• The Unauthorized Version

    The Unauthorized Version
    Robin Lane Fox

    I have a lot of respect for Robin Lane Fox as a historian, but he sometimes misses the forest for the trees. This account of “truth and fiction in the Bible” is as dry as it gets, and often wanders from a point that isn’t clear to begin with. For example, it puts a lot of weight on the argument that the “beloved disciple” of the fourth gospel is the apostle John himself, which is something I can’t sign on to. It may be true, but I doubt it (though I’m no expert on these matters). In any event, if you stick with this one you’re sure to learn something, but the general reader will likely find it a hard slog.

  • Unexploded

    By Alison MacLeod

    Even the highest of highbrow book snobs will confess in unguarded moments to enjoying some favourite flavour of popular fiction, and if you look closely you’ll find it’s often the case that the most critically successful literary novels are crossbred with commercial genres. Formula helps gives these books an extra bit of narrative backbone, and makes them more accessible to a larger audience.

    This is especially true for historical romance, which has long been this country’s default mode for serious, prize-winning fiction. Alison MacLeod, who was raised in Montreal and Halifax and now lives in England, knows the genre well. Holding firm to the conventions while adding a few twists of its own, her new novel Unexploded (longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize) is a romantic period piece that tells a compelling and complex tale of forbidden love.

    The heroine, Evelyn Beaumont, is an upper-class British woman married to a very proper bank manager named Geoffrey. The setting is Brighton in 1940-1941, and as the events take place the air is thick with anticipation of a German invasion.

    But while Hitler stares across the Channel, all is not well on the home front. The magic has gone out of the Beaumont marriage. Evelyn is a passionate woman with a keen interest in modern art and modern fiction (she particularly admires Virginia Woolf, and even attends one of Woolf’s lectures on the “new” novel). Geoffrey is, well, a banker. He is also colour-blind and can no longer get it up for his wife. But despite these incompatibilities they have settled into a matrimonial routine that they both seem to find some comfort and stability in.

    Into this mix one Otto Gottlieb is introduced. Otto is a German exile who winds up in a labour camp supervised by Geoffrey. He is also an artist — in particular a practitioner of the kind of “degenerate” modern art condemned by the Nazis. Evelyn meets him while volunteering to read Virginia Woolf to the inmates of the camp, and immediately a spark is struck. Otto, though dangerous and damaged, seems sensitive, thoughtful, and aware to Evelyn. In return, he recognizes model material in her surreptitiously spied naked form

    Meanwhile, Geoffrey begins to stray and takes up with a prostitute in London.

    The path of love never runs smooth in novels, and there are some especially odd twists in this one. But the plot is neatly — almost too neatly — handled, and MacLeod does a great job capturing the confusion of passions that control her characters. Evelyn takes from Woolf the axiom that we are all many people, a theme that is explored with sharp psychological insight and deft dramatic juggling.

    Where the novel gets into trouble — and this is where most historical romances struggle — is with its heavy-handed moral lesson. Otto isn’t just a victim of Nazi art critics; he is a Jew, and a former inmate of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Complicating things further, Geoffrey is an anti-Semite with an inclination toward the politics of Oswald Mosely and the radio broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw. Geoffrey is also the kind of guy who, when criticized by Evelyn for the way he runs his labour camp, defends himself by saying that he’s only following the rules.

    We understand. Really.

    This triangle would involve irony enough, but MacLeod goes even further, making Geoffrey’s mistress another refugee Jew. Finally, in case you’re still missing the point, there is a subplot involving Evelyn’s son falling in with a Brighton boy who is both a raving anti-Semite and a murderous juvenile psychopath.

    Almost every novel set during the Second World War has anti-Semitism as a major theme now, given how the historical meaning of that conflict has become centered more and more on the Holocaust. But even so, it is a note introduced so repetitively here as to distract us from the rest of the story. This is a shame because MacLeod is a very good writer and it feels as though she’s saddled herself unnecessarily with driving home such an obvious political message. Somewhat surprisingly for a historical romance, it’s the romantic conventions that are the least formulaic parts of Unexploded, while history itself is presented in more predictable terms.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star November 10, 2013.

