Saturday, June 22, 2013

Spencer Gordon

Winner of the CBC's 2013 Overlookie Bookie Award for Most Underrated Canadian Book, Spencer Gordon's Cosmo (Coach House, 2012) is spritely, clever, funny, thoughtful, and restrained.

That last adjective may seem odd. It seems odd to me, given the wide ranging playfulness of this short story collection, but it's a thought that recurred as I made my way through the book.

Restrained, how? In emotion, surely. In perspective, perhaps. In aesthetic approach, maybe. In interests, not sure I would go that far.

Two of the stories begin with quotations from giants of American post-moderism: David Foster Wallace and Donald Barthelme. And the anxiety of influence is clear throughout. These stories seek to bend form, play games of the mind, articulate multiple layers of surface, foreground the artifice of the story itself, make the reader hyper aware of frames, and celebrate the swirl of language, carefully.

The carefully part is the restrained part. There is much intelligence here and much authorial control. The narratives are strong and assured. The paragraphs, short or long, are well manufactured.

Strangely (?), the book I read immediately before this one was Not Knowing, essays and interviews with Donald Barthelme. In one of the interviews Barthelme is asked to identify the biggest weakness in his writing. Or perhaps his biggest regret. Emotion, he ways. He wished he'd included more emotion. And fewer jokes. He also asserts repeatedly that he is a "realist" because art articulates the tropics of the mind.

Having read these two books so closely back-to-back, it's impossible for me not to draw comparisons. I feel that Cosmo could have used more emotion, though also more jokes, and less restraint. Perhaps an "s" could have been added to the title. Cosmos. I realize these are purely subjective tastes, and suggestions, so I will try now to say something more objective.

As others have noted, "authenticity" is a recurrent concern in this collection. The first sentence of the first story: "This is authentic, Crystle thought." These five words are just lovely. The italics. The concise "thought." The begged question: what is? The inauthentic "Crystle," who turns out to be Miss U.S.A. aboard an American military vessel in South Asia on a medical-humanitarian mission to aid cleft-lipped children.

This is a fantastic set-up. The beauty queen, the U.S. military, the child victims of random cruel circumstance. It is real because it is real; such things happen; but it is also highly "made;" it is an organized event, a deliberate placing of idealized pageant contestants with the randomly displaced. In other words, exactly the kind of "media event" that takes place every day and which can only be called authentic after it's been filtered through tough-fibered layers of skepticism.

Gordon gives us this skepticism, but he also keeps the reader buoyed well above cynicism. There's that restraint again. Crystle is moved by the suffering children, even as she has panic attacks about her biggest fear: falling down on the runway mid-pageant. This is authentic? We should care?

Even as I admired the writing, I wasn't sure.

But it got me to thinking along the lines of what did Andy Warhol have to say about the Holocaust? I popped the two terms in Google and came up with this....: "Sculptor George Segal created this work entitled The Holocaust. The memorial is at the location of the Legion of Honor and overlooking the Bay at Lands End. Segal is considered an important figure in the Pop Art movement which includes Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol."

Barthelme repeatedly insists that he's not ignoring social realities, and that his work references, among other things, the Vietnam War, racial strife, poverty and other social conditions. It just doesn't foreground those things; it foregrounds the activities of the mind (while also acknowledging the place-in-time context).

Here's a couple of the quotations I liked from Barthelme:
  • “To quote Karl Kraus, ‘A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.’” (1981)
  • “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.” (1987)
Cosmo lives up to both of these, and I salute it. It is difficult and a riddle; it is art.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Best Canadian Stories 2012

I’m not sure if these were the best short stories in Canada from 2012, but some of them are very, very good.

The anthology includes 10 stories, and I would like to celebrate what I consider the best of them.

