• Divine Invasions

    By Lawrence Sutin

    Reading biography can be a disillusioning experience. Before reading this early but still authoritative (and more or less official) biography of the SF legend Philip K. Dick I was well aware of many of his problems, especially those regarding his sketchy mental health and truly epic levels of drug consumption. What I didn’t know was how despicable a person he was. That Lawrence Sutin is a highly sympathetic biographer makes such a revelation all the more remarkable, and troubling.

    Dick’s professional career was nothing out of the ordinary. He wanted to be a serious mainstream author, feeling, perhaps a little too keenly, that science fiction was a ghetto. Nevertheless, SF was his true and only métier, and after some early experimentation (and failure) in more realistic forms he settled into genre. The pay wasn’t great and he had to make up for it by writing at great speed, often with the help of copious quantities of amphetamines (which, apparently, his father had started him on as early as the age of six). When success finally came knocking he was basically written out, increasingly absorbed in personal mythologies not unlike those imagined by Blake and Yeats. For various reasons (agoraphobia, hypochondria, natural disinclination) he did not lead a healthy lifestyle and died from a stroke at the age of 53.

    In all of this there is little worth taking note of. It is a fairly typical writer’s life of the time. It is in his personal life that Dick’s story gets ugly.

    Dick was effectively an only child (he had a twin sister who died as an infant). His parents divorced while he was quite young. His reaction to this was to become a dangerous, demanding, self-pitying, and manipulative man-baby who spent the rest of his life trying to wreak revenge upon his mother, who he quite unfairly despised (Sutin remarks that of “all the aspects of Phil’s personality, this is perhaps the most startling and saddening”).

    Since he wasn’t close to his mother as an adult his revenge could only be achieved through a series of proxies. He married five times and had many other lovers and girlfriends. Possessed of charm and minor celebrity, he had no trouble finding women to play the part (and there are always plenty of codependent types who are willing if not eager to play such a part regardless). Within these relationships a pattern became established. While in a relationship he became withdrawn. His writing took precedence over everything. To this end he set up separate working quarters and expected to be free of domestic duties, including the drudgery of child care (he fathered three children). “There were two practical limits to Phil’s parenting,” Sutin tells us. “He never did diapers, and he insisted on quiet while he wrote.” Were there really only these two?

    As with all such types, Dick was the real baby in any relationship. When he did not get his way he turned violent, physically abusing at least three of his wives. This was not mental illness but emotional degeneracy. Says one wife: “His mood swings were more like a child’s temper tantrums than the wild ravings of a lunatic”:

    Phil, when he could not convince me by argument, would sometimes stamp his feet, tear open his shirt – buttons flying everywhere – or stomp off and throw himself on the bed. Sometimes he needed to be held, even rocked, and talked to soothingly. He often demanded all his meals in bed. He had to show me everything he wrote, and I had to read it NOW, not a minute from now. He had no patience. Often, he would snap his fingers to get my attention; this infuriated me.

    At the time of these observations Dick was 44 years old: waking up in the middle of the night and forcing his wife to fetch him a drink and then hold and comfort him, “talk to him as if he were a very small chld.” Later, another prospective mommy turned down his offer of domestic partnership because it would have been too much “like baby-sitting.” Yet another would comment that “whoever was with him at this time would have to be a full-time . . . I was going to say nursemaid – but companion, housekeeper. And not expect the same from him.”

    Nursemaid was in fact the correct word, and the observation that the role of caregiver had no reciprocal benefits is worth underlining. Tantrums and beatings would apparently follow frustration on his part, though always with the understanding that he was the victim of any psychological shortfall. After beating one wife and forcing her to leave (Sutin writes rather callously that “the blows caused no great physical harm, but they ended the relationship”) Dick would later introduce this ex to a friend as “the girl I was in love with until she beat me up.” This is disgusting, as is his plaintive whine about the routine his relationships inevitably fell into:

    in each case I took a young girl who lived at home and had nothing, gave her what she wanted; whereupon she left, with my child. It is as if I am a bridge for fledgling girls, taking them to womanhood and motherhood, whereupon my value ends and I am discarded.

    I think most people would see this as intentionally getting things the wrong way around. The emotionally needy older man taking young “fledgling girls” home with him, sexually and emotionally satisfying himself upon them, then discarding them when faced with the competition presented by a real baby. Except that Dick saw himself as being discarded, as having been used. After the birth of his son, he even claimed postpartum depression.

