Monday, September 26, 2011

Paul Quarrington, David Gilmour, André Alexis

Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life
by Paul Quarrington
Greystone, 2010

The Perfect Order of Things
by David Gilmour
Thomas Allen, 2011

Beauty & Sadness
by André Alexis
Anansi, 2010

Three gentlemen of Canadian literature. Three memoirs. One of them framed as a novel. One of them a celebration of life and critique of music. One of them a hybrid short story /essay collection.

One of them published posthumously.

Paul Quarrington wrote Cigar Box Banjo in the 12 months his doctors gave him after his lung cancer diagnosis. He'd already started it, but what had started as a reflection of his life-long interest (and career in) music became a reflection on the significant moments of his life and the strange space of his final year.

If you knew you had a year to live, what would you do? Quarrington makes it clear that he took his diagnosis as a gift. Of course he would have liked to live longer. Of course he was angry. But it could have been worse. He could have left with no chance to say goodbye, with no chance to do some of the things on his bucket list (such as record a song in Nashville with his childhood friend, Dan Hill).

And without that final year, we wouldn't have this book, which is imperfect but also more than charming. It resonates with life-force, and it serves as a reminder that the well-lived life is possible even in the most trying of circumstances.

This blog began in 2008 with a report of The Writers' Union of Canada's AGM. Specifically, it recounted a session on the writing life led by Quarrington, Nino Ricci and Wayston Choy. Quarrington repeated some learned wisdom: "Bitterness is the writer's black lung disease." Quarrington said: At the end of the day, there's the body of work. Be proud of it. Avoid careerism.

It was the only time I "met" Quarrington, and it was enough to understand that he is widely missed by friends, family and colleagues.

Reviewing his memoir in the context of other memoirs of the Canadian writing life, it is easy to conclude that Quarrington's is the cheeriest. Matt Cohen's Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, also written as its author was dying of lung cancer, for example, is rife with bitterness, though also interesting reportage from the publishing front lines.

David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things (Thomas Allen, 2011) trawls a series of traumatic events in its (unnamed, first-person) narrator's life. The reader is informed early that the book's 10 chapters will return the 60-ish-year-old narrator to the geography of a significant (usually suffering) event in his life.

The events include his father's suicide, his mother's death, lovers' quarrels, drug trips, multiple marriages and divorces, a murder, interviewing George Harrison, punching a book critic, and meeting Robert DeNiro outside the bathroom door at a Toronto International Film Festival after party.

The Perfect Order of Things
also recounts a life well-lived through trying circumstances, but its narrator is (a) masked by the armor of fiction, and (b) not dying. Trauma is portrayed in relief; it is distant and manageable. But let's not be glib. This is a narrator who knows what it means to endure. And he is also enthralled by life.

By which I mean, love. Both romantic and filial. Love makes all things endurable, and his enduring good relations with his ex-wives is commendable. The wound of the suicide and the parental abandonment masks all. There is no bosom to return to and the narrator grasps at alternatives.

Again, let's not be glib. The theme of this novel is suffering, and its resolution is the ordering of chaos. That is, its aesthetic ambition is true. And, I submit, its ambition is achieved. Though there are some truths I wished the narrator had come cleaner on, such as his relationship with mood altering chemicals.

Why the drugs? It's unexplained. They're just there, a comfort where comfort is needed. At one point, a new wife gives him two conditions: no women, no pills. Later he remembers there was one pill bottle he didn't dispose of. Not sure why. Not sure why he's remembering it now. But, boy, how handy.

I don't mean I wanted a more fulsome confession. That is delivered and unambiguous. What I wonder about is a different word: addiction. An acknowledgement of a deeper mystery. I didn't want a presentation of a 12-step cure, and I wasn't looking for a Naked Lunch tangent from reality, nor any Oprah-like restoration to the greater good.

I guess what I'm saying is that the drugs were not revisited as a geography of their own. They are simply there, and they seemed a topic (an activity) that needed a little more explanation.

But explanation isn't what this book is about. There is only, This is what happened and I'm still trying to make sense of it all. This reader was engaged and sympathetic. Others may be less inclined.

