• Offshore

    William Brittain-Catlin

    I wasn’t expecting much more than some local Cayman colour and a quick look behind the headlines from this exposé on “the dark side of the global economy,” so I was surprised at the originality and depth of Brittain-Catlin’s analysis. It’s less an investigative report than a work of historical psychology, reminiscent at time of Foucault, seeing in the workings of offshore capital the expression of an id-like will to power and lust for absolute freedom. Also worth noting is the explanation of the symbiotic relationship between stateless capital and the “onshore” power of the state. The two feed each other, and not in ways that are healthy for either.

  • The Troop

    By Nick Cutter

    2013 Giller nominee Craig Davidson couldn’t have come up with a less inspired pseudonym than “Nick Cutter” for this (literally) visceral tale of terror, but that’s the only knock you can make against an outstanding pure genre debut full of chills, thrills, and very good kills.

    The set-up finds a group of five teenage boy scouts and one adult scoutmaster camping on an uninhabited island off the north shore of Prince Edward Island. There they are joined by a man carrying a tapeworm that’s been genetically modified into an ultra-fast weight-loss agent/killing machine. The worm duly turns on the troop, leading to a series of nicely escalated and thoroughly repellent gross-out scenes that have the rest of the novel playing out like a splatterhouse version of Survivor.

    Cutter confesses to borrowing the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (intercutting background information in different media forms with the main narrative), but in such a work as this there is no need to acknowledge what are obvious and inescapable debts. Every horror novel has to play within the given conventions, and The Troop is no different: from the gang itself consisting of predictable types such as the Jock, the Nerd, the BFFs, and the Mysterious Loner, to various homages throughout to precursors like Alien, Cabin Fever, and one scene lifted straight out of The Ruins. Familiarity comes with the territory, and the only question is whether it all works.

    And in this case it does, marvellously.

    Consciously or not, Cutter/Davidson has crafted a story that plays to all of his strengths. The island is an all-male environment, and the boys themselves are “machines that [run] on testosterone and raw adrenaline.” These are the two necessary ingredients in all of Davidson’s fiction, and they are well employed again here. In addition, the terror comes by way of bodies disintegrating in stages, another specialty that the author has a natural feel and facility for, with the story itself being a gritty tale of physical endurance, male comradeship, and personal conflict – territory that he handles very well.

    Strong characters, a fast-twitch narrative, a wonderfully disgusting monster, and an obvious delight in going over the top with gory effects, all add up to one of the best horror novels of the last decade, and one certain to be coming soon to a theatre near you. But in this case you really don’t want to wait for the movie.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2014.

  • Fallen Founder

    Fallen Founder
    Nancy Isenberg

    Where, exactly, did Aaron Burr go wrong? He had intelligence, professional competence, and charm. He had a respectable resume from the Revolutionary War. He had connections. He seems to have been no more debauched or corrupt than many of his illustrious peers. And, finally, many of the worst charges against him — about his role in the 1800 election and a later filibustering expedition apparently aimed at invading Mexico — were bum raps. But today he is the black sheep among America’s “founding fathers,” remembered mainly for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel (true) and attempting to overthrow the government in a coup (not true). So . . . where did he go wrong? Ironically, he appears to have been too idealistic, to the point of naivete. A more cynical type — a Hamilton, say, or Thomas Jefferson — would have done a better job of playing the game. Burr wasn’t, he lost, and as we all know, it’s the winners who write history.

  • The Sky Manifest

    By Brian Panhuyzen

    The Sky Manifest is a road novel, of the kind often called “picaresque” because it deals with a wandering, rogue-like figure. The hero, Nathan Soderquist, isn’t a bad man, but he is a tough guy who ends up running from the law for tending to think with his fists and having a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His journey is a wandering one because, after the death of his wife and small daughter (a tragedy he blames himself, a bit unfairly, for), he has no particular destination in mind but only a desire to be moving on, crossing the continent from east to west by car, on bike, and on foot. As he travels he keeps a sporadic journal of descriptions of what the sky looks like, revealing a poetic sensibility and surprising vocabulary.

    As with most road novels, the structure is episodic, with Nathan having various adventures at different stops along the way. These episodes usually have him meeting small-town or backwoods weirdos, and involve inflicting, suffering, or recovering from acts of violence. And when Panhuyzen gets into action mode he’s very good, demonstrating a real flair for bone-jarring confrontations and doing a great job capturing the subjective experience of bodies pushed to their limits. Nathan’s trip starts to seem like a survivalist road race as he endures extremes of thirst, sleep deprivation, food poisoning, addiction withdrawal, and serious physical injury. But through it all he just keeps going.