    For a man-baby has to see himself as the victim, as the one who is always having things done to him. This was very much of a piece with Dick’s paranoia, his sense that big bullies – the I.R.S., the F.B.I, aliens, whatever – were waiting outside the door to pick on him. Behind all these bogeymen was the bad mommy. It was really all her fault. Other women, ones willing to be mothers themselves, would have to be made to pay.

    Dick’s place in the SF pantheon now seems assured, especially given his wholesale adoption by Hollywood. And he remains one of the few SF writers whose work I can return to again and again, his worlds remaining as suggestive and evocative as ever. Of the man himself, however, I feel I’ve now been told more than enough.

    Review first published online February 4, 2016.

  • Debris

    By Kevin Hardcastle

    It’s easy enough to identify the kind of story Kevin Hardcastle writes. His debut collection is concerned with the hypermasculine lives of rural or semi-nomadic men: hard drinkin’, hard fightin’, hard lovin’. This is the land and these are the people that the Internet, and indeed most of the twenty-first century, forgot. There is no law where they live but only a rough code everyone seems to live by. The police are merely an occasional, and unwelcome, presence, registering only as a crude show of force: cruisers that disgorge gangs of big and bigger constables affirming a supposed monopoly on violence.

    This could all slip into caricature, but Hardcastle is a strong storyteller with a real feel for vigorous vernacular and oblique dialogue. He likes gummy, earthy compounds like “thawmud” and “ditchturf,” and rustic-sounding locutions like “left out” for “leave.” As you might expect, his characters are mostly the strong silent type, but they are distinct and individual, stuck in lives of seemingly endless struggle on the fringes of the city, or even the edge of civilization. In one of the best stories, “Hunted by Coyotes,” the main character is literally cast out into these wastelands, drumming up sales for a power company. The work is shady (must of us know the type), but the narrator does have a moral compass, however rough.

    The code that informs such lives is as much genetic as it is moral, and the relationship between fathers and sons is front and center throughout. This, in turn, reinforces the sense of entrapment. These are men – they are almost all men – who don’t so much dwell in the past as fall back into it: debris left behind by the secular rapture of the new economy. In so falling they are rendered invisible, falling off the media radar. Their stories describe a reality rarely encountered in today’s fiction, despite being so much a part of the way we live now.

    Review first published online January 28, 2016.

  • SPQR

    By Mary Beard

    History, especially when it takes the form of a large-scale history attempting to cover the centuries-long rise of Rome, is a story of cause and effect. It’s not so much interested in what happened and when as why it happened and how.

    So . . . why Rome? How did a muddy village on the Tiber go on to create such a dominant and long-lived civilization?

    Taking the long view, the explanations for cause and effect tend to become larger. The historical analysis becomes less interested in colourful personalities and random, contingent factors, no matter how consequential. The drivers of history in the longue durée are vast, impersonal forces, bigger even than the patterns of economic development so beloved of earlier macro-historians. Big History has a more extensive view, dealing with things like climatic changes taking place over thousands of years, and demographic booms and busts.

    So, to the question of why the Roman Empire fell (a matter Mary Beard doesn’t cover in this volume, which only takes the story up to 212 CE when the Constitutio Antoniniana of the Emperor Caracalla made all free men living within the empire Roman citizens), many modern historians point to a population collapse within the empire, brought about by a series of plagues. That’s not as glamorous as the story Gibbon tells, but it may be the best answer.

    At the start of the story, similar forces were at work. How did Rome succeed? By sheer weight of number. As Beard writes: “the single most significant factor behind victory at this period [the initial growth of the Republic] was not tactics, equipment, skill or motivation. It was how many men you could deploy.” As the saying went, Rome could be defeated in battle – even spectacularly destroyed, as at Cannae – but couldn’t lose a war simply because there were too many Romans and their allies.

    A similar appeal to larger forces lies behind Beard’s take on Rome’s rulers, who are seen as less actors than acted upon: “the empire created the emperors – not the other way around.” Dictators didn’t so much seize power in the waning years of the Republic as assemblies of the people gave it to them. The biographies of Caesar and the Caesars have provided fodder for generations of historians but Beard asks “What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make?” Her answer is Not a whole lot. Augustus is still the one indispensable man (Beard singles out his reform of the army pension system, making ex-legionaries dependent on the state – that is, Augustus – and not their generals, as transformative), but “the qualities and characters of the individual emperors did not matter much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments.”

    With this being the general framework, Beard fills in the details in a lively and informed way, careful to register the limits of our actual knowledge. The emptiness of the archaeological and historical record for the early days of Rome in particular makes any kind of reconstruction mostly guess work. Even during the Empire, however, what we know has to be carefully weighed. The barbarians didn’t write their own history, for example, and as Beard points out the critiques we have of Roman imperialism come from members of the Roman elite like Tacitus, as they were the only ones capable of writing or reading history. Most citizens of the empire were illiterate peasants working hard at some form of manual labour from the cradle (or at least early childhood) to the grave.

    It all makes for an excellent overview and guide, though it ends on a somewhat confusing note. Beard insists that we don’t learn from the Romans but instead engage with their history, entering into a conversation with them. I’m not sure this is a distinction that means anything. Perhaps it’s a nod to some sort of active, seminar-style teaching method. In any event, SPQR is a book that adds something both to our understanding of the past and of ourselves.

    Review first published online January 25, 2016.

  • Crash to Paywall


    Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption
    Brian Gorman

    You’ve probably heard by now that these are tough times for newspapers. The standard story has it that the Internet with its “culture of free” and alternative advertising avenues delivered a perhaps mortal blow to the industry, exacerbated by the economic downturn that struck in 2007-2008. Brian Gorman doesn’t disagree with this, but wants to expand the narrative, casting a wider net of blame while at the same time pointing to some signs of hope. While changes in technology have played a key role, in particular up-ending the traditional model of classifieds and advertising that has long sustained newspapers, the industry has also brought a lot of its pain upon itself by cutting costs and in many cases putting out an inferior product (this has been a particular problem with large chains). That said, there have also been many success stories at both the national and local level, with a lot of first-rate journalism still being practised both in print and online.

    The greatest danger moving forward, especially in Canada, is increased concentration of ownership and uniformity of message: the press as a “gated community” with a narrow range of interests, mainly directed toward serving elites. The situation today is so much in flux it’s hard to say how things will ultimately play out, but Gorman provides a great map to the territory we’ve entered and identified the importance of what’s at stake.

  • A Free Man

    By Michel Basilières

    Relationships are hard. They take a lot of work, and even then often don’t work out. This has led to a remarkable demographic shift: at the beginning of this century married people became a minority in Canada for the first time. More of us than ever are living alone, despite statistics telling us that this shortens our lifespans and makes us unhappier.

    The shift to the single life is clearly a choice, and yet at the same time we keep trying to make romantic connections. Modern life has made us sufficient to stand alone, but free to fall in love, over and over again. Samuel Johnson called it the triumph of hope over experience.

    Michel Basilières’ A Free Man is an exuberant sketch entertainment on this timely theme. It takes the form of a story told, over much wine and marijuana, by a man named Skid Roe to his novelist friend. Skid has gone through an experience that encapsulates, in a fantastic way, the fate of the middle-aged single man. Stuck in a not-very-good job as a clerk at a big-box bookstore, his breeding years now behind him, he lives invisible, alone, and isolated. He feels “the essential problem of life is to deal with the outside world,” and he’s not doing a great job coping with that. He prefers the life of (his own) mind: a cocktail of dreams, drugs, cybersex, and literature.

    Then along comes a girl. And not just any girl, but an obliging amateur porn star named NaNa (the repetitive syllables tell a tale). Sadly, however, Skid cannot perform. He is, after all, a middle-aged man. Furthermore, like too many such creatures, he doesn’t learn from the past so that he can move on, but is instead driven by a desperate desire for a do-over with NaNa. Given another chance, he’s sure he’ll be able to get it right. Because people can get it right, can’t they?

    Despite the laws of physics, he’s given this chance. Access to an alternative fate takes the form of a time-traveling robot named Lem (a nod to a writer with a thing for hallucinatory SF stories dealing with people stuck inside their own heads). With Lem’s assistance, Skid is, again, a free man.

    Except he isn’t, really. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, only without the happy ending, our romantic Sisyphus is someone stuck in a loop. The laws of physics may be flexible, but those of human nature are not. We reproduce and consume in an endless cycle, driven by the ineluctable instincts of the pleasure principle. The book’s cover illustration is a perfect representation: is the figure pulling himself out of trouble or falling into another hole? Both.

    This could all be pretty grim stuff, but Basilières pulls it off with a light touch. It’s the kind of story that asks that we not take it, or any story, all that seriously. Skid’s happiest moments are spent in time travel, when he steps outside of reality entirely and the outer world is erased. Only then does he feel truly free from pain, responsibility, and need. The message seems to be that since nothing you can do will change your destination, you might as well embrace your fate and enjoy the ride.

    Review first published online January 18, 2016.