  • The Dating Game Killer

    The Dating Game Killer
    Stella Sands

    It’s interesting that in the brief pop history time capsules that stud this book Stella Sands never mentions the release of Dirty Harry in 1971, meaning it might have been seen by Rodney Alcala during his own criminal career. The two reflect one another, as Eastwood’s no-nonsense cop had his own way of addressing the dysfunctions in the Californian justice system that Alcala managed to exploit for so many years. That omission aside, this is one of the better efforts in the St. Martin’s True Crime series, I think mainly because more is known about the events being described. A lot of true crime books stumble through trying to be first to press. Though his final trial only concluded in 2010, the murders Alcala committed occurred decades ago and the long and muddled judicial history of his case (bungled by both sides, to be fair) is extensive. You can certainly see where the appeal of a figure like Dirty Harry came from.

  • Kitten Clone

    By Doulas Coupland

    Kitten Clone is the third in a series of books published by Writers in Residence, an imprint “dedicated to recording and describing key institutions of the modern world.” The thinking behind the series being that these are institutions whose inside workings aren’t widely reported on.

    The collaboration by Douglas Coupland and photographer Olivia Arthur draws a portrait of Alcatel-Lucent, one of the tech industry’s major players and a company that provides a lot of the infrastructure for today’s Internet.

    It’s not a corporate history (thank heavens!) so much as a report on the state of Alca-Loo’s soul and a musing on what the Internet has done and is doing to us, full of the sort of freestyle musings – some of them insightful and profound, others banal or contradictory – that Coupland is famous for.

    Though primarily concerned with the ubiquity and invisibility of modern technology (just think of “the cloud”), it’s a book that’s structured around discreet units of time and space, with chapters that look at the company’s past, present and future by way of visits to its different global headquarters and interviews with employees.

    There is an air of determinism in this grounding. The office buildings, for example, were designed so as to lead to certain effects, like increased socializing. And of course the company’s product is today’s pre-eminent driver of McLuhanesque technological determinism. The Internet is the tool that shapes its maker:

    Never has an invention so quickly been adopted by the entire species and then, once having been adopted, gone on to bend the species to its will – the servant has become the master.

    Coupland has seemed less interested in writing fiction of late, a development that I think is better for everyone. Kitten Clone is his best book in years, with only a few of his familiar, grating miscues. One of these is his attempt to popularize names that will stick to social phenomena, as though trying to recapture the branding success of Generation X. I don’t think “blank-collar worker” (the anonymous wreckage of the middle class that is now sinking into skill-less prolehood) is likely to catch on in the same way.

    But as interesting as much of it is, Kitten Clone is a sad book as well. In the first place, despite being a huge and very wealthy company, Alcatel-Lucent is constantly shedding employees and its research is being guided more and more by the bottom line. Worker morale doesn’t seem high.

    Also sad is the fact that its glory days are behind it, with the oatmeal-carpeted corridors of the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey appearing to Coupland as existing “under a massive bell jar in which time has gone static, and there is the distinct sense here of being, if not embalmed, trapped in the past.” The “sense of invention . . . the sense of futurity – the sense that by working in tech you were somehow building a better tomorrow, a cooler tomorrow, a smarter tomorrow, a more democratic tomorrow” exists now only in China.

    And China, just beneath its modern façade of wealth, gives off an “overpowering sense of damaged brilliance,” a place that seems destined for speedy ruin.

    The people we meet seem decent enough, and very smart, but you don’t have the sense they share the same belief in the future as previous generations of tech pioneers. The impact of their industry on the environment, and the general sustainability of the digital revolution, is a shared concern, but aside from improving the energy efficiency of their devices no one seems to have any real idea of how to fix things.

    A question Coupland keeps returning to is “What are we learning about ourselves from all of this new technology that we didn’t already know?” The disappointing answer seems to be: nothing. If the Internet is a tool that shapes its maker it is also one that was made very much in its maker’s image, a machine driven by the economic imperative to supply human demands. Given an economy capable of sustaining those demands we might then expect the future to lead to more – much, much more – of the same.

    Review first published December 6, 2014. I don’t know if Coupland was the first to come up with the term “blank-collar worker.” Then again, he didn’t invent “Generation X” either.

  • J. Edgar Hoover

    J. Edgar Hoover
    Rick Geary

    For a cartoonist/graphic novelist to take on a full-fledged biography it helps to have a wedding of subject and visual style. Rick Geary’s “famous murderers” collections are more about narrative and atmosphere than character, so to illustrate the life of long-serving FBI director J. Edgar Hoover one looks for a more personal connection. I find it in the expressionless faces and depthless shading created by the wire-work of horizontal lines. Geary doesn’t have a strong, emphatic line that clearly articulates space, but he has a lot of them, and together they run across the gray suits like some sort of binding agent, and in a few cases even be-whisker his G-men into feline feds. About Hoover himself we don’t learn much aside from just the facts, but aren’t we all familiar with the type? He was the sinister, manipulative, information-hoovering, monopoly-minded, control-freak company man, living at a time just before the digital age set those same anti-social tendencies free to prey on the rest of us. Today, of course, we know all about the power lurking behind the throne of presidents and the screens of our computers.

