Fear and loathing: American culture in the shadow of 9/11

December 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Hijacking History: American Culture and the War on Terror. Liane Tanguay; $29.95 paper 978-0-7735-4074-3, 284 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press

When the Twin Towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 24-hour news stations appeared to show the footage on endless loops: the second plane slicing through the South Tower, the staggering fireball, the gasps of horror from the anonymous masses below. One refrain was heard over and over from people gathered around television sets watching in stunned amazement, a formulation that quickly took on the mantle of cliché: “It looks like a movie.” But not just any movie. What was unfolding on television screens around the globe looked specifically like a Hollywood movie, full of spectacle and special effects, choreographed for maximum emotional impact.

The connection is not lost on Liane Tanguay, external fellow of the York Centre for International and Security Studies at Toronto’s York University. Indeed, Tanguay points out that American popular culture had spent the decade prior to 9/11 perfecting the aestheticization of catastrophe to a degree not seen previously. Blockbuster disaster films of the 1990s, of which Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day may be the most financially successful example, presented scenes of ultra-realistic destruction that evoked Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, which, in its dynamic form, “must be represented as exciting fear.”

Tanguay quotes Kant in order to forward the argument that the fear involved in the sublime is vicarious, cathartic, safely removed from the vicissitudes of reality –  a quality, Tanguay writes, that “no doubt accounts for part of the disaster genre’s appeal.” She goes on to suggest, “It is in part this feeling of exemption – enhanced by the sense of ‘control’ over one’s pattern of consumption, the fact that one can choose whether and when to subject oneself to such images – that comes to constitute in its endless repetition a sort of symbolic ‘mastery’ over the anxieties and fears such films elicit.” When this imagery forces itself into the real world, the veneer of “mastery” is rent and the vicarious fear bleeds into actual fear, something America, in all its millennial triumphalism, appeared unprepared for at the turn of the 21st century (and one good reason why Hollywood-style disaster films do not proliferate in the national cinema of, say, Israel or Serbia).

But equally important in the development of American pop culture during the post–Gulf War 1990s, Tanguay argues, is the tendency for what she refers to as “im/mediacy,” the positioning of the viewer as an active participant in events. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with its scenes of urban warfare shot at low angles using a roving camera that puts the audience in the centre of the action, is a template for a new kind of hyperactive, first-person approach, which carries over into news coverage featuring “embedded” reporters filing stories from the front lines of American war zones. “The direct involvement of the journalist in the military action pre-empts any ‘mediating’ perspective he or she could otherwise offer, while the visual effect of the first-person camera comes to implicate the viewer in a ‘video-game’ presentation of the war. The new ‘realism’ is therefore both tightly controlled and compelling to a still greater extent because of the ‘self-replications’ it affords.” (This “self-replication” would reach its apotheosis with the cell-phone videos of G20 protests in Toronto and the Vanvouver Stanley Cup riot, all of which were instantly uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, shared widely, and subsequently co-opted by police and prosecutors in tracking down the perpetrators of violence or dissent. This observation is outside the scope of Tanguay’s analysis, but seems a logical outgrowth of her arguments.)

Placing the viewer in the “subject position,” while simultaneously promoting a culture of fear across both entertainment and network news platforms, created a post-9/11 climate that allowed the administration of George W. Bush to suggest that an open-ended and nebulous war on terror was necessary to preserve an American way of life structured around the liberal capitalist ideals that Francis Fukuyama identified as existing at “the end of history.” The irony, as Tanguay shows, is that the simplistic binary arguments of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) helped foster a much less simplistic, more morally ambiguous cultural landscape in which films like Independence Day, with its noisy jingoism and xenophobic “us versus them” mentality, began to give way to more nuanced fare, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Tanguay overstates her case somewhat here: although she admits that Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film was less successful at the box office than James Cameron’s Avatar (which Tanguay asserts can be read as a kind of subversive, anti-corporate blockbuster – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), she largely ignores the inability of the more morally relative Iraq War–themed films to connect with domestic audiences.

Moreover, her book suffers from a too-narrow historical perspective, which precludes any illustration of how the cultural forces that allowed the war on terror to proceed unchecked have been the bedrock of the American psyche since at least the Second World War. Here, for example, is Tanguay writing about a pair of Gulf War documentaries, which she describes as though propaganda never existed prior to 1991:

Indeed, in CNN’s War in the Gulf and CBS’s Desert Triumph, images of oil-soaked seabirds – victims, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein’s ecological crimes – were invested with greater emotive value than those of dead Iraqi troops. The latter were shown as evidence of allied “victory” at the end of the ground war, while imagery of struggling wildlife was accompanied by a sentimental soundtrack designed to elicit pity and compassion. The dehumanization of the “inevitable” human victims of the allied war effort thus contributed to the sense of moral integrity on the American side while simultaneously containing the conflict within the symbolic framework of the simplest of Hollywood narratives.

None of this is inaccurate, of course, but neither is it any different from the approach taken in newsreels during the Second World War, not to mention the films of John Wayne. Propaganda predates postmodernism, whether Tanguay admits it or not. These objections notwithstanding, Tanguay’s book is a frequently energizing synthesis of political analysis and cultural critique, examining the ways in which a media-driven climate of fear combines with a consumerist imperative to create the perfect conditions for an entire society to lose sight of its core values in the pursuit of material comfort and peace of mind.

My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor

November 27, 2012 by · 7 Comments 

I recently read a 400-page novel (no, I shan’t cop to which one) in which someone was referred to as grabbing “the reigns of power.” The misuse of the word “reigns” in this phrase bothered me inordinately. But I was equally bothered by the degree to which this mistake nagged at me. Here was a work of great ambition, published by a reputable house, and I found myself fixating on four words. Four words out of some 170,000 other, properly deployed and emotionally resonant words. I felt like Hazel Motes’s grandfather in Wise Blood, a preacher who travelled around “with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” Except instead of Jesus, I had a picayune error in usage lodged in the back of my head.

It was certainly not the first time I’d experienced this feeling. More and more I’m noticing typos and syntactical errors cropping up in professionally edited books from major publishing houses. Misplaced modifiers proliferate the prose of otherwise competent writers, and instances of fuzzy lexical thinking scream out of works of fiction and non-fiction alike. One academic text I recently encountered contained so many errors in the footnotes I had to put the book aside or risk harming myself or others.

Nor is this tendency on my part restricted to professionally edited or published works. When I come across a sidewalk chalkboard with “2-for-1 martini’s” or “half-price nacho’s” written on it, I will surreptitiously erase the errant apostrophe. Walking down the street the other day, I saw a sign advertising the annual “Movember” drive to raise funds for prostate cancer research appended with the phrase, “Support prostate cancer.” I practically went into conniptions.

My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor.

It is no secret that copy editors spend extraordinary amounts of time obsessing over whether a semicolon should really be an em-dash or a period, sweating over agreements between subjects and objects in sentences, and muttering under their breath about the distinctions between “that” and “which,” “effect” and “affect,” “less” and “fewer.” What worries me is the degree to which one can get caught up in these technical matters, to the extent that the joy of reading is ultimately lost. (I was tempted to use the word “impacted” in that last sentence, but the copy editor in me vetoed it.)

So I was pleased to read Yuka Igarashi’s piece about copy-editing the latest issue of Granta, if only because it reassured me that while I may be crazy, at least I’m not alone. Igarashi writes, in part:

There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.

As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.

Igarashi goes on to suggest that the diligent care copy editors take with a text does not necessarily preclude an enjoyment of literature, and she’s probably right. But she is also right to point out that time spent professionally editing copy makes you read differently: it makes you more demanding, pickier, more willing to pounce on inconsistencies like the disparate use of the American “toward” and the British “towards” in a single text. These things appear to take on disproportionate weight, which makes the thud when they topple off the written edifice that much more pronounced.

