Crazy for CanLit: which unread book is your favourite?

August 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Here’s a question for you: how many of these books have you read?

  • Gethsemane Hall by David Annandale
  • Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay
  • The Age of Hope by David Bergen
  • Swallow by Theanna Bischoff
  • Psychology and Other Stories by C.P. Boyko
  • by Marjorie Celona
  • What You Get at Home by Dora Dueck
  • The World by Bill Gaston
  • The Tale-Teller by Susan Glickman
  • Carnival by Rawi Hage
  • The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
  • Anna from Away by D.R. MacDonald
  • Love and the Mess We’re In by Stephen Marche
  • Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney
  • Dark Diversions by John Ralston Saul
  • The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin
  • Baggage by Jill Sooley
  • The Purchase by Linda Spalding
  • Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen
  • The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji
  • The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster

Unless you’re a reviewer, bookseller, publisher, or industry insider, I’d venture to guess the answer to that question is, “None of them.” Why? Because they are all books from the upcoming fall 2012 publishing season; none of them is available yet through the trade.

That fact, however, does not prevent CBC Books and the Scotiabank Giller Prize from encouraging you to throw your support behind one or the other of them, sight unseen. For the second year in a row, the Giller has added a public participation aspect to its annual award. In conjunction with the CBC, they are asking the public to “[n]ominate an eligible book … and tell us why you think this book deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The list of eligible books is online at the Giller website, and includes the titles above, along with others from late fall 2011 and spring 2012 that are currently available to the public. Unlike last year, this year’s “Crazy for CanLit” contest appears only to solicit nominations from the public; there is no promise, as with last year’s contest, that the book with the most votes wins a spot on the official prize longlist.

The problem is with the language. It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t read the above titles (which effectively means most people who will be submitting nominations to this contest) to say with any legitimacy why any of them “deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The language implies merit, but it’s not possible to assess merit in these cases; all readers have to go on is prior affection for a given author’s work. When the Ceeb suggests that this contest is a way for readers “to share great Canadian literature [they’ve] discovered this past year,” it is being similarly disingenuous.

During the run-up to last year’s Giller, prize administrator Elana Rabinovitch was quoted in Quill & Quire as saying, “When it comes to inviting the public into the process to share their voice on their favourite book, I don’t believe that there’s any danger of tarnishing the reputation of the prize.” Maybe so, but that’s not exactly what is being asked of people here. Prognostication and judgments based on previous experience hardly qualify as literary assessment, even on a subjective level. People are not necessarily being asked to cast a vote for their “favourite book,” but for a favourite author. It bears repeating that an author’s previous track record has nothing to do with the relative merit of a new book. The only way to assess the latter is by reading the book, which is the one thing that participants in this contest can’t, in many cases, do. (The contest closes on August 14; all of the books listed above have later publication dates.)

It will be argued that this contest helps draw attention to the forthcoming books and drum up anticipation for them. Which is well and good, but is also entirely separate from asking people to choose their “favourite.” In any case, in a year in which the most popular fiction title is Fifty Shades of Grey, you might forgive me for feeling a bit jaundiced when it comes to the so-called “wisdom of crowds.”

Lionel Asbo and the malaise of modernity

August 1, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

Lionel Asbo. Martin Amis; $29.95 cloth 978-0-307-40211-0, 272 pp., Knopf Canada

In British jurisprudence, an ASBO is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. The precursor to the ASBO was called a Restraining Directive, something the thuggish title character of Martin Amis’s thirteenth novel first received at the age of three. “Three years and two days: a national record (though disputed by other claimants).” Physically, Lionel is “brutally generic – the slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble”; he derives his income from a combination of extortion and thievery, and at age twenty-one, has spent much of his young life as a ward of the state, first in a Youth Offender Institution (he speaks almost wistfully of “Doing me Yoi”), then in adult prison, where he managed to elevate himself “almost up to PhD level on questions of criminal law.” After beating a bar patron so severely the victim allegedly had to be removed from the premises on a stretcher, Lionel is able to engage in a knowledgeable deconstruction of the legal distinction between ABH (Actual Bodily Harm) and GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm). When he turned eighteen, Lionel (né Pepperdine) legally changed his surname to Asbo, something his nephew Desmond thinks is indicative of the lengths his uncle will go to work at being stupid:

All his uncle would say was that Pepperdine’s a crap name anyhow. And Asbo has a nice ring to it. This was literally the case: Lionel would flaunt his electronic loop (it looked like an ankle strap with a battery attached), even as he took the stand at the Old Bailey (Ah yes. Mr … “Asbo.” Mr Asbo, this is not the first time you have …). You could only do that if you gave being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.