  • The Once and Future World

    By J. B. MacKinnon

    Facing looming catastrophes brought on by global climate change, peak oil, or unmanageable levels of public debt, you have to wonder: even if we could make the switch to a truly sustainable world — one with a radically different economy and different lifeways — would it be one we’d want to live in?

    That question lies, partly hidden, at the heart of this new book by environmental food movement guru J. B. MacKinnon (co-author of The 100-Mile Diet).

    The book begins with an account of our long slide into what he calls a “10 percent world”: the ballpark figure he comes up with for the fraction of nature remaining today (in terms of number of species and extent of living systems). MacKinnon is very good when it comes to analysing our mental failures, from outright denial to a form of cultural amnesia that leads to a ratcheting effect of shifting baselines when it comes to imagining nature as it was, is, and can be. Young, urban dwellers with no personal connection to nature or memory of what the world used to be like take our current “10 percent world” as the new normal, making further declines less noticeable.

    The resulting drift becomes a maxim of historical ecology: “we excuse, permit, adapt — and forget.”

    Here, for MacKinnon, “is the most uncomfortable lesson to be taken from the history of nature: that we can survive — thrive, even — in a degraded natural world.” We don’t really need brown bears or buffalo. “Large areas of the globe have lost all or nearly all of their largest animals and most ancient forests, and yet they remain desirable locations for people to live.”

    How we got here may only be the result of unconscious, or at least ill-informed choices, but they have been choices none the less. MacKinnon is slippery on this point. He describes our 10-percent world as “a tastefully appointed ecological wasteland,” the result of our having “been adrift as a species, making choices without remembering what our options are.”

    But to put the blame on drift rather than choice is to excuse too much.

    For example, MacKinnon asks us to consider the fact that most people today “eat next to nothing that is hunted or gathered from the terrestrial surface of the earth.” Our ancestors might have considered such an outcome “bizarre if not apocalyptic,” but MacKinnon goes too far when he says the present situation “can’t be said to be the product of choice” and that “we drifted to this point, generation by generation.”

    On the contrary: billions of consumer choices are exactly what got us here. And it’s not at all clear that we would choose to go back, even if we could, to hunting and gathering.

    One can sympathize with MacKinnon’s point of view. But in his yearning for “a single crowning reason that we should live with more natural abundance, not less, a richer rather than a poorer state of nature” he falls back upon the notion that we “simply prefer a wilder world” and will make a choice for change.

    Which is only true up to a point. All other things being equal, we’d like to live in a more abundant natural world. But all other things aren’t equal, and we have made the choice to go in another direction: toward greater personal comfort, convenience and high-consumption lifestyles, and to hell with the long-term costs. This is an inconvenient truth.

    The Once and Future World is vital reading, but also typical of a lot of books about the environment today. It presents a clear-eyed description of the current, truly desperate situation. It then offers an arguable account of how we got in this mess (the drift theory), and concludes on a vague, trying-to-be-hopeful note. We can’t recover a mythical, pristine nature, MacKinnon writes, but we may be able to proceed “more carefully and consciously” into a future world “true to the past and unlike anything seen before.”

    That final note, at least, is hard to disagree with. The future will be unlike anything humanity has experienced before.

    Just remember this much: you were warned.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 10, 2013.

  • So We Read On

    So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures
    Maureen Corrigan

    As an English professor, public speaker, and literary critic for an arts program on public radio, Maureen Corrigan is well qualified to take the general reader on a tour of one of the books most often shortlisted for the title of Great American Novel: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic The Great Gatsby. Corrigan, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have much new to say (what else is there new to say?), but she does provide a good overview of some of the major themes and motifs in the book while placing  it in the context of the rest of Fitzgerald’s life and work. The emphasis is on showing how The Great Gatsby went from being a work of its time that failed to find much of an audience, to its current status as a novel that even people who don’t read have probably read: a cultural evolution that has as much to tell us about America and its vision of itself as the story of Gatsby does.

  • The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

    By Graeme Smith

    In The Dogs Are Eating Them Now journalist Graeme Smith, who now lives in Kabul and who reported on the fighting in Afghanistan for the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009, presents a series of dispatches from “our” war in that country, tracking Canada’s involvement in the unstable region around Kandahar.

