• Fire in the Unnameable Country

    FIRE IN THE UNNAMEABLE COUNTRY
    By Ghalib Islam

    In a now famous review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the literary critic James Wood described what he saw as the birth of a new genre of literary fiction: “hysterical realism.” The label, and his definition of the term, have since stuck:

    The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.

    Wood’s review ran in 2000, which suggests that Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, the high-speed and manically constructed magic-carpet ride Fire in the Unnameable Country, is coming to the party a bit late. Undeterred, the Toronto author has hit the ground running, intent on vaulting into fiction’s avant garde.

    As with other examples of hysterical realism, the book’s roots go back to an earlier tradition of “magic realism” and classic works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Marquez, Islam tells the epic, intertwined story of a family and a nation in a way that mixes realistic with supernatural elements.

    Flying carpets and nationwide outbreaks of sleeping sickness would not be out of place in Marquez or Rushdie, while never-ending television program that can’t be distinguished from life itself and the transcribing of entire individual minds onto canned “thoughtreels” can be seen as traditional evocations of the simulacrum of postmodernity. Indeed, Islam’s endless reality-TV show “Mirrors” has a role similar to the prophecies of family history in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and makes for one of the book’s neatest acts of homage.

    But these are hysterical times, and Islam is less tethered to the ground than his great precursors.

    The unnameable country, for example, is not a specific place like Colombia, India, or Bangladesh (where Ghalib Islam was born).

    At first glance it appears to be a generic Third World location, complete with a repressive history that is dominated in turn by colonial, Cold War, and finally war-on-terror politics. Then, as things go along, we discover we are in a country where the laws of physics haven’t “yet settled into regular course” and the geography is “unfathomable.” Throughout the novel we see the place sliding in and out of focus: It is both a state and not, missing from maps and then reappearing on them like some kind of Rorschach blot.

    Adding to the confusion is the jumbled plot, really a collection of loosely-connected stories, and Islam’s odd, impressionistic voice.

    The narrator Hedayat is a “glossolalist,” and is given to speaking in tongues. The results can be disorienting, with freestyle punctuation, exotic vocabulary, and garbled syntax. You have to work some of the sentences around in your mouth for a while just to sort them out. A sample:

    Come on, I coaxed, plucked the buzzing sky caught her a firefly fluttering noctilucent palm.

     

    I howled knife wounded as morning wind blew bedroom through window.

     

    I remember shivering T-shirt in air conditioning light antiseptic odour fresh washed floors wonder walking distance to Mogadishu.

    One can imagine editors throwing their hands up at this. And more than one reader will too. Obviously a book this eccentric won’t appeal to everyone.

    As the flying-carpet pilot tells his passengers, “after a certain distance from the earth you feel no fear because it no longer seems real.” That’s a fair warning. Some readers may suffer from altitude sickness in the thin air over the unnameable country while others will enjoy the view and recognize in their distance from earth something of our own alienated, postmillennial condition.

    Either way, expect a bumpy, exhilarating ride.

    Notes:
    Review first published in the Toronto Star March 11, 2014.

  • Portrait of a Monster

    Portrait of a Monster
    Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson

    One of the most overused pop-psychological labels of our day is that of the “alpha male.” Mass murderer Elliot Rodger wanted to be one, and his frustration at not being able to live this dream had disastrous results. For Rodger, and indeed for many, being alpha meant getting a lot of girls. But for people who study these things it means something a bit different. The alpha male is a selfish egotist given to excessive thrill-seeking and risk-taking (the dark side of which is usually substance abuse or some form of criminal behaviour). The popular conception of the alpha male is that of a top athlete or CEO, but this is a fantasy. I’ve known a few such types and they have been, to a man, the biggest losers I’ve ever met: alcoholics stuck in dead-end jobs or downwardly mobile, unable to stay in relationships for much longer than a year, and inevitably friendless. Joran van der Sloot fancied himself, and was regarded by some of his mates, as one of Aruba’s alpha males (leader of a group that dubbed itself the “Pimpology Crew”). He was tall, good-looking, and could pick up girls. But his alpha nature began asserting itself in predictable ways as a teenager. He started to drink and gamble. He was a pathological liar. He couldn’t stay focused on anything, and was a failure at school and at work. He could meet girls, but when they didn’t go along with what he wanted them to do he killed them. That, at least, is what is widely assumed happened to Natalee Holloway and Stephany Flores. For the murder of Flores he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. A Peruvian woman married him in prison and had his child. And so the dream lives on.