During one stint in prison, Lionel learns he has won almost £140,000,000 on the national lottery, which allows Amis to engage in a series of fish-out-of water set pieces: Lionel trashes a hotel room, drinks champagne out of pint glasses, takes up with a former supermodel known as “Threnody” (the quotation marks are essential, we are told), and does battle with a lobster in an upscale restaurant.

If all this sounds like a bald caricature of an English chav, bear in mind that the character is based on Michael Carroll, a British garbage collector who won £9.7 million on the lottery and blew the lot on drugs, prostitutes, and gambling. (According to the Daily Mail, Carroll showed up to collect his winnings “wearing an electronic offender’s tag.”) The character of “Threnody” bears striking resemblance to Katie Price, a former topless model turned author and reality television star (Amis says he read Price’s autobiography as research). Amis has amped the volume up to eleven (and swapped pit bulls for Carroll’s rottweilers), but the exaggerations are not all that extreme.

This is perhaps one reason Amis comes in for such criticism: his portrait of our modern world is often more precise, and more unflattering, than we are willing to admit. The running joke about the British tabloid advertising GILFs (think of women one generation removed from MILFs) is funny precisely because Lionel’s astonishment at the very idea that anyone might indulge in such a fetish is juxtaposed with the evident reality of Western society’s polymorphous perversity, something the Internet has only amplified. (It should go without saying that Lionel is also a connoisseur of Internet pornography.) When Lionel offers a deconstruction of the reasons Britain went to war in Iraq, his blatant oversimplifications are distressingly accurate rejoinders to the prevarications of the Blair government. And when he counsels his newly acquired money manager on how to invest his funds, he sounds like the CEO of Lehman Brothers.

For all of this, Amis has tempered his savagery this time out by providing Lionel with a foil in his nephew, Desmond, a much more sensitive soul wracked with guilt over an incestuous affair with his grandmother, Lionel’s mother, which began when Des was all of fifteen. Gran, at the time, was “a reasonably presentable thirty-nine”; Lionel was “a heavily weathered twenty-one.” Des’s guilt over the affair is shot through with terror because, of course, should Lionel find out about his dalliance, he will kill him. Des supplies the novel’s conscience, its moral centre. He is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Amis canon and, significantly, one of the only characters the author allows a happy ending. Whether this indicates a mellowing on Amis’s part is debatable; at the very least, the final stages of Lionel Asbo offer some of the most unexpectedly tender scenes the author has ever penned.

But, lest anyone suppose that the novel descends into a kind of touchy-feely sentimentalism, rest assured that Lionel remains the book’s driving force – a hulking, marauding whirlwind of bad behaviour and destruction, a virtuoso of violence, a maestro of mayhem. “I am only interested in extremes,” Amis told the Guardian. “The one absentee from my novels is the middle class – I never write about them, I always write about the criminal class, the low-life class, and the very privileged.” Funny and frightening in roughly equal measure, Lionel is far more interesting and engaging than the recondite aesthetes wandering aimlessly through the Italian villa in Amis’s previous novel, The Pregnant Widow.

Amis claims to prefer the term “ironist” over “satirist” as a means of describing his literary approach, but for the sake of argument let’s go with the latter for the moment. If any modern author can be said to write Swiftian satire, it’s Amis. And if Swift’s assessment of satire as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” is correct, then Lionel Asbo may be a perfect satirical character for our postmodern age. He is a manifestation of a kind of unfettered id, a narcissist programmed for instant gratification, who finds himself suddenly offered the means to satisfy it. In other words, he is an outsized reflection of much of the Western world in the early part of the 21st century, with our entitlements and privileges, many (not to say most) of which are unearned. It is likely that the majority of Amis’s educated, liberal humanist readers would recoil from any association with Lionel, but perhaps they should take a closer, more honest look. Amis is frequently castigated for the crime of telling the truth, which is something many of us in our comfortable modern lives don’t want to hear. In a sense, Lionel Asbo is all of us. And how discomfiting is that?

Note: This review is based on the Jonathan Cape edition of the novel. Knopf Canada will publish Lionel Asbo on August 21.

