• 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.

    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.

  • S.

    By J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

    Entering the world of a novel can be an experience like opening a gift, and that’s a conceit that works especially well with S. This is a generous book, whose contents literally spill out from between its pages as though falling from an upended Christmas stocking. Break the seal on the shrink-wrapped slipcase and you find that the volume inside — which is designed to look like an old library book, complete with due-date stamps and age-stained pages — is packed with colourful bonus features including postcards, pages of handwritten notes, photocopies of important documents, maps drawn on restaurant napkins, and even a kind of spinning de-coder ring called an Eotvos Wheel.

    There’s no denying it’s a striking production, and it comes with interesting credits: “conceived by” the popcorn-film producer J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, an author who also has the fact that he’s a three-time Jeopardy! champ on his C.V.

    But unpacking S. involves more than just admiring the design work that went into it. To start with the inner layer and work out, the old book in the slipcase is a copy of the 1949 English translation of Ship of Theseus, a Kafkaesque, paranoid, and totally imaginary dream-fantasy written by a mysterious early-twentieth century author named V. M. Straka. Indeed, Straka is so mysterious that no one knows who he was or even if he ever really existed. Then there is the figure, almost as mysterious as Straka himself, of his translator, F. X. Caldeira (those double initials were all the rage back in the day). Muddying the waters of the text further are the idiosyncratic, opinionated footnotes Caldeira has written, a number of which don’t seem to make much sense until they’ve been de-crypted by keys provided elsewhere.

    So Ship of Theseus is a book within a book. But outside of Ship of Theseus is what amounts to yet another book, because almost every page is densely annotated with marginal notes provided by Eric and Jennifer, a pair of students at Pollard State University who are both retro-analog types: people of the book, creatures of the library stacks. They share an intellectual and physical passion for the smell and feel of obscure old volumes like Ship of Theseus and their romance blossoms as they dig deeper into the text. The progress of their relationship is documented through progressive stages of marginalia rendered in different colours of ink, going from gray, to blue/black, to orange/green, to purple/red, and finally back to black again.

    But there’s more. The story of Eric and Jennifer has a further connection to that of the mysterious V. M. Straka because the secret anarchist society Straka belonged to, known only as “S,” is possibly still in operation, with its agents appearing among the faculty and student body at Pollard State.

    One could go on (and on) describing these wheels within wheels, but S. is a puzzle book that has to be experienced, and experienced the old-fashioned way. You can buy S. as an audio book and and an e-book, but it’s hard to understand why you would want to since you wouldn’t be getting anything like the full effect. Yes, it’s a gimmick and a novelty item, but it’s also a celebration of the book as a material artifact in all its tactile, serendipitous glory.

    Of course the concept of a book written in layers, discussing itself, is nothing new. Mark Z. Danielewski is perhaps the best known among many contemporary metafictionists. And truth be told the marginalia here can be overwhelming and the love story a bit sugary and self-dramatizing (as campus puppy-love often is). But in terms of production and design, and as sheer entertainment, S. succeeds marvellously: its pages opening onto the labyrinth of a literary brain teaser musty with hip nostalgia.

    To today’s digital natives it might all seem terribly primitive and unfashionable, but for anyone who grew up in a library, among those stacks and shelves full of undisovered countries, S. is a timely reminder of the romance of the book.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star December 22, 2013.

  • Never Enough

    Never Enough
    Joe McGinnis

    I don’t read true crime for all the lurid, messy parts so much as for the weird and intimately revealing personal details about people’s lives. Down these dark corridors you find the kinds of things you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. In this tale of the implosion of an affluent and deeply dysfunctional family, which resulted in the murder of two brothers, there is a wonderful vignette where the femme fatale’s “stereo boy” lover is discovered by his brother/boss wearing an expensive watch given to him as a love token. The stereo boy’s brother, being born again, is appalled at these wages of adultery and promptly threatens to fire his brother . . . unless he gives him the watch. He does, and keeps his job. Talk about Christian family values! You can’t make stuff like that up. Or the way stereo boy precisely timed his girlfriend’s crying jags to the minute – presumably checking that pricey timepiece as she poured forth her soul to him. The story was made into a TV-movie, but I’m not sure they got the comedy.

  • The Invisible Bridge

    By Rick Perlstein

    An 800-page account of the American political scene from 1973 to 1976 – that is, roughly from Watergate to the presidential primaries that would ultimately lead to the election of Jimmy Carter – won’t be for everyone.

