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.
Song of Kosovo. Chris Gudgeon; $29.95 cloth 978-0-86492-679-1, 320 pp., Goose Lane Editions
When people think of war in the context of CanLit, it is typically the First World War that comes to mind. But lately, a group of writers has been finding inspiration in the Bosnian war of the 1990s and the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Jim Bartley’s Drina Bridge, and Lesleyanne Ryan’s Braco have all mined the area and its turbulent recent history for material. Significantly, however, each of these authors has chosen to treat their subject in a style that is more or less naturalistic; realism and a strict fidelity to the historical record are the orders of the day.
Chris Gudgeon takes a different approach in his galloping, galumphing novel about the toll that the Milosovic regime, and NATO’s response to it, takes on one family. While Gudgeon does not entirely disavow naturalism, he marries it to an approach that is, in part, frankly absurdist, as befits a place with such a tumultuous history and mythology.
In Gudgeon’s conception, the two are never very far removed. Myth informs Serbia’s history as directly as it informs the experience of the novel’s protagonist, Zavida Zankovic, a young Serbian man who exists by dealing drugs and other contraband on the black market before being abducted and forced into military service.
Zavida is frequently visited by the ghost of Milos Obilic, a warrior who fought in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, “the pivotal, albeit highly mythologized, moment of Serbian history.” After slaying the Ottoman leader, Sultan Murad I, on the field of battle, Obilic himself was killed, though as Gudgeon recounts it, he was not merely decapitated: “They cut Obilic’s body to ribbons, fed most of him to the dogs, and paraded his head and massive genitals on top of spiked standards.” Describing Obilic’s importance to Serbia, Zavida puts it this way: “Everyone’s shit stinks after three days, as we Serbs say, and Obilic’s shit is the grandest, warmest, vilest pile of crap of all.”
Zavida’s insistence on the centrality of myth to the Serbian experience extends to his description of his pious mother, whom he compares to the Kosovo Maiden, “famous for wandering the battlefields of Kosovo in search of her betrothed.” The Kosovo Maiden, Zavida avers, is “a fixture in the popular imagination … rivalled only perhaps by the velvet Christ and those poker-playing dogs.”
Humour is an antidote to the degradation and violence that the Serbian people are heir to, first at the hands of Milosovic, then at the mercy of NATO’s bombs. “To the madness that is Serbia!” is a toast that is invoked in a tavern before the first bombs begin to fall. During the bombing, as NATO B-52s alternate their lethal payloads with packages of CDs and propaganda leaflets, Zavida asserts, “I’m really beginning to like this war.” At another point, the planes drop bags of condoms printed with the word “democracy”: “I handed the package to Tristina. ‘Bill Clinton sends his regards.’” The humour Zavida and his fellow Serbs engage in is frequently tinged with the kind of virile machismo that runs through the culture. “The Americans would never attack,” one line of reasoning goes. “Their President, after all, liked jazz music and fornication. He was practically a Serb.”
But the humour and mythology that serve as coping mechanisms are ultimately ineffective at keeping the violence of history at bay, and Gudgeon is adept at showing the extent to which this violence is not only quotidian, but also bears the qualities of rank absurdism. In one instance, a group of men continue drinking in a tavern as the bombs fall, only gradually coming to realize that one of their number has had the top of his head sheared off by a piece of shrapnel.
“History is a blanket we wrap ourselves in,” Zavida’s father says at one point. “It warms us at night but offers no real protection against bullets or fear.” The fear of constant, random violence is an important motivating factor in the Serbian psyche, Gudgeon shows; actions that may on the surface appear utterly irrational carry a strange kind of logic in a world that has abandoned all reason or predictability. Zavida’s father, an alchemist who quite clearly suffers from bipolar disorder, creates a public spectacle when he builds a bonfire out of a collection of books and proceeds to immolate them and, potentially, himself as well. In a place so beaten down by the depredations of history, the impulse to eradicate the historical record in a purgative fire seems almost understandable.