The controversy surrounding André Alexis's Beauty & Sadness began prior to its publication with the appearance of an excerpt in The Walrus in July 2010 called "The Long Decline" and subtitled: Canada used to have a vibrant critical culture. What happened?

The sharpest point of the controversy regarded Alexis's claim that John Metcalf was the source of all that was wrong with Canadian literature.

Okay, let's not exaggerate. Here's a direct quotation: "If I had to blame any one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I'd blame John Metcalf" (209).

To this notation, the blogosphere erupted. And, frankly, I don't blame them (it?). Laying the fault of a culture at the feet of one individual is a silly claim. Though let's also reference the footnote attaches to this sentence: "It is, of course, rhetorical to blame any one person for attitudes that spread through a population. Metcalf is the purveyor of ideas that, at a certain time in our literary history, met with certain approval…"

An odd, uneven collection, Beauty & Sadness contains short stories, essays and first-person memoir. The disparate pieces are held together by the author's claim that this is the best way to present his aesthetic growing up; that is, coming of age; that is, progressing from the age of innocence to the age of disappointment.

And it is disappointment and anger that dominate this book, not beauty and sadness (though, fair play, those concepts get a lot of time on the field also).

David Gilmour's narrator is buoyed by love and infuriated by bureaucracy and meanness. André Alexis is buoyed by beauty and saddened (and infuriated) by ugliness and nastiness, a darkness that he identifies in others, but also within himself:

Worse, literary society -- the world of grudges, launches, and festivals -- is anti-literary in a surprising way. First, there is the petty gossip and the secret enmities. Here, it would be easy to point out the pettiness of others, but I'd like to admit to my own enmities. There are a number of my fellow writers whom I loathe. And, just to we understand each other, I'm not proud of my feelings. In fact, I'm dismayed to confront my dislikes, dismayed that I can still feel loathing at all, now I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom. What is anti-literary about the loathing I feel is that it keeps me, in one instance, at least, from reading work that is demonstrably good. Demonstrable by me, I mean, despite my dislike for the writer (184-5).

The reader does have the feeling of being hectored at. (The Globe and Mail review calls this section of the book "stark.")

Yet, the short stories are good. The essays on Beckett and Ivan Illych are engaging, well-argued, cogent, and worthy of recommendation. There are also tantalizing moments of criticism that beg for expansion. Alexis's close readings of Russell Smith and Christian Bök, for example, are interesting, but they also beg for more.

As a memoir, this book frustrates. There is much brilliance here, but ultimately, it left me sunk with a feeling of disappointed incompleteness.

Quarrington's book, on the other hand, is less brilliant, but more satisfying, despite the fact that the author died before being able to complete it.

Gilmour's book, like Alexis's, is unconventional in structure, but it delivers more robustly on what it promises.

Some of the reviews of Beauty & Sadness have suggested that Alexis blames Toronto and the city's literary/media culture for his own experience of disappointment with the literary life. But I disagree. I don't think he blames Toronto; I think he is engaged in an honest attempt to capture the source of his feeling of disappointment, of his hope (dashed) that Toronto would be a better, more welcoming place to be a contemporary man of letters. And that analysis, in part, turns (bravely) in on himself.

However, as others have pointed out, the publishing world has transformed in the past quarter century. Alexis complains about the shrinking book review coverage in Toronto newspapers without providing the context that this is a global phenomena. But, yes, it's happening here, too. Or, more specifically, Alexis's disappointment is specific. His experience of loss happened here.

But the lack of global awareness is a weakness. It's as if Alexis's attempt to chart the local specifics of his experience has blocked avenues of analysis that would have added richness and relevance to the narrative.

It's a cliché, but still true; we live in an increasingly global world. Alexis's short stories and literary essays are alert to that fact. However, his memoir is too local and is over-burdened with personal grievance.

The current global mentor of the fiction-memoir is arguably Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. Trying to think about these three books in international terms leaves me wondering what foreign audiences would make of these titles.

Quarrington's memoir is warm hearted and deeply felt, but it's not genre bending. Despite it's introduction from Roddy Doyle, it's appeal is limited. Gilmour's novel is episodic and insightful, but muted. Alexis's mixed genre approach is interesting and often compelling, but the long whine about literary culture in Toronto is degrading and, at times, disturbing.