Blurb this! House of Anansi edition

July 9, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

It’s not satire, per se, that is a problem for audiences, but a particular kind of satire: the kind that stings and bites and very frequently withholds happy endings. The kind Jonathan Swift, one of the form’s most impressive practitioners, famously characterized as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

Riche’s satire, by contrast, is amiable and often overly broad. The California religious cult with members who walk around in shoes made out of loaves of bread are unlikely to inspire a frisson on the part of readers, nor is the ex-talk show host now living as a derelict in the ravine that runs beneath the tony Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale. Elliot meets this latter character after tumbling down a hill into the ravine while in the process of stealing a coveted bottle of wine from his new boss’s cellar, a scene that has more in common with slapstick than satire.

This is particularly ironic in a book that spends so much time bemoaning our culture’s inability to appreciate art that is nuanced or uncomfortable. On numerous occasions, Elliot lectures his interlocutors on the subtleties of complex wines and the deeper pleasures these can yield over lesser vintages. A wine that is easy to like, for Elliot, is not as ultimately satisfying as a wine that divulges its riches only gradually, requiring patience, dedication and a sophisticated palate to fully appreciate. Finally, that is perhaps the central problem with Riche’s novel: It’s easy to like.

– Steven W. Beattie, National Post, September 9, 2011

***

“It’s easy to like.” – National Post

– Paperback reprint of Easy to Like, July 2012

“That’s a long speech, isn’t it? But it means something.”

June 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

This is one of the best things I’ve come across in a long, long while.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 31: “The Beggar Maid” by Alice Munro

May 31, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

From Who Do You Think You Are?

When people say Alice Munro is capable of more depth, nuance, and character development in a single forty-page story than most authors can pull off in a 500-page novel, it’s stories like “The Beggar Maid” they are talking about. The centrepiece of Munro’s 1978 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection is so thematically dense, so emotionally resonant, so linguistically inventive it’s almost difficult to countenance. “The Beggar Maid” is the story of Rose, a young woman from a working-class family in the small Ontario town of Hanratty, who goes off to university on a scholarship and ends up in a romance with Patrick Blatchford, the wealthy scion of a family that owns a chain of British Columbia department stores. Munro’s story addresses heavy themes – class, sex, identity – but does so in a seemingly effortless manner.

After a chance meeting in the university library where Rose works, she and Patrick fall into a love affair, which proves troublesome because, although they are both loath to admit it, their differing economic and social backgrounds are a locus of conflict. The first indication of friction occurs in the story’s opening paragraph: Rose admits to being nervous about Patrick’s sophistication after he becomes agitated when one of her friends mispronounces the name Metternich. When the couple visits Patrick’s family on Vancouver Island, Rose feels utterly inadequate. She buys a “fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored,” which she thinks is elegant enough, but concludes that it resembles “a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up.” Patrick’s mother displays “affront, disapproval, dismay” in Rose’s presence, and his sisters evince a haughty insouciance:

At an earlier meal they had questioned Rose.

“Do you ride?”

“No.”

“Do you sail?”

“No.”

“Play tennis? Play golf? Play badminton?”

“No. No. No.”

“Perhaps she is an intellectual genius, like Patrick.”

The Blatchford house is a sprawling Tudor mansion on a half-acre of land, a stark contrast to Rose’s own humble origins. She takes Patrick home to Hanratty to meet her stepmother, Flo, and the experience is “just as bad as she thought it would be”:

Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages which were a special present from Billy Pope, from the butcher shop. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins.

The juxtaposition of the Blatchfords’ supercilious politesse with Flo’s small-town kitsch lends the story a mordantly humorous aspect, but also highlights the degree to which Rose is caught between conflicting ideas of what she should be. Rose clings to Patrick because he represents something greater than even the highest of Hanratty’s aspirations: “She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweler’s; people would say she had done well.” And yet Rose has difficulty admitting to herself that Patrick’s lack of humour and sexual reticence fail to enthrall her.

She is further troubled by her landlady, Dr. Henshawe, a university professor who feels that Rose should be devoting herself to her studies rather than setting herself up for the traditional female roles of wife and mother:

“The future will be wide open, for women. You must concentrate on languages. You must take courses in political science. And economics. Perhaps you could get a job on the paper for the summer. I have friends there.”

Rose was frightened at the idea of working on a paper, and she hated the introductory economics course; she was looking for a way of dropping it. It was dangerous to mention things to Dr. Henshawe.

