Banned Books Week: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

October 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

Banned Books Week: Richard Crouse raises a little hell

October 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.

Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)

The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”

What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.

Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:

The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.

“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”

So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.

Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.

But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.

Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.

***

Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.

On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous

September 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

When Émile Zola published the second edition of his short novel, Thérèse Raquin, he felt compelled to append a preface responding to critics of his day who had taken him to task for writing what they considered to be a highly immoral book. “Some virtuous folk,” Zola wrote, “in no less virtuous newspapers, puckered their faces in disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it on the fire. Even the literary papers – those same literary papers that every evening report the gossip from bedrooms and private dining rooms – held their noses and spoke of stinking filth.”

No doubt these readers had some justification for their passionate reactions. First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a woman thrust into a tedious arranged marriage with her cousin Camille. Thérèse is introduced to her husband’s friend, Laurent, who is much more virile, lusty, and animalistic than her gormless husband. Thérèse and Laurent embark on an affair and, almost incidentally, conspire to kill Camille. The second half of the novel traces the murderers’ psychological deterioration as a result of their crime. (In this, Zola’s novel shares a trajectory with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published a year previously.)

While Zola’s book has elements in common with other, better known novels of adultery – Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – it actually cleaves closer to American noir fiction: echoes of Thérèse Raquin can be detected in the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

What set early readers on edge was not so much the novel’s subject matter, which is no more lurid than many 18th-century Gothic novels, but Zola’s resolute refusal to judge his characters. The author insisted on a naturalistic, almost scientific approach to his characters: he would observe them, but not condemn them. In his preface, he likens himself to an anatomist impartially examining his “naked, living anatomical specimens.” And while he avers that a “sincere study purifies everything, as fire does,” he takes umbrage at those critics who would charge him with obscenity or immorality, claiming that such terms are of little use in discussing literature:

In our times, there are only two or three men who can read, understand, and judge a book. I accept criticism from them, certain that they would not speak until they had discovered my intentions and assessed the results of my efforts. They would be very careful not to mention those great empty words: “morality” and “literary modesty.” They would recognize my right, at a time when we enjoy freedom in art, to choose my subjects wherever I please, asking me only for works that are conscientious, and knowing that only stupidity harms the dignity of literature.

Were Zola alive today, he might find himself making many of the same arguments. Indeed, the puritanical voices claiming that art need be ethical, moral, or didactic have never gone away. Novelist and critic John Gardner perhaps put it most bluntly in his 1978 book On Moral Fiction, in which he baldly states, “Nothing could be more obvious, it seems to me, than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production’s moral worth.” (The hedging apposite clause – “at least some of the time” – is a strong indication that Gardner himself remained ultimately unconvinced of the blanket truth of his assertion.) Although less dogmatic and much more nuanced, Wayne C. Booth, in his study The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, also champions the idea that books should serve an ethical or moral purpose for their readers: “The fact that no narrative will be good or bad for all readers in all circumstances need not hinder us in our effort to discover what is good or bad for us in our condition here and now” (emphasis in original), with the implicit corollary that we should elevate the “good” and avoid or disavow the “bad.”

Strains of Gardner and Booth could be detected as recently as last week, when the 2012 Man Booker Prize jury announced its shortlist. While he admitted that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates” among the jurors, this year’s chair of judges, Peter Stothard, went on to comment that he and his fellow jurors were “exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values” of the nominated books.

In brief, “vividly defined values” seems like a strange criterion on which to base an assessment of literary worth. The language is vague and imprecise, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the word “values” is not confined merely to the literary sphere, but contains within it some moral imperative. The obvious questions then arise. Whose values are we referring to? From what realm do they spring? Are they moral values? Philosophical values? Political values? Theological values?

Then we must consider the question from the perspective of the writer. What is a writer’s responsibility, to herself and to her readers? Is she responsible for promoting a particular ethical or societal code, or is she responsible merely to the work of art? If we admit that one of the functions of literature is to be truthful to the world as the writer finds it, how is it possible to insist on some moral imperative in art given the evident immorality that surrounds most of us, most of the time? Is the function of art to better its recipients, or is it simply to present, in the kind of scientific manner Zola advocated, an accurate literary representation of a time and place?