  • Joan of Arc and The Secret Life of Wonder Woman

    JOAN OF ARC: A LIFE TRANSFIGURED
    By Kathryn Harrison
    THE SECRET LIFE OF WONDER WOMAN
    By Jill Lepore

    The nation of women warriors known as the Amazons were a myth. Nevertheless, their legend has survived from its first appearance in ancient sources all the way down to present times. It seems they fill a niche in the collective unconscious.

    Joan of Arc is an example of a real historical figure who stepped into the Amazon role, becoming, in the words of Kathryn Harrison, “a living myth.” During the dark days of the Hundred Years War there had been prophecies that France would be saved by a virgin. Enter Joan, hearing angelic voices that commanded her to drive out the English and restore the rightful king. Unfortunately, that meant Charles VII, a less than mythic figure who mainly saw Joan as a means to an end.

    If you think you already know all there is to know about Joan of Arc, you’re probably right. Her public career only lasted a couple of years, from raising the siege of Orleans to being captured, tried on trumped up charges, and burned at the stake when she was only 19.

    Joan came out of prophecy and was immediately absorbed into legend: a “life transfigured.” Harrison’s account underscores this process by choosing to tell Joan’s story with the help of the numerous poets, novelists, and dramatists who have taken it up. Mixed in with the standard historical sources are drawings from Charles Péguy, Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Carl Dreyer, and Cecil B. DeMille.

    It’s an approach that purists might object to, though it helps make the point that there’s very little “real” Joan to hold on to, and what was real was not necessarily what was most important.

    Less convincing, however, are the constant parallels Harrison makes between Joan’s life and that of Jesus. “More than that of any other Catholic martyr,” she writes, “Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.” This is a dubious assertion, and Harrison works it too hard. Unfortunately, aside from this there is nothing in her book that is new, or that adds much to our understanding either of the historical Joan or the legend.

    Another woman warrior, this time entirely fictional, is the subject of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. This comic creation hailed from a tribe of Amazons living on Paradise Island, but in real life was the brainchild of a bizarre character named William Moulton Marston.

    Lepore’s book is really about Marston, who started out as a psychologist (he invented an early version of lie detector test), but had trouble holding a steady job. Writing a comic book was in many ways the end of the line.

    He came up with the idea for Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda” for the new type of woman he thought should rule the world. Yet despite this radical feminist message he lived semi-openly as a bigamist, seems to have had a bondage fetish, and used all the women in his life as a kind of human resource department.

    It’s hard to understand what these women saw in Marston. At best he was an eccentric, at worst a creep. And when you get down to it, his original Wonder Woman comics were crude delivery vehicles for a heavy-handed political message.

    Despite this crudeness, or maybe in part because of it, long after her first appearance in 1941 Wonder Woman is still with us, even surviving a cheesy “boob tube” television series in the late ‘70s. You can’t keep a good Amazon down.

    Lepore does a professional job with the material she’s uncovered, and has a big advantage over Kathryn Harrison in that Wonder Woman’s curious origins will be an unfamiliar story to most people. It’s interesting to set the two books side by side, however, for what they have to say about the manufacture of such mythic figures. Whatever true or hidden history lies behind them, their legends were made, not born.

    Notes:
    Review first published February 7, 2015.

  • Ten Billion

    Ten Billion
    Stephen Emmott

    With the world’s population set to climb to 10 billion, or even higher, before the end of the century, Microsoft scientist Stephen Emmott has some tough talk about what that number means. With fierce analysis delivered in a punchy format – lots of graphs and pictures breaking up pages with minimal text — this brief book lays out the basic elements of the coming crisis: growing population leading to environmental breakdown and increased conflict over food and energy resources. Is there any good news? No. This is not a problem that new technologies will fix, and there is little political or popular will for the kind of radical change required to stave off disaster. Grim but essential reading for anyone still unaware of the mess we’re in.

  • The Science of Shakespeare

    THE SCIENCE OF SHAKESPEARE: A NEW LOOK AT THE PLAYWRIGHT’S UNIVERSE
    By Dan Falk

    Popular science journalist Dan Falk combines his love of science, and in particular the history of science, with his fondness for Shakespeare in this intriguing attempt to answer the question of what the bard knew, when he knew it, and how he may have expressed that knowledge in his plays.