“How ‘true’ is this story?” Gudgeon asks in the novel’s opening pages. “That is, what elements of this story embrace a verifiable, measurable, and shared reality, and what elements are fabrications, the work of a semi-deranged mind, a prankster, a literary poseur?” His answer, ultimately, is that it doesn’t matter. What the author has created is not a work of documentary realism, but rather a collection of sense impressions of a country and a people undergoing catastrophic suffering. But Song of Kosovo is not a nihilistic book. By rejecting the dictates of strict reportage and producing instead an impressionistic work that combines history, myth, and legend, Gudgeon has written something that cleaves closer to emotional reality than naturalism ever could. The novel is tough, mordantly funny, but, above all, honest.
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.
Longtime readers of TSR will be familiar with my affinity for short fiction, and my oft-repeated contention that Canada ranks as one of the most fertile literary fields for this particular genre. Yet, despite boasting a wealth of talent, the reading public seems to shy away from short fiction for reasons that continue to elude me.
In a post for the cultural website Lemon Hound early last fall, I bemoaned the lack of attention stories and collections of short fiction receive in this country:
[There exists] a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form. Beyond those two, a partial list of top-rank Canadian short-story writers past and present should be enough to make most readers sit up and take notice: Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Bill Gaston, Sharon English, Andrew Hood, Matthew Shaw, Carol Windley, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Heighton, Donald Ward, Gloria Sawai, Alexander MacLeod, Michael Christie, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith. Some of these writers alternate between short fiction and novels, but the strength of their shorter works is comparable to the best of what is being produced anywhere in the world.
Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worst little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register.
Although this general disdain is frustrating, I’ve been trying to do my bit to spotlight the form, via the annual 31 Days of Stories on this site, and in writing for the National Post, Quill & Quire, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. (When I was asked to choose my favourite books from 2012 for Quill, three-fifths of them were short-story collections.)
So when Mark Medley, the Books editor at the National Post, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in undertaking a monthly column dedicated to Canadian short fiction, it took me all of about five seconds to say yes.
Called “Shortcuts,” the column debuts today on the Post‘s Afterword blog. It features a double review of two veterans of the CanLit trenches: Leon Rooke and Seán Virgo. Here’s a taste of the inaugural column:
Over the course of a writing career spanning the last four-and-a-half decades, and employing influences that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance art to the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Leon Rooke has determinedly been crafting one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of work in this country. If the house of CanLit has many mansions, Rooke’s is the one with the gargoyles on the turret.
This devotion to a ruggedly individual literary vision (it should come as no surprise that Rooke was born and raised in the United States – Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to be precise) results in writing that will, depending upon one’s temperament and pioneer spirit, appear bracingly original or frustratingly oblique. In any event, it is probably not incorrect to refer to Rooke’s fiction as an acquired taste. Once the taste has been acquired, however, devotees have learned to relish it, hungrily devouring each new work – and they run the gamut from novellas to poems to stage and radio plays – if for no other reason than to discover what unexpected combination of flavours the author will attempt to pull off next.
I’m very grateful to Mark and the Post for providing the opportunity to shine a light on short fiction in Canada, and am looking forward to what is sure to be provocative, challenging, and entertaining reading in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me.
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.
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.
Tom Waits’s voice was once characterized as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell. This description resonates in an early set piece from Husk, in which the narrator, newly resurrected from the dead, tries to regain control of his vocal chords. The result, we are told, resembles “the sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs.” The moment is typical of author Corey Redekop’s approach in his second novel: it’s utterly macabre, yet simultaneously flat-out hilarious. “There’s a point where everything becomes very funny,” Redekop avers.
Certainly, Husk is not your stereotypical zombie story. First of all, it’s narrated in the first person by a protagonist named Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies a horrible death in the washroom of a moving bus, only to wake up on the slab mid-autopsy. (Restraint is not a quality Redekop indulges in this novel. Sheldon’s death scene, for instance, rivals the suppository sequence from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its gleeful disgust factor.) But then, Redekop explains, he had no intention of writing a typical zombie novel. “I’ve read a couple of books that have zombies as their protagonists,” he says, “but they were honestly all along the lines of The Walking Dead, so they’re still shambling hordes and somehow this one still has intelligence, but they’re still out there eating people, and they can’t really talk. Which is fine: it’s the classic standard for a reason. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me, it’s just that I don’t think I can write that kind of story.”