It is obvious that evil occasionally triumphs in the world; why should it not also be allowed to triumph in works of literature? (It might be useful to remember that John Milton was roundly excoriated for making Lucifer the central figure of Paradise Lost.) Think of the great moral, virtuous, upstanding novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Now try to imagine an entire literature informed by it. The mind positively reels.

No doubt there are many, even today, who would argue that the function of art is to better humanity. And it seems to be true that those who expose themselves to artistic works are more tolerant and expansive than those who don’t. It is also true that one must take care about what one exposes oneself to in a literary context: much more benefit will be gleaned from reading Zola and Dostoevsky (who were, it should be pointed out, both highly moral writers) than, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

However, the idea that literature must be affirming in order to be worthwhile does not follow.

Bull Head review online

September 8, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The more I think about it, the more I realize that my surprise at this year’s Giller longlist resulted mainly from how populist it is. The thirteen books this year’s jury selected seem, for the most part, resolutely – almost defiantly – mainstream. Longtime readers of TSR will realize that my own literary sensibilities are not what could reasonably be called mainstream: I enjoy and gravitate toward fiction that challenges and takes chances.

For those who might approach this year’s Giller list with a sense of disappointment at missed opportunities, may I offer an alternative?

John Vigna’s debut story collection is written much in the same mode as (and indeed shares a geographic setting with) D.W. Wilson’s collection Once You Break a Knuckle. Vigna’s work will inevitably be compared to Wilson, and to strongly masculine, muscular writers like Hemingway and Carver, but for my money, his stories of men scraping and scrabbling to escape the shackles of their circumstances have at least as much in common with 20th-century literature of paralysis. It’s a strong collection, and worthy of your time. Be warned, however: it’s not an uplifting book, and certain stories (“South Country” is a prime example) are difficult and distressing. If you’re up for it, though, it’s a tough, bracing collection.

My review of Bull Head is up on the National Post website.

John Vigna opens his debut story collection with an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor: “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.” In defending the use of violence in fiction, O’Connor took issue with critics and readers who assumed that violence is an end rather than a means. “With the serious writer,” O’Connor wrote, “violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe that these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.” (O’Connor, it should be noted, was not well versed in CanLit.)

Using O’Connor’s yardstick, it is apparent that Vigna is a very serious writer, indeed. The men in Vigna’s tales resort to physical brutality as an expression of a kind of existential yearning; on a thematic level, these are stories of paralysis — of characters’ inability to rise above their circumstances — that owe as much to the work of Beckett and Joyce as to Hemingway and O’Connor.

Giller jury serves up astonishing longlist

September 4, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

David Bergen. M.G. Vassanji. Donna Morrissey. Rawi Hage. Linden MacIntyre. Vincent Lam.

These are a half-dozen of the heavy hitters who did not make it onto the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Also absent are word-of-mouth favourites such as Anakana Schofield, Carrie Snyder, Emily Schultz, and Lynn Crosbie.

In their place, this year’s jury, made up of Irish author Roddy Doyle, American author Gary Shteyngart, and Canadian author Anna Porter, has chosen a baker’s dozen made up of first-timers, genre writers, and previously overlooked names. Only one of the longlisted titles – Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl – is by an author who has previously been nominated for the prize. Marjorie Celona and Kim Thúy are nominated for their first books, and Cary Fagan and Russell Wangersky appear with short-story collections. Other surprises include Lauren B. Davis’s thriller Our Daily Bread, which was actually released last year in the U.S., Katrina Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, and Will Ferguson’s thriller 419.

The longlist in full:

  • Y by Marjorie Celona
  • Our Daily Bread by Lauren B. Davis
  • My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan
  • 419 by Will Ferguson
  • Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough
  • One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
  • The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
  • Inside by Alix Ohlin
  • Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad
  • The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson
  • The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
  • Ru by Kim Thúy
  • Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky

Random House of Canada has the largest number of nominations with four, and House of Anansi Press, Penguin, and HarperCollins Canada each clock in with two. The remaining publishers, Cormorant Books, McClelland & Stewart, and Thomas Allen Publishers, have one apiece. For those who count such things (you know who you are), eight of the authors are women, and five are men.

