• Extraordinary

    By David Gilmour

    Extraordinary challenges the reader right away with a cringe-inducing premise. All that happens in the book is this: the narrator goes to his handicapped sister Sally’s apartment to reminisce, get drunk, and then assist her in committing suicide.

    It sounds painful. Depressing. Literary, in the worst possible way.

    But it’s not.

    In the first place, David Gilmour’s voice is a charm. As with all of today’s best conversational prose stylists — think of names like Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes, or John Banville — you feel like you could read Gilmour’s rendition of an IKEA catalogue. He has the relaxed, informal, intelligent but unpretentious manner down pat, and it fits his narrator — a familiar, semi-autobiographical figure conscious of being a bit of a jerk but unconscious of being an even bigger one — like a sharkskin racing suit. The effect is so smooth that on the very few occasions where you come across a misplaced or inapproriate word (I couldn’t buy “lugubrious” here, or Sally having to remind her brother of her ex-husband’s name) it’s like jamming your toe.

    It’s a grace the narrator appreciates in others. “I wanted to keep her talking,” he says near the end of his sister, “she took such palpable pleasure in conversation, she danced such an elegant dance when she spoke, that I thought for a second it might occur to her to stay around and do some more.” But of course the music has to stop for all of us.

    And it’s a short song. Another thing Extraordinary has going for it is its lightness. In fact it’s almost a novella, coming in at under 200 pages (framed with very wide borders). You can read it in a single sitting, or about the same time as the narrator’s evening visit takes.

    As time runs out, the walls close in. We never leave the apartment, a bubble that the outside world (voices in the hallway, a mysteriously ringing phone) only faintly impinges on. But because the book is so focused, it doesn’t feel rushed or abridged. Brevity — in particular the brevity of life, symbolized here by guttering candles — is what it’s all about. The narrator isn’t trying to re-tell an entire family history, but is condensing that history into a series of final thoughts and reflections that gradually become more compressed as the night advances.

    In what spirit will we meet our end? In what state of mind? What will our final thoughts be of? These are universal questions, and if we believe “death concentrates the mind” and that in vino veritas, then this is the sort of evening we would expect to provide some answers. Both Sally and her brother are hitting the Drambuie pretty hard, and what point is there in lying to one another now?

    But there are no revelations forthcoming, despite the narrator’s rather crass urge for enlightenment. Instead there’s just the booze, the candles, painful trips to the bathroom, and a pre-Boomer soundtrack that finally ends in absurdity with one of those stupid and unlikely tunes we can’t keep out of our heads.

    And through it all there’s a nagging sense that something is going unsaid. Sally and the narrator are only step-siblings, and since Sally is by fifteen years the elder the two don’t seem particularly close. Despite the fact that they have important things to say, they’re not things we feel they need to say to each other. We’re never sure of the exact nature of their relationship, and a lot of the time they seem to be talking to themselves, about people who aren’t there, while trying to make sense of their lives.

    There is an irony in the title, as Gilmour is primarily the chronicler of all-too-ordinary, middle-class disappointments. And even given the book’s charm and mystery there’s no denying the sad takeaway: that the End is a time of regrets and for dwelling on the mistakes that we’ve made. Middle age, which brings with it reflections on the damage we’ve caused to others in our lives — damage that we can no longer hope to undo — is some preparation, but not a final accounting.

    Such a reckoning is impossible. The narrator envisions drawing a line under Sally’s life and then beginning a process of forgetting, memories fading “like the paint on an old house” until “there’d be nothing left of us or this evening.” But it is now years later, and he’s writing all of this down. Forgetting, and forgiving, isn’t that easy. You can draw a line under a life and try to sum it up, but in families there’s always some figure to be carried over into the next column, and another generation to be accounted for.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 11 2013.

  • Mantis Dreams

    Mantis Dreams
    Adam Pottle

    Here’s a good one you may have missed. Probably the most common complaint about CanLit — the tag frequently given to Canadian literary fiction — is its lack of humour. Comic literature is seen as an oxymoron in some circles in this great nation. This is a problem for Dr. Dexter Ripley of the University of Saskatchewan, who thinks Mordecai Richler is the only Canadian writer worth reading (“The others write like they’re lost in traffic.”). Ripley is an essential figure for satire: the guy who is always pushing boundaries and making us nervous in our laughter, forcing us to reflect on just what it is we think is so damn funny anyway. Ripley, whose journals these are, is well fitted for such a role, as his body is degenerating from a wasting illness and he has a penchant for disability jokes. He’s also a complex and unreliable narrator. He despises weakness but cultivates dependency, and while funny can also be a cruel shit. But satire asks us to work at defining that boundary: satire is cruel. Its truth hurts, and it’s funny because it’s true.

  • What We See When We Read

    By Peter Mendelsund

    When reading a novel, the words on the page are translated into images by our imagination. Movies do a lot of this work for us, making Anna Karenina look like Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, or Keira Knightley. But left to their own devices, every reader has to cobble together a totally unique Anna, an intensely personal creation that’s likely far removed from anything Tolstoy had in mind.

    This is just the way language works. When we read a story we’re not (usually) looking at pictures, and any description is going to be fragmentary and open to further interpretation. Peter Mendelsund, a book designer, is fascinated by the resulting gaps. We tend to describe the act of reading as being akin to watching a movie, but when we read a novel what do we actually see? Very little.

    Mendelsund could have written a dry tract on this subject, but his approach is more akin to that of pop philosophy writers such as Alain de Botton, while the book’s layout, with illustrations and quirky design features on every page, makes it consistently entertaining to look at if nothing else. It’s like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing for the fiction set.

    Sticking mainly to classic texts like Anna Karenina, To the Lighthouse, and Moby Dick, Mendelsund tries various approaches to his subject, some more fruitful than others. His main thesis is that we only see fragments when we read fiction. We reduce reality’s “big picture,” which we then fill in with personal “readerly visions” that replace the visual with what we find, for whatever reason, significant.

    The fog at the beginning of Dickens’s Bleak House, for example, refers to London’s actual fog as well as serving as a metaphor for both the legal system and the openings of books in general (that appear before us out of the fog of unknowingness that is all that we haven’t read yet). What this fog actually looks like, however, its visual effect, remains “completely indecipherable” to Mendelsund. He only sees its significance, what it means to him.

    But in this particular reading then is he only seeing what he wants to see? Or expects to find? Or needs in order to make his argument? Or am I only filling in imaginary holes that I perceive in his explanation?

    Much of What We See When We Read walks a fine line. It can drift, almost unnoticeably, from being challenging to being trivial, from saying something original to stating the obvious. But lovers of fiction will perhaps find something here that they’ve been looking for, as well as the inspiration to keep looking.

    Review first published September 27, 2014.

  • A Wilderness of Error

    A Wilderness of Error
    Errol Morris

    The conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald for the murder of his wife and two small children in 1970 was very odd for a number of reasons. A preliminary army investigation cleared him entirely, but he was found guilty by a jury at a criminal trial nine years later. Today opinion on the case continues to be divided, and the true story of what happened will likely never be known. What Errol Morris’s book makes clear, however, is that the police investigation into the murder was badly bungled from the start, and the prosecution’s case was incompetent, unfair and probably unconstitutional. Essentially a mad, if belated, dash to judgment, MacDonald’s case shows what can happen once an investigation gets set on the wrong tracks. That Morris admits to only presenting a fragment of the whole story in such a weighty and detailed book is testament to the complexity of the case and the extent of the wilderness.

  • Across the Pond

    By Terry Eagleton

    As a Canadian, you soon learn certain rules for talking with Americans. Among the first of these is that you don’t talk to Americans about America, at least if you have anything negative to say.

    There’s nothing new about this. Alexis de Tocqueville realized it when he visited in 1831-32, and Charles Dickens learned the same lesson when he published his American Notes for General Circulation in 1842.

    British academic critic Terry Eagleton, who has spent a lot of time in the U.S., is the latest European intellectual to offer his thoughts on America for public consideration, and he makes no secret of his debt to Tocqueville and Dickens. Indeed, he calls on their names so many times you start to wonder if he thinks much has changed since the nineteenth century. According to Eagleton, American English, particularly in its public or political form, is in some ways “the language of top-hatted, frock-coated Victorian England,” and the American belief in material progress helps make the U.S. “a thoroughly Victorian kind of place.”

    Eagleton’s method, again following Tocqueville, is to paint with broad strokes, making generous use of stereotypes (a sort of cultural shorthand that he apologizes in advance for but which is hard to avoid), and frequent comparisons between the English, Americans, and Irish (Eagleton lives in Dublin and a previous book, The Truth About the Irish, was a similar examination of national myths and identity).

    There is a lot to find fault with, even if you weren’t born in the U.S.A. As always there is a glibness to Eagleton, a tendency to rhetorically oversell every point he makes. His stereotypes often turn into straw men, and in any event the problem with stereotypes in a book like this isn’t that they’re unfair or inaccurate but that they’re clichés and don’t tell us anything new.

    More troubling, because they colour some of the sweeping judgements being made, are the weaknesses in Eagleton’s grip on history and pop culture. It won’t do, for example, to assert that “if an American and a Briton were together in a prisoner-of-war camp, the Briton would fade gradually away with a plucky little grin and the American would escape.” In case Eagleton only knows the movie, no Americans made the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III. Steve McQueen’s part was entirely fictional.

    Perhaps even worse, Eagleton claims that the British aren’t as funny as Americans because “nothing in their media today can outshine” American television comedies like The Office.