Indeed, Husk took several different directions on the road to being written. “I had an idea for a zombie detective novel,” says Redekop, “which I wanted to set in a 1950s, Raymond Chandleresque alternate reality. But I could not get the voice right, and I knew I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice.” He eventually abandoned the detective story conceit, although he did retain one element of that manuscript: “The truth is: I liked my first sentence.”
The opening sentence of Husk – “I miss breathing” – sets the tone for what follows. It also nods in the direction of the book’s oddly (for a zombie novel) ruminative quality. But none of what follows was planned in advance, the author claims. “I honestly just decided to follow the character. I didn’t have a preset plan, I didn’t know where the plot was going to go. A lot of it came as a complete surprise to me.”
The surprises included the fact that Sheldon Funk is gay. “I didn’t know he was gay until he killed his lover,” Redekop says matter-of-factly.
The character’s name was less of a surprise, and alludes to the author’s own Mennonite background (Redekop says of Husk, “It’s A Complicated Kindness of zombie novels”). “I’m Mennonite, and I needed a last name. I was playing with the last name of Thiessen, but it just didn’t work right. But then I came across Funk, which is actually a very traditional Mennonite name, and I just thought it really worked for the character.” Redekop adds with a laugh, “I was just trying to please my Mennonite readers.”
Redekop professes fidelity to the classic zombie mythos, and in particular credits the influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. “It was such a milestone,” he says, “and so out of left field. You think it’s going to be a cheap, $10,000 grindhouse film, and then you leave ninety minutes later shaken to your core because he tapped into something incredibly primal.” But despite this influence, Redekop insists that with Husk, he wanted to do something different. “I knew that wherever it was going, I didn’t want it to become a sort of zombie apocalypse novel. It’s not that that’s not interesting, it’s just been done very, very well, and I didn’t want to retell a story that’s already been told.”
One thing Redekop was not worried about was being slotted into a specific genre category. “I’ve been a librarian and I realize you need to categorize things.” That said, it is apparent after a very few pages that Husk is not easily categorizable. “I’ve seen the book in one store classified in the horror section,” Redekop says, “and I don’t think that’s actually accurate. It’s got gore, but I think there’s only one or two scenes that might come across as truly disturbing, and even then I don’t know if I did them all that well. … The book has horror elements, it has comedy elements, and if you had to classify it, you’re certainly going to mention zombies or the undead, because that’s going to attract a certain reader. The only risk is will other people not read it because of that? But that’s valid for every single book out there.”
While Husk may not cleave to the stuffy, middlebrow tastefulness that typifies so much CanLit, Redekop does not feel that its content, or its idiosyncratic approach, places it outside the pantheon, which is in fact much more heterogeneous than many people seem willing to acknowledge. “I know people who have said, ‘I don’t read Canadian literature. I just hate it.’ Well, okay: you’ve obviously never read anything beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.”
Still, the author is not so disingenuous as to assume that all readers will be attracted to his undead character study. As part of his pre-publication publicity endeavours, Redekop created a book trailer that perfectly captures the novel’s darkly comical, yet vaguely unnerving nature.
“I was at my cabin with my extended family and we had a bunch of nieces and nephews there, all twelve and under; they’re all kids, so they’re all loud and screaming all the time. They love to draw, so I had the idea that maybe they could draw me some pictures and maybe I could do something with them.” The “something” Redekop came up with rates as one of the most inspired book trailers of the year. “I wanted to do something that captured how weird the book was, the offbeat nature of it,” he says.
“I think there’s something very wrong about the book. If you get the trailer, you’ll like the book. If you don’t get the trailer, you’re not going to like the book.”
You’ve been warned.
“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”
The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”
The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.
Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”
At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”
The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”
Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”
Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”
Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”
Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”
Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”
He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”
“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.
“Books are here to stay.”
Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.
She was the first “nice” girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her exceedingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him – he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there – it was as casual a thing to her as the tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.
– The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald