New review online: The Path to Ardroe by John Lent

August 3, 2012 by · 5 Comments 

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

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

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.

When the weight comes down

January 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The Weight. Andrew Vachss; $17.00 paper 978-0-307-74131-8, 264 pp., Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Andrew Vachss specializes in noir thrillers about honourable criminals who mete out what is colloquially known as “rough justice.” His most famous series character is Burke, an ex-con turned private investigator who, along with a motley crew of associates, tracked and punished rapists and child molesters. Vachss retired Burke in 2008, perhaps because the author himself grew weary of trafficking so close to the abyss. “I needed a guide to Hell,” Vachss is quoted as saying, “and an angel wouldn’t do.” Since closing out the Burke series, he has written a standalone novel called Haiku (2009) and a graphic novel called Heart Transplant (2010).

His latest standalone, The Weight, features Tim “Sugar” Caine, a 255-pound behemoth who returns home from a jewellery heist to find the cops waiting for him. Thinking they are onto the recent score, he accompanies them to the police station, where he is told that the victim of a violent rape has picked him out of a photo array. His only problem: to beat the rap, he’d have to admit to what he was really doing. The cops know the score, so they offer him a deal: give up his partners in the jewellery heist and walk, or face prison time for a rape he didn’t commit.

Sugar, like most Vachss anti-heroes, lives by a fairly rigid code of honour, so instead of rolling over on his crew, he takes the weight and is sent to jail on a five-year bit.

The early descriptions of prison life and the politics that go on behind bars are riveting, in particular because of the dispassion with which Sugar narrates them:

That’s why I never showed anyone my new shank. I know – I know now, I mean – that you never show a guy who might be a problem for you that you’ve got something for him. If he’s not bluffing, that won’t back him off, just make him bring something for himself next time. And if he was bluffing, showing him steel might just turn him serious. You can buy anything Inside. Even guys to do your work for you.

And Vachss has always been a dab hand at hard-boiled dialogue, especially between his criminal characters:

The first test was always Population. This time, it happened real quick. Some greasy little punk half my size says, “What they call you on the street, esé? In here, you got to pay to stay. Otherwise, what they be calling you is the other white meat, comprende?”

“Azúcar,” I said, smiling at him.

“What?”

“You asked me what people call me on the street, right? So I just told you … esé.”

Unfortunately, the phony rape beef and the scenes inside Rikers and Dannemora (known as “Little Siberia” due to its proximity to the Canadian border) only account for the novel’s set-up. Before long, Sugar is back on the street, where he tracks down Solly, the elderly crime boss who masterminded the jewellery heist. Solly sets Sugar up with a new identity and his cut from the robbery. However, one of the thieves from five years ago has vanished, and although the statute of limitations ran out for Sugar while he was in jail, the fact that other members of the crew switched states in the interim means they could still face prosecution should the missing man decide to roll over on them. Solly asks Sugar to travel to Florida, track down the missing crew member, and make sure he doesn’t squeal.

From there, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, involving Albie, one of Solly’s deceased associates; Albie’s widow, Rena (with whom Sugar becomes romantically entangled); a Lincoln that has to be moved back and forth between locations for reasons that remain utterly obscure; and a partners desk that conceals a little blue book Solly wants in his possession. Why does Solly want the book and what precisely was the relationship between him and Rena’s late husband? Even Sugar and Rena (who changes her name to Lynda over the course of the story) appear confused about the details and the reasons for doing the things they do.

Moreover, Sugar remains adamant in his desire to find the man who committed the rape he was sent up for and make him pay, but this aspect of the plot, so fascinating in the early going, appears more and more like a pallid MacGuffin, an inciting incident that was tantalizing at the outset, but becomes almost incidental over the long haul.

No mercy

December 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Fatale. Jean-Patrick Manchette, Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans.; $14.95 paper 978-1-59017-381-7, 98 pp., New York Review Books

The working title of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1977 roman noir was La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The invocation of Keats’s melancholy ballad is wholly appropriate for this story of a homicidal drifter who earns her keep by ingratiating herself with the wealthy denizens of whatever town she happens to alight in, then betraying and (frequently) murdering them. “I saw pale kings and princes too,” says Keats’s bereft and shivering knight, recalling a vision that came to him in a dream on the cold sedge where he has been abandoned. “Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!'” The deathly pallor of the poem’s warriors anticipates the mood and tenor of Manchette’s book, as does the merciless woman’s apparently preternatural ability to enthrall her victims. It would certainly appear that Roucart, the “potbellied and rubicund” hunter in Fatale‘s opening scene, is in thrall to the thirty- or thirty-five-year-old woman with “dark brown eyes and delicate features,” a “vague smile,” and teeth “which were small and even” – right up to the point at which she unloads a sixteen-gauge shotgun into his stomach.