Obviously, writers should take care to ensure that every single word they use is the best one, and is used correctly. However, we are all human, and we will all inadvertently substitute “reign” for “rein” once in a while. The copy editor in me will still get his back up, but I’m working on it. “Half-price nacho’s,” on the other hand, is indefensible.

The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.

Drinking the cultural Kool-Aid: Dwight Macdonald and the idea of midcult

November 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Dwight Macdonald’s idea of “midcult.” In Macdonald’s conception, midcult is the “bastard” of masscult, a phenomenon that rose out of the Industrial Revolution. Masscult is characterized by a diminution of taste and a concurrent commodification of artistic output that, in its appeal to an undifferentiated mass public, merely parodies (Macdonald’s word) actual culture. In its appeal to a kind of fuzzy notion of democracy, masscult denies the utility (or in many cases, even the existence) of discrimination or artistic value judgments, conflating artistic standards into a bland relativism that allows the same worth to both Earl Stanley Gardner and Edgar Allan Poe. In Macdonald’s words:

Masscult is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, and taste, dissolving all cultural distinctions. It mixes, scrambles everything together, producing what might be called homogenized culture, after another American achievement, the homogenization process that distributes the globules of cream evenly throughout the milk instead of allowing them to float separately on top. The interesting difference is that whereas the cream is still in the homogenized milk, somehow it disappears from homogenized culture. For the process destroys all values, since value-judgments require discrimination, an ugly word in liberal-democratic America. Masscult is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is grist to its mill and all comes out finely ground indeed.*

The essential characteristic of high culture, for Macdonald, is individuality: there must be something unique in the artist’s vision that sets his or her work against the grain. By contrast, the essential condition of masscult is a lack of individuality. In order to appeal to a broad consumer public, masscult eradicates any stamp of idiosyncrasy or unfamiliarity, and ensures that its audience is never rendered uncomfortable or uncertain. Masscult reaffirms its recipients’ prejudices and soothes their minds with platitudes.

It also denies any responsibility on the part of its audience. “As Clement Greenberg noted in ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch,'” Macdonald writes, “… the special aesthetic quality of Kitsch – a term which includes both Masscult and Midcult – is that it ‘predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in the genuine art’ because it includes the spectator’s reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses.” Greenberg’s assessment cannot be overstated in the context of today’s denuded literary environment: it is the precondition that separates, for instance, E.L. James’s repurposed fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey (a work of masscult if there ever was one), from Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead.

For Macdonald, midcult is a more dangerous variant than masscult, because where the latter eradicates distinctions between high culture and kitsch, the former incorporates elements of high culture into products that are intended for mass consumption and are calculated to appease an undiscerning mass audience. By cloaking itself in a veneer of high culture, midcult allows its audience to pretend that what is being trafficked in is the authentic article, when in actuality it is anything but. More sophisticated than masscult, midcult is in fact little more than an elaborate confidence scam.

In these more advanced times, the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form – let us call it Midcult – has the essential qualities of Masscult – the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity – but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain – to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.

The vast majority of what passes for great literature in our day is in fact midcult, produced and promoted by an amorphous mass incapable of telling the difference. Macdonald referred to “masscult” and “midcult” (rather than mass culture and mid culture) because he identified similarities between the way we consume cultural products and the way cults operate. In both cases, an act of brainwashing occurs, and in both cases, absolute fidelity to a set of unbending precepts is demanded. Midcult, like any other cult, demands conformity; any attempt to assert individuality will be met with repercussions (in the case of our current cultural environment, ostracism or – worse – indifference).

Macdonald recognizes the elitist nature of his arguments; he also recognizes that charges of elitism miss the point altogether. The creation of literature is essentially undemocratic because, as Martin Amis points out, the one thing that is not democratic is talent. Macdonald quotes T.S. Eliot, who demands that anyone in complete thrall to notions of egalitarianism “stop paying lip-service to culture.”