Caroline Adderson’s “Poppycock” opens the book. Holy cow. This story will have me quivering for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t be out of place alongside the stories of Thom Jones’ The Pugilist at Rest. Paragraph by paragraph, it terrified me. The protagonist is a woman, a divorced mother of two, whose has been alienated from her family (father and sister, mother deceased) for over two decades. Her daughters are young adults and moved out. One day, her father shows up. She hasn’t seen him in 20+ years. He’s extremely unwell. Is this a chance for redemption? A corrective? A chance for explanation?

The whole thing tore my heart out. Unbelievable.

Or as Justin would say, Unbeliebable.

Lynn Coady’s “Dogs in Clothes” is another boot shaker. Ostensibly the story is about a young female publicist who shepherds a famous male (deep thinker) publicist around a metropolitan city (which seems a lot like Toronto during the G20 summit, when there were fences all over downtown and paranoid security apparatus[es] all over). Meanwhile, the publicist is texting a (female) friend and (married-to-someone-else) boyfriend and her brother (who is at the hospital where her father is under the knife for heart surgery). Grace under pressure? Is this Hemingway all over again? Are Coady and Adderson taking the same drugs?

Once again, a story about full catastrophe living. And not a Buddhist in sight.

Shaena Lambert’s “The War Between Men and Women” seems, at first, more straightforward. We’ve all lived through Phase I, II, III, IV, V, VI Feminism(s), so we all get this, right? Well, this is more like Faulkner’s “the human heart in conflict with itself” Nobel Speech (1949). [And isn't that great? Isn't the internet useful for something, once and a while?] “Endure and prevail.” Words post-Boston. Post-catastrophe. Eternal.

Lambert’s story starts: “It was 1968, and there was a war between the men and the women.” Holy crow. The story is told from the point of view of the child of two parents at war. As readers, we are once again in the middle of it all. In the middle of a war of all against all. Is it total destruction? Is there a chance for safety? Is peace an option?

What does all of this have to do with Canada, circa 2012?

“The story is constantly changing,” says the back cover, “and readers have to change as well.”

Well, okay, but why does it all seem so 1918?

Douglas Glover’s “The Sun King and the Royal Child” offers historical context as respite. In perhaps the “deepest” story in the collection, Glover offers (again, like the others) a narrator under pressure. Here is a young man who has had an long-running affair with another man’s wife. The other man is an archaeologist who has become famous as a researcher of pre-European contact Iroquois history/cosmology in southwestern Ontario. The “Sun King” and “Royal Child” of the title are Iroquois “artifacts,” except maybe they’re not, as the story eventually explains. Like much of the Glover-opus, the “present” of the story is both now and “then.” Or, to quote Faulkner again, “the past is never past.” (Though the quote is often paraphrased, as I have done here, according to Wikipedia: the real quote is from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

Oh, Hemingway. Faulkner. Canada. 2012. What gives?

I don’t know. But it makes for a startling collection of short fiction.

Check, that.

Could use something by Tony Burgess, though. A little zombie ice fishing.

Just sayin.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Julian Barnes

Levels of Life
by Julian Barnes
Random House, 2013

Early in life, Barnes writes, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still — at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) — it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.

He also writes, “There is the question of loneliness.” Then a few sentences later, “Nothing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence.”

Together, these quotations seem to beg the question, Is loss of a spouse like a return to adolescent confusion?

Yet, he is unambiguous. Adolescent loneliness is the worst.

Before I address this question, I should say something about the book as a whole. It is slim, a mere 118 pages. A quick read, it is divided into three sections. Ostensibly, it is about grief; specifically, it is about Barnes’ grief for his wife of 30 years who died in 2008, after a 37 day illness. Cancer in the brain.

But to say the book is a memoir would be mistaken. It is part memoir, part essay, part fiction. The three sections are titled: The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth. Levels of life, as the title says.

The balloon on the cover is another hint. There is a survey of 19th century balloonists, and also 19th century photographers. This is all interesting, well told, precise in description, alert in metaphor, and … all preamble to Barnes’ use of the first person to describe his experiences following the death of his life-partner.

