• 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.

  • Gone Girl

    Gone Girl
    Gillian Flynn

    In my brief review of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands I ended by praising Roche’s creation of “a first person narrator who is so unconsciously unreliable, so dangerous without even being aware of it: the fully liberated modern woman as a psychopath.” Enter Amy Elliott Dunne and this tale of twenty-first century fatal attraction. It’s effectively written and exquisitely observed, but one wonders how to take it. The improbabilities in the plot escalate wildly in the second half, until at the end we seem to have entered the realm of sheer psychological fantasy. It’s still a lot of fun, but I think it muddies the point being made. As with any psychopath, Amy doesn’t really represent anything, she just is. The comic epilogue is a challenge thrown at the reader, a parody affirmation of family values. The question is set: just what are those values anyway? Amy appears to be a success in every conventional way: young, beautiful, rich, in control of her life. For that she has to be admired, doesn’t she?

  • The Bone Season

    By Samantha Shannon

    Samantha Shannon is a 21-year-old graduate of Oxford University, and so we might think of The Bone Season as among the first fruits of a generation raised on Harry Potter. More on what that means later, but for now let’s just note that the comparison is particularly apt as this is projected as the first of a seven-part series dealing with the adventures of a young person just learning to use their magical powers.

    In this case the heroine is Paige Mahoney, a kind of clairvoyant known as a Dreamwalker who lives in a London that is part of a police state called Scion in the year 2059. This is a future with a twist, however, as it’s also the product of an alternate history. Bone Season history diverged from our own two hundred years prior to the start of our story, with the arrival of a mysterious race of Netherworlders known as the Rephaim in 1859. Which is when all the magic started happening.

    Paige soon gets in to trouble in Scion and is whisked off to the ruins of Oxford U, which is now being run as a kind of prison colony-cum-school of magic by the Rephaim and is where her training will begin. We learn the Rephaim harvest clairvoyants every ten years in what are called “Bone Seasons”, and this is Bone Season XX. Paige’s new identity is XX-59-40.

    When launching a series this ambitious a first volume has to spend a lot of time laying some groundwork. Shannon does this with admirable economy, especially given just how much she has to get through. The book even begins with a flowchart mapping the seven order of clairvoyance as well as their more than fifty sub-orders, and ends with a nine-page glossary explaining terms like Querent and Amaurotic (the latter are the new Muggles: norms without any supernatural powers). It’s all quite inventive, but also reads a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, if you know what that’s like.

    The plot is as complex as you’d expect from all of this elaborate infrastructure. The mysterious and not very likeable Rephaim claim they are here to save us from the dreaded, flesh-eating Emim. In fighting the Emim the Rephaim apparently need the help of gifted Voyants like Paige. However, one doesn’t need a psychic gift to realize that they have more on their agenda. As if you would trust anyone with a name and title like Blood-consort Arcturus, Warden of the Mesarthim anyway. Or people who snarl lines like “The word of a human means less than the incoherent salivation of a dog.”

    Now that’s incoherent!

    Nicely dressed in a full wardrobe of psycho-speculative trappings (ghosts, guardian angels, soothsayers, tarot card readers, etc.), The Bone Season is a very effective, albeit very conventional adolescent fantasy. It has a YA flavour, but in recent years this has become an all but essential ingredient of bestsellerdom. Why this has happened is hard to say (more fallout from Harry Potter?), but in any event you recognize a family lineage here not only to Harry, but to other franchises running through such recent megahits as the Twilight series, the Hunger Games, and even Fifty Shades of Gray (which, for all its naughtiness, was probably the most psychologically juvenile series of all). Scheduled to be published in huge numbers in twenty-one countries, The Bone Season bids fair to join this select company.

    There are predictable elements. No one can escape Sheol I (that’s Oxford), but of course a jailbreak is all anyone thinks about. Paige, our plucky heroine, will, we know, not be happy with being a mere number, and struggle to assert her own budding identity and independence. She will find some true friends along the way, fall in love, and be betrayed. Her tremendous gifts will be both a blessing and a curse.

    This might be Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, or any other high school, anywhere.

    But great genre fiction doesn’t mess with a formula. It delivers what readers want, with just enough of a twist to keep them on their toes. Shannon does that here, and at a pace that never once lets up. The results should appeal to all recent graduates of Hogwarts. Or of Oxford, for that matter.

    If there is any difference now.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 1 2013.

  • Vultures’ Picnic

    Vultures’ Picnic
    Greg Palast

    I wonder what the future of investigative journalism holds. With the shift from print to digital media and the increasing legalization and control of the image of power, the intrepid reporter is becoming an endangered species. So thank heavens for Greg Palast, whose brand of reportage verité has done so much to uncover the dirty deeds of the very rich and very powerful, which is to say some of the scummiest people on earth. Behind every great fortune is a great crime, or, as Palast puts it, “there is no such thing as a victimless billionaire.” The conspiracies are real, and deadly.

  • The Monster Show

    By David J. Skal

    Horror has to always justify itself. Romance, erotica, and yes even porn, are “natural” genres of expression and representation, as is comedy. We like to have a good time and a laugh. But what does an appetite for violence, cruelty, and terror say about us? It’s just as universal, but it doesn’t reflect as well upon us as a species. So something else must be going on. Horror has to be explained.

    In The Monster Show David J. Skal has undertaken one such explanation, focusing primarily on horror movies of the twentieth century. What appeared on the screen were a series of projections, and not just of light through ribbons of celluloid. Horror was a projection of the audience’s fears and anxieties, which were in turn the product of political, economic, and cultural events.

    All of this was apparent from the beginning. “Morbidity is not without its claims to a high place among humanity’s respectable emotional interests,” ran one apologetic trade report on Frankenstein (1931). This was because that film had arrived

    If the psychologists can be believed, at a familiar psychological moment. Say the savants, people like the tragic best at those times when their own spirits are depressed, and the economists tell us that even more than their spirits are at a low ebb.

    Of course, in 1931 you didn’t have to be an economist to know that the economy was at a low ebb. That much was pretty obvious. The Great Depression was the American Nightmare, and horror movies are nightmares displaced. Such connections have always been made; cultural criticism is nothing new. Also writing during the Depression, Nelson B. Bell noted the link between the popularity of horror movies and the dismal economy:

    Many are without employment, many are employed only by virtue of having accepted drastic curtailment of income, many lead their lives in a state of constant dread of the disaster that may overtake them at any minute. This is a state of mind that creates a vast receptivity for misfortunes more poignant than our own.

    This correlation between a collective state of mind and attendant social conditions with the kinds of entertainments and diversions it calls forth is the basic template for Skal’s analysis in The Monster Show. In brief, how did what was happening in America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) influence what audiences flocked to see on the screen?

    In many colourful ways. Maimed and disfigured soldiers returning from the First World War became the animate corpses of the Frankenstein mythology. Zombies, in the Depression and again today, come back to life during times of economic hardship, loss of a sense of personal agency, and exaggerated economic inequality (the living haves vs. the undead have nots; the besieged 1% in their gated communities vs. the hordes of mindless consumers: under social Darwinism the only law is to eat or be eaten). The atomic age breeds giant monsters like Godzilla or the ants in Them. Bulb-headed, bug-eyed aliens land during the “right-brained and technologically-obsessed” 1950s, their appearance on film and the new medium of television eerily foreshadowing our own age of screenwatchers (“In the way that early movie monstrosities reflected a horror of physical transformation, these new creatures anticipated not the violent rending of the body but its withering and atrophy. The future was about watching images and processing information; the eyes and brain were the only useful parts of the human form left.”). The Pill and thalidomide are dispensed and we get an entire sub-genre of “birth horror” (Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, It’s Alive, Alien). Sexually transmitted diseases make headlines and promiscuous teenagers are slashed to pieces. Most recently (and after the publication of the revised edition of this book), we go from Guantanamo to Hostel and “torture porn.”

    This could all get reductive, but it doesn’t because Skal never suggests that such correspondences tell the whole story. To be sure, at times the analysis doesn’t quite persuade. I’m still not convinced of the relation between the Depression and Dracula, and Hitler as the Wolf Man strikes me as a real stretch. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining, well-informed, opinionated and at times idiosyncratic look at a fascinating subject.

    But perhaps the most interesting question Skal’s work raises is the extent to which horror leads or follows the larger culture. Are the purveyors of scary thrills the antennae of the race, the paranoid legislators for mankind? Or do they just respond to contemporary anxieties and trends? In the late 1930s, New York Times critic André Sennwald saw a resurgence of horror films as “related very distinctly to the national state of mind.” It reminded him of the “mad confused days which preceded our entrance into the World War [when] the cinema was satiating the blood-lust of noncombatant Americans with just such vicarious stimulants. Hollywood, always quick to reflect or stimulate a mass appetite, seems to be doing the same thing all over again.”

    Reflect or stimulate? This is an important question. Does culture lure us into danger, or is it a healthy kind of catharsis or therapy – in one of Skal’s analogies, acting like a picture of Dorian Gray and taking on and containing society’s fears as a sort of public service.

    To some extent it’s a chicken or egg problem. The bent of Skal’s analysis is toward seeing horror as a responsive genre, reflecting larger historical realities. And I think that for the most part this is right. But as Wilde said in one of his Dorian Gray aphorisms, it is also the case that life imitates art. This isn’t to point a finger of blame at horrormeisters as corrupters of youth, but only to say that reality is shaped by the human imagination, its dreams and its nightmares. The summoning of monsters is a complicated business.

    Review first published online November 3, 2014.

  • The Children’s Crusade

    The Children’s Crusade
    Gary Dickson

    Was there a Children’s Crusade? It seems that something happened in 1212 that looked like one, but the evidence for what that something was is scattered, meagre, and conflicting. Nevertheless, the idea of a mass movement of young people marching to Jerusalem on a doomed quest to redeem the Holy Land was irresistible for writers looking to point a moral. This led to the story of the crusade entering the realm of “mythistory”: a useful concept saddled with a horrible label that I would happily sign a petition against. In mythistory what actually happened in 1212 isn’t as important as how it was interpreted, or what it meant. In the most popular version, the Children’s Crusade has simply become a byword for immature idealism leading to disaster. “Mythistory” notwithstanding, Gary Dickson makes the crusade into an interesting test case of historiography, showing what an ongoing project the construction of history always is.

  • Consumed

    By David Cronenberg

    Seventy-one might be considered a ripe old age to be publishing one’s debut novel, but famed Canadian film director David Cronenberg is hardly a rookie, bringing several decades of screenwriting experience to the table.

    That background is hard to miss in Consumed, as the full slate of Cronenbergian motifs are in play, beginning with a visit to a slightly sinister, quasi-legal medical clinic, and then proceeding through a melange of sex, disease, fetish, and technology.

    The story concerns a pair of young journalists who share a dangerous appetite for the exotic. Naomi is looking into a sensational crime in Paris, where a fashionable French philosophe has apparently killed and eaten his wife, then disappeared. Meanwhile, Naomi’s boyfriend Nathan is doing a piece on a cancer clinic in Budapest, where he contracts an obscure venereal disease that he tracks back to Toronto. The two only meet once in the novel, but as things go on they begin to recognize how their stories share “odd things, funny parallels.”

    A lot of Cronenberg’s horror derives from his making metaphors literal. Or, as one of the characters here puts it when talking about paranoid imaginings of bodily corruption, “it’s not that you believe in its literalness, but that there is a compelling truth in its organic life that envelops you and is absorbed by you almost on a physiological level.”

    If you feel afraid, then that itself becomes something to be afraid of; what you fear becomes real.

    This is certainly the way things work in Consumed. Naomi and Nathan have a mainly ethereal relationship, hooking up globally via cellphones and the Internet in “disembodied” states. It’s significant that the only time they do come into physical contact the results are unfortunate.

    They are untethered not just from their bodies but from reality. True digital natives, everything they see and do is recorded, filmed, or photographed. The result of all this is to make them prey to various conspiracies that in turn get passed on like a virus. How much of what you see on the Internet can you believe?

    This, in other words, is virtual horror: one where mediated reality has taken over. Did the trendy French philosopher consume his wife, Célestine? Being a trendy French philosopher he’s not sure it makes a difference:

    spousal cannibalism expanded in the media to the point where it took on a potent reality that was not really connected to my life or to Célestine. I was enveloped in that reality, enshrouded, until it became my own, until my own thoughts, and emotions were displaced by those thousands that came from television, newspapers, the multiple internet sources, the YouTubes and Twitters, yes, even the car radio and the talk shows . . . I was colonized, appropriated. I had to leave my dead husk to shrivel and wither in Paris and become someone else . . .

    The horror of virtual reality has consumed him, eaten him alive. This seems to be Cronenberg’s larger point in the novel, which he arrives at by way of a paranoid conspiracy plot reminiscent of writers like Pynchon and DeLillo.

    Consumerism and the Internet have fused, we are told, and what we are consuming online is ourselves. The narcissism of Naomi and Nathan, so familiar to observers of digital culture today, has its end point in autophagy, self-cannibalism. We put our entire lives online, indeed live our lives online, and so become the content the Internet feeds on, enveloped and absorbed on “an almost physiological level.”

    Cronenberg has been down this road before, but the fact that his weird imaginings seem so relevant today only highlights how far ahead of the cultural curve he has always been. It’s a scary thought, but his nightmares are coming true.

    Review first published October 18, 2014.