The push for easily digestible, readily accessible artistic products has, in the 21st century, reached a point of critical mass. In his essay, penned at roughly the halfway point of the previous century, Macdonald could not envision a reason why midcult “might not be stabilized as the norm of our culture.” The lack of genuine discernment and the mindless acceptance of ersatz culture for the real thing has brought us to the point where even educated, well-read people seem to prefer Jane Smiley to Jane Austen, James Patterson to James Ellroy.

“[B]ecause of the disintegrative effects of Masscult,” Macdonald writes, “… the standards are by no means generally accepted. The danger is that the values of Midcult, instead of being transitional – ‘the price of progress’ – may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard.” There is good reason to suggest they already have.

*Macdonald’s essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1960, applies itself specifically and insistently to the American cultural landscape; the U.S. has been so effective in exporting its masscult products in the intervening years that Macdonald’s arguments now seem at least as applicable north of the forty-ninth parallel.

Towards a kind of aesthetic mysticism

November 1, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

The writer’s art appears to seek a compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence. By some occult method, the writer has connected himself with the feelings and ideal conceptions of which few signs remain in ordinary existence. Some novelists, the naturalists, have staked everything on ordinary existence in their desire to keep their connection with the surrounding world. Many of these have turned themselves into recording instruments at best, and at worst they have sucked up to the crowd, disgustingly. But the majority of modern novelists have followed the standard of Flaubert, the aesthetic standard. The shock caused by the loss of faith, says Professor Heller in The Disinherited Mind, made Burckhardt adopt an aesthetic view of history. If he is right, a sharp sense of disappointment and aestheticism go together. Flaubert complained that the exterior world was “disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing. … I am turning towards a kind of aesthetic mysticism,” he wrote.

– Saul Bellow, “The Sealed Treasure” (1960)

Some kind of monster: Corey Redekop’s unconventional zombie tale

October 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Tom Waits’s voice was once characterized as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell. This description resonates in an early set piece from Husk, in which the narrator, newly resurrected from the dead, tries to regain control of his vocal chords. The result, we are told, resembles “the sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs.” The moment is typical of author Corey Redekop’s approach in his second novel: it’s utterly macabre, yet simultaneously flat-out hilarious. “There’s a point where everything becomes very funny,” Redekop avers.

Certainly, Husk is not your stereotypical zombie story. First of all, it’s narrated in the first person by a protagonist named Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies a horrible death in the washroom of a moving bus, only to wake up on the slab mid-autopsy. (Restraint is not a quality Redekop indulges in this novel. Sheldon’s death scene, for instance, rivals the suppository sequence from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its gleeful disgust factor.) But then, Redekop explains, he had no intention of writing a typical zombie novel. “I’ve read a couple of books that have zombies as their protagonists,” he says, “but they were honestly all along the lines of The Walking Dead, so they’re still shambling hordes and somehow this one still has intelligence, but they’re still out there eating people, and they can’t really talk. Which is fine: it’s the classic standard for a reason. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me, it’s just that I don’t think I can write that kind of story.”

Indeed, Husk took several different directions on the road to being written. “I had an idea for a zombie detective novel,” says Redekop, “which I wanted to set in a 1950s, Raymond Chandleresque alternate reality. But I could not get the voice right, and I knew I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice.” He eventually abandoned the detective story conceit, although he did retain one element of that manuscript: “The truth is: I liked my first sentence.”

The opening sentence of Husk – “I miss breathing” – sets the tone for what follows. It also nods in the direction of the book’s oddly (for a zombie novel) ruminative quality. But none of what follows was planned in advance, the author claims. “I honestly just decided to follow the character. I didn’t have a preset plan, I didn’t know where the plot was going to go. A lot of it came as a complete surprise to me.”

The surprises included the fact that Sheldon Funk is gay. “I didn’t know he was gay until he killed his lover,” Redekop says matter-of-factly.

The character’s name was less of a surprise, and alludes to the author’s own Mennonite background (Redekop says of Husk, “It’s A Complicated Kindness of zombie novels”). “I’m Mennonite, and I needed a last name. I was playing with the last name of Thiessen, but it just didn’t work right. But then I came across Funk, which is actually a very traditional Mennonite name, and I just thought it really worked for the character.” Redekop adds with a laugh, “I was just trying to please my Mennonite readers.”

