A tweet from August C. Bourré (@FishSauce) earlier today sent me on a hunt for the review I wrote of Warren Ellis’s debut novel, Crooked Little Vein, which was one of the pieces that got lost when I accidentally overwrote TSR’s files back in 2009. The book is nasty fun, and I’m looking forward to reading Ellis’s new novel, Gun Machine, if I ever manage to get a spare weekend.
The following review was originally published on January 2, 2008.
Crooked Little Vein. Warren Ellis; $27.95 cloth 978-0-06-072393-4, 280 pp., William Morrow
That is the opening line of Crooked Little Vein, the debut novel by acclaimed graphic novelist Warren Ellis. If that line in any way offends, repulses, or otherwise unnerves you, you’d be well advised to give this novel a very wide berth, because in the pantheon of outrageous perversity that unfolds over the following 280 pages, that’s about as effete and as tasteful as things get. If, however, you have a taste for the macabre – if you laughed out loud at the little dogs being inadvertently murdered in A Fish Called Wanda, or if you set aside American Psycho because it wasn’t edgy enough – this short novel, which reads like what would have resulted if Hieronymous Bosch had written The Da Vinci Code, might be for you.
The story – such as it is – centres on one Michael McGill, a luckless private investigator whose last case involved a group of men engaged in amorous relations with a flock of ostriches. McGill is hired by the U.S. President’s chief of staff to track down a book, an alternate Constitution complete with twenty-three “Invisible Amendments,” which “is reputedly bound in the skin of the extraterrestrial entity that plagued Benjamin Franklin’s ass over six nights in Paris during his European travels,” and “is weighted with meteor fragments. The design is such that the sound of the book being opened onto a table has infrasonic content, too low for human hearing. The book briefly vibrates at eighteen hertz, which is the resonant frequency of the human eyeball.”
Still with me?
Not that this admittedly outlandish premise matters much, really. Crooked Little Vein is nominally a hard-boiled detective story modelled on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but the mystery story is just an excuse for Ellis to provide us with an increasingly deranged series of set-pieces featuring the denizens of the “American cultural underworld” that McGill encounters on his trek to find the missing volume. What follows is a kind of picaresque on acid involving saline-infused testicles, philosophical serial killers, and a cocaine-addled millionaire who takes advice from a talking teddy bear. Ellis is clearly operating in the Jerry Stahl mode of literary provocation, and he takes evident glee in dreaming up his outrageous and polymorphously perverse scenarios.
What is surprising is not the book’s compulsivity: this is a novel that dares you to look away, to stop reading, and it comes out of the gate at full speed. If you make it past the first chapter, you’re likely not going to stop, and the spiralling depravity of events ensures that a willing reader is propelled forward on an ever-increasing current of narrative energy.
No, what is surprising is that there is a moral centre to the story; the author actually manages to score a number of rhetorical points while constantly upping the gross-out ante. Ellis is interested in what defines the cultural mainstream of our society as against what exists at the margins. In a world where serial killers are more popular than rock stars in the mass psyche and large-scale Internet sex sites catering to every kind of fetish or paraphilia are patronized by soccer moms and librarians, is it even possible to speak of margins any more? If so, where are they, and to what extremes does a person have to go (or sink) to find them?
These are pressing questions, and Ellis deals with them head on. He throws an unforgiving, incandescent light on a society that has passed – almost without our realizing it – through the looking glass. Even in a cultural landscape that resembles a funhouse mirror, there are moral lines to be drawn, and Ellis is adept at locating them, while always remaining non-judgmental of those outsiders who enjoy more alternative or esoteric, yet essentially harmless, pursuits.
There is fun to be had here, for sure, but beyond and beneath the fun there is also a serious artist asking some probing questions about the way our culture is constructed in the early years of the 21st century. Crooked Little Vein could never be mistaken for great literature, but as a quick, dirty, entertaining diversion it is to be recommended. That it also asks some provocative questions is just the icing on Ellis’s perverse little cake.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Lawrence Block; $16.50 paper 978-0-316-12731-8, 340 pp., Mulholland Books
Getting Off. Lawrence Block; $17.95 paper 978-0-85768-582-7, 336 pp., Hard Case Crime
In any survey of American hard-boiled crime fiction, certain names naturally stand out. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, of course. James M. Cain. Jim Thompson. James Ellroy. Lawrence Block does not have quite the same literary cachet, although as a craftsperson, he can write circles around most of the hacks in the business. But for my money, Block’s series of novels featuring former New York City cop, unlicensed private investigator, and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder are among the best – and most consistently strong – in the genre. They are undeniably dark books – they make the NYC of Law & Order look like a playground – and tinged with a plaintive melancholy that gets more and more pronounced as the series progresses.
And these are inescapably series novels: they are best read in order, and as a piece. Characters recur, disappear and reappear over the course of several books, and the shadow of Scudder’s memory grows longer and more nuanced with each successive entry.
That said, Block’s latest Scudder mystery, 2011′s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is something of an outlier, in that it operates more as a standalone than certain other series installments and, although it is chronological in order, it flashes back to an earlier period in Scudder’s life, just after he quit drinking.
To effect this, Block employs a framing strategy that opens with the now long-sober Scudder sitting in a bar chatting with his friend (and series regular) Mick Ballou. (Though Scudder is sober, the milieu in which he operates is saturated with booze; he still frequents his old stomping grounds to meet contacts and glean information, although he restricts his intake to club soda and coffee.) Their discussion turns reflective, and Scudder begins to reminisce about a kid he knew in school, Jack Ellery. Scudder and Ellery had grown up together in the Bronx, but their paths diverged in later years, the former becoming an NYC cop and the latter turning to a life of petty crime. The first of four times Scudder encounters Ellery as an adult is behind a one-way mirror; Ellery has been arrested for robbery and put in a line-up, but the cops are forced to let him go when the witness flubs the ID. The last time Scudder sees Ellery, his erstwhile schoolmate is on a slab in the morgue.
Scudder had run into Ellery at an AA meeting, after which Ellery had confided that he was having difficulty with the program’s ninth step, making amends to those he had wronged. As a not-terribly-successful career criminal, Ellery had run afoul of numerous people, at least one of whom still held a grudge: the third time Scudder and Ellery encounter each other, the latter’s face has been beaten to a pulp.
After Ellery’s death, his sponsor, Greg Stillman, approaches Scudder and asks for help. Stillman is a self-confessed “Step Nazi” – a sponsor who demands rigid adherence to the steps toward recovery – and is wracked with guilt over the thought that Ellery was killed while trying to make amends to someone in his past. The list Ellery compiled of the people he had wronged (in accordance with Step Eight of the twelve) has five names on it: these become the five principal suspects in his demise.
Scudder’s investigation takes him on a tour of some of the seedier sections of New York, and the flashback method of storytelling allows Block to draw contrasts between the city as it was in the 1980s and the way it is now. (One of the great joys of the Matthew Scudder books is watching the city grow and evolve alongside the protagonist. Hell’s Kitchen becomes Clinton, but the name change doesn’t prove to be the prophylactic against crime city planners might have hoped for.) The part of New York that Scudder frequents – its decrepit church basements and dive bars, its walk-ups and cop shops – has always been as much of a character as any of the humans in Block’s novels; the author and his detective inhabit a locale that lives and breathes and seethes and changes. The Scudder novels may not be approved by the New York City tourist board, but they provide a provocative and uneasy glimpse into the dark side of the city that never sleeps.
One of the dangers of the series has always been that Scudder’s sobriety teeters on the edge of becoming formulaic, and there are moments in A Drop of the Hard Stuff when the narrative tilts over that edge. Writers as diverse as Nick Tosches and James Frey have pointed out that by insisting on attendance at a minimum of one meeting per day in the first year sober, encouraging recovering alcoholics to admit powerlessness over their disease and devote themselves to the program in perpetuity, AA merely replaces one addiction with another. And like any addiction, on one level, the repetition of meetings, confessions, handing out chips, and reflection about the difficulties of staying sober can become somewhat monotonous. A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place toward the end of Scudder’s first year without drink, and Block does a good job of dramatizing the temptations to stray from the path of sobriety, and the dangers involved in giving in. But over the course of more than 300 pages, the endless cycle of meetings does become a bit wearisome.
Block is a staggeringly prolific author who has been writing the Scudder series since 1975. In 1994, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. It would be unsurprising if, after all that time and all those books, he didn’t begin to repeat himself, even occasionally. Despite A Drop of the Hard Stuff‘s plot, which takes a spare whodunnit formula and turns it inside out, and an ending that subverts the reader’s expectations quite neatly, there is the sense that much of this territory has been trod in earlier series installments. Newcomers to the series might enjoy the book more as a standalone introduction, though those of us who have missed Scudder are likely glad just to have him back, if not at the very top of his game.