When the jury was first announced, I expressed optimism that the diverse sensibilities of the three members might produce a list that broke with tradition in some interesting ways. They have done this, and then some. Whatever you may think of today’s announcement, you’ll probably agree that this is the most surprising longlist in the nineteen-year history of the Giller Prize.

The shortlist will be revealed on October 1, with the winner announced on October 30.

Gay Dwarves review online

August 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

My review of Anne Fleming’s second story collection, Gay Dwarves of America is up at the National Post‘s website. Perhaps surprisingly, the book’s title is not even the best thing about it.

Fleming is at her best in stories that are much more familiar or conventional (if one may use that word non-pejoratively in a critical context).

“Unicycle Boys,” for instance, is a straightforward tale of a teenaged girl who accompanies a misfit to his high-school prom, much to the disdain of her popular ex-boyfriend. Fleming nicely captures the awkwardness and pathos of being an outsider in a milieu that prizes conformity above all. Even the story’s narrator, who claims to disavow cliques of any kind, must align herself to a group that is defined by its outsider status: “What group did we think we belonged to? Hard to remember. Smart girls with sharp wits, girls who argued with teachers, who questioned authority, who mouthed off but got good marks, girls who thought themselves worldly. Girls who scorned membership in a group.” The decision to have the story narrated by an adult looking back on her adolescence also provides a useful ironic distance, adding a layer of pathos to the story’s conclusion.

Warning: This is not a f***ing kids’ book

August 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

A delightful new trailer for Corey Redekop’s second novel, Husk, forthcoming this October.

Maidenhead, part two: she said

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

In the second of part of a two-part discussion of Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead, author and academic Myna Wallin offers her thoughts on the book. (Part one of this discussion can be read here.)

Gore Vidal’s seminal work on female sexuality, Myra Breckinridge, begins with the line, “I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess …” Tamara Faith Berger calls her protagonist Myra, who ironically enough wants very badly to be possessed, but not by Aaron, who “worships” her, kissing her and telling her “there’s this space in me, kind of opening up … to love you.” Love isn’t what Myra is after. She wants to be pissed on and she wants to be slapped.

Reading Maidenhead, a volatile, punch-you-in-the-gut version of a coming of age story, I am reminded of Marya Hormbacher’s memoir, Wasted, about the life of an anorexic young woman. In Berger’s provocative novel, Myra becomes embroiled in a ménage à trois, where self-delusion, sex, and a dialectic philosophy of the master/slave paradigm become so entangled in her mind that her submission, her willing participation, starts to make as much sense as starving oneself does to the central character in Wasted.

It’s no coincidence that Myra’s sexcapades begin on a family vacation in Key West during spring break. Myra envies the teenagers who are just two years older than her, like her sister Jody. They can do what they want, drink until late, and have sex away from the watchful eyes of their parents. Myra becomes the target for a hot, black “god” of a man, Elijah, a Tanzanian “genius musician” twenty years her senior. He has skin that smells like “caramel” and calls Myra his “angel” and alternately, his “little bitch.” Elijah and his violent cohort Gayl follow Myra all the way from the beaches of Key West to Toronto. Myra’s mother abandons her three children soon after, leaving them in the hands of her hapless husband and a couple of sneering, gossipy girlfriends. Without her mother’s guidance, Myra’s slightly older friend Lee must remind her that she is real, that her life is really happening.

Lee, however, has her own secrets and knows that the road to losing one’s virginity is a rocky one, both physically and mentally. Lee sees the pitfalls in both the language used to describe the experience of sex and the unreliability of the self, of one’s bodily urges, and of the massive confusion of being a young woman. Still, Lee gives Myra permission to explore her darker desires: “It’s okay you want it dirty with this guy. It’s okay you want that picture in your head to be true.”