Redekop professes fidelity to the classic zombie mythos, and in particular credits the influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. “It was such a milestone,” he says, “and so out of left field. You think it’s going to be a cheap, $10,000 grindhouse film, and then you leave ninety minutes later shaken to your core because he tapped into something incredibly primal.” But despite this influence, Redekop insists that with Husk, he wanted to do something different. “I knew that wherever it was going, I didn’t want it to become a sort of zombie apocalypse novel. It’s not that that’s not interesting, it’s just been done very, very well, and I didn’t want to retell a story that’s already been told.”

One thing Redekop was not worried about was being slotted into a specific genre category. “I’ve been a librarian and I realize you need to categorize things.” That said, it is apparent after a very few pages that Husk is not easily categorizable. “I’ve seen the book in one store classified in the horror section,” Redekop says, “and I don’t think that’s actually accurate. It’s got gore, but I think there’s only one or two scenes that might come across as truly disturbing, and even then I don’t know if I did them all that well. … The book has horror elements, it has comedy elements, and if you had to classify it, you’re certainly going to mention zombies or the undead, because that’s going to attract a certain reader. The only risk is will other people not read it because of that? But that’s valid for every single book out there.”

While Husk may not cleave to the stuffy, middlebrow tastefulness that typifies so much CanLit, Redekop does not feel that its content, or its idiosyncratic approach, places it outside the pantheon, which is in fact much more heterogeneous than many people seem willing to acknowledge. “I know people who have said, ‘I don’t read Canadian literature. I just hate it.’ Well, okay: you’ve obviously never read anything beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.”

Still, the author is not so disingenuous as to assume that all readers will be attracted to his undead character study. As part of his pre-publication publicity endeavours, Redekop created a book trailer that perfectly captures the novel’s darkly comical, yet vaguely unnerving nature.

“I was at my cabin with my extended family and we had a bunch of nieces and nephews there, all twelve and under; they’re all kids, so they’re all loud and screaming all the time. They love to draw, so I had the idea that maybe they could draw me some pictures and maybe I could do something with them.” The “something” Redekop came up with rates as one of the most inspired book trailers of the year. “I wanted to do something that captured how weird the book was, the offbeat nature of it,” he says.

“I think there’s something very wrong about the book. If you get the trailer, you’ll like the book. If you don’t get the trailer, you’re not going to like the book.”

You’ve been warned.

Poison pen: Stacey Madden on violence, literary influences, and publishing his first novel

October 19, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”

The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”

The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.

Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”

At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”

The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”

Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”

Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”

Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”

Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”

Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”

He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”

“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.

“Books are here to stay.”

Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.

What to see at IFOA

October 18, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

For ten days each October, the International Festival of Authors gathers some of the most prestigious international literary talent in one place for a series of readings, panel discussions, and author signings. Administered by Authors at Harbourfront Centre, this year marks the Toronto festival’s thirty-third anniversary. This year’s festival kicks off tonight with a PEN Canada benefit featuring a rare appearance by Rohinton Mistry, and continues with readings by the nominees for a quartet of prestigious Canadian literary prizes: the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction; the Governor General’s Literary Award; the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This year features appearances by international bestsellers Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Harkness, and Richard Ford, along with established and upcoming Canadian talent including Vincent Lam, Sandra Ridley, Linden MacIntyre, and Larissa Andrusyshyn.

With more than 70 different events featuring more than 200 participants, there is always more to do than can possibly be done by any single person attending the festival. But here is a very shortlist of events that have piqued my interest.