The woman, who adopts the alias Aimée Joubert (we never learn her real name), flees the scene of the crime by train and takes up residence in the small town of Bléville, where she begins to work her way into the circle of élite citizenry, which includes a doctor, a realtor, and a pair of businessmen. We begin to understand that Aimée is repeating a cycle, the bloody end of which we witnessed in the scene with the hunter. Should there remain any doubt, Manchette allows us to spy on Aimée, alone in her rented room, musing to herself about the pattern of repetition her life entails: “Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”

Manchette plays with the convention of the venal, hyper-sexualized, noirish femme fatale; in the train on the way to Bléville, Aimée is pictured eating a choucroute, the juices of which “dripped from the edge of her mouth.” She proceeds to rub the banknotes she has secreted in her luggage over her naked body: “her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm.” This is only the first of many times sex and money will be conflated over the course of the novella. Aimée, we are told, is “almost exclusively interested” in the wealthy part of Bléville, the “dwelling place of the local bourgeoisie on the left bank of the river and well away from the port with its cafés overflowing with mussels and fries, with whores and seamen.” The pun in the final word is certainly not unintentional.

Even the name of the town is itself a reference to consumerist venality. The French word blé literally means “wheat,” but it is also a slang term for money. Thus, a translator’s note informs us, the name of the town could reasonably be rendered as “Doughville.”

Aimée’s plans to fleece the wealthy citizens of Bléville hinge on information provided by a slovenly outcast known as Baron Jules, an eccentric who is despised by the town’s upper crust and who stores a Weatherby Regency shotgun on a rack in his front hallway (Chekhov’s dramatic principle should be kept in mind here). The baron is a key character with regards to Manchette’s political agenda in the novel. The author, who considered crime fiction “the great moral literature of our time,” expressed an intention to dramatize the ways in which Marxism had been corrupted in French society. To that end, Bléville is depicted having two local newspapers, one of which “championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology.” The baron, by contrast, is referred to as “a sort of nihilist” by the real estate agent Lindquist: “He votes for that Trotskyite Krivine, you know.” One of Aimée’s first encounters with the baron involves him urinating on the walls of a well-appointed mansion during a high-class cocktail party.

The baron’s hatred for Bléville’s élite, and Aimée’s developing affection for him, form whatever moral undercurrent Manchette’s short book has. The fact that Aimée is a thief and a murderer might seem to undercut this moral strain, but the conflict she suffers at the prospect of harming the baron (a conflict she faces with none of her other victims) helps mitigate this, and highlights the way Manchette employs and extends the Situationist notion of dérive, defined by Guy Debord as a scenario in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

If this manipulation of a stock Situationist aesthetic helps to explicate what would otherwise appear to be a psychological inconsistency on the part of Aimée, the same cannot be said of the book’s climax, in which the icy femme fatale transforms into something more closely resembling Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (or, perhaps more appropriate to Aimée’s Gallic origins, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil). The blood-soaked finale features Aimée cutting a violent swath through the men of the town – shooting, stabbing, and strangling them in an extended set-piece that feels completely out of place with the muted tone of everything that has gone before. Manchette’s novella (at fewer than 100 pages, it can hardly be called a novel) has to this point been a clever and subversive examination of small-town corruption and greed, the plaque bearing the slogan “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” becoming increasingly ironic the longer the story goes on. By turning Aimée into a kind of avenging angel, Manchette brings his themes out of the shadows and into the light, in the process exposing them as thinner than they might otherwise have appeared.

Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The literary prize juries are spreading the wealth around this year. As is probably common knowledge by now, two sophomore novelists – Esi Edugyan and Patrick DeWitt – have been competing head to head for the three most important prizes for fiction in this country: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (They were both nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well: that award went to British novelist Julian Barnes.) Last week, DeWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust award for his neo-Western, The Sisters Brothers. Yesterday, it was Edugyan’s turn at the podium.