There is the question of grief versus mourning. You can try to differentiate them by saying that grief is a state while mourning is a process; yet they inevitably overlap. Is the state diminishing? Is the process progressing? How to tell? Perhaps it’s easier to think of them metaphorically. Grief is vertical — and vertiginous — while mourning is horizontal.

Me, I like this distinction. Grief has nausea; mourning, sadness.

Let’s get back to the question of adolescence, which Barnes doesn’t develop, but which I would like to push deeper. In my own case, as my wife approached death (and I mean her final months, so there was a period of extended awareness of doom many times longer than Barnes had), I had feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. When you are living with the awareness of doom, yet trying not to be consumed by doom, you focus on the day-by-day. Watch the flowers grow. Take pleasure in the laundry. The future goes blank. You cannot plan. You cannot take for granted that you will be together six months from now. Maybe not even two months from now. “I’ve been here before,” I told Kate. “I know this feeling. I feel twenty-two again.”

History did not record what she said in response. I don't remember. I don't think she said anything. "Do whatever you need to do, honey," or something along those lines.

The future, then, was blank. Full of possibility, yes, but blank. Lonely, too. One quests for love, to relieve the loneliness. Having found love, one can always lose it. It is part of the marriage contract. One must go first. The marriage contract becomes a caregiver’s contract. I will look after you. I will not abandon you.

Barnes writes, “There were 37 days between diagnosis and death.” In my case, there were 21 months. Grief is not competitive, and I don’t mean to be stern; however, the structure of this book is limiting, where it could be broadening. Barnes is careful to say each grief is specific, each experience is unique, yet the book reaches for general conclusions also. Levels of life.

I was not married for three decades, yet I inherited two step-children (and a new partner in her ex-husband), and the future is blank. Full of possibility. It must be. The children demand it so.  As they should.

At one point, near the end of Kate’s life, I was speaking to a psychologist. She asked me how I was doing. I said I was listening someone compulsively to the music I used to listen to when I was 15 years old. I told her that for some reason I felt it important to reconnect with that adolescent. He had the whole world in front of him. He had all of his options open. I needed to live like that, I said. I needed to be ready for anything, and I trusted my 15-year-old self to get me through it. She was disagreeable. “We’ll see how that goes,” she said. I would like to report now, in that regard, things went just fine. I have been horribly, horribly sad, but I survived adolescence, and I’ll survive this. (At least, until I don’t. Time comes for all of us.)

I would have liked to have seen Barnes develop this line of thought (find arguments that contradict his absolutes), yet he is fanciful and metaphoric, an auteur, and, let it be said, brilliant. Earnest to a fault. Besotted with love. A true hero. Bravo.

I saw him once, at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto. Late-1980s I would guess. It was the slightest of connections, yet I bleed for him, having read of his heartbreak. I wish him happiness, and healing laughter.

Keep passing the open windows, Julian. You know what I mean.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Primo Levi

Already a well known classic, this book needs no introduction.

Primo Levi trained as a chemist in Fascist Italy, and managed moments of a career despite his Jewish ethnicity before being removed to a Nazi concentration camp. He has written about his time at Auschwitz elsewhere, but this book includes a couple stories from the camp also.

The main narrative, however, recounts his professional career as a chemist, most of which involves paints and varnishes. As the title hints, Levi provides a tour of different elements: carbon, silver, mercury, lead, etc. "Matter," he reminds us, the building blocks of life, which in the ancient stories the gods breathes with "spirit," giving life.

As so it is with Levi, storyteller. He breathes life into the inanimate, rejoices in the human spirit, even as he reminds readers of the horrors humans can inflict on one another and their world.

Levi writes in an after-the-catastrophe tone. He is writing at the end of his career, and also decades after "the camp," and he presents a narrator both weary and alert with curiosity. The narrator takes a teaching tone, recounting the particulars of each element, but not a pedantic tone. He knows what he knows and he also outlines what is unknown. There is a persistent moderation, recalling that other scientist, Artistotle, and "the mean."

It's a tone our tabloid culture finds hard to replicate or embrace, even. What a pity.