    If our hero were just an instinctual brute tormented by human feeling — veins standing out like cables on the back of his hands, smashing down buildings just by running into them — the book would be a thrilling, if somewhat limited, success. Nathan is, however, also weighed down with a clichéd back story that strains to make him into an all-too-familiar figure in Canadian fiction: the hypermasculine but emotionally wounded hero who has to be redeemed through love. Indeed, there are times when Panhuyzen plays up this angle to a degree that seems to be aiming at satire. Meanwhile, the dialogue is made to do too much work, and the novel’s larger moral framework slips from convention into improbability in the denouement.

    It’s a testament to how strong the rest of the book is that these problems are overcome. Panhuyzen has a great sense of pace to go with his feel for bodies in motion, and some of the oddballs Nathan encounters, particularly the villains, are wonderfully imagined. The parts don’t always come together to make it a perfect road trip, but there is a great deal to be enjoyed along the way.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2013.

  • Looking Backward

    Looking Backward
    Edward Bellamy

    It’s hard to think of as science fiction, since Bellamy has no interest in the science or technology of the future aside from the “musical telephone” device. Instead it’s a social novel, and this is what really dates it. Even though the “labour problem” and inequalities that Bellamy addresses are arguably as bad today as they have ever been, they no longer exist as a problem on anyone’s radar. Julian West is appalled by all the “Stores! stores! stores! miles of stores!”, but in the twentieth century we learned to love Big Retail. With so much shopping to do, we have entirely given up on visions of the workers’ paradise or socialist dreams of utopia. The real, material nineteenth century won.

  • Smarter Than You Think

    By Clive Thompson

    Most people agree that the digital revolution has dramatically changed the way we live, with some even taking the McLuhanite line that it has fundamentally changed us as well. There is little agreement, however, on whether the changes have been for better or for worse. While not a full-fledged cybertopian, science and tech columnist and blogger Clive Thompson takes the pro-technology side in this new book, arguing that our cognitive behaviour and the quality of our cultural production has greatly benefited from living in a wired world.

    By “technology” what Thompson means is the Internet. Specifically, the new developments or “biases of today’s digital tools” that he looks at are expanded memory, connectivity, and an explosion in publishing and communication. Two points are worth noting in advance: he wants to “accentuate the positive” because, he believes (the point is arguable), that the field has been “flooded with apocalyptic warnings of late” about what technology is doing to us, and he is not concerned with questions of neuroscience and brain chemistry because he doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet to say for sure what the fallout in this area will be.

    The exposition is easy to follow, grounded in stories drawing on scientific studies among controlled groups and people interacting in the real world. The beneficial impact of the Internet is looked at in fields such as early education, health, and politics. And underlying it all is a compelling thesis: that we grow, or evolve, by facing the progressively more difficult challenges that our new enhanced minds hunger for.

    While providing a good read, easy to skim and thick with information on a timely and complex subject, Thompson’s unabashed optimism leaves a number of doors unopened. It is not clear, for example, why the Internet has been of next to no assistance in creating art, or if this is something to be concerned about. The interaction of the Internet with the economy is rarely addressed, with many of the success stories we get being of non-profit or amateur efforts, which may not be all that representative of larger trends. And, perhaps most troublingly, Thompson’s central image of the centaur for the human-machine hybrid mind of the future isn’t looked at critically enough. He recognizes how hybridization raises serious issues of dependence, but he leaves these unexamined. He acknowledges, as a certainty, in his introduction, that “if we’re intellectually lazy or prone to cheating and shortcuts, or if we simply don’t pay much attention to how our tools affect the way we work, then yes – we can become . . . overreliant.” But we already know that, in general, we are all of those things. And so becoming overreliant may be taken as a given.

    If the truth lies somewhere in between the prophets of doom and the cybertopians, then it’s hard not to feel that we are only hearing half the story here. No matter your point of view, however, this book is a worthwhile addition to an important conversation.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2013.

  • Sinemania!

    Sophie Cossette

    Film is a dirty business, and writer/artist Sophie Cossette makes it even dirtier in Sinemania!, a collection of brief sketches of famous movie directors (Welles, Hitchcock, Polanski, Herzog, Tarantino, et al) that emphasizes their twisted psyches and depraved sexual obsessions. Cossette’s art is loud and thick with carnality, and her writing is raucously over-the-top, so it reads a bit like a graphic updating of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, albeit with its tongue stuck pretty far into somebody’s cheek. Lots of fun for cinephiles, and surprisingly well informed and rich with personal insight too.