Coetzee cuts to the bone examining self and others, personal and social history, linguistic assumptions and traps. He shies away from nothing and can leave readers frightened and exposed. A memoir is not just an opportunity to learn about its author, it's also an opportunity to be challenged to look at oneself, one's world, one's narrative-making.

Gilmour's narrator mines a deep emotional vein, though the path he follows is quirky. The Perfect Order of Things is a novel, but it has the feeling of a life lived. It is a life well examined, but it also contains many loose ends. Of these three books, it is closest to Coetzee in spirit.

Which brings us to Beauty & Sadness. Yes, Alexis lays himself bare. But, to meet his starkness with directness, his complaints about the anti-literary struck me as anti-literary, and I'm left, ultimately, with the simple subjective. While there is much (brilliance) in this book I admired, in the end, however, I was left frustrated.

This isn't a life presented as well-lived; it's a life presented as having gone off of the tracks. "[N]ow I'm in my fifties, a time by which, unless I was misinformed, I should have acquired at least some wisdom," he writes.

Misinformed by whom?

If the word addiction is missing from Gilmour's book, the word depression is missing from Alexis's. The last sentence in the book, however, is "Drowned but still living is exactly how I feel."

The Globe and Mail review concludes that Alexis's subject is himself. "It is a vast, fertile terrain, its landscapes varied and surprising, and well worth exploring alongside him."

This is a conclusion I would like to agree with. However, Alexis doesn't strike me as one who welcomes fellow travelers. Or, any more, expect them.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

David Gilmour

How Boys See Girls
by David Gilmour
Random House, 1991

[Review originally published in Imprint, University of Waterloo, January 10, 1992. This is only the second book review I ever published. It's a document of its time. Lightly edited below.]

Mordecai Richler, to his credit, knows a good line when he sees one. In two of his essays, written 20 years apart, he recounts Hemingway's opinion of Henry Miller. Miller had once got laid in the afternoon and thought he'd invented it, said Hem. And, depending on which of Richler's essays you read, so have certain other fools who spout off about the originality of their sexuality.

David Gilmour, the CBC's film critic and second-time author, to his credit or not, has reinvented Henry Miller with his novel, How Boys See Girls. While there is nothing terribly original in love, sex, suffering, and ecstasy, the novel is a reminder of the chaos of trying to put together an eventful love life. The accompanying joy when it succeeds. The horror when it fails. And the need simply to get on with life when it's all over.

Bix, the novel's protagonist, is a 40-year-old professional speech writer with an erotic obsession for a 19-year-old street vendor. He courts her, wins her, loses her, suffers for her, gets back, leaves her, and, we suppose, lives happily ever after: "'I love you,' I whispered in her ear. 'Promise me you'll remember that. No matter what.'"

How Boys See Girls is a charming, self-defacing and honest book, surprising in these earnest if at times paranoid days of political correctness. Henry Miller, the king of phallic obsession, has been taken to task by feminists far and wide for his brutal portrayal of women as objects of desire. One wonders these days where to draw the line between erotic fantasy and the selfish abuse of power.

Gilmour dodges the question deftly, and the book sparkles because he does it so well. Holly, the love interest, is portrayed with sympathy and understanding. A high school dropout, she wants to go back to school. "'Do you know how attractive you are?' 'I'd trade it for a good job,' she said." She is a long way from one of Miller's "cunts."

The tension in the novel is generated not out of Bix's need to dominate his partner, as will Miller, but out of that genuine need for fulfillment through copulation. Bix is head over heels in lust, and the novel, as tenderly and sweetly as is probably possible, turns his graphic desire into art:

I stopped at the cluster of street vendor tables ... when a couple of tables away, a girl in a red sleeveless shirt lifted a bare arm and unconsciously, almost sleepily, scratched the damp hair underneath while she talked absently to a male customer. I stood transfixed, in a kind of nauseated trace. I wanted to put my tongue there; I wanted to hold her wrist over her head and lick the sweat from under her arm; taste the salt on my tongue. I wanted to lead her to the restaurant ... bathroom across the street and do the most extraordinary things to her.