In any event, A Drop of the Hard Stuff stands head and shoulders above Getting Off, the other novel Block published in 2011, this one under Hard Case Crime’s imprint of hard-boiled and pulp thrillers. Written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson and subtitled A Novel of Sex and Violence, Getting Off is deliberately, almost defiantly, in the pulp mode. The book chimes with the Scudder novel in numerous ways, many of them more noticeable if the two are read back-to-back. In both novels, characters use the overly twee phrase “di dah di dah di dah” as a kind of verbal placeholder. And both novels feature a central character checking names off a list.
In this case, the character was born Katherine Anne Tolliver, but has gone by so many different aliases in adulthood she has lost track of them all. Katherine has a pattern when it comes to men: she picks up anonymous strangers in bars, has sex with them, then kills them and moves on, often stealing whatever money her victim has in his wallet. She does this, we come to understand, as a means of expunging the memory of her father, who sexually abused her as a child and adolescent. Five men have managed to walk away from sexual encounters with her; when she realizes the psychic scars this leaves her with, she determines to track them down and finish the job.
If this premise is in any way offensive to a reader’s sensibilities, that reader is advised to give this novel a wide berth. Block plays with the pulp convention of the femme fatale, but pushes it into territory James M. Cain and Jim Thompson could never have dreamt of. There is an instance of phone sex coupled with necrophilia, and one of Katherine’s marks turns out to be a veteran of the Iraq war who was horribly injured by a roadside bomb while on duty. There is something almost commendable about Block’s willingness to push his scenario to its extreme outer reaches, but the sense of discomfort is heightened by the book’s pulp nature: the sensationalism in the novel is an end in itself, which renders the entire enterprise creepy and squirm-inducing at best.
This is particularly true for the sex, which is plentiful and explicit. It is not, however, particularly well handled. Erotica and horror are the two most difficult genres for an author to pull off, because if either is done badly, it becomes unintentionally funny. There is a lot of unintentional laughter in Getting Off, particularly with regard to Katherine’s phone conversations with Rita, a woman she encountered as a landlord during one of her brief stays, and has since developed an attraction to. Their dialogues, which involve everything from mutual masturbation to threesomes to butt plugs to sex with Mormons, are highly self-conscious and absurd, and almost succeed in stopping the book in its tracks.
On one hand, it’s hard not to admire Block’s willingness to wallow in the depths of the pulp mode, to begin with the tropes and conventions of the lurid paperbacks that used to be stocked on wire spin-racks in drugstores in the 1940s and ’50s, then to inject them with liberal doses of explicit sex and violence. (Anyone liable to slag Block for trying to cash in on the E.L. James-inspired clamour for all things naughty should note that Block’s novel appeared the year before Fifty Shades of Grey became a publishing phenomenon.) But the book is too bloated and the sex too ill-handled for it to appear as anything more than a minor work in the career of one of America’s best living crime novelists.
Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.
First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.
Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.
This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.
Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.
National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.
Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.
Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.
Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).
And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.
There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).
Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.
Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing
It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”
By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”
Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.
Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”
On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”
The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:
- The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
- Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
- The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.
“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.
In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.
My review of Nicole Dixon’s short-story collection, High-Water Mark, is online at the National Post‘s Afterword blog. The review has already come in for criticism on Twitter as a result of my invocation of what the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney feels is a hoary CanLit cliché.
– Jake(@VoxPopulist) December 14, 2012
Here’s the offending paragraph:
Dixon is uninterested in the kind of lyrical historical romance that was, for some time, the default CanLit setting. Her stories are abrasive and direct, marrying a fierce intelligence with a febrile style that refuses to shy away from profanity or explicit sex. There is a toughness to these stories that testifies to a refreshing honesty, a refusal on Dixon’s part to paper over the more nettlesome aspects of her material, opting rather to face it head-on in all its painful messiness. High-Water Mark is kitchen-sink realism filtered through a storm-tossed East Coast sensibility. And it is chock full of allusiveness and implication.
Twitter controversy aside, I thought Dixon’s book was a bit of alright.
In other news, Toronto-based poet Sachiko Murakami, this month’s writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto, asked me to choose a guest list for an imaginary literary holiday party. You can see my response, along with those of poets David McGimpsey and Alessandro Porco, on the Open Book site.
Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?
The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.
The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.
The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.
When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.
The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.
And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.
Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.