Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reverse Slope Loss

Last fall I found out I have something with a name: reverse slope loss. In all likelihood, I've had this condition all of my life. It means I have hearing loss at the lower end of sound spectrum -- but normal hearing from the mid-range and higher.

My wife said, "Are you deaf?"

"Did you say something?" I asked. I knew that in my childhood I'd been tested and found to have a hearing problem. My father has it. My brother has it. That's all I knew about it.

My wife wanted me to get tested, so I saw a specialist, and he spooked me a little.

He said, "Clearly you have managed to live with this condition, and you have adapted in ways that you are probably unaware of."

Adapted? Was it that bad?

The doctor said, "If I woke up tomorrow with what you've got, I would be very disoriented."

Apparently my hearing loss in the lower sound spectrum is as high as 60 per cent.

Probably I read lips much more than I was ever aware. I hold back in group social situations. I prefer one-on-one interpersonal contact. I turn the TV up too loud. You don't want to hear me sing. My piano teacher was never impressed with me. I like to spend my time alone with a book. I'd previously thought I was a fairly typical introvert. That's a factor, sure, but I now think my personality type may be less of a factor in my interactions with the world than my hearing loss.

I believe vowels are higher pitched and consonants lower, and vowel sounds will bend around corners and consonants won't.

The specialist told me to tell my wife, it's like we've been married for twenty years (we'd only been married two months when I saw him). He also noted it was good that we live in an open-concept house. Not too may walls that sound needs to bend around.

"Why are you here?" the doctor asked.

I could tell he was curious about me. Reverse slope loss is apparently relatively rare. Most hearing loss is at the high end of the sound spectrum. That's where noise damage and old age attacks. He warned that the biggest risk I faced was losing the high end of the sound range when I got older, since I didn't have the lower range available to me. With age, I was likely to become more significantly impaired (as my father has).

I told the doctor I was there because my wife wanted to know what was going on with my ear canals. I wasn't looking for any solutions from him. He said hearing aids wouldn't likely offer much assistance to me, in any case. I'd found ways to cope that were clearly working, so ... keep on keeping on.

Which is what I've done, but it's interesting that I can now name my condition.
Reverse slope loss.

It's reverse slope because the normal hearing loss curve is like a ski hill. It goes down from left to right. My hearing loss is charted down from right to left. It’s a double negative and sounds like it ought to, logically, work out to be a good thing, but it isn’t. Reverse slope. Loss.

I’m writing about my hearing condition on this blog because I’ve been reflecting on how different people see the world differently. My step son has a learning disability; his neurology is highly subjective. He has a view of the world on a kilter to everyone else. Also, I’ve been thinking about how everyone has their own literary tastes – and their own political ones, too.

People often hear what they want to hear, yes, but also (in my case, for example) people only hear what they are capable of hearing. With whatever information they are able to take in, they make meaning.

The inability to communicate stable meaning has been a mainstay of literary modernism for over a century. Thomas Pynchon, in particular, has long brought together communications theory and physics: meaning is lost in the transfer of language just as energy is lost in the transfer of matter. Entropy is the key concept here.

My diagnosis with reverse slope loss has made this issue more personal to me than ever. I’ve clearly mis-heard people my entire life. To those of you who’ve been hurt by this – sorry! At the same time, it seems I must conclude that misunderstanding is just as important as understanding in the formation of meaning.

I didn’t get “it,” but I got something! Sounds like Beckett or Kafka, doesn’t it?


Monday, October 13, 2008

Salon des Refuses To Go Away

Old antagonists Wayne Grady and John Metcalf were at it again this past weekend, clashing in the Globe and Mail over the Salon des Refuses and Penguin's Book of Canadian Short Stories.

One can only wonder what the Globe was thinking, printing this entirely pointless exchange?

Grady advises us to "revel in what the Penguin book is, rather than what it is not." He also takes it for granted that "creative non-fiction ... now belongs in any modern definition of 'short story.'" Finally, he called the Penguin anthology "a broader, deeper and less biased view-point from which to survey the ebb and flow of our literature."

These points are not unreasonable, at least not as unreasonable as the personal attack of Metcalf that begins his piece: "lazy critic," "flail about in a slough of despond," "unseemly name-calling and name-dropping." But then the antagonism is mutual -- and long felt.

The title essay of Metcalf's 1982 book, Kicking Against the Pricks, includes Metcalf's outline of what he considers Grady's failings. Grady calls his most recent confrontation with Metcalf "tiresomely familiar."