And he eventually does. But could Miller have written this?

I put my tongue on her again. Don't think about making her come, I reminded myself. Just taste her, smell her, think about nothing else. A Zen blow job, as it were. When her breathing came faster and faster I ignored her. I maintained the same pace, like a robot tennis player. Indefatigable. Don't aim for the finish line. In a Zen blow job, there is no finish line.

No, Miller was too obsessed with his own transcendence. And there the difference lies (no pun intended).

I pushed it (the thought) in a bit further. While I was thrashing around in my sheets with the window open, in case she should come by, with the phone beside my face, in case she should call, she was on her back with her legs wrapped around him.

It was simply nightmare mindboggling, the enormity of it, a kind of wrecking ball right in the nuts.

It is entirely possible that Gilmour may find himself the centre of a discussion on gender power politics with the publication of this novel. How boys see girls, after all, is said to be at the root of many of our social ills. Gore Vidal, for example, has said, "Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Charles Manson ... a logical progression." Well, you know.

(Bix on his ex-wife): "Margaret believed, sometimes it was her undoing, that if you ignored unpleasant traits in people you liked, they got better."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Clark Blaise

The Meagre Tarmac
by Clark Blaise
Biblioasis, 2011

Masterpiece. That's a big word. In 20 years of writing book reviews I don't think I've ever used it, but I'm throwing the dart at Clark Blaise's new short story collection, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis, 2011).

Born in the USA in 1940 to a French-speaking Canadian father and an English-speaking Canadian mother, Blaise lived part of his childhood in French in Quebec and other parts in English in the USA. His entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia says he lived in "at least" 25 cities before he finished high school in Pittsburgh.

Determined to be a writer, in the 1960s he attended the famous writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, where he met his life-partner, novelist Bharati Mukherjee, and also Philip Roth, among other literary notables.

Primarily a short story writer, Blaise has often explored the period of this upbringing and his multiple identities and senses of self. He has also been an administrator of writing programs and a notable essayist and non-fiction author. He is currently the President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story.

The eleven short stories in The Meagre Tarmac continue Blaise's interest in the social construction of identity. This time, however, his characters are not exploring the two solitudes of North America's English/French divide. The characters in this book are nearly all Indo-American. The two solitudes on display here are the East and West. Also, cultural tradition versus liberal capitalism.

Post-Obama, are we post-racial? Blaise's book argues emphatically, no. But it's a no that is dense with complication.

In an earlier age, this book would be a lightening rod for an "appropriation of voice" debate. How can this white dude write from within the perspective of the Indo-American population? And he does it over and over, in precise detail, and so well!

Clearly, the author has experience of Indo-American culture through his in-laws, but (more importantly) he has brought to it a lifetime of experience, a lifetime of thinking through precise cultural differences, a lifetime of mastering the short story.

And it is a mastery, here, that ought to be celebrated. And read. And studied.

The table of contents includes a note: "These stories are meant to be read in order." The back cover includes a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates calling it "a novel in short story form." The reader can choose how she would prefer to proceed. The stories link and inter-relate, but you could probably skip about and still make sense of the whole.

Many of the narrators are older men, nearing the end of their prosperous careers in America, yearning to return to India (and complete a plan begun earlier in life), their minds seeking a simpler time, one when the supremacy of the elder male wasn't in question.

The collapse of patriarchy is a significant subtext. Over and over male narrators talk about loss of prestige. American is partly to blame. Western liberalism with the stress on the individual. Marriage is the metaphor that rises to prominence next. Marriage is how the family perpetuates itself. On the subcontinent marriages are arranged. How or whether marriages will continue to be arranged is a question that repeats through many of these stories.

Money is often discussed, but it is the challenges of the rich, not the challenges of the poor, that consume (no pun intended) these characters. America has held up its end of the bargain. The families moved from the East to the West to seek economic opportunity and were amply rewarded. In the process, to oversimplify, they lost their souls.

But then, there is no opportunity to return to the land of their youth, because the New India (Mumbai, not Bombay) is rife with corruption (see recent new stories) and booming with its own out-of-control capitalism. Where East meets West, West tends to win, and the ensuing complications (loss of identity, collapse of family, cultural fragmentation) follow.

