Friday, July 31, 2015

Another review of Sad Peninsula

So this morning the Google Alert gods alerted me to a new review of Sad Peninsula posted on a blog called cnidariabloom. In this lengthy, thorough piece, the blogger says a number of warm and lovely things about Eun-young's thread of the novel, and she also includes a handy bullet list of historical data to help her readers with the context of comfort women and what they went through during World War Two and the decades after, as explored in the book. Here's a sample of what she has to say:

I loved Eun-young’s storyline. She is a strong, brave, and emotional character that you can easily connect with. She went to the meeting to help her family. I love that even though half of the book is Eunyoung’s time with the Japanese, the details rely less on sex and more on her emotions, what she thought about, day-to-day events, her relationship with her close friend (whom she calls 언니). It was less about the actual activity and more about the savagery of it all, the brutal treatment, the dehumanization. The focus is entirely on the women and their perspectives. The book begins with Eun-young cackling at the suffering of her abusers because of the atomic bomb. It continues with her life after the war, the struggles with reoccurring illness, her relationships with her husband and family, the whispers about not having children.
The reviewer has less affection for Michael's section of the story. She raises the very valid question of why nobody calls him on the way he views Jin at different points in the story (the answer, for what it's worth, is that other characters are too preoccupied with their own lives/issues to do so, and nor is it the author's job to interject with this kind of editorializing in fiction), and the reviewer doesn't feel Michael suffered enough of a comeuppance by the end of the book. Here's a sample of what she has to say:

However, I disliked the character Michael. He judged the American and Canadian white men for hounding after Korean women, for exploiting Korea, for never really getting into ~the real Korea~ even though he’s really no better. I hate that no one ever really calls him out on it. He’s an average looking, pretentious white guy who ruined his career over being dumped and yet girls like him and he spends his time with assholes. (His physical description is identical to the author, why.) His Korean girlfriend leaves him, and even though he knows about the former comfort woman in the family (who turns out to be Eun-young), the suffering of Korea under foreigners, he sees himself as different somehow.
But the reviewer ends on a positive note, giving the book 4 out of 5 stars and mentioning how much she appreciated a non-Europe perspective on the Second World War, which is always great to hear. Anyway, see the full review here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

ANNOUNCEMENT: Forthcoming poetry collection from Palimpsest Press

So I'm very excited to officially, and belatedly, announce that my debut collection of poetry, entitled Weathervane, will be released next spring by Palimpsest Press. I say belatedly because I actually received the acceptance for this manuscript a year and a half ago, but because I was already sitting on two forthcoming books at that time, I thought it better to wait to make this news public. I have mentioned it in passing to friends and at a few readings, but I wanted to make it official here on the blog.

I'm now in the process of editing the manuscript with my stellar editor Jim Johnstone, who has brought a wealth of wisdom and experience to the project. I'm also grateful to the great minds behind the press, Dawn Kresan and Aimee Parent Dunn, for giving me the opportunity. I've been a fan of Palimpsest for a while now, enjoying titles it has released by such writers as John Wall Barger, Shane Neilson, Ariel Gordon, Jeffery Donaldson, Yvonne Blomer, and of course my friend Elizabeth Ross, whom I did a co-reading with back in May.

Weathervane compiles the poems I've been writing and publishing for the last dozen years or more. Pieces from it have appeared in The Puritan, This magazine, FreeFall, QWERTY, The Nashwaak Review and others.

Anyway, I'll keep you all posted as more details emerge about the book's release.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The Complete Enderby, by Anthony Burgess

I have a certain anti-talent for dropping unwittingly into the middle of a book series. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Open Book Toronto, this has happened at least twice in my life: as a teenager, with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and about 10 years ago, with Anthony Burgess’ quartet of Enderby novels.

Indeed, it was the third installment of that quartet, The Clockwork Testament, which I found in a used bookstore housed in a barn in late 2005 while living in Australia, that brought Burgess roaring back into my life. I had read his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, about 10 years earlier as an undergrad student in Halifax, seen the movie, and read a couple other Burgess books in my twenties, but it was this slim novella that got me hooked on the man’s voice. (If you’re a long-time lurker on this blog, you know that I now read/review several of his 50+ tomes a year.) The Clockwork Testament, also dubbed Enderby’s End – a clue about its place in a book series that I should have caught, but didn’t – struck my 30-year-old self as explosively funny, linguistically daring, and wildly risqué in its political incorrectness. I went back and finally read the first volume in the series, Inside Mr. Enderby, in the summer of 2009.