I call the exchange tiresomely pointless.

First, because Grady refuses to address Metcalf's substantive point "that a story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained," as Metcalf repeats in his rebuttal. If the Salon des Refuses is to have any value, then it is not merely to suggest an alternate reading list (as Grady hints). It's value was supposed to be deepening the dialogue about short fiction in Canada.

Grady is steadfast in refusing this bait. He says nothing more than "revel in what this book is, rather than what it is not." He reinforces the Canlit exceptionalism he sees represented in the Penguin anthology. Like Sarah Palin, he would prefer his opponent to not worry, be happy. This is not helpful. It is not engaged discussion.

The anthology, he says, "is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country." This may well be true. I don't dispute it, in any case. What the anthology does not include, however, is an argument that supports its selections as the best short stories ever written in Canada.

The book is called The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, not Canadian Writing 101: An Introduction.

Earlier, I suggested that it was important that the the argument supported by the Salon des Refuses not become hyperbolic or personal. The exchange between Grady and Metcalf disappoints me for this reason. Cold War-like, it reinforces ingrained positions. It is all heat and no light. In short, it is pointless and tiresome.

A lot of work went into the double-issue of The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries. It is a shame to see the subtle points about the evolution of the aesthetics of short story writers in Canada be lost in a wave of personal acrimony.

Metcalf, it must be said, shares some of the blame for this. His rhetorical style has long championed drawing hard lines between positions. Ironically, such stances arguably end up hurting his purposes. Fighting personalities draw attention, swamping subtle aesthetic arguments.

As I've said before, the Penguin anthology is not a "disaster." The Salon des Refuses is rewarding reading.

The time is well past for old antagonists to turn the page.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Sky Gilbert

"If I'm going to tell you about it, I have to start back in 1951, with the black apartment and the black sheets." So begins Sky Gilbert's novel, Brother Dumb (ECW, 2007). If it sort of reminds you of the opening of The Catcher in the Rye, that's no surprise. Echoes of J.D. Salinger resound on every page.

But first, who is Sky Gilbert?

His website invites many answers (or questions). Quill and Quire offers a profile. Wikipedia tell us he is:

Schuyler Lee (Sky) Gilbert, Jr. (born December 20, 1952) is a Canadian writer, actor, academic and drag performer. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, he studied theatre in Toronto, Ontario at York University and the University of Toronto, before becoming co-founder and artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times, a Toronto theatre company dedicated to LGBT drama. Gilbert's drag name is Jane.

Although primarily a playwright, Gilbert has also published novels, poetry and an autobiography. He has also been a regular columnist for Toronto's eye weekly. Many of Gilbert's works are produced at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Gilbert holds the University Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

In other words, he's well accomplished in many fields, though a broad popular audience has not been his reward. Yet.

I would like to write about Brother Dumb by exploring it within the context of Gilbert's other work, but I don't know his other work beyond reading some poems in an anthology in the mid-1990s. I do remember those poems, though, as being direct and honest and, therefore, powerful.

Brother Dumb is direct, honest, and powerful, too, but it is also deceptive and complex. In Quill and Quire, Alex Good called the book an "unconvincing attempt to channel Holden Caufield" that is also a "well-paced and provocative book that sets itself an enormous creative challenge." We can no longer avoid it; a plot summary is in order.

It begins, as above, with the black apartment. The narrator is a famous writer, a recluse, and he speaks directly to the reader, confessing the story of his erotic attachments. The factual elements of the narrator's life align strikingly close to the known facts about J.D. Salinger. The writer is in World War II, publishes early stories in a prestigious New York magazine, writes a novel about a juvenile delinquint, takes a strong interest in Buddhism, moves to the country, as a 50-ish-year-old invites an 18-year-old girl to live with him.

The broad sweep will suffice. One must ask: Is Gilbert channeling Caufield or the author of Franny and Zooey?

This is why I called Brother Dumb deceptive. If you really want to hear about it, it's confusing. One can read and enjoy the novel without knowing anything about Salinger, but if one does: What is one to think? One is tempted to call Brother Dumb the Salinger sequel we've been waiting four decades to receive. Except it isn't.

Like many of Salinger's protagnoists, Gilbert's narrator attempts to draw the reader into a bond of "specialness." Only we understand what is real, what is good, what is right, the narrator suggests. The novel is a confession. Many things in the narrator's life have gone wrong. He is writing to explain himself, but also to find that special audience of special people. The gifted ones, the sensitive ones. The vulnerable ones.