  • Worst. Person. Ever.

    By Douglas Coupland

    Douglas Coupland is nothing if not contemporary, and so his books are best consumed in a single sitting in advance of any “best before” date. Luckily this is easy to do, regardless of how long they actually are. Worst. Person. Ever. clocks in at over 300 pages but the effect of reading it is comparable to watching back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons.

    In brief, W.P.E. follows the spectacular misadventures of a struggling English cameraman named Raymond Gunt. With a name like that you know who gives the book its title, and what Mr. Gunt’s particular obsession is. Coupland is not subtle.

    As things go along, Raymond Rhymes-With-You-Know-What blunders through a comedy of errors from London to L.A. to Hawaii to an American military base and finally to a small Pacific island where he’s supposed to be part of a film crew on a reality TV show. Along the way he has battles with his ball-breaking ex-wife, picks up a homeless man named Neal who turns out to be “one of nature’s born studs,” and has non-stop pornographic fantasies about almost every woman he meets.

    The island-hopping plot proceeds by way of a kind of dream logic, an impression strengthened by several narrative breaks where Raymond blacks out (he has an allergic reaction to macadamia nuts) and wakes up later to find his situation has changed again. Also dream-like is the anything-goes tone of slapstick obscenity and fantasy, with a special affection for scatological imagery.

    It’s familiar territory for Coupland, from the clever bits of observational humour (the emphasis here being on matters of diet), the 1980s soundtrack, and Wikipedia-style information sidebars to favourite themes like the enduring, if dysfunctional, nuclear family and the abiding threat of nuclear war. And if you’re a fan you should feel some relief that this is his best novel in recent years, a definite improvement over the self-important and generally awful Generation A and Player One.

    A lot of Coupland’s novels have a tendency to fall apart as they go along, dissolving into structural incoherence and ever wilder improbabilities as they race toward an apocalyptic finish. Worst. Person. Ever. avoids this by presenting itself as a fantasy from the start and announcing that it will be drawing on the form of the biji, a genre of classical Chinese literature characterized in an introductory note as being like a notebook of “believe-it-or-not” anecdotes covering a range of subjects. And so while it’s a shaggy dog story, it maintains a certain integrity.

    But while a lot of fun, the book has trouble achieving satiric traction. The chief problem is easy to identify. Why, one wonders, did Coupland choose as his narrator a figure he seems so obviously out of sync with?

    In the first place, Raymond is a Brit, and Coupland, who has long been an advocate for a common North Generican voice in his fiction, doesn’t do dialect well. The “oi” and “blimey” and “mate” talk seems entirely put on.

    Then there is the matter of Raymond’s (mostly-mental) sex life. His wanker fantasies are juvenile, to be sure, but that’s not surprising because Coupland has always had trouble writing about sex in a mature way. But his level of lechery is really not Coupland’s thing, any more than his British accent is. When push comes to shove (so to speak), Raymond gets uncomfortable and comes down with performance anxiety.

    Is this because Raymond is secretly (a secret even to himself) gay? At the very least he’s a closet case. Among the few occasions when he does get a chance to make it with one of the book’s mega-babes he finds himself either suddenly impotent or physically repulsed, with the act itself shoved down a bad-memory hole. Meanwhile, a warm massage of his “mangina” by a male masseuse elicits a better response.

    You can see where this is going, and it gets there.

    It’s silly stuff, but I’ll take a contemporary Benny Hill or Carry On gang adventure over Coupland’s thoughts on technology or religion any day. Coupland is just no good at being serious, and Worse. Person. Ever. is a better novel for not trying to say anything important at all. Despite the time it spends running down junk food, the takeaway is that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few hundred empty calories.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2013. Actually, Coupland followed this up with some quite interesting thoughts, on technology anyway, in Kitten Clone.

  • The Devil in the White City

    The Devil in the White City
    Erik Larson

    The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, popularly known as the White City, brought together a number of interesting currents in American society, and Erik Larson manages to dip into most of them in this novelistic visit. But given the enormous public and critical success the book enjoyed, I’ll confess I came away underwhelmed. It’s much the same response I had to another huge bestseller of true crime, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, and I think for a lot of the same reasons. There is no single coherent story being told, and it’s not even clear what psychological or thematic connection there is between the two leads: architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H. H. Holmes. Furthermore, because the case of the latter is so complex and mysterious, the disjointed coverage it’s given here is both inadequate and hard to follow (I recommend Harold Schechter’s Depraved as a better source on Holmes’s criminal career). Even the writing is overdone and annoyingly repetitive in some of its effects (like the habit of delaying giving the reader an individual’s name until they can guess it for themselves). The effect is sort of like watching a PBS documentary on the Fair, which is fine as far as it goes but I was expecting more.