    It’s very much a grunt’s-eye view, and readers looking for geostrategic analysis or an answer to the question — one that has its origin in the American experience in Vietnam — of “Why are we in Afghanistan?” may be disappointed. Suffice to say it all had something to do with responding to a terrorist threat and building democracy, but these weren’t entirely convincing rationales to begin with and in the end haven’t produced great results. “At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war,” Smith concludes. “At worst, it’s a looming disaster.”

    “Over a decade of war in Afghanistan,” he writes, “has settled nothing, and that in itself is profoundly unsettling.”

    Such an assessment makes Smith’s analysis of where things went wrong (and, in some cases, right) all the more important. In-depth, investigative reporting — journalistic “boots on the ground” — is becoming ever more essential in a world of media-controlled conflicts, where the battlefields are clouded with the fog (or, in Smith’s preferred metaphor, the sand) of war.

    Smith has a case and he makes it forcefully: “The world needs to understand what happened and draw lessons from this debacle — and the only way of reaching those conclusoins is by visceral immersion.”

    Such immersion is offered as a counterbalance to spinmasters intent on pumping out “industrial-grade propaganda” for public consumption. Spin can be dangerous stuff, especially given the “frightening possibility” Smith raises that the generals and politicians running the show in Afghanistan may have actually come to believe their own press, living in bunkered intellectual green zones.

    The reality check is that Afghanistan has become a violent place where politics is intensely local and government thoroughly corrupt. The seemingly endless fighting (which has gone on for decades now) has had the effect of creating a moral callousness and “life is cheap” attitude.

    There are many examples provided of this casual morbidity. The book’s title comes from an incident Smith witnessed where Canadian forces used Taliban corpses as bait to draw out insurgents, but instead had to watch the bodies eaten by wild dogs. Elsewhere we visit a morgue overflowing with so many corpses the staff can no longer document them, see anonymous body parts stuck to the side of armoured vehicles after a bomb blast, and meet an Afghan governor staring “with mild disappointment” at gruesome carnage left after a Taliban attack (he had expected more bodies).

    “Death does not inspire the kind of seriousness in Kandahar that it does in rich countries,” Smith concludes. And what a world of tragedy is in those words.

    In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the narrator Marlow finds a note written by the mad trader Kurtz, where Kurtz revisits his earlier ideas about bringing civilization to the Congo and suggests instead that the Company “exterminate all the brutes!” The same line appears in the movie Apocalypse Now, the updating of Conrad’s story to the jungles of Vietnam, where it’s found scribbled among Kurtz’s papers.

    At the end of Smith’s journey we get another version of the same sentiment, this time scratched into a bathroom door at the Kandahar air base: “NUKE AFGHANISTAN.”

    The many echoes of Vietnam in the 9/11 wars have been often pointed at and argued over. Comparisons are usually avoided by politicians and military leaders, for obvious reasons, but they can still be instructive, especially if we want to avoid that conflict’s long and unhappy legacy.

    Accepting a moral responsibility to do better, where do we go from here? Smith does not seem very hopeful, but advocates staying engaged. What this mostly means is that “the foreign money needs to continue flowing.” It’s unclear, however, how much money can do to prop up a corrupt government or help rebuild a damaged and dysfunctional economy, especially given the level of mistrust that many of the Afghan people feel toward the West.

    Let’s hope that some lessons have been learned.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star October 6, 2013.

  • Who Owns the Future?

    Who Owns the Future?
    Jaron Lanier

    The short answer to the question posed in the title of Jaron Lanier’s latest take on the digital dispensation is “siren servers”: an infelicitous new term that basically just means the powers at the top of the information economy food chain. Despite the difficult and unnecessary terminology he invents (he even has “antenimbosia” for computing “before the cloud”), Lanier has a pretty direct and easy-to-follow take on where things are heading and steps we might take to create a new, more sustainable economic model based on a strong middle class and long-term  planning (for his earlier manifesto on the crisis, see my review of You Are Not a Gadget). In short, Lanier’s solution is that information should not be free but rather monetized through a system of micropayments to its creators. Such a program probably won’t be acted on, as power elites (siren servers or whatever) usually prefer to go down in flames rather than surrender any part of their privilege, but it’s an interesting alternative that highlights much that is wrong with the present system as well as the likely roots of its eventual and inevitable demise.

  • Bleeding Edge

    By Thomas Pynchon

    Is there some moral or professional principle that Thomas Pynchon — America’s best-known-for-being-least-known author — has been trying to affirm by shunning interviewers and photographers for going on fifty years now?