Reading/Interview: Lee Child
Lee Child is an international bestselling author of thrillers featuring ex-U.S. military man Jack Reacher. They are the kind of bubble-gum actioners that get snapped up by the bushel by commuters and beach readers, and there’s a film out this December starring Tom Cruise as Reacher. Although Child’s brand of escapist entertainment is not totally my speed, I’m intrigued by the pairing of the author with interviewer Adrienne Clarkson, who seems at first glance a counterintuitive choice. This kind of iconoclastic pairing often makes for the most intriguing conversations.
Saturday, October 20, 2 p.m. Brigantine Room

Reading/Round Table: Roo Borson, Phil Hall, Don McKay, Sadiqa de Meijer
Poetry gets short shrift in this country, selling in even lower numbers than short-story collections. Which is a shame, because Canada features no shortage of strong poets, both veterans and newcomers. Three of the former – Borson, Hall, and McKay – join the winner of this year’s CBC Poetry Prize for a reading and discussion moderated by Garvia Bailey of the Ceeb. For verse enthusiasts, this event should prove enlightening and entertaining.
Saturday, October 20, 4 p.m., Studio Theatre

Reading/Interview: John Ralston Saul
The author of Voltaire’s Bastards is an intimidating public intellectual, and it takes a brave soul to go toe-to-toe with him. Philosopher, professor, and author Mark Kingwell may be one of the few people who can fill the bill. This discussion should be all the more interesting given that Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions, is the author’s first work of fiction in over a decade and a half.
Sunday, October 21, 12 p.m., Fleck Dance Theatre

Round Table: Matt Lennox, Stacey Madden, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, Tanis Rideout
“The novel is dead” seems to be a perennial theme among people who talk about literary matters, but this quintet of young authors, all graduates of the University of Guelph’s well-regarded MFA program would beg to differ. Each writer has a debut novel out this year, and this discussion about breaking into the industry and the challenges facing new writers in a rapidly evolving literary landscape sounds interesting. Novelist Catherine Bush, who administers the Guelph program, moderates.
Sunday, October 21, 4 p.m., Lakeside Terrace

Publishing Keynote Speaker and Interview: Jonathan Galassi
Each year, IFOA sponsors the International Visitors Programme, which offers publishing industry insiders the opportunity to come together for discussion, networking, and socializing. This year’s participants include some international heavy-hitters, such as Virago Press publisher Lennie Goodings and Blue Rider Press president and publisher David Rosenthal. This year’s keynote address, which is open to the public, is presented by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Galassi will be interviewed by David Kent, president and CEO of HarperCollins Canada.
Monday, October 22, 4:30 p.m., Studio Theatre

Round Table: Marjorie Celona, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Lee, Leanne Shapton
The women on this panel are unafraid to take risks with their approach to storytelling, employing a variety of forms – from short story to innovative memoir – to explore the idea of narrative. This discussion, titled “Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content,” is moderated by NOW magazine’s Susan G. Cole.
Wednesday, October 24, 8:00 p.m., Lakeside Terrace

Round Table: Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø, Corey Redekop
Take an historian descended from a line of witches, a secret policeman being targeted by Bosnian thugs in the Yugoslavia of 1991, a hard-boiled Norwegian detective, and a gay actor who just happens to be a zombie, and you’ve pretty much got a recipe for a lively conversation about genre, the supernatural, and the modern novel. Bestselling literary thriller writer Andrew Pyper moderates.
Saturday, October 27, 12 p.m., Brigantine Room

Round Table: Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin, Cordelia Strube
This group of writers defines the term “iconoclastic,” representing a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to fiction. How do these writers settle on their subjects, styles, narrative voices, and settings? How do these choices affect the stories they tell? I’m moderating this one myself, so feel free to come out and watch me get totally schooled on the art of fiction.
Saturday, October 27, 5:00 p.m., Brigantine Room

Found in Translation: Japan@IFOA
Next to poetry and short fiction, works in translation are among the least-read in Canada, which is baffling to me given our multicultural makeup and a vibrant publishing scene in Quebec. For my money, Japan has produced some of the most fascinating works of world literature in the past decade, so I’m interested to hear the writers on this panel – poet Hiromi Ito, novelist Hiromi Kawakami, and translator Motoyuki Shibata – talk about their work and their approach to writing. York University professor of Japanese literature and film Ted Gossen hosts.
Sunday, October 28, 4:00 p.m., Studio Theatre

More information about these and other IFOA events, as well as location and ticketing information, can be found at the IFOA website.