What the citizens of Hanratty have in common with Patrick and Dr. Henshawe is a desire to make Rose over in their own image, to force her to conform to the role they feel she should play, rather than allow her the freedom to chart her own path. Patrick compares Rose to the Beggar Maid in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s painting, with all the chivalric romance that association entails. But this is not the conception Rose has of herself. She is a much more active agent than the other characters in the story will give her credit for being.

The American and U.K. editions of Munro’s book are called “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Rose and Flo,” which is more romantic and lyrical than the frankly acerbic Canadian title. But it is also less resonant. “The Beggar Maid” is an ironic title for this story, because Rose implicitly disavows the association with the painting when Patrick brings it up. The Canadian title, by contrast, allows for a greater field of implication as Rose is buffeted between various characters with competing interests and conflicting ideas about what is best for her. There are critics who suggest that this collection of linked stories is actually one of only two novels Munro has written (the other being Lives of Girls and Women). I prefer to think of “The Beggar Maid” as a story that is novelistic in its structure and execution, but fully able to stand on its own as a case study of a woman faced with the persistent and troubling question, Who do you think you are?

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 30: “Neptune’s Necklace” by Alice Petersen

May 30, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

From All the Voices Cry

In his guide for fiction writers, The Art of Fiction, one of the exercises John Gardner provides reads as follows: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” The point, of course, is to develop the ability to convey a mood without being overly explicit or expository. Mood should arise organically out of a work of fiction, not be larded onto it in an artificial way.

The thing about mood, though, is that it is sometimes inextricably tied into setting. Locating a story in 1939 Poland, for instance, will infuse that story with a certain resonance for readers, no matter what the specifics of that story may be. But what if a story is set in a less archetypal, but nonetheless fraught, locale? How are readers expected to react, and how does a reader’s reaction change should he or she be cognizant of the setting’s import?

“Neptune’s Necklace” focuses on a seventy-three-year-old artist living in New Zealand. As the story opens, the artist, Hattie, walks along the beach with her dog. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for the focus on images of death or passage. As she walks along the beach, Hattie imagines seeing “a clutch of child-sized shades running before her,” and pictures them “gazing at a dead mollymawk where it had washed up against a piece of driftwood.” The word “shades,” although somewhat outmoded, clearly refers to ghosts, and a mollymawk is a kind of albatross, a type of bird that has obvious literary connotations. We later discover that “the shades were girls, all of them, and one of the shades was Hattie’s daughter.”

The balance of the story involves Hattie retreating home to evade the rains that occur daily, and being interrupted in her business by two young people whose car has broken down. The couple, a young man and a young woman, ask to use Hattie’s phone and Hattie offers to make them tea. In the course of their discussion, it transpires that the young woman is an art history student who has to do an essay “on someone contemporary.” She asks about Hattie’s influences, to which the older woman replies, “I don’t have any influences.”

The only significant influence Hattie has is her daughter, one of the three shades she imagines seeing at the beach. Her daughter, along with two other girls, died when a “rogue current” dragged her out to sea: this is the event that Hattie has simultaneously been running from and been unable to evade ever since. All well and good, and a perfectly crafted example of a rather melancholy domestic tale.

And yet.

Hattie lives near a beach by the city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and the opening sentence of the story makes reference to a salt marsh. These details imply that the beach in question is Aramoana Beach, near Otago harbour in New Zealand. Aramoana Beach is the site of a 1990 massacre of thirteen people by a lone gunman, the most egregious instance of gun violence in New Zealand’s history. “I did not want to write about the massacre itself,” Petersen says, “so I made a parallel narrative, as my own act of memorial.”

It is coincidental that I read the interview with Petersen prior to reading her story. But how does a knowledge of Aramoana Beach’s history change the effect of the story, if at all? How would one react to the melancholy aspect of the tale if one thought it had no real world resonance? Does the knowledge of the 1990 massacre lend Hattie’s story additional gravitas? Does it tug at a reader differently? In Gardner’s terms, Petersen describes the setting of the massacre without ever mentioning the massacre. The story stands on its own. Armed with the background knowledge of what the story’s setting implies, how does that change a reader’s experience of it? Since it is impossible to erase the knowledge of what the setting implies, it is impossible for me to answer these questions. I would be interested to find out, however.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 29: “The Nature of Pure Evil” by Zsuzsi Gartner

May 29, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From All the Anxious Girls on Earth

Sometimes, stories take on extra resonance in retrospect. I first read “The Nature of Pure Evil” in 1999, when the now-defunct Key Porter Books released All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Zsuzsi Gartner’s debut story collection. In the wake of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nomination for her follow-up, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Penguin Canada has re-released All the Anxious Girls, allowing me to reacquaint myself with the story of Hedy, who calls in fake bomb threats to Vancouver businesses as a kind of sublimated revenge after her partner of seven years, Stanley, abandons her in a spectacular fashion.

When the story first appeared, 9/11 had yet to occur, although terrorists had made one attempt at bombing the World Trade Center, in 1993, and in 1995 Timothy McVeigh had successfully bombed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. This latter incident, especially, brought the notion of domestic terrorism to the forefront of North American consciousness. Nevertheless, there is a different sense of unease that pervades a reading of Gartner’s story in a post-9/11 environment. The story unfolds as a kind of philosophical deconstruction of evil in modern society, and the questions it asks – What is evil? How do we identify it? Is it absolute, or is it relative? – are urgent, particularly given the explicitly religious context in which they are positioned.

The first reference to religion occurs in the story’s opening paragraph, which sees Hedy reaching for the phone to call in a bomb threat to the TD Tower across from her office. This is not the first such threat she has made: we are told that she has done something similar on at least three prior occasions. This time, she imagines standing at the window of her building and watching the occupants of the TD Tower flee. “It’s a disruption of commerce, nothing more,” she thinks, likening herself to Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple. Hedy is not devout – her knowledge of Jesus comes not from the Bible, but from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar – yet she imagines herself akin to Jesus on several occasions. After calling in a bomb threat to the Four Seasons hotel, she watches the people (including her ex, Stanley) milling about in the crowd and gets the impression they are enjoying themselves. “People had something to discuss while they waited at bus stops and SkyTrain stations,” she thinks. “They were talking to each other. By casting them out into the street, Hedy had done them all a favour. Like Jesus.”

The mentions of Jesus are counterpointed by imagery and metaphors evoking the Devil, either explicitly or less directly. After Stanley leaves her, Hedy’s work colleague, Brigit, takes her out for a meal with a group of women who spend much time bickering over the nature of evil. During the discussion, one of the women, “a practising family therapist,” tells a story about going to an open house in Ottawa and being disconcerted by one bedroom, the ceiling of which is painted black with a red pentagram on it. Mary Tan, a French immersion teacher, claims that the story makes the hair on her arms stand up, while Donna, “who was unbelievably thin despite her seven-month pregnancy” is somewhat less moved: “I find it really hard to believe they wouldn’t have painted the ceiling over before attempting to sell such a prime piece of real estate.”

The Devil rears his head again later, when one of the women refers to another as “the devil’s advocate”; prior to this Mary eyes her dessert lasciviously, saying, “It’s devilish, it’s evil, I love it.”

Here, evil is reduced to mere chatter, fodder for throwaway conversation over a dining table. For Donna, the pentagram on the ceiling does not represent anything more diabolical than a blot on an otherwise salable property. And it’s more than a bit ironic that the family therapist is the one to make the comment, “When you’ve come into contact with pure evil, there’s no mistaking it.” (Gartner is particularly good at piercing the pretensions of the modern grief industry by forcing them to abut more serious philosophical material.)

For her part, Brigit considers Stanley to be the embodiment of evil because of what he does to Hedy. “Whenever Hedy insisted Stanley had never been the slightest bit crazy, Brigit said, ‘Then he must be pure evil. There’s no other explanation for that kind of behaviour.’ ” Brigit rightly identifies a lack of remorse as one of the defining characteristics of psychopathy, a category she lumps Stanley into: “Hitler, Clifford Olson, David Koresh, those blond monsters in St. Catharines, all anonymous albino hitmen everywhere … and Stanley.” She may indeed be correct. The notion of “pure evil” may be a chimera, but where remorselessness is concerned, the difference between Paul Bernardo and Stanley may be one of degree, not kind.

However, Hedy frustrates Brigit by refusing to condemn Stanley, and does not give in to despair or anger. She acts out her feelings of aggression by calling in her fake bomb threats, which is difficult to accept, even if she and the women at the restaurant tend to view the act as a victimless crime. Nevertheless, Hedy is presented as being at least close to happy: as she moves through the lobby of her office building on the way to a pay phone to make her next call, she is described as feeling “positively grand.” Brigit presents Hedy with a magazine article about a psychiatrist “who thinks happiness should be classified as a mental condition – because it’s a highly abnormal state of being.” Where, we are led to ponder, does that leave Hedy, who feels completely justified and at peace with herself and her actions? “Didn’t Jesus say, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Hedy thinks. “Everyone knows that from their elementary school catechism. And Hedy, well, she is without sin. She is the lamb.”

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 28: “Valley Echo” by D.W. Wilson

May 28, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

From Once You Break a Knuckle

In his Quill & Quire review of Matt Lennox’s novel, The Carpenter, Alex Good wrote, “WorkLit is GuyLit, the other side of ChickLit. WorkLit is also Prole­Lit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable: demanding, dangerous, and poorly paid.” D.W. Wilson writes WorkLit, which is also GuyLit, which is also ProleLit. Wilson’s characters work with their hands, they drink and curse and fight, but they also yearn in a way that admits a kind of vulnerability that often goes overlooked in commentary about this kind of macho, tough-guy fiction.

The central character in “Valley Echo” is called Winch. His proper name is Winston, so named by his mother “because it evoked hints of rubbled London and because she remembered her old man, a gunned-down naval aviator who she eventually discovered had raped her mother.” From the start, Winch is inextricably associated with violence. His nickname results from his father’s brainstorm as he builds a tree fort for his son: “Conner and the boy fashioned a pulley system around the tree’s branches, and as his son helped him heave on a rope to hoist the base, the nickname came to him: Winch.” Wilson’s story circles around the relationship between Winch and his father, Conner, and touches uncomfortably on themes of violence and sexual jealousy.

If Winch’s nickname refers specifically to the device used to haul wood for building the tree fort, it also refers to the Winchester rifle owned by Conner’s buddy, Sampson, a rifle that is used in an act of aggression briefly and elliptically glimpsed by Winch from a boat on the water, with his father and Sampson facing off on the shore: “Both men had changed positions: his dad had his back to the water now, shoulders rolled down and head hunched and fists at his side. Sampson had the .308 levelled at his dad’s chest. From that range it’d blow a man’s heart clear out.” Although the specific nature of the dispute between Conner and Sampson remains obscure, it is certainly not accidental that Wilson indicates the rifle fired at close range could blow a man’s heart out. It is finally the heart that these men respond most strongly to.

“Valley Echo” is all about the tensions that erupt around masculine relationships: fathers and sons, friends and rivals. The story’s central conflict involves sexual jealousy between Conner and Winch over Miss Hawk, Winch’s high school shop teacher, with whom Conner has previously had an affair. Much of the masculine code in the story involves proclaiming oneself in protection of, or in opposition to, women: Winch stands up for a girl he is seeing when she is threatened by a punk at the local hot springs, and he asserts himself in the face of his father’s antipathetic reaction to his teacher. Winch punches Conner when the latter insults Miss Hawk, an action that results in a violent response from the older man: “His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch batted an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.”

Conner knows only violence as a reaction to a situation of conflict, although Winch’s grandfather manages to defuse the situation:

His gramps appeared at the front porch, barked: put him down. Winch stared at his dad whose fist gyrated in the air and whose forearm pinned him against the tree.

–Nup, his dad said, and lowered him. The fist relaxed, unfurled. He brushed Winch’s shoulder, as if to remove dirt. –I won’t be that guy.

In many ways, Conner’s entire trajectory in the story involves an attempt not to “be that guy”; his great realization is that he was never as good a father to Winch as Winch’s gramps was. “Muh dad was yer dad,” Conner says to his son. “I didn’t do as good as him. He got it right or sompthen.”

Wilson’s characters are constantly struggling against their situation in an attempt to get it right. The final image in the story has Winch imagining himself breaking free of the shackles that bind him to the ground and taking off “in a contraption he’d hand-built to carry him from the earth.” It is this strong desire for transcendence that elevates the characters from their circumstances and provides them their greatest strength and dignity.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 26: “Hunting in Spanish” by Yasuko Thanh

May 26, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From Floating Like the Dead

Yasuko Thanh’s pervading theme in Floating Like the Dead is displacement. Whether she is writing about a transplanted Parisian running a resort in Honduras, a nineteen-year-old housekeeper on a farm in 1960s Germany contemplating a flight to America with her Vietnamese lover, or – in the collection’s Journey Prize–winning title story – a group of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century interred in a British Columbia leper colony, Thanh’s subjects are all searching for belonging, a home, or love. The sense of being outsiders or misfits, of not fitting into the accepted mainstream of whatever society they find themselves in, by design or otherwise, is a motivating factor for many of Thanh’s characters.

The woman at the centre of “Hunting in Spanish” is an idealist who arrived in Mexico with dreams of working at an orphanage, but soon found herself in the village of Zipolite, where she ekes out an existence selling opium with her sort-of boyfriend, Chinchu. The woman’s status as an outsider is established early in the story: the locals at the market have taken to calling her güera, meaning “fair-haired one.” The woman’s hair, we are told, is dark; the appellation is clearly designed to indicate her otherness. “[S]he’ll never be Mazatec,” the woman thinks at one point. “Not even Mexican. Güera. She would always be the güera, even when no one says the word.”

An immigrant herself, the woman nevertheless feels removed from the tourists for whom “Mexico is a photo opportunity, there for their viewing pleasure.” They buy picture postcards featuring images “of crumbling ruins and colonial buildings in elegant decay, mariachi bands and fire eaters, barefoot children and Zapatistas toting machine guns.” One American tourist who thinks he is being extraordinarily benevolent by purchasing a bottle of beer for a Mexican construction worker fails to recognize the way in which the object of his largesse mockingly reacts to him.

If the woman feels estranged from the other outsiders in Zipolite, however, she feels no closer to the locals, in part because she does not speak their language. “[E]ven if they weren’t living in Spanish, hating in Spanish, or yelling this way at their dogs, the way they live would still feel foreign to her.”

Part of the woman’s discomfort arises from the strength of her feelings for Chinchu, feelings she is not sure are reciprocated. They joke about marriage but have an open relationship, and he frequently consorts with other women. The protagonist’s lack of fluency in the Spanish language is at once a comfort and a hindrance to her:

She likes that Spanish sets the rules of engagement, that their arguments are curbed by her simple vocabulary. She doesn’t have the words to tell him “I love you”; they don’t exist for her in Spanish. Yet they can dance the salsa as if connected at the hip, breezing through drunken tourists, unaffected by obstacles. And so they continue on the way they always have.

Her dissatisfaction manifests itself in a desire to strike out and explore other avenues, other experiences. This leads her to embark on a deer hunting trip with Dashon, the man who grows the poppies that produce the opium she and Chinchu sell. It also leads her to pick up a stranger in a bar, who takes her back to his cabaña and assaults her. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is startling: in the former, the woman surprises herself by taking control and shooting a deer; in the latter, it is she who is subjected to a vicious act of violence. The “moment of exhilaration” that accompanies firing the hunting rifle cedes to a feeling of numbness as the realization of what she has done sets in: “[S]uddenly she wonders what the deer’s ankle might feel like in her hand – slender, dying – but she can’t do it. She can’t move. Her body is frozen against the tree’s trunk and her hands are clenched into fists. She begins shaking.”

The violence in the story’s second half is shocking, but not entirely unexpected. There are numerous references throughout the story to the waves on the ocean; in the Zapotec dialect, Zipolite means “beach of the dead,” so called because of the water’s dangerous undertow. Moreover, the neighbourhood the woman lives in with Chinchu is called Roca Blanca, “the white rock,” a reference to an offshore rock formation that bird guano has turned white. These details, coupled with the general feeling of eeriness the woman succumbs to as a result of her marginal existence in a culture she fails to entirely understand, lend the story a foreboding aspect that subtly prefigures the violence to come.

In the end, it is her own feeling of exoticism that drives the woman to explore dangerous aspects of the local life, with predictably unsettling results. She is held at a distance by the language barrier, but also by a barrier in understanding that exists between her and her “Aztec god” of a lover. “I have to get out of here,” she tells Chinchu at one point, to which he responds in typically cavalier fashion: “It’s all the same party.” This throwaway line results in the woman’s instant of heartrending epiphany:

In that moment she comprehends just how little they understand each other. What would he say if she told him she’d hoped the trip to the mountains would provide her with something to hold on to? That when she shot the deer, she had felt nothing inside at all? What would he say if she told him that her luck never did stand up to close examination? But somehow she doesn’t have the words.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 23: “Buying Lenin” by Miroslav Penkov

May 23, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From East of the West

“There was no good reason for me to be in America.” This thought, placed in the mouth of the Bulgarian expat, twentysomething first-person narrator of Miroslav Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin,” helps immediately to set up the central conflict: between the new world and the old; between a young man, who has fled his home in Eastern Europe for the promise of a new life in the United States, and the young man’s grandfather, a staunch adherent to the Communist philosophy and heritage that suffered a mortal wound when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The young man leaves home, not because he is oppressed or starving – “at least not in the corporeal sense” – but because he carries in his blood “the rabies of the West.”

