Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

One of the things that I tend to judge a collection of short stories on – especially if it’s a debut collection – is the level of versatility that the author shows from one piece to the next. While I’m not opposed to an entire anthology of short fiction written with a limited tonality or point of view, I prefer collections that show off the writer’s chops in handling different scenarios, a mix of themes, a good arrangement of ‘literary’ pieces with off-the-wall stuff, and characters with a variety of occupations and worldviews.

So in this sense, Doretta Lau’s debut collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, seems to be custom designed for me. While the marketing bumpf promises a “whimsical new take on what it means to be Canadian,” what we actually get is a wild, smash-mouth array of wholly original pieces, a deliberate hodgepodge that puts us an entire galaxy away from the staid “immigrant-as-nationalism” narrative that is so overdone in our country’s literature. Lau’s pieces run the gamut from the violent and vulgar to the tender and touching. Yes, most of her characters are Asian Canadians struggling to find their way in the world, but each tale stands on its own as a singular thing, carefully wrought with an eye toward pristine originality.

The collection opens with two very strong pieces of what we might call speculative fiction. “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, a piece that could’ve fallen straight from the pen of Barthelme or Ballard, is about characters who receive text messages from their future selves warning them about all the stupid mistakes they’re about to make. The story starts out quirky but ends on a surprisingly moving note. “Two-Part Invention”,  meanwhile, reveals a young woman who develops the ability to date men who have already died, and picks a wholly believable version of Glenn Gould to be her otherworldly suitor.

My favourite stories in Blade of Grass – I’m a bit red-faced to admit  - are the ones that tackle the sexual, or at least the sexual tension, between characters. This is something Lau handles very well. I’m thinking of two stories in particular: “The Boy Next Door,” about a young layabout who loses his job and ends up accidentally auditioning for a porno movie while on the hunt for new work; and “Robot By the River,” about two young people living in the same apartment building in Vancouver, who despite the obvious connection between them simply can not get their sexual stars to line up. The first story is played for farce and the second is played for pathos, but both show a writer capable of creating anxiety and tension within characters that arise from disparate locations.

Blade of Grass is a short book but packs a lot in it: humour and horror; comedy and sadness; lunacy and the dead serious. Lau is clearly a versatile writer, which of course makes us wonder what she’ll do next.      

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi

Grief, displacement, immigrants living on the prairies, a taciturn father, an alcoholic mother, a precocious child narrator – put these tropes into a work of Canadian fiction and I’ll be convinced I’ve read that book someplace before. This was certainly the impression I got during the first 100 or so pages of Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel, Prairie Ostrich. Both the story and the style seemed a touch over-familiar: a tale about hardship, cruelty and loss on the Canadian prairie, processed through the winsome mind of a child whose level of awareness and creative thinking pushes the boundaries of the realistic.

It was clear during the first half that what Prairie Ostrich lacked in originality it tried to make up with a moxy reminiscent of Lullabies for Little Criminals or Come, Thou Tortoise. Our narrator is an eight-year-old girl, inexplicably named Egg (she’s still in gestation – get it?), growing up in the 1970s on an ostrich farm in Bittercreek, Alberta. Her family – the only Japanese one on the prairies, she tells us – is in mourning: Egg’s older brother Albert has been killed in a mysterious accident, and the tragedy has reduced Egg’s mother to a whiskey-swilling drunk and her father to a grieving nonentity who refuses to leave the barn. Egg finds solace and companionship only with her older sister Kathy, who manages to be Popular (spelled, in Egg’s mind, forever with a capital P) while Egg herself faces the torments of a school bully named Raymond and the indifference of her teachers.

Kobayashi is trying to hit all the right buttons in her portrait of Egg: she makes her a lover of books and dictionaries (she wants to be a writer when she grows up, natch); she gives her a passion for Anne Frank; she makes her question, in the context of her family’s church, the purpose of life (or lack thereof) and the tragic death of her brother. Egg also grows steadily aware that Kathy is in fact a lesbian, and that there is more to her sister’s own experiences at school than first meets the eye. Each of these elements to Egg’s character is charming, but I was still left with a sense that I had seen these setups, these approaches to character and story, too many times before.

Thankfully, through the sheer will of its craft, Prairie Ostrich eventually won me over. Something happens in the second half of the novel that takes Egg’s experiences to a whole new level – one infused with such tenderness and believability that I became engrossed in her narrative. Egg’s slow realizations about what really happened to her brother and how his death has impacted her family is so incredibly gradual, yet we soon detect just how much she is growing into her own consciousness in this process. The results are spellbinding: the inner world of this child becomes such a complex place, and we move through the story wanting to find out how her realizations will alter the trajectory of her life in Bittercreek.

There is a much larger effect here as well. Egg soon learns a powerful lesson about the very words she has come to love. She learns that words can in fact deceive her, can hold multiple meanings and obscurities that can betray her and her sense of how the world works. She also learns that there is another edge to that sword – that words can be laced with a nuance that brings a deeper understanding to things, a power that makes us feel less alone in the world. It is a great testament to Kobayashi’s accomplishment that she manages to pull all this off while staying realistically inside the head of an eight-year-old, that she never pushes these epiphanies too far as to make them trite or unbelievable.