    A few caveats have to be entered right away. We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, and even less about what he “really” thought about anything. All we can do is make guesses about what was more or less likely based on the evidence of what he wrote.

    Falk understands this, as well as the fact that what constituted “science” in Shakespeare’s day was sometimes fuzzy. And so he spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for his investigation by detailing the transformation of our understanding of the cosmos in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (his focus is almost exclusively limited to the field of astronomy, with only brief reference to subjects like medicine, atomism, and atheism at the end). He proceeds primarily through a semi-biographical examination of the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, along with some less well-known English investigators.

    There’s no question that some link between the discoveries these pioneers made and the Shakespearean canon exists. Indeed the connection has been made before. Still, the thesis that Shakespeare knew what was going on, and that this knowledge is reflected in his plays remains tenuous. Many of the scholars whose research Falk draws on are from the fringe of Shakespeare studies, and a few of their arguments are far-fetched.

    This is fine because Falk admits the speculative nature of his inquiry. He isn’t hammering a thesis so much as entertaining possibilities. In the end such a book succeeds in informing us about Renaissance science while at the same time enriching our understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement by providing it with a deeper intellectual context.

    Notes:
    Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2014.

  • Songs That Reminds Us of Factories

    SONGS THAT REMIND US OF FACTORIES
    By Danny Jacobs

    The title of Danny Jacobs’s debut poetry collection reminds us of the dramatic transformation of the economy from the industrial to the digital, from machines to computers, from heavy-equipment operators to “phone pitch wizards,” and from dying malls to . . . new malls. His songs comment on this shift, and suggest ways in which the rhythms of contemporary life are infected by the new forms of white noise we have to navigate. If humans have a tendency to become our machines, and this is a theme of the book, then what kinds of telecommunications technology are we turning into now? What products will define us and what language will we speak? These are pressing questions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and while Jacobs isn’t big on answers he does offer some fresh and disquieting ways of thinking about such matters.

  • The Colonial Hotel

    THE COLONIAL HOTEL
    By Jonathan Bennett

    The Colonial Hotel takes a classic tale and recasts it in a form both episodic and abstract. The names of the characters are borrowed from Greek mythology, though the Trojan war parallel isn’t developed much beyond those names. A doctor, Paris (the son of Priam), accompanied by a nurse who is also his lover (Helen), find themselves in the midst of a civil war in a developing nation. Helen gets pregnant, but is separated from Paris, who ends up in a prison camp. There he experiences various horrors, meets a man named Hector and, after his release, finds himself in a relationship with a local woman named Oenone, with whom he has another child.

    Just as the names suggest figures who are more mythic types than conventionally realistic characters, the setting is deliberately left generic and vague. It’s never specified where or when the action is taking place. We are told that the bad guys are from the north, or the mountains, and are murderous and corrupt, engaging in the kind of tribal cleansing and bloodshed familiar to many spots around the globe. They could be any one of a dozen groups currently in the news.

    Adding to the sense of storybook indeterminacy is the elevated language the characters use, which seems at times as though it is being translated from some ancient text, the original meaning of which is no longer accessible. Oenone, for example, nurses Paris back to health by making him “eat the root of the tree that heals,” and a page later she joins the women of her village to help “gather the fruit that was ripe on the trees in the next valley.” That is as specific as the floral references get.

    Originally conceived as a poetic sequence, the writing can also be pitched at a stilted rhetorical level. “As the rain falls into the sea, as the dead animal seeps into the ground or is eaten, as fire makes way for tiny green shoots, so love once shared and accepted becomes all other loves that came before.” A lot of the book sounds like this.

    One can understand Bennett’s desire to write a political fable both contemporary and timeless, but his intensity and moral earnestness can be a burden. The Colonial Hotel aches for a lighter touch, a sense of humour and a less formal mode of address grounded in the here and now.

    Notes:
    Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2014.

  • The Black Spider

    The Black Spider
    Jeremias Gotthelf

    I wonder when deals with the devil became common in pop culture. Was the Faust legend where they got their start? For such stories to gain traction you need to have a society where there is a basic comprehension of the law of contracts, because otherwise any deal struck with the devil would by definition be immoral or unconscionable. The villagers in The Black Spider are mostly good, god-fearing souls, but for some reason they feel bound by a bad bargain, their collective suffering justified not by the letter of the law but by a shady sort of agreement sealed with a kiss rather than a handshake or signature in blood. Sure it’s an allegory for the infection of evil and the way it spreads through a community already weakened by exploitation, economic hardship, and moral backsliding, but it’s interesting that the rule of God is less of a presence than the corruption of the flesh and the hand of the devil. For all we know, God is dead in 1842. But clearly that spider is still a force waiting to be awakened.