Canadian geography features in the book. That is, some of the action takes place in Toronto and Montreal. But the Canada here is indistinguishable from America. The West is the West, though one Indo-Canadian family settles in Montreal and one of its sons becomes a high-ranking official in the Parti Quebecois! (Another son, a gay man and actor, makes his fortune in Hollywood.)

The women in this book are brilliant. Not just sharply drawn, exquisitely portrayed and smart (one thirteen-year-old girl is on her way to Stanford, if her father doesn't first take her back to India so he can marry her off), they are also emote sensitively and diversely. That is, there are traditional mothers, untraditional mothers, dutiful daughters, undutiful daughters, Western beauties seeking Eastern wisdom, Eastern women corrupted by … what? the West? No, greed. Corrupted by corruption. By human nature.

For "an exploration of the human condition" is ultimately where analysis of this book leads. The superficial (yet strict and real) boundaries of culture and tradition colour every page, but the underlying architecture of every story (in the book and always?) is built on questions about what it means to be human. La condition humaine.

What an old formulation! What risk of cliché! Yet, so it goes. It is what it is. Or as my seven-year-old says, you get what you get and you don't get upset.

Sadness pervades this book. As does beauty.

The conclusion is simple: read it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cheever: A Life

Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
Knopf, 2009

A late bloomer in nearly every respect, I have learned to over-compensate in the present for time lost in the past.

I married, for example, at the age of thirty-eight, picking up two children (then aged three and seven) in the process.

This enabled me to skip the early child rearing stages of sleep deprivation and diapers, while providing a strong masculine presence during later pivotal evolutionary moments of bed-wetting and night terrors, not to forget story time.

Similarly, I was well past the age of thirteen when I first slipped someone the noodle, but married life (when one isn't changing sheets or the dishwasher or napping) provides multiple opportunities for … um … yawn … what were we talking abou -- ?

Oh, yes. Hanky panky.

Which brings me to John Cheever. Short story writer. Novelist. Punch line for an episode of Seinfeld. And subject of Cheever: A Life (2009).

Hanky panky? Oh, me, oh, my.

First, though, the short stories. The reason Cheever is the subject of such an expansive (770 pages) and invasive (wait for it) biography, is because he is one of the best short story writers on the past century. Nach, ever.

The Stories of John Cheever (1978) is essential reading. To the extent to which Cheever: A Life brings us into better relationship with the stories, it is interesting. To the extent that it alienates us from the stories (and novels), it risks being anti-literature.

Put another way, I intend to review the biography here, not Cheever's life. The biography is a shaped, created, curated thing; the life is the wild process of lived experience. I have no intention of judging or interpreting Cheever's life.

In 1995-96, I was a graduate student of English at the University of Toronto and for half-a-semester I was part of a seminar studying literary biography. We read Boswell on Johnson, the whole thing, unabridged (1,492 pages with index). We read Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read two biography's of W.H. Auden for my term paper, Elspeth Cameron's take on Irving Layton, Rosemary Sullivan on Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Julian Barne's Flaubert's Parrot. We also read some of Freud's dream analyses (patient biographies) and speculated on whether biography itself could be an act of literature.

Writing the life of a writer is more complicated than it seems, we concluded. It is rife with temptation. Can you separate your response to the work from your response to the life, and vice versa? What connection is there, really, between the life and the work? Does your interpretation of the work colour your interpretation of the life? Does the life story have meaning apart from the work? Does our engagement with the work require any understanding of the life? If something is seen as negative in the life does that contradict things pleasurable in the work? Are we obliged to take new (possibly disturbing) information from the life into account in our analysis of the work?

And so on.

Ultimately, Cheever would become known as the bard of suburbia, a chronicler of the social mores of the post-WWII new American bourgeoisie. Stories such as "The Swimmer," "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" are classics secure among the deep roots of the American canon, ensuring Cheever an eternal reputation as a Great Writer.

That is, until he was reduced on an episode of Seinfeld to "a writer who was gay."