This year, I decided to spend a part of the summer reading the entire quartet in the proper order. It was interesting to see how the series’ protagonist, F.X. Enderby, the slovenly minor poet and high-minded bumbler, evolved over a 20-year period. (The first volume was published in the early 1960s, the last in 1984.) It was also interesting to see how the two installments I had previously read stood up to a second engagement.

Volume the first

Inside Mr. Enderby introduces us to our slatternly hero. Francis Xavier Enderby is 45, lives alone in a dodgy flat in a southern seaside town of Hove in England, and writes poetry full time. He is able to do this because of an inheritance he received upon the death of his foul, domineering stepmother, a woman he loathed and whom he blames for a variety of his problems, including sexual impotence. The early chapters describe both Enderby’s writing rituals – he composes his poetry while sitting on the toilet, flinging drafts into the bathtub that he uses for no other purpose – and the cadence of his days. Following his lavatorial writing sessions, Enderby wanders the town thinking up new lines of verse in his head, buys bread and feeds it to the gulls, drinks in seedy pubs with withered patrons nearly twice his age, and comes home to eat a modest meal and do a bit more work. A life, the narrator tells us, that harms nobody.

The story takes its inevitable turn when Enderby is summoned to London to receive a small literary award called the Goodby Gold Medal for Poetry. At the luncheon ceremony, he inadvertently offends the award’s benefactors and ends up giving the money back. More importantly, he also meets the woman who will forever change (that is, ruin) his life. Vesta Bainbridge is a 30-year-old widow – her husband a famous racecar driver killed in a crash – who edits a women’s magazine called Fem. She inexplicably solicits Enderby to write a column of light verse for the magazine, and when he resists, she tracks him down and discovers his solitary, filthy, bachelor lifestyle. Through some fancy tap-dancing on Burgess’ part, and a generous suspension of disbelief on ours, Vesta browbeats Enderby into marrying her. She claims to want to transform him into an upstanding citizen who contributes something more useful (i.e. not poetry) to society, but it soon comes to light that her intentions are even more nefarious than that.

The novel then pivots and finds the two newlyweds on their honeymoon in Rome. Enderby and Vesta’s marriage remains comically unconsummated, and Enderby soon discovers that wedded life does not agree with him. Even worse, he learns that the poetic muse who has served him so well for so many years has abandoned him, and he can barely grind out the doggerel commissioned for Fem. Hilarity ensues and Enderby ends up fleeing his marriage in a daring, nighttime escape from Rome. But all is lost. Through their divorce, Vesta claims the trust fund that Enderby had been living off of, and, more disastrously, the muse refuses to return to him. Upon his reemergence in England, Enderby makes an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, and ends up in a psychiatric ward. As part of his rehabilitative therapy, he is convinced to abandon his old life completely – stop writing poetry, get a job, and even adopt a new identity. He takes the maiden name of his birth mother (a woman he never knew, as she died when he was still in diapers), which is Hogg, and the novel ends with Hogg training to become a bartender.

This book is unquestionably funny, and as with my first reading of it, the comic scenes of Enderby offending and farting and fumbling his way through the world had me in stitches. But one thing I didn’t notice the first time around was how this novel’s thematic arc mirrors almost exactly that of A Clockwork Orange. In both books, our hero engages in what normal society considers degenerate behaviour (for Enderby, that means not having a job or a wife, and writing poetry full time), and through the machinations of the plot, the hero attempts suicide and then is taken in by newfangled psychological treatments and reformed into a kind of lobotomized shell of his former self. When seen in this light, Burgess’ double-dipping seems a touch repetitive and a cheat. But still, this novel – and this character – endures through the sheer ridiculousness and hilarity of its episodic set pieces. We may loath Enderby for a variety of reasons, but he remains undoubtedly compelling and worthy of his own book series.