  • Leaving the Sea

    LEAVING THE SEA
    By Ben Marcus

    The stories in Leaving the Sea range a great deal in terms of style, from a fairly realistic portrayal of intergenerational domestic conflict to a ribbon of metafiction consisting of a single run-on-and-on sentence. Underlying all the diversity, however, is a consistent set of anxieties surrounding the alienated figure of the contemporary middle-aged American male. What Ben Marcus offers is a sort of literary shock treatment for these shut-ins.

    In the beginning, and the stories start out more-or-less normal and progressively get stranger, our protagonists seem like familiar types. They are men of a certain age, fighting losing battles against weight gain and hair loss. As one of the species recognizes, such men are the “cattle in our lives we hardly ever see.” They are lonely, depressed, and even a little angry. Nobody seems to care about them or their problems, and everyone around them is having more fun. Why, they’re even having sex!

    As we leave recognizably real situations and settings behind, the conflict between the hero and his social environment becomes more sharply defined. Empathy is dead. Other people are presented as being without pity or understanding, mere functionaries in mindless and at times vicious bureaucracies. Even the nuclear family has become an unfeeling battleground of separate states. The world is experienced as something “too complex to know and far too terrible to join.”

    The character of Julian in the story “The Dark Arts” is representative. We meet up with him in Germany, where he is a supposed to be receiving a medical treatment. He doesn’t speak the language and his girlfriend has abandoned him. His mother is dead and his father seems to hold him in contempt. Even his own body has turned against him: his immune system has broken down and now he is allergic to himself.

    “And on the eighth day,” he imagines, “God made his creatures so lonely they wept.” All of this makes him mad.

    Then things get weird. Marcus is probably best known as a standard bearer for today’s experimental fiction, and in the later pieces here a final alienation takes place between the solitary hero and language. We might just still be in our own time and place, but the names for everything have changed, allowing Marcus to invent his own poetic brand of semi-nonsense prose. This radical revitilization of the language is seen as something necessary, a return to a childish or even womb-like state when our words “had yet to wither.”

    Most of the time he pulls it off. There is a loquacious energy and inventiveness at work and at play in these stories that carries things along even when we travel to what one character admits is a place “deeply outside any likely reality.” While the connection between language and the world is stretched, it never loses its tether entirely.

    But how could it? We are born into language and float about in it all our lives. It is the social amniotic sea we never abandon. In addition, it provides the medium of exchange for the empathy these isolated, lonely people are in such desperate need of. Which, in turn, may be why in the stories that develop the theme of a “new language” furthest, like “First Love” and “Origins of the Family,” the emphasis is on imagining new words for body parts and ways of connecting and communicating with others.

    So we never really leave the sea, despite the fact that our culture has become a degraded ecosystem, like those Florida beaches dead of life for miles offshore. Marcus’s work won’t be for everyone because alienation isn’t just his theme but his technique as well. You sometimes have to kick your legs pretty hard just to keep your head above water. But for those tired of wilted language and the dead ends of more conventional fiction it provides a welcome and therapeutic intervention.

    Notes:
    Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2014.

  • A People’s Tragedy

    A People’s Tragedy
    Orlando Figes

    The Russian Revolution took most people by surprise, including the revolutionaries. In that way it bears some resemblance to the events of 1989, which even spooked the spooks. But would foreknowledge have changed anything in 1917? The Russian nobility, as always with elites, were intent on holding on to their own position of privilege even at the risk of their total destruction. This was the same way the French Revolution played out, and all of the chief actors in the Russian Revolution had that earlier example not just in the back of their minds but staring them in the face. They knew where this was going. Orlando Figes’s history provides an excellent narrative overview of the key personalities and events, emphasizing how much of the disaster, including its cruelty and the terror, originated from below. The peasants were their own worst enemies. But that is the case with most revolutions; they don’t often lead to desired outcomes. The great tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that it took such a very long time to play out. Indeed, its consequences are still being felt.