In his grandfather’s eyes, this disease is inextricably entangled with capitalism. And he has good reason to think this: when the narrator is practicing English prior to his move, the phrase he repeats over and over is “remember the money.” “Phrases like this, I’d heard, helped you to break your tongue.”

Penkov wrings much comedy out of the young man’s attempts to acclimatize himself to idiomatic English once he has arrived in Arkansas: “Those of us for whom English was a second language were instructed what to expect when it was fixin’ to rain. What ‘yonder’ meant, and how it was ‘a bummer’ to be there ‘yonder’ with no umbrella and it ‘fixin’ to rain.’ ” In America, the words the narrator studied back home fail to make sense in combination: “What was a hotpocket? I wondered. Why was my roommate so excited to see two girls across the hallway making out? What were they making out?”

But there is additional comedy in the distance between American culture and the narrator’s cultural touchstones. When the narrator arrives in the States, he is greeted by two men and a woman, who “were from some organization that cared a whole lot for international students.” The nature of this organization quickly becomes apparent:

“Welcome to America,” they said in one warm, friendly voice, and their honest faces beamed. In the car they gave me a Bible.

“Do you know what this is?” the girl bellowed slowly.

“No,” I said. She seemed genuinely pleased.

“These are the deeds of our Savior. The word of our Lord.”

“Oh, Lenin’s collected works,” I said. “Which volume?”

As far as the narrator’s grandfather is concerned, Lenin’s collected works are indeed the word of the Lord, or at least, the lord of his universe. He credits Communism with saving his life during the Second World War; with introducing him to his wife, at whose grave he attends each day since she died to read aloud to her from Lenin’s writing; and for providing him with a raison d’être. When the Eastern Bloc begins to fracture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the grandfather feels bereft because he has lost the two things that gave his life meaning and purpose: his wife and the Communist Party. Indeed, he is convinced that it was the fall of Communism that killed his wife: ” ‘Her cancer was a consequence of the grave disappointments of her pure and idealistic heart,’ Grandpa would explain. ‘She could not watch her dreams being trampled on so she did the only possible thing an honest woman could do – she died.”

At university in the States, the narrator learns about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and is amazed: “My God was there such a thing? A collective unconscious? If so, I wanted in. I longed to be a part of it; connected, to dream the dreams of other people, others to dream my dreams. I went to sleep hoping to dream vivid, transcendental symbols.” This, of course, is quite close to a definition of what Communism represents for his grandfather, although the narrator would doubtless be hard pressed to see it that way. He would be more likely to associate Communism with the crawfish he and his grandfather used to catch when the narrator was a boy:

Grandpa would give me a stick and a bag. Hundreds of twitching crawfish at our feet: poke their pincers with the stick, and they pinch as hard as they can. I learned to lift them, then shake them off into the bag. One by one you collect.

“They are easy prey,” Grandpa would say. “You catch one, but the others don’t run away. The others don’t even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea.”

This is the flip side of communal idealism: the notion that people who long so desperately for a community can easily be manipulated to follow the crowd. “Give us the child for eight years,” Lenin wrote, “and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”

Whatever distance may exist between the narrator’s ideals and those of his grandfather, it is nevertheless obvious that the two men love each other, and feel the physical gulf between them acutely. “Grandpa, there is so much water between us,” the narrator says on the phone at one point. To which his grandfather responds, “But blood, I hope, is thicker than the ocean.”

In the end, the narrator attempts to extend an olive branch to his grandfather by buying what someone on eBay is advertising as the body of Vladimir Lenin. “This was a scam, of course,” the narrator thinks. “But what wasn’t? I clicked Buy It Now, completed the transaction. Congratulations, Communist-Dupe_1944, the confirmation read. You bought Lenin.” The comedy here is mixed with melancholy: the year 1944 is the year the narrator’s grandfather claims he hid from the Fascists in a tiny, cramped dugout along with fifteen other people, before finally emerging to find that the Communists had been victorious. And of course there is much irony in the idea of the corpse of Lenin being purchased via one of capitalism’s most Platonic manifestations: an Internet auction site.

The final stages of the story, sentimental though they may be, represent a kind of detente between the two opposing viewpoints as embodied by the narrator and his grandfather. In the end, blood does prove thicker than the ocean, and ideologies prove malleable in the face of the enduring need for human connection and understanding.

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