Volume the Second

Enderby Outside finds Enderby, now Hogg, working in a “whimsically named” hotel bar in London called Piggy’s Sty, having abandoned his old life of unemployment and poetry-writing on the advice of a psychiatrist. But the muse – and the writing life – still hangs high in Hogg’s mind, with snippets of verse appearing to him as he slings drinks for Rotarians, film executives, and etiolated men of the insurance business. Hogg seems under stress that his old life – his former name and vocation – may be discovered by his customers. And he despises his boss, a Spaniard named Spanish John, and the grind of working in the service industry. Compounding all this is the emergence of popular culture (the novel is set in the mid to late 1960s), which Hogg (like Burgess himself) loathes, and he directs his animus at one rock band in particular: Yod Crewsey and the Crewsey Fixers. This group is clearly based on The Beatles, with Yod himself a stand-in for John Lennon.

It comes to pass that Hogg discovers that his ex-wife and old nemesis, Vesta Bainbridge, has switched careers and become Yod Crewsey’s manager. Worse, the band has plagiarized one of Enderby’s poems, a piece he had left behind during his brief marriage to Vesta. This, naturally, drives Hogg into a rage. When he discovers that the band will be appearing at Piggy’s Sty as part of a high-profile corporate function (even the British Prime Minister will be there) he decides to confront Yod about his thievery. But like Lennon, Yod has offended the religious community by claiming to be bigger than Jesus, and at the event an apparently engaged priest shows up to do more than just confront the band. During the crowded event, he shoots Yod and then places the smoking gun into the hand of the nearest person – who happens to be Hogg. Implicated in the assassination attempt, and in possession of means, motive and opportunity, Hogg races out of the hotel and heads straight to the airport with the idea of fleeing the country.

He buys a ticket for the next available international flight, which happens to be going to Morocco with an overnight layover in Spain. On the plane, he is chatted up by a young, aggressive woman named Miranda Boland. She seems attracted to Hogg and is intrigued by why he is fleeing England so suddenly. A romance stirs between them, and during the layover he ends up in her room for a tryst. But in true comic fashion, the poetry muse returns to Hogg just as he is about to make love to Miss Boland. He leaves her bed to frantically jot these lines down, and she is grossly offended by this. Her anger soon morphs into a need to discover the secret he is clearly keeping from him, and Hogg does everything he can to hide the fact that he was involved in the shooting of Yod Crewsey.

They soon arrive in Morocco and the plot takes more twists. Hogg is able to lose Miss Boland, and he also encounters an old poetry rival, a man named Rawcliffe, living in Morocco and running a bar. Like Yod Crewsey, Rawcliffe had once filched an Enderby poem and claimed it to be his own. As apology for this, the very ill Rawcliffe leaves his bar to Hogg upon his death, which happens very soon thereafter. Meanwhile, the shooting of Yod Crewsey is revealed to be a mere publicity stunt, the muse returns to Hogg full force, and he reclaims his old identity as F.X. Enderby. With the Moroccan bar now in his ownership, Enderby has the financial means – and the inspiration – to resume his writing life.

Needless to say, the plot for this novel is somewhat more scattershot than its predecessor, and Enderby Outside relies far too heavily on a series of coincidences in order to move its story along. Still, I found this book to be even funnier than Inside Mr. Enderby, and that counts for a lot. There was one passage in particular that left me in a paroxysm of laughter, and allowed me to forgive whatever weaknesses the book possessed before or after. In this scene, Hogg, working the corporate event in Piggy’s Sty, runs into one of the poets who had been at the award ceremony held in Enderby’s honour in the first volume, a man named Shem Macnamara:

So that’s who it was. Shem Macnamara, once a poet himself but now, analogously to Mr. Parkin, reformed. ‘Scatch on the racks,’ said Shem Macnamara, like an American. He did not recognize Hogg. He breathed a kind of mouthwash as he opened meaty lips for the drink. Hogg remembered that luncheon long ago that had been given for him, himself, Enderby as he had been, when he had won the Goodby Gold Medal for poetry. Then Shem Macnamara had been very poor, only too ready for a free meal and a quiet sneer at the success of a fellow poet. Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. 
‘Onions,’ said Hogg. He frowned on in puzzlement. ‘Cocktails onions,’ he offered. Well, just imagine. Shem Macnamara deepened his frown. Something in that voice saying ‘Onions’? He did not take any onions.