Banned Books Week: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

October 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

She was the first “nice” girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her exceedingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him – he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there – it was as casual a thing to her as the tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of unfamiliarity and genius: a couple of thoughts about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist

October 3, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

A couple of things interest me about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, which was announced on Monday. For those who missed it, the five anointed titles are:

  • 419 by Will Ferguson
  • Inside by Alix Ohlin
  • The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
  • Ru by Kim Thúy
  • Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky

The first thing that struck me was the number of people – even highly bookish people – who claimed to be unfamiliar with these titles. I realize that I operate from a position as an industry insider, but even so, these are hardly obscure books from small publishers. Certainly Will Ferguson is a known quantity in CanLit, and Alix Ohlin has been written about and discussed widely, including fallout from a notoriously vicious review she was given by The New York Times (itself not exactly an obscure organ). Ohlin also found herself on the shortlist for another major award – the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – earlier this fall. (She is the only author to appear on both lists.) Thúy’s debut novel is already a prize winner, having picked up the Governor General’s Literary Award for its original French version, and both Richler and Wangersky are authors with multiple publications to their names.

But then, perhaps my surprise is unfounded. Precious few people in English Canada pay attention to what gets published in Quebec, so it’s hardly unexpected that Anglo readers would be ignorant of a Francophone first novel, even one that has won a major literary prize. Thúy’s novel is also the most frankly literary of the five books, and not the kind of thing general readers seem to be gravitating toward in large numbers these days. Both Richler and Wangersky have tended to fly under the radar for the bulk of their writing careers.

Anecdotal evidence from booksellers suggests that none of the five nominated titles sold up to expectations prior to the Giller shortlist announcement. This, too, seems unsurprising in a year in which anything unrelated to Fifty Shades of Grey or not written by J.K. Rowling has tended to fall through the cracks.

And there are no powerhouse titles that everyone can agree on this year. Last year saw two books – Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues – dominate prize lists both here and abroad (in addition to the three major domestic prizes, both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the U.K.). This year, of fifteen spots on the power trio of shortlists for fiction – the Giller, the GG, and the Writers’ Trust – only three names overlap – Ohlin, Tamas Dobozy, and Linda Spalding – and no one appears on all three lists.

So perhaps the lack of awareness around the authors on this year’s Giller shortlist is to be expected. Still, in a year in which some really overlooked names continue not just to fly under the radar, but to vanish from the field altogether, it’s a bit startling. If a scant few readers can claim familiarity with Will Ferguson or Alix Ohlin, how many can be expected to have heard of – much less read – worthy books by John Vigna, Anne Fleming, Yasuko Thanh, Alice Petersen, Tamara Faith Berger, Andrew Hood, or Esmé Claire Keith? On second thought, don’t answer that.

The second thing that interests me about this year’s shortlist involves something that John Barber alluded to in his column for The Globe and Mail. About Monday’s shortlist announcement, Barber writes:

Although sufficiently complimentary about all five of the nominated titles, this year’s Giller jury was fulsome on the subject of 419, tipping it as the clear front-runner in this year’s competition for the $50,000 prize.

Indeed, the jury citation for Ferguson’s novel, read by juror Anna Porter at Monday’s press conference, is somewhat remarkable. It calls 419 “something entirely new: the Global Novel.” This, of course, is nonsense: globetrotting thriller writers have been writing “global novels” for years. Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy built very lucrative careers doing exactly that. Nevertheless, the language is tellingly effusive.

So, too, is the jury’s assessment that “It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius.” Note the significance of what has happened here: right out of the gate, this year’s Giller jury – also composed of American author Gary Shteyngart and Irish author Roddy Doyle – has declared one of their nominees a work of genius.

All things being equal, it appears 419 is the book to beat when the prize announcement is made on October 30.

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