Half-Blood Blues, a novel about jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the early years of the Second World War, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The jury, composed of novelists Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O’Hagan, selected the book from an uncommonly strong field of six titles, the other four of which were David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, The Free World; Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist; Zsuzsi Gartner’s sophomore story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; and Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, The Cat’s Table.

This year’s jury read a record 143 titles to come up with its shortlist of six, which was culled from a longlist of seventeen. The longlist included one title, Myrna Dey’s Extensions, selected by popular vote on the part of the general public. The jury ended up (correctly, in my opinion) ignoring the public choice and promoting a shortlist that ranks among the finest in Giller history. There wasn’t a dud title in the bunch: not a single book of which it could be said, “Yeah, that really doesn’t deserve to be there.”

Of the winning title, the jury had this to say:

Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that’s Esi Edugyan’s joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues.  It’s conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.  Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this  book next to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” – these two works of art belong together.

The win marks the second time Thomas Allen Publishers was responsible for bringing out the victorious book, the first being Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe in 2002. The win for Thomas Allen, and in particular its publisher, Patrick Crean, is particularly sweet, since they were responsible for rescuing Half-Blood Blues from oblivion when its original Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books, ceased operations at the beginning of the year. This year was also remarkable for being the second year in a row in which the country’s largest multinational, Random House of Canada, was completely shut out of the shortlist (Ondaatje is published by McClelland & Stewart, which is 25% owned by Random House). DeWitt and Coady are both published by House of Anansi Press; Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins Canada.

Edugyan takes home the $50,000 grand prize, and each of the other shortlisted authors take home $5,000. One note: this does not, as some sources would have it, make the Giller the most lucrative literary prize in Canada. The Griffin Poetry Prize awards two separate purses (one Canadian, one international) of $65,000 apiece, and the newly minted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction is worth $60,000 to the winner, as well as $5,000 apiece to the other shortlisted authors. Not that anyone’s counting.

Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)

“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”

Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:

Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.

And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”

From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.

Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.

Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)

Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.

*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.

The medium and the message

October 18, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

The Sisters Brothers. Patrick DeWitt; $22.95 paper 978-1-77089-032-9, 336 pp., House of Anansi Press

Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan; $24.95 paper 978-0-88762-741-5, 312 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers

In her essay, “Writer, Reader, Words,” Jeanette Winterson argues that literature is necessarily sui generis, incapable of being replicated in any other medium. Any work of literature that aspires to the status of art, Winterson writes, “can only be itself, it can never substitute for anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it.” On the other side of the equation, “Readers who don’t like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature, they are missing it altogether.”

Our 21st-century culture, so besotted with the primacy of the image, with pictures and screens and video games, tends to privilege books that are “printed television”: fast-paced and easily digestible, strong on narrative, peopled by clearly defined, frequently unambiguous characters. Scenes that are cut sharply and edited tightly, and plots that propel themselves forward through readily discernible stages of beginning, middle, and end. Readers and, increasingly, award juries are gravitating ever more frequently toward books that eschew specifically literary techniques in favour of those that resemble, in design and execution, movies on paper. Two of this year’s most lauded books evince this tendency.

It’s no accident that Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was optioned for film even before it appeared on bookstore shelves. The story – about two hired guns, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who travel from Oregon City to California during the Gold Rush to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm – comes virtually pre-packaged for the big screen. The wide-open expanses of Western landscape the Sisters brothers traverse, juxtaposed with the chaotic industrial sprawl they discover in San Fransisco, is almost defiantly cinematic, calling to mind the sumptuous cinematography in John Ford’s The Searchers or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. In its focus on a trio of men who travel cross country to kill a pair of rustlers who have assaulted a prostitute, Eastwood’s film also provides an antecedent for the plot trajectory of DeWitt’s novel, though DeWitt’s story is more insistently comic than David Webb Peoples’ rather downbeat screenplay.

The dialogue, too, crackles and pops with the rhythms and cadence of spoken speech – hardly surprising given that DeWitt is also a screenwriter. The exchanges between his characters practically cry out to be declaimed aloud:

“Make me an offer on the black horse,” I said.

“Twenty-five dollars.”

“He is worth fifty dollars.”

“Thirty dollars with the saddle.”

“Don’t be ignorant. I will take forty, without the saddle.”

“I will give you thirty-five dollars.”

“Thirty-five dollars without the saddle?”

“Thirty-five, without the saddle, minus a dollar for the shoes.”

“You expect me to pay for shoes on a horse I’m not keeping?”

“You asked me to shoe him. Now, you must pay for the service.”

“You would have shoed him anyway.”

“That is neither up nor down.”

“Thirty-four dollars,” I said.

The stable hand’s rejoinder, “That is neither up nor down,” is particularly sharp, and elicits an easy laugh from the reader.

DeWitt unfolds his story in short, dramatic scenes that are packed to bursting with incident. Eli, the more sensitive of the two brothers, watches helplessly as his beloved horse, Tub, gets mauled by a grizzly bear, an injury that will cost the horse one of its eyes. The sequence in which the eye is removed is especially potent in its gruesome comedy: it feels tailor-made for adaptation by filmmakers with the off-kilter sensibility of the Coen Brothers. A set-piece involving a gunfight between the Sisters brothers and two trappers in the town of Mayfield is similarly forceful and exciting, and feels similarly cinema-ready.

There is a good deal of emotion in the novel, particularly where Eli Sisters is concerned. Charlie, the tougher of the two, is a drunkard and a fairly obvious psychopath, but Eli, who narrates the novel, is articulate and thoughtful, frequently given to self-doubt and uncertainty. There is a lovely sequence of scenes in which Eli appalls his brother by ordering small portions and healthy foods at mealtimes because he is trying to lose weight to appear more sexually appealing to a woman he has come to fancy. Eli’s discovery of a magical tooth powder that helps freshen the breath is also charmingly effective. And there is a running joke about an anesthetic to deaden pain that the brothers appropriate from a dentist and employ on Eli’s wounded horse, as well as on each other (“A smart man could make use of this,” Charlie tells his brother).

DeWitt’s picaresque follows a conventional, chronological path. By contrast, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, shuttles back and forth in time to tell the story of a group of black jazz musicians who run afoul of the Nazis in the early years of the Second World War. Like The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues is heavy on incident and plot, with robust characters and (the focus on music notwithstanding) a strongly visual narrative.

However, Edugyan is generally more willing than DeWitt to allow herself recourse to passages that are more written, especially where jazz is concerned. It is notoriously difficult to capture the aural and emotional charge of music via the written word, but Eduygan manages to pull it off, for example in the following passage, which describes trumpet prodigy Hieronymous Falk jamming with jazz legend Louis Armstrong:

It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

The metaphorical language here has a legitimate claim to being literary: the comparison of Hiero to sunlight and Armstrong to water is appropriate and evocative, as is the image of golden ropes of sound winding around one another.

Edugyan is also adept at fusing the cultural impact of jazz in prewar Europe with the rising tide of racial intolerance under the Nazis. Hiero is a German of African descent, a “half-breed,” and consequently, he is a symbol of racial impurity for the Nazis; where African-Americans are allowed passage out of Germany and occupied France, Hiero would be sent to a concentration camp if caught. In a stirring passage, Edugyan explicitly links the racial hatred experienced by blacks and Jews with the anarchic impulse that gave rise to the jazz movement in Germany:

Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.

In Edugyan’s hands, the jazz musicians officially labelled “degenerate” by Joseph Goebbels become a force for resisting the Aryan ideology making insidious toeholds in the Europe of 1939 and 1940. This is powerful, provocative, and – not incidentally – political writing, a fictional repudiation of the extremes of Nazi intolerance and hatred more potent than most anything found in a straightforward history of the war.

And yet. The novel’s strongly literary passages are sprinkled like seasoning on a narrative that is fuelled by suspenseful scenes of the fugitive musicians hiding from the Nazi menace, venturing out fearfully, trying to avoid capture at every turn (including, in one tense sequence, a border crossing between Germany and France, during which the characters undergo interrogations from officials on both sides of the divide).

Told from the perspective of Sid Griffiths, a bass player who harbours acute feelings of professional jealousy for his more prodigiously talented – not to mention younger – bandmate, Hiero, the novel is propelled by feelings of guilt resulting from a wartime betrayal: although another member of the band, Chip, has already publicly accused Sid of complicity in the arrest of Hiero at the hands of Nazi soldiers in Paris, the true nature and extent of Sid’s betrayal is not revealed until the end of the novel.