    The Office was, of course, originally a British show. Has Eagleton not heard of Ricky Gervais?

    This said, there are plenty of moments to be enjoyed and some keen observations made along the way. The reason Americans are so hard to talk to about America is that for them the nation is a religion, and Eagleton, whose bent is naturally toward more spiritual and philosophical musings, is particularly good on American vs. British concepts of “liberty,” various manifestations of the American “will,” and the damaging effects the expression of that will has had on American culture and individual Americans.

    And despite the reliance on stereotypes, Eagleton doesn’t lose sight of individual Americans. He recognizes the paradox that in America “individuality” is a general attribute of the national identity. American exceptionalism extends to the level of the individual, and everyone in America is special by virtue of being a citizen.

    While on the whole Eagleton thinks that this is a good thing, he also gently suggests that the myth of exceptionalism can lead to all kinds of disasters. Remaining optimistic, however, he thinks that America will be able to find a fix for any mess it makes, at home or abroad.

    Such, anyway, is the American dream.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, August 4 2013.

  • The Zhivago Affair

    The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
    Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

    In the twentieth century the Soviet Union was usually a bit behind the times, which helps explain why the poet Boris Pasternak’s only novel, Doctor Zhivago, caused such a stir when it was published (in Italy) in 1957. As this account of the controversy over Dr. Zhivago points out, “Pasternak lived in a society where novels, poems, an plays were hugely significant forms of communication,” not to mention one where art could still have real political impact. And so after the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country and published in translation the CIA took an interest in making the book “an important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.” Their efforts led to Pasternak’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1958 (he had to refuse the award), and the ruffling of many Soviet feathers. For readers living after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the twilight of the book, the authors admit this may all seem a bit quaint today. It does, but it still makes for a story with the conflict, complexity, and personal and political drama of a Russian novel.

  • Savage Love

    By Douglas Glover

    One hopes that all of the familiar reasons why more people don’t recognize Douglas Glover as being one of Canada’s best writers — chief among them being that he mainly writes experimental, short fiction published by small presses — won’t continue to dog his latest collection. Savage Love is an accomplished, funny, and inventive book that readers should rejoice in.

    The theme, announced in the title, is indeed a savage, perverse kind of desire — reminiscent, at times, of the stories in Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look On Love. One of Glover’s narrators describes a particularly torrid affair as being such a compulsive if not violent “wallow of resentment, hatred, lust, rage and envy . . . that to this day I think all of those emotions are love.” In another story we hear of the terror and “inhuman endlessness of desire, our inability to contain it, the dark tide on which we ride unwitting and unprepared.” Love as we find it here is ruinous, bestial, and passionate, with the full sense of “passion” involving not just emotional peaks but spiritual suffering.

    The emphasis on rutting and physical expressions of love (violence, dominance, agony and ecstasy) nicely complements Glover’s display of technical proficiency and formal experimentation, giving the stories a characteristically intellectual earthiness. A favourite word is “ineffable,” but his writing embodies a different spirit: full of cerebral grip and grit. He’s a smart writer of precisely measured effects, but he never seems like he’s showing off.

    He’s also a master of shifting between different moods and modes (he calls some of the stories here “fugues”), and the collection moves fluidly from a brilliant parody of Cormac McCarthy’s demonic early style in the opening story “Tristiana” (a parody that shows how gentle a nudge is required to tip some texts into the absurd) and the psychosexual terror of “Crown of Thorns,” to the spare microfictions of the book’s Intermezzo section and the bawdy humour of the concluding Comedies. Through it all, the timing (so essential to comic writing), calibration of point of view, and diversity of language is near perfect. Only one story, “A Flame, a Burst of Light,” seems out of place, but it’s still a good read. Overall, Savage Love deserves to be recognized as one of the best Canadian books published this year.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2013.

  • Newtown: An American Tragedy

    Newtown: An American Tragedy
    Matthew Lysiak

    Heaven knows the subtitle is perhaps the most overused in the entire history of publishing, but the heartbreaking mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary were tragic indeed. It was an event so extreme it even seemed for a moment as if it might effect some change in America’s gun laws. That didn’t happen, and blame was instead spread around, a lot of it attaching to Nancy Lanza. And I think she’s what makes the story one of continued relevance and public fascination. Was she culpable in some way, or just another victim? I tilt toward the former position, seeing a classic case of codependency that resulted in a criminal act of enablement. The warning signals were there, and if someone like Nancy Lanza didn’t have the resources to cope with the situation then nobody has. I don’t know who else can throw on the brakes.

  • Difficult Men

    By Brett Martin

    In his latest book of musings on pop culture, I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman allows that he’s been genuinely surprised by one recent media development. “A lot of unforeseen things happened to television at the end of the twenty-first century, the strangest being that it actually became good,” he writes. “In one ten-year span, high-end television usurped the cultural positions of film, rock, and literary fiction. The way people talked about TV radically changed, and so did the way we judged its quality.”

