Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shawn Syms

Nothing Looks Familiar
by Shawn Syms
Arsenal, 2014

Eleven strong, tender short stories that follow the contours of the every day, including sending out shockwaves of the unexpected, which, after all, is part of every day.

Put another way, there is much in Nothing Looks Familiar that is familiar. These are not stories that strain towards oddness. If anything, they are comfortable in their normalcy, until suddenly they're not.

Syms has a plainspoken style and a painterly eye for detail. The reader is easily placed in each scene and is connected well to every character. Motivation is never a mystery.

These are stories warm of heart that eschew cynicism, but neither are they shy or "safe." Portraits of our contemporary world, these stories help us face ourselves and feel alive. Here and now.

Did I have a favorite? Maybe "Family Circus" - a mother of young children is scheming how to escape her drug den / ID stealing household ... Okay, not so "normal", but the narrative voice is calm, cool, collected. All goes to hell, but the kids end up alright, which was all the mother wanted. A happy ending, but an unfamiliar one. It's really quite brilliant. Bravo.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti
Anansi, 2012

So I liked this book, quite a lot, but as I've thought about what I would write about it, I've become muddled about why.

What should a review be?

Clear? Concise? Searching? Uncertain? Open to interrogation? Defiant?

Enough with the question marks.

First off, the fact that the protagonist is named Sheila and the author is named Sheila is a fact that I am not going to consider from this point forward, but readers beware. Something is afoot.

What? Don't ask me.

Sheila (protagonist) is pretty fucked up. She's graduated high school, plus quite a bit more, and she doesn't know how to "be." Poor her, except not really.

Sheila's pretty stuck up, she's pretty self-involved, she's narcissistic as all get out. At least she is at the beginning, where she tells us she entered a three-year marriage for not the best of reasons. Ended it without really explaining why, either to the readers or her husband. And this is where we find her, divorced, twenty-something, lost, seeking an ideal state of "being," discovering a female best friend, something she's never had before, Margot.

Margot is a painter, brilliant by all accounts, and she enters an "ugly painting" competition with another young painter. This competition frames the book. The painters seek beauty in their work, and they challenge themselves to make the most ugly painting they can. Margot's competitor (male) doesn't think she can. She delays doing so for nearly the entire length of the book. He yanks it off quickly.

When I was at the University of Toronto for a Master's Degree in English, I took a seminar on teaching at the university level. It was really for the PhD students, but I was interested. One of the senior academics, a world-renowned critic, told a story about how she had put a book on her syllabus that she hadn't read. On the first day of class she asked the students: "What can we learn from the first page?"

For some reason, this story came back to me as I was reading Heti's book. You can tell a lot about this book from the first page. It's a fantastic first page. But on page three, there's a phrase that rivals the "prostitute" quote at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists." Except the use of prostitute is explicitly metaphorical, and the use of blow-job artist is not quite. But should be read that way. But not quite.

Read the first page, and BAM! You're on your way. And what the fuck is up with Sheila? I mean, really. Is it all in her head?

Dickensian this novel is not. The sensory details are all but absent. You want description, sights, smells, taste, touch, any sensory details at all ... this novel is not for you. Existential dread is what this novel is all about. And THANK GOD someone else in Canadian literature has done THIS. Heti is not alone, but THANK GOD ALMIGHTY AND THE SEVEN DWARFS that she undertook this project. Break free of memory, loss, and historical realism, please, please, please the rest of you.

Okay, I've gotten another glass of wine, and I've calmed down.

Yes, there is sexual frankness in this book. Heti told the Guardian she loves "reading people who write well about sex. I love dirty books! I think there's a way of talking about the human that can be quite profound. I tried Fifty Shades of Grey but three pages in I realised I just couldn't read it. It was like every sentence was written by a different writer."

That quotation begins with the four words: "I love Henry Miller." The Guardian apparently loves Sheila Heti, because what a trove of links! Here's a complete summary of the book under review. And a quotation from that summary:

Email from Israel to Sheila. 1) I want you to gag on my cock again. 2) I want you to show off your pussy to a tramp.
Email from Sheila to Israel. 1) OK, but on one condition. 2) You let me put my head up your arse.

Oh, Israel. What are we to make of this? Metaphor? Hot guy?

He's hot. He's misogynistic. Sheila repeatedly complains about "another man who wanted to teach me something." She also compares herself to Moses, who is her leader, not Jesus, who is the leader of the Christians. In case you were confused about that.


Ah, there's something going on here that is above me. I've decided to just flounder. Floudering is a strategy often deployed by Sheila. I can't say it often works for her. She leaves her husband without much explanation, then she leaves Margot without explanation either. Sheila takes herself to New York (from Toronto, yay), deciding it's best for her and everyone else that she leave. Not that she discussed this with another else.

Did the burning bush tell her? Are we expected to think so? Briefly, I think. Then Sheila realizes not. Margot is really fucking pissed off at her. Sheila begins to realize that her identity is not cast in some idealized sphere, but it is dependent on her closest, most loving relationships.

But I may be projecting my own crap on that.

Judaism. Let's not lose sight of that. This is a diaspora novel, which I didn't expect. It's not a "late-capitalist" novel, as one back cover quotation claims. Well, maybe it is, sort of. But while Sheila has some money anxiety (she works for a while in a hair salon), she frames even that experience as an opportunity to "be" in the best possible way, and the best possible way is to be Jewish. Like Moses. Lost in the desert. Called to greatness but ill-suited for it. Driven to exhalation and struggle.

Wow. This book goes from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Henry Miller? Whatever.

Heti has pulled something off here that is unique and remarkable. What? Fucked if I know.

*** Bonus track: Jeanette Winterson on Henry Miller. What?!

Oh, I read the "new and expanded paperback edition." Thought I should note that. 

Also, my buddy who teaches Cegep in Montreal assigned this book to his students without reading it. I told him my UofT story. His students were only 16-17. I said, Oh, boy. Look out. 

Funny story, I noted on Goodreads that I'd started to read this book and a couple of days later I got notice asking if I wanted to take part in a forum or something about Heti's new book, women's clothes or something. No, thanks. Freaky.

What should I wear? I dunno. We live in an age of some really great dressers.