Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen turns 75 on Monday, and I see from today's Globe and Mail that his two novels are being republished in a new, single-volume issue.

Below is a report from 2006, when he sang on Bay Street in Toronto with Anjani Thomas.


He came, he spoke, he sang, he joked, he smiled, he laughed, he recited poetry.

It began with Heather Reisman, Founder and CEO of Indigo Books & Music Inc., saying she was known around her corporation as "Chief Book Lover . . . but on this occasion, I'm just 'Chief Lover.'"

Reisman spoke shortly after 3:45 p.m. from a 20'-wide stage set up outside the Bay Street entrance of Indigo's Toronto flagship store. At 3:00 p.m., the police had blocked off the road at either end of the block and the crowd, which had been slow to gather, soon filled the street well over 1,000 strong.

Reisman introduced Ron Sexsmith and the Bare Naked Ladies. Sexsmith sang "Heart With No Companion," noting it was "one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs." Sexsmith gave the song a strong and heartfelt rendition, a twinge of sadness in his voice, a seeming requirement of every Cohen composition.
Sadness was replaced with a complicated mix of camp and nostalgia when BNL's Steven Page followed Sexsmith with lead vocals on "Sister's Of Mercy." The Bare Naked Ladies and Leonard Cohen? Only in Canada, eh? Somehow it all worked fine. There was a keen "in-joke" quality to the performance, but a deep reverence also.
Reisman then returned to exhort the audience with the news that for the first time ever in Canada: "a poetry book is the number one best-seller!!!" The crowd cheered. The title was, of course, Cohen's Book of Longing (M&S, 2006), his first new title in over a decade.
Then there he was!

The crowd responded with sustained applause. Cohen: "I want to apologize to the pedestrians and the drivers for the inconvenience." He looked relaxed, pleased, slightly hunched. He recited a poem, then introduced Anjani Thomas and her band -- keyboard, bass, guitar -- and left the stage. Thomas, under the name "Anjani," has just released "Blue Alert," a CD of new songs, lyrics by Cohen with whom she has worked off and on since 1984 when she sang backing vocals on the Cohen classic "Hallelujah."

Thomas sang five songs from "Blue Alert." Her vocal styling was Cohenesque, if two voices remarkably different can be said to be remarkably similar. Thomas is heavily jazz-influenced, and she sang at times breathless like Billie Holiday, or Joni Mitchell. Chorus lyrics included: "thanks for the dance" and "saying goodbye at the innermost door." It seemed almost as if Thomas was Cohen's 21st century voice, delivering his goodbye as the poet/songwriter himself knelt at the back of the stage, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer.

For the fifth and final song of her set, Thomas called Cohen to the microphone, but not before thanking the crowd for its "Canadian aloha." The Hawaiian native said, "In Hawaii, we take off our shoes, so I hope you don't mind."

Lyrics from the final song included:

You're my first loveand my last
there's no love after you

I had so much to tell you
but now it's closing time
the heart is always right


I never got to tell you
how beautiful you are

I don't know how it happened
but I missed the exit sign
it's dark out in Los Angeles
it's dark out along the line

I never got to love you
like I heard it can be done
the heart is always right

Is the heart always right? In Cohen's universe, the song and poem is a vehicle of purity in emotion. Back at McGill in the 1950s, Cohen had a country & western band. He must have learned something from Hank Williams early on and stuck with it. Ambiguity of expression is not a Cohen trademark. Recovering lost perfection is. Speaking with gratitude for what's lost is, too.
And so, Ron Sexsmith and the Bare Naked Ladies returned to share the stage with Cohen and deliver spirited versions of two of Cohen's better known "goodbye songs." ("Blue Alert" -- we were reminded sharply -- is only the latest in a long line of song/poetry cycles from Cohen that obsess about endings.)

Sexsmith and Page shared the microphone with Cohen. "I'll follow you guys," Cohen said, but soon the other two had maneuvered their elder into taking over lead vocals. And he smiled like he'd been reunited with "Suzanne." His voice raised on the lines: "you held on to me/ like a crucifix" ("So Long Marianne"). Should we let him go? No, the next -- and final -- song was "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."
[First published in The Danforth Review]

Friday, September 4, 2009

Zoe Whittall

I know that Zoe Whittall has a new novel out, but I've just gotten around to finishing her 2007 title, Bottle Rocket Hearts (Comorant).

How about we start with the trailer?

So what's this book about? This summary from the Feminist Review sums it up nicely:

If I were to describe Bottle Rocket Hearts as a sort of creative autobiography replete with journal excerpts and a first person narrator, which also reads like a queer coming of age novel, you probably wouldn’t want to read it. But for anyone who has ever tried to align their politics with their personal life and discovered a plethora of limits and contradictions, this book will be a fun, fast-paced read. And it has punk rock bulging from the seams and postmodern emotional conundrums that will resonate with those who have tried to live in uncharted territory. Having read Zoe Whittal’s tightly crafted tale, I’ve had to reassess my position on the idea that diaries are cheesy and coming of age novels are boring. Bottle Rocket Hearts suggests otherwise.

The best review I found was by Sandra Alland in Xtra:

There are no simple solutions in the world of this book, instead [it becomes] a dedicated personal investigation by Eve. For this reason, Bottle Rocket Hearts never becomes preachy despite being chock-full of righteous politics. Whittall lets her characters breathe and fail like real humans, rather than forcing them to be cardboard cutouts for ideas.

Then there is this intriging comment from Vancouver's "a novel this is not."

Not a novel? Why not?

The review in Matrix hints at an answer:

An entire chapter is dedicated to the long description of a play staged by Seven in reaction to the incident, telling rather than allowing the characters’ feelings to manifest organically through their actions.

Alland found the novel "never" preachy, but some of it is, which undermines its other novelistic qualities: clear protagonist, moving through time to reach an objective, facing obstacles, battling an antagonist, overcoming complications, reaching new insight, resolution, promised land.

The story structure is conservative and effective. The book provides a good read, and a satisfying, thumping ending, which I won't give away, though I will come back to it at the bottom of this review.

What is the story? Here's Eye Weekly's summary:

Eve is a few days shy of her 19th birthday when we meet her, infatuated with an older woman but still living at home with parents who don’t know she’s gay. As she leaves their home in Dorval for an apartment in downtown Montreal, she enters a world of feminist activism, open relationships and drugs poached from dead people’s medicine cabinets, soundtracked by Team Dresch and Le Tigre.

Set around the time of the 1995 referendum, the book sizzles with heightened political awareness and urgency. Walls are tagged with “oui” and “non,” biker bombs explode in the night and the riot grrrl movement has jumped the shark. The political becomes personal as Eve is torn between her separatist girlfriend and Anglo friends and a hate crime hits close to home.

As Alland noted, there's a high degree of risk that this plotline will become "preachy" ... or as the Feminist Review reviewer suggested, "boring."

On the whole, however, Whittall avoids the pitfalls.

Eve is a fantastic character. Sensitive, charming, lovely, tough and tender, honest and self-confident, loyal and curious. Slightly mysterious, too. She doesn't reveal, for example, how she voted in the referendum.

One might call her oui-curious.

Eve carries this novel, and one can't help but root for her.

So, of course this novel is a novel. But what kind of novel is it?

The book it reminded me most of was George Fetherling's Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties (1994). Because, while Whittall's novel is the story of Eve, it's also the story of Montreal in the mid-1990s ... and specifically the story of gay Montreal in that period.

It's a social novel with documentary power.

For example, on referendum night, Eve sits in a francophone gay bar surrounded by oui supporters who are becoming despondant as the results go against them. Someone eventually says, "We'll still be gay tomorrow."

A unique perspective about what happened that night.

The Globe and Mail's review is worth quoting:

Zoe Whittall might just possibly be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler ... Bottle Rocket Hearts is a major statement about lessening unhappiness by overcoming the small dishonesties that creep into everyday life.


Now, about the ending (and be warned, I'm going to give it away)...

The last sentence is, "I feel soft and furious."