Gay? Cheever's biographer is clear that the writer never would have used the term. Yes, he had sexual (and romantic) relationships with men throughout his adult life. He also married young (and for life), raised a family, had sexual and romantic affairs with women. He made out, according to this biography, with his son's teenage girlfriend. He also had sex with a young man in his hospital bed as he lay dying (not the only male sexual relationship he was involved with at the time).

This hanky panky, the biography strongly suggests, began when Cheever and his brother shared a bed as teenagers. The suggestion is that the two boys mutually masturbated each other, and that Cheever's brother was the great love of his life, a man-bond that Cheever repeatedly tried to re-create.

The Seinfeld episode was called "The Cheever Letters," and it revolved around a box of love letters supposedly written by Cheever to his male lover. (Read the script for the episode).

ELAINE: (Turns to George, he is now reading a book) Hey, what are you reading

GEORGE: Oh, uh, "The Falconer" by John Cheever. It's really excellent.

ELAINE: (To Jerry) John Cheever, you ever read any of his stuff?

JERRY: Uh, yeah, I'm familiar with some of his writing. (George shoots Jerry a smirk, then returns to his book) Alright, (Hand the check to Elaine) look, we gotta get back to work. We just had a big breakthrough here.

ELAINE: (Folding up the check) Ok, I'll leave you two alone.

Interviewed for the biography, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David said the show used Cheever as the letter writer because "he was a well-known writer who was gay" (672).

Which brings us back to the question of the life versus the work. And the question of the biography itself is a work of literature.

No, I would argue. This one is not. Though it is a remarkable work of research. (For the record, I believe the graduate class would have concluded that most biographies of writers are not literature either; many are not even decently written and contain bad criticism. Bailey's book is free of those latter two complaints.)

Boswell is read over and over because (a) through him we have a Johnson we would never have had otherwise (true of all biographies that are more than derivative), but also because (b) it is a Johnson worth knowing, an expansive, rollicking, self-contradicting, complicated mass of a human life. In other words, Johnson becomes a literary character within a literary narrative created by an author. It is not merely reporting or interpreting; it is creating. Sophisticated creating.

The biography of Cheever is arguably a sophisticated creation also, and the Cheever presented is a self-contradicting complicated mass of a human life, but in years (i.e., centuries) ahead readers will not return to the biography to encounter the literary Cheever (as they do with Boswell and Johnson); they will go to Cheever's short stories.

Because it is in the stories (and novels) where the self-mythologizing Cheever emerges, or rather disappears into the deepest mysteries. There is no doubt that the biography illuminates certain aspects of the fiction. The hints of homosexuality, for example, can no longer be read as ambiguous.

The details of Cheever's sexual adventurism, however, is altogether too much. For one, it encourages the reduction of Cheever's oeuvre to a Seinfeldian conclusion: he was a writer who was gay. Yes, gay. Let's use that word. And then? Does it matter? Do we care? We are not literary if we do not take our analysis or aesthetic discussion beyond that point.

Cheever was a man who cloaked his sexual identiti(es); yes, this is relevant. However, he was also a man of New England with a mythic sense of self and formal, proto Edwardian ideals about proper behaviour. He was, in other words, a man of many personal contradictions, and his self-analysis of his contractions is on display in the stories and novels. And, again, the stories and novels soar to the level of creation above mere reporting. They are infused with imagination and conveyed through a unique rich use of language.

A John Cheever story is a John Cheever story.

In art, he achieved a singularity of voice and purpose (a distinction) and, for this, he will be remembered. Forever.

In the quest for penile stimulation, he started early, and he finished strong. So what.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jessica Westhead

And Also Sharks
by Jessica Westhead
Cormorant, 2011

The narrators and characters of Jessica Westhead's And Also Sharks are an irritating bunch.

They are narcissistic, alienated, unhappy, and searching in all the wrong places for solutions to what ails them.

In short, they're just like many people you know.

But these folks are characters in a book and you can laugh at them without worrying that they will call you up in the middle of the night or corner you in the elevator lobby at work next week and ask you WTF were you thinking.

