Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: The Panic Button and The Rajapaksa Stories, by Koom Kankesan

The tragedies and farce that led the small nation of Sri Lanka down the road to chaos and war loom large in Koom Kankesan’s two published works. Both The Panic Button, a novella released by Quattro Books in 2011, and The Rajapaksa Stories, a hybrid novel/short fiction collection published by Lyricalmyrical Books in 2013, use Sri Lanka and its political and ethnic angst as a springboard for Kankesan’s prodigious imagination. I’ve been acquainted with Koom personally for a while now (he and my wife were in school together) but nothing in our relationship prepared me for what I encountered in these two books.

The Panic Button, on the surface, tells a very familiar tale of immigration to Canada. Our narrator, who goes by his persistent nickname “Thambi”, has been smuggled out of Sri Lanka along with his mother and his older brother, Roshan, and into the drab but safe community of Scarborough, in east Toronto. Thambi’s father is unfortunately unable to make the journey with them and remains trapped in Colombo as the conflict there intensifies. The years pass – more than 25 of them –  and the boys grow older as their mother works to keep the family afloat. Their dad, meanwhile, remains but a voice on a telephone line paid for with calling cards.

Thambi and Roshan acclimatize well to their new home in Canada, but one pressure from the old culture continues to persist in their lives: the pressure to get married to a nice Sri Lankan girl. This works out for Roshan when he meets a sweet (if sometimes overbearing) girl named Lakshmi, and they soon become engaged. Thambi, meanwhile, starts an illicit affair with a white girl named Emily, whom he meets through his job as an IT support for a company that sells, among other things, an electronic device comically named The Nipple. Needless to say, Thambi must keep his tryst with Emily, which, weirdly enough, includes elaborate sexual encounters that involve the use of carrots, a secret.

There is an expected twist to the story as Roshan and Lakshmi’s wedding day approaches: Thambi and Roshan’s father is finally able to free himself from Sri Lanka and reunite with the family in Canada. The results are disastrous. The old guys does not approve of the way Thambi and Roshan have been raised, and he does not adapt well to having sons with minds of their own and who are not above defying their parents. This tension comes to a head on the night of Roshan’s bachelor party, when the various strands of the novella come together in what has to be the quintessential screaming match between father and son.

Kankesan’s does a really great job of creating compelling relationships between the characters - especially Thambi and Emily - and uses the strength of those relationships as the fuel to move the story along. The tension that comes to the household after Thambi's dad arrives from Sri Lanka is truly palpable. I also liked the relationship between Thambi and Roshan - it struck me as very true of brothers, the skylarking and competitiveness, but also the deep bond and expectation each one had on the other.

But if The Panic Button is compelling, its narrative is also played up serious and straight. Yet we learn, diving into Kankesan’s second book, that his real talents lie in comedy, in farce, in the games an author can play when fiction’s reality becomes elastic and malleable. The Rajapaksa Stories is unlike anything that I have found anywhere else in Canadian publishing. Here, Kankesan inhabits the very consciousness of Sri Lankan overlord Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ran the country for 10 years starting in 2005 and did everything he could to scupper the peace process. Kankesan intersperses his antihero’s narrative with the voice of Rajapaksa’s dead mother, who chimes in to offer the reader obscure Sri Lankan recipes as a way of counterbalancing her son’s lunacy.

Rarely does a Canadian work of fiction tread such wildly comic and unpredictable terrain. The Rajapaksa Stories offers a playfulness similar to that of Rushdie, a humour that is almost Wodehousian, and a sexual charge reminiscent of Roth. The only work I can truly compare this book to is Julian Barnes’ short, dialogue-heavy novel The Porcupine, which takes us inside the mind of a committed authoritarian. But whereas Barnes’ work was an experiment in earning a reader’s sympathies toward someone with dictatorial leanings, Kankesan is happy to keep his protagonist in the realm of the repugnant.

In this collection of stories, Rajapaksa has all manner of adventures as he tries to maintain his grip on power. He is delusional as he jostles with various family members for control of the country. He gets involved in an online sexual tryst that turns out to be with his own brother. He even travels into space, where the wide expanses of the galaxy prove too small to hold the scope of his ego or his sexual energies. The insouciance in which Kankesan constructs this reality is anything but scattershot. By setting its prose in a perfectly chosen comic key, this book allows all things to be possible.

But the best section in this remarkable book is when Rajapaksa travels to Toronto in 2013 and ends up forging a relationship with its notorious mayor, Rob Ford. These scenes are among the funniest of any I have ever read in literature. The two men end up, among other things, stealing a typewriter from a fellow politician, buying dope from a prepubescent, carving their names into a tree as if they were in love, and painting their faces to resemble the members of the rock group Kiss. These scenes are a cornucopia of delicious boobery. Kankesan then skillfully swoops us back to the serious when Rajapaksa and Ford begin talking candidly about which of them is a worse human being. In a moment that is both comical and deeply horrendous, Rajapaksa wins the discussion by informing Ford that he is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of civilians, a feat that Ford admits he cannot match.