The sixteen-year-old Myra as first-person narrator is an unreliable witness to her own story, so it is a relief when Gayl and Lee step in as a postmodern Greek chorus, offering bickering philosophical commentary throughout and a useful reprieve, a moment to pause and reflect between Myra’s exploits (or periods of being exploited, depending upon your perspective).

A series of binary oppositions runs throughout Berger’s novel: real/dreamlike; master/slave; privileged/oppressed; dominant/submissive; romantic/carnal. All of these Western constructs are as ripe to be dismantled as Myra’s virginity. So our protagonist – a precocious and prodigious intellect blooming along with her teenage hormones – writes a paper she calls “The Pornography Liberation Narrative and Sex Slaves: A Synthesis.” Berger sets up a series of questions for the reader: Is Myra’s experience inauthentic because of her own inexperience? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Or both? Do any of the philosophers she is so fond of quoting (Hegel, Bataille, Weil) provide a usable framework for her experience? Is there such a thing as Absolute Knowledge?

Berger has a welcome sense of humour that makes the violence and gut-wrenching power of her book bearable. Maidenhead is a thoroughly riveting read, questioning all kinds of assumptions and raising fascinating questions about female sexuality, family dynamics, motherhood, pornography, and more. Reader beware.

Myna Wallin is a Toronto author and editor, and author of the book Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar.

Maidenhead, part one: he said

August 13, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this summer, I was speaking with academic and author Myna Wallin about the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that began as repurposed Twilight fan fiction and has since gone on to become an international bestseller. (According to the Guardian, it is now the bestselling book in U.K. history.) Wallin and I are united in our astonishment that such an ill-written, poorly conceived work could catch on to such an extent, particularly given that there is another, similar book available – a novel at once darker, smarter, and sexier than its pallid contemporary. In an attempt to bring some attention to a novel that we think could provide readers with a better alternative to the so-called “erotic fiction” of Fifty Shades, TSR is featuring a two-part discussion of Maidenhead by Toronto author Tamara Faith Berger. My review appears today, followed by Wallin’s take tomorrow.

***

Maidenhead. Tamara Faith Berger; $18.95 paper 978-1-55245-259-2, 176 pp., Coach House Books

Abject adj. 1. miserable, wretched; 2. degraded, self-abasing, humble

“In the very fist place eroticism differs from animal sexuality in that human sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of those taboos. Desire in eroticism is the desire that triumphs over the taboo.” – Georges Bataille

“Bataille’s for boys.” – Maidenhead

To say that Tamara Faith Berger’s third – and by far her most mature and fully realized – novel is about the sexual awakening of a sixteen-year-old girl is like saying Moby-Dick is the story of a man and a whale. On the surface, the statement is perfectly accurate, but it is so reductive as to be positively laughable.

The girl in question is Myra, whom we first encounter on vacation with her family in Key West, “the last blot of American land before the slaves thrived or sank in the sea.” It’s spring break, and Myra is surrounded by sex: college girls with “bums curved up like fruits” and “guys and girls dancing out there and drinking beers when it was two in the afternoon.” This is merely the first instance of sex and slavery being linked in the novel; indeed, the notion of slavery and victimization becomes a defining theme in a book that is all about shifting planes of power and control. (Unsurprisingly, Hegel provides a large measure of the book’s philosophical underpinning.)

Myra is desperate to lose her virginity, engaging in fantasies of encounters with the college boys she sees on the beach: “I had to keep imagining that I was losing my virginity so one day it would really happen.” On her second day in Key West, Myra breaks away from her indifferent family and meets a black man on the beach. Elijah is a Tanzanian musician possessed of a walking stick and an ocarina. The first time Myra encounters him, he lets her play the ocarina. The second time Myra encounters him, he takes her back to his room, where he urinates on her while masturbating.

All of this occurs in the first twenty pages of the novel. Myra and her family return home to Toronto, where her parents announce they are divorcing. Soon enough, Elijah and his girlfriend, Gayl, appear in the city and begin to lead Myra on a journey of discovery and abjection, a sexual odyssey that becomes increasingly dark and extreme as the novel progresses.