WTF are they thinking, is the binding theme of this short story collection. The lost puppies presented here (who are often naïve,helpless, innocent, and drifting wildly) include
  • a couple of women with trouble in the "O" department
  • an office worker whose dog died, whose colleague has cancer, and whose co-workers live vicariously though the suffering of others
  • a young man who wants to believe that he had healing powers in his hands whose best friend takes him to a photography show, then mugs a photographer and his assistant in the parking lot
  • an office worker who lusts after a colleague's wife

The stories, in other words, are Carvereque in their minimalist approach. It's not what happens in the stories that's significant so much as what doesn't happen. The significant event that the characters are anticipating that never arrives. The withholding of expectation rather than its delivery. Which isn't saying there's no payoff.

The stories are well-written, clever, wry, funny, and disturbing. Like the Raymond Carver story, "Neighbors," where one couple house sits the others' apartment and bit by bit moves in, assuming their neighbours' lives, Westhead's stories have a complexity that belies their seemingly simple presentation.

The stories challenge the reader to delve beneath the surface of things. Where there be sharks. The stories are like anthropological studies of contemporary madness. Are these individuals making poor choices or are the pressure points of social expectations too strong to break free of?

Here's one narrator and a particularly funny/odd passage:

But then Elba had a stillborn baby, your former best friend tells you, and instead of, say, making the experience into something meaningful by making it into art, such as the woman could have bought a baby doll, one of those very lifelike ones, and spun a cocoon-like structure around the doll with her loom, as if to represent the baby being in a pupa, something far-out but ultimately meaningful like that, she just stopped going to art openings and stayed home all the time. And eventually when she started coming around again, all she wanted to talk about was her dead baby. And come on, if you're not going to translate that event into a narrative that people can understand, or even that people have trouble understanding but then they can at least refer to as an artist's statement, then where is the value in life's sad times?

(from "Brave Things That Kids Do," p69-70)

Westhead's talent for understatement is, ahem, an understatement. The stories commit to a larger weird-world vision (Tim Burton-like) and their significant success stems from their ability to see the weirdness through to meaningful, if not always logical, conclusions. As a result, reading Westhead is like reading with electrodes attached to the sides of your head.

And I mean that in a good way. Her world is our world, and it's shocking.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dimitri Nasrallah

by Dimitri Nasrallah
Esplanade, 2011

A novel of immigration. A narrative that transacts with Canada, but it is not about Canada. A novel that explores multiculturalism, but it is not bound by Trudeau- or even Mulroney-era pieties. A novel about the New Quebec that doesn't mention nationalism (or at least Quebecois nationalism). A novel of immigration that speaks to the world.

Niko is a boy born in Lebanon during that country's civil war in the 1980s. His father owns a camera shop. It's bombed. His mother writes scripts. She's killed. The boy is six, and what is the father to do? They scramble to find a way out. They make it first to Cypress, then a small Greek Island. Nobody wants them, and their money is running out.

Taking advantage of the best offer available, Niko's father ships him to Montreal to live with his late-wife's sister. He promised to come for him as soon as possible, then he takes a job on a cargo boat. The job provides money, but it doesn't get him any closer to Montreal. His passport has long since expired. He seems permanently cut off from his son, so he signs up for the first boat heading for the Americas. If he can only get across the Atlantic, he will walk the rest of the way. The boat, heading for the southern hemisphere, sinks and Niko's father drifts in the ocean until he is rescued.

There are other major plot points that I won't give away. As you can see, however, while the book may be titled after the boy, a great part of the story is about the father. Once the father is lost in South America, though, the reader's focus returns to Niko, now a teenager and shoplifting food in Montreal. His aunt and uncle are anxious to secure their citizenship, so that they can finally begin anew in their new country. Eventually, they all conclude that Niko's father is dead, but an unlikely reunion is on the horizon.

Written in swift, clear prose, this book clips along nicely, covering vast personal, political and geographic territory. It is also a tremendously tender book. Love pulses from cover to cover. The pain caused by the separation of individuals, both physical and ideological, is the subject and cause of the book. Niko and his father are separated by geography. The warring factions in Lebanon (and elsewhere) are separated by the failure to recognize each other's humanity. In the various diaspora's around the world, these differences do not disappear, but they are more easily contextualized, minimized, and set aside in favour of more essential human bonds.

Niko is a lovely novel and a significant achievement by a young writer with much to say.