Well, just imagine indeed.

Volume the third

So here we come to the slim tome that brought me back into the house of Burgess. As mentioned, my first reading of The Clockwork Testament was a revelation, one I have yet to recover from. But I can say, now, unequivocally, upon a full second reading, that it is the weakest volume in the Enderby quartet – and, in places, just a plain bad book. It feels like it was hacked out quickly, sloppily (though the sloppiness, I’ll admit, does provide some wonderful twists in linguistic humour in the opening passages), and hews a bit too closely to Burgess’ own life and prejudices. Indeed, we might argue that this is one of Burgess’ most overtly autobiographical pieces.

In it, Enderby, now a resumed poet and bar owner in Morocco, lands a writer-in-residency position at a New York City university in the early 1970s. (This too happened to Burgess.) All this comes as a result of Enderby providing some editorial support on the script for an implausible movie version of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ long poem “Wreck of the Deutschland.” But the final version of the movie, through the greed of Hollywood, has become a deeply violent and controversial work, which includes scenes of nuns being raped. (This, we can see, is analogous to the violence in the film version of Burgess’ own A Clockwork Orange.) Because Enderby is now in a highly publicized position in New York and his name is included in the film’s credits, he, rather than the film’s director, becomes the target of New Yorkers’ vitriol against the movie. (This too happened to Burgess when A Clockwork Orange became a controversial film. People directed their criticisms at him rather than at director Stanley Kubrick.)

The novel opens with Enderby awakening in his New York apartment, subletted from a radical feminist academic and novelist on sabbatical. (Burgess himself had subletted a New York apartment from radical feminist poet Adrienne Rich.) He receives threatening and anonymous phone calls from people chewing him out about the film. He teaches two courses at the university to a multicultural stew of students that he loathes. (One of them, a young coed, appears at Enderby’s apartment, looking to trade sex for an A.) The first course is on minor Elizabethan poets, and an ill-prepared Enderby conjures one of these completely from his imagination. The second is an intermediate creative writing class, and the students strike him as gormless and untalented. There is a heated exchange with a black student, a set piece that is both unapologetically and unconscionably racist. Enderby is then conscripted to appear on a moronic TV talk show to discuss the controversial film now attached to his name. (This may be a parody of Burgess’s own appearances in the early and mid 1970s on the Dick Cavett Show.) The TV interview goes about as comically as you would expect. The novel finishes with a woman showing up at Enderby’s apartment toting old copies of his poetry books acquired through a Canadian rare book dealer. She is enraged for some reason and threatens to kill him. Enderby convinces her otherwise, but then he suffers a heart attack during the confrontation, and dies.

That’s it. A mere 100 pages and Burgess kills off his most memorable creation. The book is an utter rat’s nest, and Enderby’s politically incorrect encounters and solipsistic world view have dated very badly indeed. Like the two previous volumes in the quartet, The Clockwork Testament is very funny in a number of places. And as a primer on Burgess’ daring linguistic tricks, it is as good as any in his oeuvre. And yet the book leaves a bad taste in the mouth that we cannot escape. It is a mean book in both senses of the term – harsh and judgmental towards its characters, but also impoverished of novelistic creativity and generousness. It is, in the end, a rushed and ill-conceived inclusion in this series of novels.

Volume the fourth

So thank God, then, for Enderby’s Dark Lady – subtitled No End to Enderby. Claiming to have brought back his crabby, dyspeptic hero at the request of fans, Burgess offers this installment as an alt-history version of events to the period following Enderby Outside. Instead of accepting the New York writer in residency on the strength of his film script work, Enderby instead accepts a staff writing position for a musical on the life of Shakespeare being produced in small-town Indiana. This comes on the strength of a curious literary accomplishment – one with especial interest for Canadian readers. Enderby attracts the attention of the Indiana producers after he publishes a short story in which William Shakespeare is the protagonist in a literary journal run at Yorke (sic) University in Toronto. This piece whimsically entangles Shakespeare in Ben Jonson’s spy work and the Gunpowder Plot, and it also claims that Shakespeare contributed to the King James Bible, even insinuating “shake” and “spear” into the translation of Psalm 46.

This short story is published in its entirety at the beginning of Enderby’s Dark Lady, and it is, bar none, one of Burgess’ finest literary performances. He clearly dipped into some B-roll text from his novel Nothing Like the Sun (see my review of it here) and brings this fictive version of Shakespeare vividly alive. Like the novel itself, the short story is an exercise in alt-history (Shakespeare, historians are almost certain, never contributed to the King James Bible) and it is that concept that plays an overarching role in this fourth Enderby story.

Indeed, alt-history rears its head when Enderby arrives in Indiana to contribute song lyrics to the musical about Shakespeare. The producers are convinced the actual known circumstances of the bard’s life are not interesting enough for small-town theatre goers, and Enderby is forced to play fast and loose with the facts in the interest of commerce and entertainment. He also meets and becomes infatuated with one of the stars of the show, an African-American actress performing under the stage name April Elgar. Whereas the Enderby in The Clockwork Testament was flamingly racist and misogynist, this version finds him protective of someone like April. At one point, the play’s director addresses her as “Ape” for short, but Enderby interprets this as a racist slur and comes aboard of the man. His desire for April flourishes and he even follows her to her hometown state for a holiday, gets comically conscripted to deliver the sermon at the local church, and befriends her Aunt Jemima-like mother.

But the real alt-history takes place in the play itself. Enderby is aghast at what the producers are forcing him to morph the script into, and there are plenty of hilarious set pieces in which Enderby attempts to bring some decorum and accuracy back to the production. Along the way, he insults the play’s financiers, mopes when he fails to properly bed April, and even encounters a young Canadian writer driving a cab who suggests that the tropes of science fiction – specifically time and space travel – may be a clever way to approach the telling of Shakespeare’s life. In the end, Enderby himself is comically conscripted to understudy the role of Shakespeare for the play’s dress-rehearsal performance for the local press, and the results are delightfully disastrous.

The novel ends as it began – with a short story outside the main action of the plot. It is obviously Enderby writing the very short story suggested to him by the Canadian cabbie, and involves a 21st-century scientist time-travelling back to 1595 and an alternate version of Earth to help a talentless Shakespeare find his muse. It is a fitting coda to what is clearly the strongest of the four Enderby volumes. Unlike The Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady is tightly organized and well-structured in its thematic explorations. Unlike Enderby Outside, its plot is not scattershot, but rather finely honed and wisely bracketed with two complementary short stories. And unlike in Inside Mr. Enderby, our hero does not merely live in the city centre of his own id, but rather battles with moral uncertainties and even shows a sensitivity to someone other than himself.

As way of summary

The Complete Enderby reveals itself to be an exploration of the creative impulse of one man and the role that others play in either encouraging or hobbling that impulse. This series of books also outlines Burgess’ own level of discomfort with women, since women are overwhelmingly cast into villainous roles in these stories – Vesta, Miss Boland, the woman who longs to kill Enderby in New York, and even April Elgar. Burgess himself had both a domineering stepmother and a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic and shrewish first wife, and these books may be an attempt for him to exorcise some of those demons.

But in the end, we shouldn’t overanalyze these comic novels, since the comedy is the overarching value they bring. Enderby leaves us with a delightful portrait of the impulses of a man who cannot help his own behaviour. These impulses manifest themselves by way of poetry, but also by way of so much more.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is rapidly becoming one of those comfort-food authors for me, a storyteller of such supreme skill and grace that his narratives just seem to flow as naturally as if they have always existed. In Mothers and Sons, his debut short story collection published in 2006, Tóibín shows off his versatility in tackling the short fiction form. The title is both a nod to the Turgenevian tradition (think Fathers and Sons) of laying out an explicit familial theme, and a continuation of one of Tóibín’s most persistent subject matters – the oft-complex relationships that sons can have with their mums, and vice versa. (The most telling example of this from his corpus is the short but brilliant novella The Testament of Mary, which I reviewed in 2012.)