  • Entropic

    By R. W. Gray

    R. W. Gray is a writer determined to avoid convention, one whose stories both intrigue and occasionally push the reader away. They are impossible to classify in terms of genre, and are set in a slightly off-kilter reality that reflects our own only in a distorted way and through obscure language and images.

    The experience is like witnessing a performance of experimental theatre or cinema. In the first story in Entropic, his second collection, a couple have a secret room with a special light box that allows them to edit their own lives as though it were a film. Elsewhere we meet a beautiful man who stages his own unconscious coupling, an actress portraying patients in a training program for med students, and a man who films himself sleeping until he’s “watching his life like it’s a TV show.”

    A handful of motifs are touched upon: the uncanniness of beauty; dreaming and sleep; the middle-age desire to do one’s life over again; and perhaps most of all a feeling of being buried or submerged. Even in the middle of the desert a character “drowns” in sleep, which is a process that leads to the revelation of another world time and again in these stories. These motifs weave together, and for such a varied collection there’s a strong if subtle sense of unity.

    The most successful stories are those that remain tied to everyday experience; when Gray wanders deeper into the field of fantasy, as in the story “Sinai,” he becomes less accessible. The same can be said of the writing, which can be strained and remote but also evocative and poetic. The end of the final story, “Mirrorball,” is a nice example of the latter, using sound and rhythm to create a hypnotic susurrus of sleeping nature that rounds the story of a duo of doppelgangers to a dreamy conclusion.

    In short, it’s an uneven collection. But when Gray is good he’s very good, his modern parables peeling off layers of convention to get at universal subconscious truths, submerged archetypes and emotions.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2015.

  • Stranger Than We Can Imagine

    Stranger That We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century
    John Higgs

    At the turn of the millennium there were a host of books published looking back on the twentieth century. Fifteen years later, some of the dust has settled and perhaps we have a clearer idea now of what it all meant. This new “alternative history” seeks to “step off the main highways and towards the dark woods” of the twentieth century, looking to define “a broadly coherent direction” bringing us to where we are today.

    The journey isn’t quite as strange as all that however. Many of Higgs’s key personalities in the strange story of the century are familiar ones like Einstein and Freud, here seasoned with alternative figures like Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand (if we can still think of Rand as outside the mainstream). And the general point that the century saw a drift away from certain moorings, becoming a “post-omphalos world” (that is, one without a fixed moral or intellectual center or locus of authority), is also pretty standard.

    Where Higgs is best is in suggesting a “broadly coherent direction” in science, art, and political thought. In the language of -isms this takes us from relativism and individualism through liberalism (and neo-liberalism), to nihilism and narcissism. The end point is the network: “a planet of individuals” that Higgs is more optimistic about than many.

    As with all such general histories, this is a sweeping survey that tries to build its argument through pattern recognition and the use of significant lives and details. Much of it is more a well-worn trail than an alternative path, but Higgs does point out some interesting points along the way that we may have missed, and provides a decent guide to the century’s unsettled geography.

  • Disposable Futures

    By Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux

    Disposable Futures is a populist political and philosophical manifesto, but one that is not always easy to follow. This is mainly because it is primarily an academic work, with deep roots in French critical theory (in particular it draws heavily on the Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord). The authors clearly want to reach a broad audience, as they are responding directly to popular culture and write in an impassioned, rhetorical voice, but the general reader will find much of their analysis a tough slog.

    By “spectacle” the authors mean the productions of the mainstream media. All of this content, from news programs to reality TV to zombie films, has a political role, as culture is always political even as it seeks to de-politicize. That role is to propagandize for neoliberal ideology (“neoliberal” being an overused word here, standing for the most brutal and exploitative aspects of free market capitalism).

    There are three essential points to the neoliberal message. In the first place, a certain segment of the population are now considered disposable: excess lives of no value except perhaps as fodder for violent entertainment. Second: the neoliberal triumph is the inevitable end of history. As the phrase has it, there is no alternative. Finally, and a bit surprisingly, this inevitable end is not Utopia but catastrophe. Neoliberal ideology has appropriated disaster and made the logic of capitalism not progress but rather regression to a savage state of nature. Optimism is an Orwellian thoughtcrime. The future, in other words, has also been made disposable.

    These points are all well worth considering, and are helpfully related to various current trends in pop culture centered on the normalization of violence. The connection between disposable people and zombies is especially apt, while the chapter on Internet surveillance is the only part of the book where the authors seem to go wandering.

    What’s unfortunate is that these ideas are not presented in a more accessible voice. If you’re not accustomed to the use of “imaginary” as a noun than you’re not going to be up to speed, and the mostly unnecessary borrowings from other theorists and academics will likely only lead to confusion. Such specialized language is unsuited for a book of this sort, which has something important to say to all of us.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2015.

  • Arms

    Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun
    A. J. Somerset

    Books about North American gun culture will always be timely since there’s rarely a moment when a mass shooting isn’t making the news in the U.S., followed by the usual handwringing (and not much else) over the need to enact stricter gun control laws. A. J. Somerset’s excellent — and, yes, timely — work of cultural history and social psychology goes behind the headlines, however, in an attempt to locate the “wellspring of crazy” that has created today’s neo-Wild West environment, with its “mainstreaming of increasingly loopy ideas.” From a history of the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment and various gun lobby groups in both Canada and the United States, through a taxonomy (or “bestiary”) of today’s gun nuts, Somerset, who is a gun owner and hunter himself living in London, Ontario, provides a witty and informed survey of the terrain, albeit one that doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for change. Laws and the justice system are only snapshot reflections of what are deeper social and cultural values, values that have been a long time forming and which can only evolve at a relatively slow pace. We’ll likely be drawing from the wellspring of crazy for a while yet.

  • The Last Word

    By Hanif Kureishi

    There is no more ignoble task than writing the biography of a celebrity.

    In all but the most exceptional cases you’ll first need to get access – but access always comes at a price. Biographers have a special relationship with their subjects, one that inevitably leads to compromise.

    This was dramatically brought to public attention earlier this year when there was a fuss over Mark Whitaker’s “definitive” biography of Bill Cosby (Cosby: His Life and Times), a book that somehow managed to avoid any mention of the allegations of sexual abuse and rape that had been made against Cosby, or a civil suit against him that was settled out of court.

    As more, and still more, women came forward accusing Cosby of being a serial sexual predator, Whitaker had to admit that he probably should have pursued the initial allegations more aggressively.

    Still, it’s hard to blame him. This is how celebrities lead the media dance. Access is a commodity to be traded in. Cosby had previously made a deal with the National Enquirer, giving them an exclusive interview in exchange for spiking a story involving allegations of sexual assault. Closer to home, during the early days of Jian Ghomeshi’s fall from grace we learned of how his publicist sought to kill a Toronto Life story on the radio host’s sex life in exchange for giving the magazine access to the CBC host for a profile piece.

    As pointed out by Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing in Salon, there is nothing strange about this kind of behaviour. “You want access? In return, you have to play by the subject’s rules.” Wary biographers need to

    take a look at what their subjects, when feeling cornered and confronted with questions and criticism, are capable of. It can involve threats and intimidation and flat out playing dirty, on the part of very powerful people. This is the sausage-making process in action, folks. It’s not pretty, is it?

    No, it isn’t. It is, however, rich material for satire, which is where Hanif Kureishi takes it in The Last Word.

    Our hero, Harry, is a young freelance writer with a pregnant, shopaholic girlfriend. In other words, he’s looking for a score. So his rakish publisher, Roger, sends him off to write a biography of the aging literary lion Mamoon Azam, who is living the life of a squire on his country estate while generally pretending to still be a writer.

    Everyone has an agenda when it comes to telling the story of Azam’s life. Roger wants something sensational and sexy. He wants a big-time takedown, because that’s “where the public like their artists – exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers . . . That’ll teach’em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wage slaves like us.”

    Meanwhile, Harry’s family see him as victim of a “manic egotist” who only wants “a flattering portrait of his big head.” To that end, Azam’s wife has carefully vetted candidates to come up with someone she feels can be intimidated and seduced into writing pure hagiography: a bio that will revive Azam’s reputation by making him out to be “the last of the postwar literary geniuses, there being only blogs, trolls, and amateurs from now on.”

    With those being the battle lines, and any notion of the truth tossed to the breeze, the dirty dance begins. Harry is directed to some sources, but forbidden others. Azam will only answer the questions he wants to answer, becoming insulting and defensive at those he dislikes. He knows that his legacy is what’s at stake, and that this is all he has left given his recognition of the fact that few older artists produce significant work.

    We like to think of authors as being slightly above the common run of celebrity: more sensitive, intellectual, and morally advanced. They aren’t, and to be honest they don’t make very interesting biographical subjects either. After all, what do they do but spend most of their day sitting at a desk?

    Kureishi’s satire of the sausage-making biography business underscores all this. It’s a dark literary comedy full of petty and selfish people on the make, using one another, and generally making fools of themselves. As Harry ruefully concludes, “biography is a process of disillusionment.”

    It’s not pretty, but it’s funny because it’s true.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star June 13, 2015.