Half-Blood Blues is in part an examination of artistic envy; Sid says of Hiero at one point, “It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales.” The bitterness of Sid’s envy leads to the situation he and Hiero find themselves in at the opening of the book, in which they decide somewhat intemperately to venture out into the streets of occupied Paris, despite all the warnings to remain concealed. Even with the benefit of hindsight, once the novel has unfolded its entire plot and the context of the characters’ experiences has been made clear, this scene rings false.

It is, however, a dramatic opening to a novel that contains no shortage of drama. The vividness of its historical setting, the stakes facing its characters, and the scenes of danger and tension they must negotiate, are gripping, but here we return once again to the notion of the novel as printed cinema: it is no less difficult to picture Edugyan’s scenes unfolding on a movie screen than it is with DeWitt. Half-Blood Blues, like The Sisters Brothers, is propulsive, suspenseful, and entertaining, but it’s not clear that either novel could “never substitute for anything else,” to use Winterson’s phrase.

Let’s be clear: these are both solid, enjoyable books that could be given with confidence to any reader in search of a good story and engaging characters. But it’s also important to note that juries for no fewer than four major literary prizes – the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and the Governor General’s Literary Award – have deemed both books to be among the best works of fiction published this calendar year. In so doing, these juries are implicitly privileging cinematic narratives and visual sensibilities over more obviously and essentially literary works. Whether or not that is desirable depends on how strongly one agrees with Winterson’s assessment of what constitutes literary art.

The Harlem shuffle: Chester Himes’s crime fiction

September 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

A Rage in Harlem. Chester Himes; $12.00 paper 978-0-141-19644-2, 214 pp., Penguin Books

It’s inexplicable why Chester Himes is not better known or more widely read today. The author’s ten hard-boiled crime novels featuring the detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones have been compared to Chandler, but have been largely unavailable in recent years. Penguin Modern Classics has done an invaluable service by reissuing three of them – A Rage in Harlem, The Heat’s On, and The Real Cool Killers in widely available, modestly priced paperback editions.

The first novel in the series, A Rage in Harlem (1957), was originally called For Love of Imabelle, but the alternate title stuck because, as Luc Sante points out in his excellent introduction, “it combined two nouns guaranteed to act as flint and steel in the mind of the average 1950s American drugstore paperback browser.” This attitude itself attests to the kind of pervasive and systemic racism that Himes spent most of his writing life protesting. Indeed, the author commented that “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.”

Himes’s version of Harlem is a seething, roiling place where passions – both violent and sexual – can erupt in a heartbeat, or the flick of a switchblade. In at least one instance in his novel, extremes of sex and violence are explicitly conjoined: a con man who has his throat slashed is described “jerking and twisting … in death convulsions as though having a frantic sex culmination with an unseen mate.”

Elsewhere, Harlem is depicted in terms that combine a brand of kitchen-sink realism with a dash of Daliesque surrealism:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

That is Harlem.

It is by no means accidental that Himes insists on situating Harlem in a valley below the Hudson, or imagining the “city of black people … convulsed in desperate living” as existing underwater. It was white America that lived in a mansion on a hill; black Americans were jammed together in decrepit tenement dwellings where they eked out meagre existences, feeding on one another like “millions of hungry cannibal fish.”

Tim Lawlor points out that the train whistle cutting through the Harlem air in the novel offers a potent symbol of white capitalism that is similarly degraded and debased among the desperate denizens of the neighbourhood. “The fact that the train ‘thunders past overhead’ emphasises the futility of the situation: the black community are unable to stop something so established and powerful that relentlessly circles their city and traps them within.” Trapped inside the suffocating confines of their cannibalistic community, the men and women of Harlem have no choice but to turn to crime, which cannot end happily for them. It is also not an accident that Jackson, Himes’s hapless protagonist, works at a funeral parlour and spends much of the latter part of the novel trying to make off with a cache of what he believes to be gold secreted in the back of a hearse. The explicit images of death testify to the futility Lawlor identifies, a futility many of Himes’s characters fall victim to.

The rage – or righteous fury – that Himes felt about the institutional racism in America infuses his Harlem crime novels, but does so in a less overt or didactic way than in his earlier, non-genre novels, such as his well-regarded debut, If He Hollers Let Him Go. Much of this is due to the way in which A Rage in Harlem and its successors came to be written.