Eve is furious because she's just discovered that her girlfriend, Della, isn't who she said she was. Della had been keeping some major secrets from her (I'm not going to give those away), but these are revealled to Eve when Della lands in the psyche ward of the hospital. Eve's response is to turn away, leave the hospital, feeling "soft and furious."

Boom, bang. The end.

A few sentences earlier, Eve says: "Della is a story I will tell to reference my last stretch of adolescence. Those years I dated a fiction. She's locked up and I am anywhere I choose to be."

Well, whatever. I felt let down by this, and I puzzled over why.

I think Eve made the right choice by walking away from Della, but I think it's false to call Della "a fiction." It's a too-neat summation, and I think it's a false sentiment. Eve is highly ambiguous about her feelings about one of the most dramatic events in Canadian history, and yet she reduces the complexity of her former lover to a quick dismissal.

That bugged me, and it made me dislike Eve.

When Eve's mother says she's "tolerant," Eve rightly remarks that she doesn't want to be tolerated because she's gay; she wants to be "accepted."

But Della is offered no retrospective tolerance or acceptance.

In the end, Eve fails to offer a reflective response; she leaves behind a harsh, conservative judgement. Della is not a "mystery"; she is a "fiction." And the love that Eve talks about so much, isn't a path into the unknown, it's more of a social contract.

If we ever hear more from Eve, I suspect we'll learn that her adolescence didn't end with the dismissal of Della; it ended when she realized that she still had much left to learn.

John Goldbach

I guess you'd call the reviews mixed for John Goldbach's Selected Blackouts (Insomniac Press, 2009).

Quill and Quire

The narrative doesn’t so much progress as extend through matter-of-fact statements about what is happening, which is rarely anything special. The language does not employ any rhetorical flourishes, and the dialogue in particular tends to repeat simple, common words like “good” and “nice” with distressing frequency.

Eye Weekly (Toronto)

'How Much Do They Know?' is just so first draft and ranty. Even the title gives the story away as an exercise. As every waitress knows, a table of drunk people in their twenties are obnoxious and narcissistic but when a narrator is as well, then what’s the point?

Montreal Mirror

There are no secrets between friends and this is nothing new. When he gets it right, though, Goldbach nails it.

Vue Weekly (Edmonton)

On a first reading, so much is too familiar to really be provoking and it's only on a second reading that the reader can remove themselves from the situations described to read the subtext. Goldbach has a gift of insight and tremendous writing talent that makes this book a must for anyone in their twenties wondering, "What's this life thing about anyway?"


Still, the word "masterpieces" is used by both the Mirror and Eye Weekly reviewers.

Mirror: "Conversation at 4 a.m." and "Wedding" are stunning little masterpieces.

Eye Weekly: “Wedding” and “Conversation at 4AM” are little masterpieces.

Alex Good's Quill and Quire review agrees with the praise for "Wedding," but also praises the story Eye Weekly dissed:

In the final story, a single-paragraph account of a woman watching a wedding show on television, there is a subtle feeling of inner drift, and in the paranoid interior monologue “How Much Do They Know?” the narrative voice has a manic energy that is absent in the rest of the collection.


My impressions?

This book owes more to Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero than it does to Hemingway, but Papa does hover in the background. These are undergraduate stories, stuffed with undergraduate obsessions, undergraduate humour, undergraduate ennui and an undergraduate sense of doom.

Yes, sometimes you want to smack these characters and say, Grow the fuck up.

And yet. One must look at the book for what it is. And I confess I enjoyed reading it. The book is plain, direct and, gasp, perhaps even attempts to grasp the "real" without playing at arsty fartsy games.

I like these kinds of books and wish more writers would attempt to strip back the pasteboard masks of the world, as I remember my American lit prof telling us all, referring to a passage in Moby Dick.

I didn't like the book's beginning. The opening story struck me as weakly funny, superficial, and not worthy of inclusion. The stories improved towards the middle, showing more complexity, depth of character and thoughtfulness. A greater variety of tone, however, would have made the collection more interesting.

To disturb the consensus about the closing story, "Wedding," I didn't think it was particularly special.

Little masterpieces included? I'm unconvinced.