    For political junkies, however, The Invisible Bridge is a knockout.

    These were primarily the years of the unhappy and undistinguished Ford administration, but Rick Perlstein’s main subject is a man who was not president but waiting in the wings: Ronald Reagan. This is the third volume in Perlstein’s account of the rise of modern American conservatism, following books on Barry Goldwater (Before the Storm) and Richard Nixon (Nixonland), and it sticks to the same script of identifying the conservative movement with an individual who came to impress it with his own character: in this case that of the Great Communicator.

    Reagan, however, is a subject who mocks biography. Many authors have tried, but few have come up with anything like a convincing whole portrait. In part this is because Reagan himself worked so hard to mythologize his own past. Later, all of the stuff he made up would harden into a carapace of legend hard to crack (though not through lack of trying, as witness recent volumes like Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth or William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World). But making things even more difficult is the fact that as an actor/salesman/politician Reagan was always performing, playing a role. Was there anything behind the image to really get at? Even contemporary observers were unsure. Elizabeth Drew, following on his primary campaign trail in 1976 confessed herself baffled:

    Reagan is a dim figure. There is so much that we don’t know about him [note: he had already served two terms as governor of California, and had been a public figure almost his entire life]. What is he doing with these public relations people as his key advisors? How does his own mind work? Is he a contrived figure? One cannot shake the idea that this is Ronald Reagan the movie actor. . . . His “speeches” are actually sets of four-by-six-inch cards on which he has written paragraphs and anecdotes with a felt-tipped pen, and which he shuffles to give slight variations. His fund of knowledge seems to be made up largely of clippings – stories and polls he has come across that will make good material.

    Reagan was not a stupid man, and indeed he had a very canny political sense. But he was simple. As he liked to say, the truth was simple: a clear division existing between good and evil, right and wrong.

    It is this essential, radical simplicity of the Great Communicator that Perlstein attacks. America did not need simplicity in the ‘70s; it needed to hear hard truths. Hence the conflict in the book between “small, suspicious circles” and the tribe of Reagan’s true believers, between Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” and know-nothing, nostalgic nationalists.

    In all of this Perlstein is clearly hammering a thesis, and picking and choosing his headlines and anecdotes to do so. But his point of view isn’t clearly partisan (he is as damning on the faux-naif Jimmy Carter as any Republican), and pinning down the zeitgeist isn’t easy. His style sometimes tips too far into informality, but his energy and brio help to carry a narrative heavy with research along at a frantic clip. Not for nothing has he been described as the era’s “gonzo historian” and “the hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American Century.” And while you do get the sense that he’s done a lot of skimming of the sources, it does seem as though he’s at least looked at every newspaper and magazine article, not to mention television news program, of the period. The last third of the book suffers a bit from being excessively “inside baseball,” but the overall effect is of a kind of media Rorschach test, with more than enough splattered ink for the reader to form their own impression.

    What makes the book highly relevant for our own time is the fact that we still live in the long tail of the Reagan revolution. That revolution began as a kind of therapy, with Reagan himself adopting the role of an avuncular and genial optimist who specialized in making Americans feel good about themselves at a time when they needed picking up. But looking back on it, we can now see the historical moment as a darker tipping point. Reagan’s America was committed to unlearning the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate, replacing the former with the myth of a “stab in the back” and dismissing the latter as a partisan witch hunt. Reagan’s America would also wage war on the middle class, a generations-long slaughter that continues to this day. And it was exactly that sense of “morning in America” optimism that would eventually be counted on to forestall any complaint by the small, suspicious circles, who were increasingly marginalized as conspiracy nuts:

    Reagan’s America would embrace an almost official cult of optimism – the belief that America could do no wrong. Or, to put it another way, that if America did it, it was by definition not wrong. That would come later. But signs were already pointing that way.

    This was a time when America didn’t lose its innocence (already long gone) so much as its maturity. As noted, Reagan liked to say that his answers to global and domestic problems were not easy, but simple. The people who listened to him didn’t make the same distinction. They wanted to believe, they yearned to believe, and Reagan was the man of the hour, what the age demanded. What resulted was a political system unable to respond in an adult way to challenges at home and abroad. Negative information dangerous to national self-esteem – from America’s role in global warming to a framing of the war on terror in terms of “blowback” – was to be blithely ignored if not vociferously denied. The aim of politics was to make people feel good about themselves and their country, which meant cutting off any criticism, no matter how constructive or deserved. Any politician daring to say the state of the nation was not good (Ford), or to hint at a national malaise (Carter, even when he didn’t use the word), would be punished. America’s sense of optimism was non-negotiable.

    It was terribly effective therapy.

    Review first published January 31, 2015.

  • The Cage

    The Cage
    Martin Vaughn-James

    First published in 1975, the re-release of this highly experimental “visual novel” seems more contemporary than ever. The illustrations are like film stills from some post-apocalyptic, post-human fantasy (think Tarkovsky’s Stalker), with the text providing an enigmatic voiceover. The whole thing screams out for interpretation, especially given the central image of a bed, which I take to be the dream machine that sets everything in motion, lubricated by ink, oil, and blood (perhaps). What to make of the book’s weird wedding of organic and mechanical motifs, “carnivorous” images of rise and decline, expansion and contraction, is an open challenge, but one that well repays the effort.

  • A Little History of Literature

    By John Sutherland

    “Literature” is a subject that can be hard to pin down. Broadly, it might include any structure of words, including a grocery list. Or, as the distinguished and prolific literary critic John Sutherland has it in this new primer, it might refer a bit vaguely to productions of “the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us.”

    Sutherland’s formulation leaves plenty of room for disagreement about what exactly makes the cut. But, however we choose to define literature, one thing we can all agree on is that there is a lot of it, and more arriving every day. Twenty-first century readers are living in a golden age of abundance, with more of all the best that has been thought and said available, in English translation, than ever before. So how do you give structure to a brief overview of such a subject, and advise and engage the common reader?

    The approach taken in A Little History of Literature (the title and design of the book were inspired by E. H. Gombrich’s classic A Little History of the World) is mainly chronological, taking us on a very quick tour of the major genres and modes of world literature, with a heavy emphasis on British and American writing (the only Canadian author mentioned is Margaret Atwood, who is curiously identified as an academic). Individual books and authors are introduced as representative of particular periods and forms.

    The authors selected stand atop the commanding heights in the story of literature. Given the kind of book this is, Sutherland can’t say very much about any one of them, but he’s sure they’re great. “Great” is a word he uses a lot. Shakespeare is “indubitably” “the greatest writer of the English-speaking world,” Samuel Johnson “the greatest Shakespearian critic we have,” and Laurence Olivier “the greatest Shakespearian actor of his time.” Charles Dickens “is the greatest ever novelist,” and W. B. Yeats is “by general agreement the greatest Irish poet.” Even Keats’s “Hyperion” is heralded as “one of the greatest narrative poems in the English language.” When great loses its value, it adds octane with “supreme.” Thus Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are two supremely great poems.” The novels of Jane Austen, however, are only “supremely good,” though it’s unclear if Sutherland means anything different by this.

    Superlatives aside, Sutherland’s organization of the material is excellent, judiciously mixing chapters on related subjects such as copyright, censorship, colonialism, race, and gender in with the historical flow. Clearly there are few literary matters that he doesn’t have an opinion on, and those opinions are expressed in an accessible, informal way.

    But while the chatty style is well suited to such a non-academic volume, it also papers over some jarring lapses. Being glib can get even the cleverest people in trouble.

    For example: Gilgamesh is not set in what was “then called Mesopotamia” (it wasn’t called Mesopotamia until much later). It is not true that “none of the poets of the time seemed to have registered the existence of” William Blake. We know Coleridge read him. The theme that “children’s experiences shape them for life” is not really addressed in Lord of the Flies or We Need to Talk About Kevin. Not “every” James Bond movie has a happy ending (two that don’t are On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the second Casino Royale). And Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is by no stretch of the imagination an example of a nostalgic, anti-industrial “back-to-simplicity utopia.” Sutherland is so wildly off here that one wonders if he has read, or remembers reading, the book.

    Except for the last, these aren’t glaring errors, but they’re the sort of slips that someone should have caught.

    “Time spent reading literature is always time well spent,” Sutherland declares. But how to most profitably spend that time? While he did not want this to be a manual of what to read (that’s another book he’s written that will be published next year), Sutherland does offer up an “intelligent sample” of major authors and works that have stood the test of time, and helpfully sets them in context. Meanwhile, the history of literature is still being written, and greatness calls.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, January 24 2014.

  • Your Flying Car Awaits

    Your Flying Car Awaits
    Paul Milo

    No, the twenty-first century hasn’t been all that the twentieth imagined it would be, but as this fun survey of predictions makes clear, things could have been much worse. I’m not upset about not having flying cars, robot butlers, or lunar vacations and I’m relieved that we haven’t been hit with a massive food or energy crisis yet. For the most part the reason the future failed is that it was too expensive and didn’t have enough consumer demand behind it. Science, like everything else under capitalism, will follow the money. So what we mainly got instead were low, low prices courtesy of big box retailers and online shopping, along with great advances in home and personal entertainment systems. Everything else has pretty much stayed the same, but become more disposable.

  • Longbourn and Sense and Sensibility

    By Jo Baker
    By Joanna Trollope

    Jane Austen has always been a popular author, but it’s only recently that she has graduated from having a cult following (her fans are known as Janeites) to becoming a multimedia industry.

    Some landmarks along the way include the now famous 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, a 2005 Hollywood film production of the same, the publication in 2009 of the bestselling mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (there have been more than 100 literary adaptation of P&P in the last decade alone), and the announcement just this year that Austen would be appearing on the Bank of England’s new 10-pound note.

    But for now, 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which is as good an excuse as any to throw a party.

    In the spirit of making old things new again, Jo Baker’s Longbourn and Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility re-visit two beloved classics, and reveal in the process just why Austen remains so much our contemporary.

    Longbourn takes its title from the name of the Bennet family estate in Pride and Prejudice, with the twist here being that the old story is re-told from the point of view of the domestic staff. Right from the first chapter we realize we are in a different world. It’s laundry day and Longbourn introduces us to the round of hard, muscular labour that makes up a housemaid’s life.

    Baker doesn’t mind rubbing our noses in it. Not only do we hear of aching blisters and chilblains and slipping in hog manure while lugging the water in from the pump, but it’s also that time of the month in a house full of young women, so the napkins are soaking in a separate tub smelling “uneasily of the butcher’s shop.”

    Bodily fluids are Baker’s favourite way of grounding us in naturalistic detail, leading to numerous references to stains of sweat, vomit, milk, sperm — and, yes, the ladies’ “monthlies.” While it may be true that no woman is a heroine to her laundress, Baker isn’t interested in de-mythologizing Austen.

    Rest assured that Elizabeth Bennet is still adorable and that when Mr. Darcy makes his appearance he will be all that and more: “So smooth, and so big, and of such substance … it was as though (he) belonged to a different order of creation entirely, and moved in a separate element.”

    But this is all background.

    While Longbourn gives us a more modern, socially-minded perspective on familiar characters and events, Baker’s main story — which has to do with a skivvy named Sarah falling in love with a mysterious new footman — doesn’t mess with the essential romance formula that Austen did so much to define two centuries ago.

    Joanna Trollope doesn’t mess with success either, and her Sense and Sensibility is a fairly close reworking of Austen’s novel of the same name, adapted to life in the early 21stt century.

    Indeed, it’s surprising how little she has had to change, aside from supplying the characters with iPhones so they can text each other, and adding other cosmetic updates. The Dashwood women are still delightful (Elinor is now a budding architect and Marianne plays the guitar), and the young men feckless and unreliable. Though they don’t use words like feckless any more. Instead, the cads are known as shagbandits.

    And it all still works. Why?

    In part because both Baker and Trollope are proficient authors who handle the material so well, but also because Austen, like Shakespeare, is timeless. You can put her in modern dress or take her upstairs dramas downstairs, but no matter how many changes you make, her essential concerns, and even much of her morality, remain contemporary.

    At one point in Trollope’s book, for example, Elinor expostulates with her mother, “Ma, this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships.”

    Oh, but it does Elinor. It does! Perhaps as much today as it did during the Regency. We still have a class system, after all, and that means the business of finding a mate remains a perfect subject for a novelist. And Austen’s other main concern, the matter of inheritance, is no less relevant. All that wealth piled up by the boomers is going somewhere. Our McMansions are this century’s Pemberleys and Norland Parks.

    But i’s not all about the material world. Austen’s character types are still with us — the proud and the prejudiced, the sensible and sensitive — and her scale of values hasn’t changed much either. Her heroes and heroines represent the same kinds of personalities we admire most today, and her villains embody qualities we immediately recognize and despise.

    True, now they have sex instead of “making love” (which didn’t mean having sex, back in the day), but that’s not such a big deal. The really important things in life — love, family, money — endure.

    So Austen keeps right on rolling into her third century, still giving no indication that she’ll be leaving us any time soon.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star November 21, 2013.

  • 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.