Himes was born into a middle-class family from Missouri, moved to Arkansas when he was twelve, then to Ohio. He was expelled from university for a prank and later arrested on an armed robbery charge, a conviction that came with a sentence of twenty to twenty-five years. He began writing in prison and published articles in various magazines, including Esquire. He was paroled after seven years and published his first novel in 1940, following which he spent a brief time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, an experience that solidified his hatred for American society. In the book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis writes that “Himes encountered an implacable wall of racism in Hollywood. As his biographer describes the incident, ‘he was promptly fired from … Warner Brothers when Jack Warner heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”‘”

Following in the footsteps of black American writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes emigrated to Paris in 1953; he would never return to live in the United States. In France, he encountered Marcel Duhamel, the editor in charge of Gallimard’s series of crime novels, La Série Noir. Duhamel convinced Himes to write for the series and, in so doing, helped Himes find his mature voice, which was of necessity stripped of pretense and hauteur. As Sante writes:

Himes had been a difficult writer – difficult in his bitterness, alienation, obsessiveness, and self-consciousness, as well as formally difficult at time[s]. Now, however, the narrative conventions of the genre (“Make pictures,” Duhamel told him. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing”) forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humour, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particular inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defences of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly considered narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.

Sante’s reference to humour is significant, since in addition to its other merits, A Rage in Harlem is a very funny book. (As Flannery O’Connor once said of her first novel, “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”) Much of the novel’s humour is centred around Jackson’s twin brother Goldy, who dresses as a nun and sells the religiously motivated citizens of Harlem passes into heaven: “No one who noticed thought it strange for a Sister of Mercy to kick a cur dog in the ribs, enter a dope den, and quote enigmatic Scripture to reefer-smoking delinquents.” In other cases, the humour is situational, as when Jackson tries to escape the police by commandeering a horse-drawn carriage:

Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.

“Hey, he stealin’ my wagon.”

A cop looked around at Jackson.

“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”

“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”

The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.

“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”

“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.

The novel’s humour bleeds from satire into absurdist farce, and frequently gives way to sudden violence in a manner that prefigures the films of Quentin Tarantino by more than thirty years. Himes also anticipates Tarantino’s affinity for colourful lowlifes and corrupt lawmen. But he does so within a milieu that, exaggerated and fictionalized though it may be, cuts an incisive line through the social and economic conditions that kept black Americans down in the pre-Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and early ’60s.

The novel’s plot, concerning a trio of criminals who cheat the naive Jackson out of all his money, and Jackson’s increasingly desperate attempts to redeem himself, is almost beside the point. What is most important is the social canvas that serves as Himes’s backdrop, and the vibrant eccentrics who people his story. Ignore Bill Duke’s watered-down 1991 film version and seek out the Modern Classics edition of this potent novel. You won’t be disappointed.

Scenes from a life

September 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Perfect Order of Things. David Gilmour; $27.95 cloth 978-0-88762-807-8, 228 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers

It may be a function of reaching a certain age that prompts men to look back on their past achievements with a kind of combined wistfulness and aggrandizement. Bruce Springsteen was only thirty-five when he noticed his glory days slipping away “in the wink of a young girl’s eye;” in Canada, we tend to wait a bit longer before taking the measure of lost youth. This season, no fewer than three big novels adopt the mantle of fictionalized autobiographies to dramatize their authors’ experiences and highlight the distances they have travelled – geographically and emotionally – over the course of a lifetime.

Michael Ondaatje has denied that the child in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, bears any resemblance to his creator. That child, nicknamed Mynah, boards a ship from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) bound for England; it is worth noting that his creator embarked on a similar voyage as a boy. It is also worth noting that Mynah’s real name is Michael, and the character in the book ends up leaving his adopted country of England for Canada, where he becomes a writer.

Dany Laferrière, meanwhile, fled his homeland of Haiti some thirty-five years ago after a friend and colleague was killed under the repressive regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. Laferrière resettled in Montreal, where he has lived in self-imposed exile ever since. His latest novel in English, The Return, tells the story of a Haitian-born writer living in Montreal who travels back to his homeland after learning of his father’s death.