 In the end, Prairie Ostrich makes up for its somewhat predictable framework with a charm and emotional drive that cannot be denied. Kobayashi has contributed a welcome addition to the well-populated body of Canada’s immigrant literature.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis

The one thing that is truly admirable about Roger Lewis’s 2002 biography of Anthony Burgess – perhaps the only truly admirable thing about it – is that Lewis was able to sustain such a vitriolic attack for nearly 500 pages. A less-obsessive biographer, looking to chop down as tall a poppy as Burgess, would probably want to do it quickly, fiercely – penning a short, concise text to make us rethink the man’s reputation. He certainly wouldn’t want to spend well over a decade thoroughly researching the life, and reading and rereading the many works, of his subject in the hopes of pulling off English literature’s biggest literary slag. So Lewis gets props for his effort, at the very least.

The end result is, of course, another matter. Whether Lewis had ever been a genuine fan of Burgess’s writing becomes immaterial within the first few pages of his flailing, incompetent prologue. He tells the story of meeting Burgess for the first time in Oxford in 1985, when Lewis was a 25-year-old grad student studying under famed literary biographer Richard Ellmann. Lewis seems gravely offended that Burgess does not show more interest in him, or in any other individual he encounters during his visit to Oxford. And this perceived snub becomes the launching pad from which the rest of Lewis’s digs at Burgess come.

But it seems a strange thing to get upset about. Had Lewis not spent any time around writers before? Did he not know that most – no matter how successful they are – are deeply insecure people and compensate by talking about themselves and their work obsessively while not really paying attention to what others are saying, doing, thinking or writing? I mean, that’s just how many of them operate. He also slags Burgess for other qualities that lots of writers possess: the need to repeat certain themes, tropes or even scenes over several books; the fictionalizing of their own experiences; the heavy drinking; the questionable fashion sense. Even if these were flaws – which they aren’t – they certainly aren’t limited to Burgess.

There were several times as I worked my way through this book that I really wondered why Lewis could not just walk away from Burgess’s oeuvre if he found it so disagreeable. He nails his subject for, among other things, privileging language over emotion, ideas over individuals, structure over story. But if these things bother Lewis so much, perhaps Burgess just isn’t the author for him. Lots of British writers (Austen, Woolf, McEwan, among many others) emphasize the emotional lives of individuals in their stories. Burgess wasn’t one of them; his novels had other preoccupations. But it doesn’t make the works that resulted from those obsessions any less literary.

Lewis also seemed to take issue with both the Catholic and catholic sides of Burgess’s personality. He sums up, with this incoherent sentence, the wide net of interests that Burgess cast: “Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is all the same.” (He goes on later to refer to it as a “monotonous” versatility.) Really? Could he not see it as one of the many things that set Burgess apart? Lewis also can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Burgess was a lapsed Catholic and most likely an atheist at heart. He treats the man’s religious background not as a deep well from which he drew a lot of his creativity, but rather as an ethnicity that he accuses Burgess of being deeply self-conscious about.

Hypocrisies abound in Lewis’s book. He accuses Burgess of snobbery but then chastises him for not attending Oxford like Kingsley Amis did. He ribs him for bringing an air of feigned bohemia to his job as a teacher in small-town Banbury, but then goes on to show just how quirky and different Burgess was from his colleagues there. He calls Burgess a bigot despite the fact that the man travelled to the Far East and immersed himself in various cultures, mastering several foreign languages along the way.

I think what galls most about Lewis’s book, though, is that his prose actually takes on a type of linguistic pyrotechnics – lots of complex sentence structures played for humour, and a slew of arcane five-dollar words – that comes straight from the style of Burgess himself. Lewis even tries his hand at a few Burgessian neologisms. “Lunatrix,” anyone? (That may be a play on Burgess’ creative term “translatrix.” Which at least makes sense, suffix wise, in the way that ‘dominatrix’ connotes a female dominator.)

Despite the countless flaws undermining this very long book, I have to point out that I actually did finish it. There are some keen observations scattered throughout Lewis’s text, and I did manage to learn some things about the life of Anthony Burgess that I didn’t already know. (That someone would even hint that he had once been a spy for the CIA, and that clues to that background may exist in the very language of his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, was new to me. Completely unfounded nonsense, of course. But new, nonetheless.) And there are times when Lewis’s approach to the narrative of Burgess’s life is downright compelling.

Still, the bad definitely outweighs the good here. I could go on – and on, and on, and on, and on, and on – about everything that’s wrong with this gimcrack biography. But the truth is I’ve already made most of my points, and in less than a thousand words. Time to go find something else to read that I’ll actually enjoy.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

My review of Emberton, by Peter Norman ...

is now posted on The Winnipeg Review website I first learned of Norman through his poetry, seeing his verse around in various literary journals and catching him read once at the now (unfortunately) defunct Q Space here in Toronto. I did have some issues with Emberton, which I lay out in the review. But for those who are looking for off-the-wall comic that turns into straight-up horror by the end, this may be the book for you.

This is also my first time reviewing for The Winnipeg Review, an online journal that I read often, and one that has published a number of writers I admire, including Jeff Bursey, Nathan Dueck and Jonathan Ball. Anyway, I may end up doing more work for them in the future, and I'll keep y'all posted if I do.