It would be tempting to call Maidenhead a transgressive work, but this label is fraught with implication. According to its dictionary definition, the word “transgress” means to “contravene or go beyond the bounds or limits set by (a commandment, law, etc.).” It is difficult not to employ this word in the context of a system of patriarchal (not to say Puritan) sexual morality; Myra’s experience is only transgressive if one applies a strict set of normative standards to the idea of sexual congress. The notion that female sexuality is complex, and that there may exist instances in which a woman in full control of her faculties might desire abjection or abasement in a sexual context, makes many people with a vested interest in preserving the current political and social power structure (read: men) uncomfortable. (Emily Prager refers to “the conundrum of rape”: the idea that what is horrific and deplorable in reality can, in a fantasy context, be sexually stimulating.)

Elijah and Gayl initiate Myra into a world of behaviour that passes beyond societally sanctioned norms of vanilla sexuality – humiliation, bondage, and sadism are all aspects of their evolving relationship – but Myra’s abiding intelligence ensures that she remains a volitional participant, even in scenarios that involve her ritual debasement. She invites her role as Elijah and Gayl’s slave even as she attempts to iron out ideas of master-slave dynamics in power relationships. She comes to see her own progression as a kind of sexual liberation narrative, once again emphasizing the relationship between sexual slavery and that other kind of slavery.

Abjection, Myra comes to suppose, is a way for a slave to retain power and self-determination. It is no accident that Elijah and Gayl are black: their own histories are riddled with power struggles in which they were the oppressed victims. “You need to grow up,” Gayl says to Myra during a key scene of violence late in the novel. “You took a vacation on the backs of slaves. You and your family having fun like that.” And elsewhere, when Myra attempts to downplay her privilege and power, Gayl sneers at her, “Did you have your own bedroom growing up? … I slept on the floor with four brothers … Head to foot and foot to head.” This is tricky territory, and Berger is unafraid to confront it head on.

Lest the above make it sound like the novel is a dry, philosophical treatise, it should also be pointed out that Maidenhead is a terrifically dirty book, in the tradition of Anaïs Nin and Pauline Réage. It’s a smart, serious, sexy work that asks questions most novels studiously avoid. The interpolated sections featuring Gayl and Myra’s friend Lee deconstructing aspects of the narrative are unnecessary and distracting, but are not sufficient to disrupt a reading experience that, on points, remains potent and raw.

New review online: The Path to Ardroe by John Lent

August 3, 2012 by · 5 Comments 

My review of John Lent’s new novel is up on the National Post website. This is an interesting case for me, given recent online discussions of the nature and function of reviewing in our culture. The debates I’ve seen tend to break reviews down into opposing camps of positive (generally perceived as desirable) and negative (generally perceived as undesirable, and often prompted by spite or envy). In my experience, most books refuse to accede to this kind of reductivist thinking, and this is certainly the case with Lent’s novel. It’s a book that lingers, even weeks after writing the review. (There aren’t a lot of books I can honestly say that about these days.) One of the misapprehensions people seem to have about reviewing involves the assumption that a review is the critic’s final word on a book. My response to Lent’s novel is complex and, I admit, still evolving. The review in the Post represents a jumping off point, not a destination. Whether that is apparent to readers of the review is not up to me to determine.

Thematically, The Path to Ardroe involves a reckoning with Boomer nostalgia and the transformations that have accrued — most specifically in the areas of sexuality and aesthetics — since the 1960s. Longtime readers of Lent will recognize familiar elements here: the ever-present alcoholic fathers, the obsession with landscape, the devotion to music, and a narrative exploration of consciousness and being. Lent’s approach is resolutely interior, and in certain long passages of the book not a lot actually happens: The narrative is more concerned with contemplation about the march of history and the place of individual consciousness in the world. Although the book as a whole disavows the notion that the idealists of the sixties vanished into the self-absorbed yuppies of the 1980s, Lent generally allows his characters a nuanced view of progress.

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