Throw into the mix the experiences of Irishness, of homosexuality, and of the grinding travails of a workaday life, and you’ve got a potent concoction of captivating tales. The most captivating for me was the story “The Name of the Game,” about a suddenly widowed woman named Nancy who discovers that her dead husband has left behind a large amount of debt from their third-rate supermarket business in small-town Ireland. To dig herself out of her financial hole, Nancy scrounges to launch a chip shop and an off-license, and the two businesses prove to be a roaring success. Too much of a success, as it turns out, since it drives a wedge between her and high school-aged son Gerard, who wants to take over the business from her the minute he graduates. But Nancy’s plan is to sell the businesses to wipe out their debts and then move the family to Dublin to create better opportunities for her children. The scene in which Gerard learns of her true plans is as heartbreaking as it is chilling.

There are other stellar pieces in this book. The collection opens with the story “The Use of Reason,” about a professional thief who finds himself in the possession of an expensive piece of art that he struggles to liquidate into easy cash. I also enjoyed the piece “A Song”, about a musician son named Noel who discovers that his estranged mother, a much more famous musician, is playing in the small Irish club he is in. This story has a companion piece, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (a reference to the famed Leonard Cohen song), told from the perspective of that mum, a woman named Lisa, who has abandoned her musical career and the son (Noel) that she had long ago to launch a new family. The story roils back to her musician days and what it cost her sister Julie, who was also in the band. Both stories touch on this idea of how family connections may not be the strongest in our lives, or strong enough to endure the artistic dreams that we hold to be more important.

Not every story in Mothers and Sons engaged me. After such a lively combination of tales in the first half of the book, I must confess to flatlining through “A Journey” and “Three Friends.” But then Tóibín came roaring back with a great closer, a story called “A Long Winter,” about a family’s search for its missing mother who went wandering into a massive snow storm after she was called out on her hitherto undisclosed drinking problem. The grief that her son, the narrator, goes through as he realizes that she is most likely dead and her body won’t be found until the spring thaw, is truly gripping. This story touches on themes of disclosure and how far we can push the ones we love until we’ve pushed them too far. It was a strong, and strongly understated, finisher for what was (for the most part) a deeply immersive and harrowing collection of short stories.

My review of The Testament of Mary.
My review of The Master.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, by Alexis von Konigslow

Can math help to explain our relationships? This question lies at the heart of Alexis von Konigslow’s bewitching debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness. Using two alternating threads, von Konigslow’s narrative explores how our social networks (the old-fashioned, offline kind, that is) can make connections across years and generations, and how they can draw us together as well as pull us apart.

The first thread, set in 2003, involves PhD candidate Emily Kogan, a budding mathematician who flees grad school to return to her Jewish family’s Muskoka resort. Emily is looking to use her left-brain math skills for a very right-brain reason: to map out the various interactions and connections contained within her complicated family history. The second thread, set 70 years earlier, puts a fictionalized version of Harpo Marx as a guest at that same resort. He is there on the lam from both a sputtering film career and the outside world’s growing anti-Semitism. As he gets embroidered in the Kogan family’s history, he comes to learn that there is more to the resort than what first meets the eye. Von Konigslow sashays back and forth between these threads in a kind of dream-like waltz, creating an expert call and response between her two narratives.

While the premise for this book may strike some readers as far-fetched – can we really boil down human relationships and family influences to a series of mathematical equations? – von Konigslow wins us over with both the sheer elegance of her prose and the scope of this novel’s vision. Harpo Marx is fully imagined here, and his experiences help to provide a buttress of plausibility; Emily, meanwhile, proves a worthy lead character for her thread, a woman with a sensitive eye and an open ear. Still, with so much of her story wrapped around her training and identity as a mathematician, one thing that felt missing from her section was, well, math. It would have been interesting to see some of Emily’s actual work – human connections and relationships rendered into math equations – on the page.  

But it is a small quibble in a book that gets progressively more engrossing with each passing chapter. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness explores the importance of history without fetishizing too much the notion of capital-P Past. For a novel concerned with the long-lasting mysteries of yesteryear, its story comes to us with a gripping immediacy.