    One can usually argue with Klosterman’s take on just about everything, but in this case he’s on safe ground. Television did take off in this period, to the point where A-list film director Steven Soderbergh declared just this year that he was giving up on movies and switching to television. And he even his reasons:

    American movie audiences now just don’t seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative . . . I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television.

    Brett Martin’s Difficult Men tells the inside, behind-the-scenes story of this “Third Golden Age” of television, one that has seen the “open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode [per season] serialized drama” become “the signature Ameican art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.” His focus is on the development of the major cable series that have defined what he calls the New TV (shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad), as well as the personalities of their creators and principal “showrunners.”

    If that makes it sound like it’s going to be a similar book to Peter Biskind’s account of the creative renaissance in American movies a generation earlier, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, that’s not by accident. Many of the showrunners, chief among them The Sopranos‘ David Chase, idolized that period in American film, and Martin sees them as direct inheritors, their work being “the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth and Mailer had been to the 1960s.”

    As a series companion and general backgrounder on shows that are now household names and watercooler material, Martin’s book covers the field nicely and even fans will find it informative. But as a cultural history of this period it is even more intriguing.

    How, we have to ask, did such a seismic creative shift happen in the first place?

    There were many reasons. Starting with the technology, televisions themselves were bigger and better, making watching TV a preferable alternative to going out to see a movie. Then the splintering of the television audience into smaller segments made it possible to take risks with edgier, darker material because there wasn’t such a need to pander to advertisers. It’s noteworthy that the networks all passed on The Sopranos when it was offered to them.

    Another development that immediately paid huge dividends was that the demand for large amounts of original content on the cable networks put writers, at least temporarily, in the driver’s seat.

    As the saying goes, if you have a good script you’ll always have an at least decent film, but if you have a lousy script you’re only ever going to have garbage. But by the late 1990s television was moving away from scripted programming altogether with “reality TV,” and in Hollywood the screenwriter had long since ceased to matter. For the New TV, however, the writers (Martin’s “difficult men”) were masters of their domain.

    But in the end the main reason cable drama took off is a negative one: these shows filled a vacuum. Both network television and mainstream moviemaking had become a vast wasteland of juvenile, formulaic entertainment in the ’90s. For adults, there was literally nothing to watch either at home or at the local multiplex.

    The New TV’s adult-oriented, morally ambiguous, long-form storytelling saved the day. Yes, these shows could sometimes stray into soap opera territory (I still think of The Walking Dead as essentially a soap opera with zombies lumbering around in the background), but at their best they really were, as Martin argues, the best and most interesting filmmaking being done anywhere. And all of this with limited budgets and largely unknown casts. James Gandolfini’s recent death was major news, but before The Sopranos he was only a minor supporting actor. As for the rest, all of those who had heard of Dominic West, Jon Hamm, or Bryan Cranston before their series took off, please raise your hands.

    How long will the good times last? Martin isn’t sure, and no one else is either. Some veteran big-name talent has been drawn in to the game (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, Dustin Hoffman in Luck) but with mixed results. As with any artistic form or medium you have to expect peaks and troughs. Of the giants Martin discusses, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under have come and gone, and Mad Men and Breaking Bad are down to their final seasons. Surfing channels today reveals no clear inheritors, and there is even some early evidence that success is spoiling the cable networks, with a tendency for some of the newer programs to slip into now established formulas. Meanwhile, the environment continues to change at a rapid pace, leading to different creative opportunities and perhaps creating the conditions for another revolution. In his conclusion, Martin points to the “ever-multiplying, ever more fragmented platforms and systems used to deliver media,” and singles out Netflix (not previously thought of as a content producer) as an example. As if to prove his point, House of Cards, which premiered on Netflix, recently became the first Internet show to be nominated for an Emmy (gathering nine nominations in all, including outstanding drama).

    My only fear is that in order for another real revolution to happen we’re going to first have to enter another wasteland. Until then, the best advice is to sit back and enjoy the shows.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, July 12 2013.

  • Agostino

    Alberto Moravia

    If not an outright hormonal hell, puberty is at the very least an awkward and uncomfortable age. Nevertheless, it is out of this familiar coming-of-age that Alberto Moravia crafts a graceful and sensual short novel and modern parable. The Freudian myth is placed up front, as well as the nasty hierarchies of class, power, and beauty that have such an impact on us when they first force themselves, usually quite rudely, upon our awareness. The boy Agostino will be the father to the man, just as love turns into a hard carapace to protect his innocent childhood sensibility. New identities are tried on, none of them particularly attractive. Agostino’s father is dead and his other role models are poor if not downright degenerate. I find this such a tragic story. After thirteen it’s all downhill.