  • Sexplosion

    By Robert Hofler

    The late 1960s marked a dramatic shift in Western culture generally, and critical veterans of that generation have been increasingly drawn to explanations of what happened and why. In one of the best known accounts of what happened during these tumultuous years on screen, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the film critic Peter Biskind documented how, in the words of his subtitle, the “Sex – Drugs – and – Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” In a subsequent book, Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris marked 1967 as Hollywood’s watershed. The moment for both authors was the same, and so were the pioneering films: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Easy Rider (1969).

    Robert Hofler’s Sexplosion returns to this moment for a look at the sexual revolution in American culture that occurred between 1968 and 1973. He surveys literature, theatre, television, and movies, but his emphasis, as in Biskind’s and Harris’s books, is on film. These were the years when cinema taboos were broken left and right, with the way sex was presented on film being changed forever.

    In particular, what happened is that Hollywood came out of the closet. There were other taboos being broken – on language and nudity, for example – but the Big One was male homosexuality. This is also the clear focus of Hofler’s account, and the taboo subject he clearly sees as central to the revolution. His story of pop rebels is decidedly a “male tale.”

    Male homosexuality didn’t just find its way onto network TV (in All in the Family and the PBS docuseries An American Family), but was absolutely essential to the films of Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey, Myra Breckenridge, Midnight Cowboy, The Boys in the Band, Performance, Death in Venice, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many others. Even in films that weren’t explicitly about gays, a gay subtext was hard to miss. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in the nude in Women in Love? More like Men in Love, some critics sniffed. And Last Tango in Paris? Rumors immediately circulated that Bertolucci “had originally conceived the film as the love story of two men” – rumors that Bertolucci helped to spread. Hofler’s punchline is succinct: “In the late 1890s, Oscar Wilde said that homosexuality was ‘the love that dare not speak its name.” In the late 1960s, Mike Nichols called it ‘the vice that won’t shut up.’” And once the doors (or floodgates) opened, if you wanted to be a sexual revolutionary who was not gay you had to run to the other extreme: a path taken by Kenneth “Nonqueer” Tynan and Sam “Red Meat” Peckinpah.

    Why this moment to come out? That’s harder to say, and Hofler doesn’t really have an answer. It may have simply been a result of the way affluence and comfort lead to tolerance. In any event, it was good business. The more notorious movies were usually made with small budgets but they returned big profits, and money doesn’t talk any louder than it does in Hollywood. “Smashing taboos could be profitable.” Controversy put bums in seats, at least for a while.

    But it didn’t last. Hofler’s final chapter is another version of Biskind’s “we blew it,” as he rambles through what came after the thaw. Already by the end of the period we had reached the year of “porn chic,” while the re-release of an uncut version of Ken Russell’s The Devils in the early 2000s was, for Hofler, only “a reminder of what groundbreaking work the major Hollywood studios once produced on a regular basis in the Sexplosion years – and how diminished that output has been since then.” Coming out as gay had become a very tired rite of celebrity passage around the same time. Public nudity was a human right. Kinky sex had devolved to Fifty Shades of Grey. The culture has become far more permissive, but duller at the same time.

    What makes this absorption into mass culture even more depressing is the realization that very little of the groundbreaking and taboo-smashing art of the Sexplosion was any good in the first place. Who can watch Warhol’s movies today? Or The Boys in the Band? Or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song? (I don’t even know (or care) if I’m spelling that last one right.) Who would want to go to a production of Hair or Oh! Calcutta! for a night out? Myra Breckenridge and Barbarella are curiosities, but terrible movies that can only be seen once or maybe twice. Personally, I don’t think Last Tango in Paris holds up that well, or Death in Venice much better. Even Midnight Cowboy and Carnal Knowledge are period pieces, bereft of any shock value in the twenty-first century and remembered mainly for the strength of individual performances.

    Is this surprising? Liberation isn’t art, and neither is controversy. It’s not even clear if they lead to art, or prepare the way. There was a revolution, and it was televised. The landscape changed, but the figures on the ground have long since been erased.

    Review first published online December 29, 2014.