    Is it that he doesn’t want to be seen as just another media whore in a world where fame is so cheap?

    Or is he someone trying to stay in control of his own publicity, jealously protecting his eccentric brand with Oprah-like intensity?

    More to the present point, even with a new book out one has to wonder: were he to end his media exile now would anyone care?

    Over the last half-century Pynchon hasn’t developed much as a writer. In this reviewer’s (admittedly lonely) opinion his best book was The Crying of Lot 49, which came out in 1966. Favourite among fans is probably Gravity’s Rainbow, which was in 1973. The dates tell you something about where the author’s head is still at.

    In these and other early works all of the essential ingredients of Pynchon’s oeuvre, both in terms of style and theme, were in place. Since then the same elements have been recycled in different contexts and settings, albeit with diminishing returns. We now know exactly what to expect: political paranoia mixed with slapstick humour, comicbook characters with cartoon names, lots of silly song lyrics and dreadful puns, a fascination with the dark side of technology and the role of conspiracies in history, and outrageously complex plots that are never fully resolved.

    Bleeding Edge is his most contemporary work — it’s set in Manhattan in 2001, just before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — but it seems like only the names and dates have changed in forty years. This time out Pynchon’s detective heroine is Maxine Tarnow, a fast-talking Jewish mother and Certified Fraud Examiner “gone rogue.” For Maxine “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen … you can never have too much”: words that she may want to reconsider after getting sucked into a vast right- left- and everything-in-between-wing conspiracy involving the FBI, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorists, hackers, amateur porn producers, and the whole pyramid racket of late capitalism.

    Domestic paranoia today tends to focus on two economic sectors — finance and the Internet — whose power and influence have expanded exponentially despite the lack of any clear understanding among the public of what it is they actually do or how they do it. What were in all those collateralized debt obligations? Not even the people who invented them knew for sure, but they rocked Wall Street in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And just how many people are (at least potentially) spying on you every time you open your Internet browser? Too many to count … even if there were some way of counting, which there probably isn’t.

    Pynchon’s main target in Bleeding Edge is this shadowy financial-digital complex, near the center of which sits a villainous dot-com billionaire/CEO cybercriminal named Gabriel Ice. But at least one reader will confess to being unable to tell you much more than that.

    There is a method, however, to the muddle. The point seems to be that if we really knew what was going on we’d likely be more depressed than alarmed by “conspiracies” that are really just a lot of stupid, greedy people acting in narrow, mean-spirited and selfish ways. Like Maxine (or her precursor Oedipa Maas) we all harbour a spiritual yearning to believe in powerful unseen forces at work, even if they are totally evil and threaten our destruction. Because if no one is pulling the strings, if no one is really in charge, then we may be in even bigger trouble than we think.

    It’s a shame Bleeding Edge isn’t a better book. Like a lot of Pynchon’s major efforts it’s messy and bloated. The plot may be deliberately incomprehensible, but this only makes it less involving. The characters are thin and the attempts at humour fall flat. The writing is clever in spurts, but awkwardly driven by fractured dialogue with odd tics like ending sentences with question marks and including with every movie title mentioned the year of its release in parenthesis.

    But underneath it all is Pynchon’s still relevant, sustaining vision: that post-1960s America has lost its innocence and freedom to the forces of big government and big capital. This message was especially clear at the end of his last novel, Inherent Vice, where the Psychadelic Sixties are imagined as a “little parenthesis of light,” a “dream of prerevolution” snuffed out by corporate suits.

    That countercultural spirit is also felt in Bleeding Edge. We see it when, for example, Maxine walks through the “new” New York City, discouraged by how real estate developers have made the formerly grubby place “Disneyfied and sterile.” Maxine feels “nauseous at the possibility of some stupefied consensus about what life is to be, taking over this whole city without mercy, a tightening Noose of Horror, multiplexes and malls and big-box stores . . . Aaahh!”

    This betrayal of the spirit of the summer of love is part of our pop history now. Today we are all children of the ’80s, not the ’60s. Hence Dr. Evil taunting Austin Powers about how “freedom failed” and telling him that there’s “nothing as pathetic as an aging hipster.” Or the Big Lebowski crowing at Jeff Bridges’ laid-back Dude: “the bums lost!”

    And so is it too early to say that the Internet only offered an illusion of individual rebellion, revolution, and freedom? One that turned into a nightmare of corporate and state surveillance as cyberspace became a global prison?

    On the contrary, it’s far too late. But who do you think’s to blame for that happening? Us or . . . them?

    Review first published in the Toronto Star January 4, 2014.