The Rajapaksa Stories is beyond a doubt one of the most creative, exuberantly written, wildly imagined, and flawlessly executed works of comic fiction I have ever read. It is, sadly, also probably one of the most obscure. I was hitherto unfamiliar with its publisher and knew nothing about this work, and I suspect that if you're reading this, you are in the same boat. But if you can seek it out, I can’t encourage you enough to do so. It is one of craziest, most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. You will not be disappointed if you part its pages.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reminder: Reading tonight in Windsor

Just a gentle reminder that I'll be in Windsor, Ontario tonight to read from my poetry collection, Weathervane, along with Dorothy Mahoney, who is launching her collection, Off-Leash. We're at the Biblioasis bookstore (1520 Wyandotte St. E) and the fun kicks off at 7 pm. Hope you can make it!


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interview the Second

So there is now a second interview with me talking about my debut poetry collection, Weathervane. This one is up on the Palimpsest Press blog and was conducted by the lovely and talented Elizabeth Ross. (Check out her own fabulous collection, Kingdom. It's wonderful!) Anyway, this interview goes into a bit more detail about the poetry and my various meanderings. Thanks to Liz and the whole Palimpsest team for putting it up.

And if you're reading this from the Windsor, Ontario area, just a gentle reminder that I'll be in your neck of the woods on Wednesday night of this week, reading at the Biblioasis bookshop with Dorothy Mahoney as she launches her new collection, Off-Leash. Come on out if you can!


Friday, March 18, 2016

Q and A with me on Steven Buechler's blog

Well, I've done my first interview in the wake of Weathervane's release earlier this week. Steven Buechler was kind enough to conduct a Q&A with me on his Library of Pacific Tranquility blog about my poetry, my prose, my reading habits, my impressions of Toronto, and more. Steven generously did a review of my latest novel, Sad Peninsula, on his blog back in 2014, and so I'm very glad he wanted me back with this new book. Anyway, check it and the rest of Steven's blog, full of great book reviews, out for yourself.


Monday, March 14, 2016

My Numero Cinq review of Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff ...

... now on the Numero Cinq website. This novel (or is it a collection of short stories?) is causing quite a stir over in Europe, and I was happy to be asked to review it here. Wolff's prose and structure will prove a challenge to anyone overly comfortable with linear narrative and the pat executions of theme. There are many provocative scenes of sex, violence and corruption, and they all come bundled in a style that feels very sharp and contemporary. Here's a sample from my assessment:

Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Camb√≥, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Anyway, read the full review here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Weathervane launch dates announced

So I'm very excited to let you all know of the confirmed dates I have for launches and readings coming up for my debut poetry collection, Weathervane, to be published by Palimpsest Press on March 15. These events will be happening in Windsor, Toronto and London and will see me share the stage with other illustrious Palimpsest authors. Here are the particulars:

Windsor, ON launch
Where: Biblioasis, 1520 Wyandotte St. E., Windsor, Ontario.
When: Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at 7 pm
With whom: Dorothy Mahoney (Off-Leash)

Toronto, ON launch
Where: Another Story Bookshop, 315 Roncesvalles Ave, Toronto, Ontario.
When: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 7 pm
With whom: Shawna Lemay (Rumi and the Red Handbag) and John Nyman (Players)

London, ON launch
Where: Brown & Dickson Books, 211 King St., London, Ontario.
When: Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 7 pm
With whom: Dorothy Mahoney (Off-Leash)

For those of you in those cities, I hope you can make it out!

And for those of you not in those cities, just a reminder that the book goes on sale March 15 and you'll be able to order a copy from your favourite retailer, including Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, McNally Robinson and others!

I'll post about other readings planned later in the year as soon as I've confirmed the details.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Allow me to join the chorus of readers to heap praise onto this second novel by Patrick Dewitt. The Sisters Brothers won a trophy case-worth of awards here in Canada following its publication in 2011 – including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour – and with good reason. The book is a “western” in the sense that it is set in the United States in middle of the 19th century and has two cowboy-like characters travelling across the territory on horseback, but it is, obviously, so much more, too.

Charlie and Eli Sisters, the novel’s titular brothers, are two hitmen working for a gangster-like figure known simply as “the Commodore.” The brothers’ latest assignment is to track across the country to California to a kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. A second man, Henry Morris, has been sent on ahead to gather information about Warm and to help guide the Sisters brothers to his location. But things go awry when they discover that Warm is in possession of a chemical formula that reveals the location of gold in riverbeds, and the brothers and Morris decided to join Warm in his pursuit of gold rather than kill him. But it is soon revealed that the formula is highly toxic, and in a tense, highly stylized climax, the Sisters brothers barely escape the formula’s grip with their lives.

Of course, like any western, the real pleasure here is the journey rather than the destination. The meat of this novel involves the various adventures the brothers have as they travel to California – adventures that oscillate between the lightly comic and the grossly violent. I’m not particularly well-versed in the western genre, but even I could spot the elements of homage that this novel pays to True Grit – including scenes involving violence against a horse, and a series bumbling moments involving gun fights.

Indeed, this novel draws a lot of its power from its liberal use of light humour: I was especially amused when Eli meets a young woman at a hotel on the road to California with whom he wants to have relations, but she tells him he is too fat for her to find attractive. So he proceeds to go on a diet, which leads to a couple of humorous scenes in a saloon as he tries to order a “lighter” meal. For a ruthless killer, Eli is charmingly insecure about his appearance, and he has even taken up a new-fangled invention called a toothbrush, which also leads to a few comic moments.

The Sisters Brothers may indeed attain “instant classic” status here in Canada. It’s a novel that wears its humour and its violence well. DeWitt’s writing is sharp, clever, incisive and fearless. This novel will find its way to many readers for many years to come.