Tull is a failed, shambolic novelist and book reviewer who has published two obscure novels and has written three more that have failed to find a publisher. Meanwhile, his oldest and most obnoxious friend, Gywn Barry, has found success writing bestsellers of questionable merit, and this has driven Richard into a paroxysm of jealousy and self loathing. The first half of the book shows Richard devising various schemes to ruin Gywn's career, but nothing seems to work and Richard begins to mull upon the complex absurdity and unfairness of the universe.

By the time we reach part 3, Richard has finally found a publisher for his latest opus, entitled (ironically enough) Untitled: it gets picked up by a very small boutique publisher in the United States with no budget to even provide him with an advance. This coincides with Richard landing a job following Gywn around America on his latest book tour in order to write a lengthy feature article about him. This is, not surprisingly, a crushing humiliation for our poor protagonist, and Amis revels in showing just how different the receptions are for these two authors' books. There are wonderful descriptions of flying coach versus first class, of hotels, and of how the two authors are treated by interviewers and the general public. 

Throughout, what we find is a treatise on professional avarice and a hilarious (and strangely touching) portrait of the Failed Male of the late 20th century. Amis has mastered an incredible narrative voice for this book, an almost amorphous "I" that watches Richard from a distance and yet can capture him so perfectly, gain access to his every thought so readily. Couple that with an enduring fascination of cosmogony as a way of grasping the midlife crisis, and what you've got is a book about squandered potential and revenge that gets out of control.

I'm definitely looking forward to finishing the book off and seeing if the ending will hold up, so stay tuned for one final post. And of course keep following along on RR's blog as she shares her own thoughts on this book.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Published: My essay on The Tower of Babble, by Richard Stursberg, in CNQ 86

I was very pleased to come home last night to find the latest issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ) waiting for me in my mailbox. This issue contains a lengthy essay I wrote reviewing Richard Stursberg's memoir The Tower Of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes inside the CBC. While my essay is a thorough critique of Stursburg's text, it is also a cri de coeur for public broadcasting in general, a subject I am (usually quietly) passionate about.

For those of you who don't know, Stursberg was the head of English programming at CBC from 2004 to 2010 and ushered in the network's current era of populism. His memoir recounts his tumultuous years at the Ceeb and his struggle to turn our public broadcaster--which has a long, proud history and has contributed immeasurably to our sense of what it means to be Canadian--into a more business-friendly, ratings-oriented organization. I had read an article about this book in the Globe & Mail last spring and knew I wanted to write an expansive, wide-reaching examination of the Stursberg regime at CBC. Thankfully, CNQ's editor was more than happy to accommodate me.

No surprise, issue #86 also comes packed with lots of other great stuff. This issue's theme appears to be 'libraries' (another public institution worth writing about), with feature articles by Nicole Dixon, Nigel Beale, and Jeet Heer, among others. There's also some fiction by Caroline Adderson, poetry by Evan Jones, and lots of other great stuff I'm looking forward to tucking into. So visit your better literary newsstands (or library!) to check it out.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Update on the 2013 Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So I finished part one of Martin Amis' The Information, the book RR and I chose for this year's Co-habitational Reading Challenge, so I thought this would be a good time to provide an update on how it's going. In a word: amazingly. We kicked things off on the weekend, with me reading aloud the opening scene (with that iconic first sentence, "Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing") and then reading together, silently--she on the couch and me in my reclining wingback. When one of us chortled, the other asked to have the line read aloud. Often, we were on the same paragraph anyway, and this made for a joyous and endearing literary experience.

Seeing how it has been nearly 15 years since I've read this novel, there were lots of things I had forgotten about it. Like how madly, compulsively readable it is. The Information achieves the summit of page turner despite its fragmented narration, loathsome protagonist, 10-dollar vocabulary and risky subject matter. It's about a failed novelist told from the perspective of amorphous "I." It has an elevated diction and is very conscious of its own cliches. And yet it works. Thus far, it all works.

 Rereading The Information has reminded me of a great paradox about Martin Amis: while his style is one of the most inimitable in the business, he continues to breed a class of imitators. I sadly have been guilty of this: many of the stories I wrote as a younger man tried to mimic his approach to prose, and of course they all failed. Rereading this novel has helped me to accept that there can be only one Martin Amis--and really, that's for the best. I wouldn't want 10,000 men trying to write like him. We would all be lesser for it.

Of course, the real joy of this reading challenge is to partake in it with RR. She'll be putting up her own posts about it soon, but I can say that I've really enjoying hearing her insights across the couch and at the dinner table. And as I suspected, it's made me closer to her just as much as it has made me closer to the book itself.

Stay tuned for more updates. They'll be coming soon.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Recording of me reading from Off Book now on YouTube

Neat - the 49th Shelf has posted to YouTube a recording I did for them about a year and a half ago from Off Book. (It was from this feature article that they did of RR and me shortly after we moved in together.) Anyway, here it is. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Q&Q review of The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster ...

is now online on the Quill & Quire website. I was really glad to see that my review of this novel got such a prominent spot in Q&Q's December issue. While Webster's was by no means a perfect book (whose is?), I did feel it deserved a more flattering reception than it got in some other reviews. The Lava in My Bones impressed me on a number of levels, and there's so much zeal and joy packed into every paragraph. Definitely a book worth checking out.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Co-habitational Reading Challenge - 2013 Kickoff

Ah, is there anything more romantic than two lovebirds reading the same book at the same time? Probably, but RR and I have decided to do it again anyway. Yes indeed, we're rekindling our Co-habitational Reading Challenge, where we choose one book (two copies, natch), read it simultaneously, and write about it on our respective blogs.

As you may recall, our choice for the first time we did this, back in 2011, was John Iriving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book that we both read when we were younger and thus had an extra copy kicking around after we moved in together. This year we've picked a novel that we don't have two copies of, but RR has generously offered to acquire hers from our public library. We have both read this novel before, years ago, and are looking forward to tucking into it again to see if it's as good as we remember.

And so, without further ado, I'm pleased to announce that the novel we've chosen is The Information, by Martin Amis. This book was published in 1995 to much fanfare that, sadly, had little to do with the actual writing - something about dental surgery, a scorned literary agent, and an obscenely large advance for literary fiction, even for the nineties.

I remember exactly where I was when I first stumbled upon this tome. Picture it: Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1998 - a young recent journalism school graduate is trolling the shelves of the city's fabled Trident Booksellers and Cafe, the air pungent with freshly ground coffee beans and snobbery. There, he purchases a weighty hardcover and takes it back to his lonely one-bedroom apartment on the other side of the harbour. This book blows his little (but growing!) mind with its linguistic dexterity and impressive vocabulary, its humour and cutting-edge social satire. He becomes a Martin Amis fan overnight.

Actually, with the exception of its brilliant opening pages, there are very few specifics I remember about The Information. I know that it is a fantastic examination of avarice (is it just me, or does Amis explore at least one of the seven deadly sins in each novel?) and a wonderful send-up of our misconceptions about the literary life, but other than that I'll be coming back at this book with an open mind. Needless to say, I'm also anxious to read my wife's opinions upon rereading it.

And yes, we absolutely want all of you to play along if you can. Like last time, you and your life partner can either choose to read this book along with us or you and your life partner can choose to read another book together. Either way, make sure to come back here and share your thoughts with us - either with comments below or links pointing back to your own blog. Trust me, this is a lot of fun and a great way to learn even more about someone you already know pretty well.

Stay tuned for further updates as we work our way through this tome over the next couple of weeks.