For there is more than a little creepy about the narrator's plea. He is attracted to women much, much younger than himself. He is attracted to their childlike qualities. Years ago, Mary McCarthy wrote about Salinger's famous Glass family. Her essay, called "J.D. Salinger's closed circuit," appeared in Harper's, October 1962. What she found, she called "terrifying." This online "profile of a pedophile," in that regard, is not comforting.

McCarthy found the Glass family too cut off from the rest of humanity to be interesting. Pedophiles create alternate realities of "specialness" between themselves and their victims. One must be clear at this point to return to the fact that we are talking about a novel here. Salinger is fact, but Brother Dumb is fiction.

Like Nabokov's Lolita, Brother Dumb provides a complicated beauty. This is not a book that provides the simple pleasure of a well-told story.

Brother Dumb, like Lolita, is the story of one man's attempt to find "love." I put the word in quotation marks, because these are also books that complicate traditional, popular notions of love. That's about the most neutral way of stating that.

Yet, what is love if not complicated?

One of the features of Salinger's books is that his characters seek enlightenment, or transcendent reality. This is High Romanticism's legacy. Franny collapses and the reader may think she's had a spiritual epiphany. My mother, on the other hand, thought the poor girl was pregnant.

Love is sometimes framed as the gateway to the other side. This is oversimplistic nonsense.

McCarthy's essay on Salinger highlights the oversimplistic nonsense of Salinger's novels. Brother Dumb takes us through similar territory. The idealization of love is tempting. It's even sometimes rewarding. It can also be tragic, terrifying and abusive.

Brother Dumb is an unsettling book. It is a remarkable achievement. Alex Good suggested in his review that Salinger would have led the readers on "a merrier chase." I'm not so sure.

I find that thought, actually, a little creepy.


There's something else. Language. The writing process. The ability of language to approach truth. How language may or may not define the outer limits of reality. How language may or may not refer to anything but itself.

I don't mean to refer to Derrida here. I'm thinking of a recent letter to The Globe and Mail by Sky Gilbert about, as the Globe framed it, "the portrayal of gay men in Mark A. Wainberg's July 26 Three for Thought about HIV/AIDS, saying that it's a typical story from the white, heterosexual AIDS research establishment. Wainberg replies that the facts speak for themselves."

Wainberg wrote that promiscuity among gay males was the primary factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Gilbert called this "moral panic." Wainberg replied with, "Several studies have shown ...."

My interest here is not in the conflict over the spread of HIV/AIDS. What interested me was that Gilbert chose to respond to the conflict by referencing and quoting Oscar Wilde: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." Gilbert argued that researchers are blinded by the framework of their language associations, which is leading them down the wrong path, just as the prosecutors of Oscar Wilde destroyed beauty by being blinded by their stark, barren aestheticism.

Gilbert's own words:
But the homosexual/AIDS meganarrative - like all meganarratives - while terrifically seductive, only resembles the truth. Not all people who get AIDS are libertines, and not all learn redemption. North American (mainly white and heterosexual) AIDS scientists - somewhat overzealously, I think - analyze "lifestyles" and collect data about the sex lives of gay men and Africans, meanwhile convincing everyone that their lurid invasions into the privacy of their subjects is about saving lives. But is it merely a coincidence that a transhistorical fear of same-sex desire between males and the Western obsession with colonizing Africa have merged to become a single discourse called The War on AIDS? Even if scientists were to find out conclusively that white heterosexual North Americans are models of monogamy, attempts by crusading colonizers to teach the rest of the world abstinence are historically doomed to failure. Human beings are sexual (which sometimes means promiscuous) and even an evangelical devotion to transforming the aberrant sexualities of mankind will not change that - or the course of this disease. Non-judgmental, factual information based on conclusive scientific evidence can, has and will.
Wainberg said in response, the statistics speak for themselves. Words need not apply.

Words. Numbers. Reality. Truth. Beauty. Lies. Danger. This conflict raises suggestions about how to read Brother Dumb. In short, we need not look to the life of J.D. Salinger or suppose the Gilbert is writing about him. This is not a biography. It is a work of imagination that intersects with reality, a kind of counter-life.

It's true subject may be, in the end, language itself. The novel's narrator often discusses the writing process and how writing is his substitue for interacting with other people. Does language lead toward insight and higher reality, or just an alternate, risky dimension?