David Gilmour’s new novel, his seventh, is perhaps the most transparently autobiographical of the three, but then Gilmour has always been an autobiographical writer, mining his own life and experiences for material in much the same way Philip Roth does. In The Perfect Order of Things, the narrator acknowledges that the impulse to look back and take the measure of a life is prompted in no small part by a recognition of mortality. At the start of the novel, the narrator sets out the book’s conceit: he will revisit key moments in his past in an attempt to notice all the things he missed at the time due to heightened emotions, misery, or simple self-absorption. By the book’s final chapter, entitled “The Big Circle,” the narrator, now in his sixties, finally realizes what the true nature of his project is: “what I’m doing is getting ready to die.” Recalling Montaigne’s idea that the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die properly, the narrator accedes to the notion that he has reached the late autumn of his life: “It’s not a morbid thought. I’m not talking about next week or next year. I’m simply saying that my boat is gradually turning toward harbour.”

The eventual demise of the narrator, seen in soft-focus over the horizon, is not the only time death encroaches on the novel; it is, however, the most peaceful and recondite. The narrator’s friend, Justin Strawbridge (a character who will be recognizable to readers familiar with Gilmour’s 1993 novel An Affair with the Moon), commits a murder that is startling in its violence, and the narrator’s father, suffering the onset of dementia, commits suicide. This latter sequence, dramatized early in the novel, occasions some of Gilmour’s most heartfelt writing:

Sometimes I wonder if my father, as he swept the gun up and placed the barrel to his temple, had, in the moment before he squeezed the trigger and the bullet knocked him onto the floor, second thoughts. Did he think it would hurt? Did he think about me? Could he see the ceiling of the kitchen when he hit the floor? Did he know, lying there, that he was dying? Did he regret it? Do you go on dreaming when you die like that, the images moving further and further and further away? Is that what he thought at the very last second: This is the perfect order of things.

The novel’s repeated insistence on death should not make the book sound overly dour; to the contrary, Gilmour’s picaresque autobiography-manqué is a celebration of life. If death is acknowledged, it is only because it is an inevitable part of living. Indeed, many of Gilmour’s readers fail to acknowledge (perhaps because humour is so personal and individual) how funny the man can be; The Perfect Order of Things contains moments liable to make a reader laugh out loud. Gilmour’s four-line summation of Anna Karenina, for example, is hilarious in both its economy and its accuracy. (No, I shan’t reproduce it here: you’ll have to search it out for yourself.)

That four-line précis is included in a chapter that is ever so slightly adapted from Gilmour’s award-winning Walrus article about the joys of discovering Tolstoy for the first time as an adult. The chapter, “My Life with Tolstoy,” is thoroughly entertaining: at once funny, moving, and erudite. But it’s impossible to ignore a sense that it is out of place in the context of Gilmour’s novel. Other similar chapters, on the author’s interview with George Harrison and his book tour for his memoir, The Film Club, contain material that likewise feels ultra vires. This is a danger inherent in Gilmour’s chosen form: by so insistently inserting his own life into the work, and by cutting up the narrative into ten (more or less) self-contained chapters, the author blurs the line between fiction and autobiography to such an extent that the so-called fourth wall is all but obliterated. The trade-off is that the fictional elements in the novel appear intermittent; the book feels as though it is constantly dropping in and out of a consistent narrative.

Much of this is intentional and, as Michel Basilières pointed out in his review of the book, has more in common with a European tradition than what we are used to here in North America. Nevertheless, readers who agree with John Gardner that for a novel to be effective, the fictional dream it creates “must probably be vivid and continuous” will in all likelihood come away from Gilmour’s novel disappointed. Those familiar with Gilmour’s oeuvre will find characters and scenes from earlier books repurposed here; this postmodern metatextual aspect will be inviting or alienating depending upon the reader’s temperament.

What is undeniable, however, is Gilmour’s seemingly effortless facility at turning a sentence, his searing honesty and self-awareness (however harsh the narrator can be in his assessments of others, he saves all the nastiest barbs for himself), and his incisive eye for cultural worth (Gilmour is someone who recognizes the value distinction between Proust and Tolstoy on the one hand, and our sadly denuded, celebrity-driven culture on the other).

Life, said Kierkegaard, can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Gilmour’s novel, in all its messiness, is a testament to a well-lived life, and the understanding that comes with a certain age.

I need you, I don’t need you, and all of that jiving around

March 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

After Claude. Iris Owens; $16.95 paper 978-1-59017-363-3, 206 pp., New York Review Books.

“I left Claude, the French rat. Six months of devotion wasted on him was more than enough.”

The splenetic, sarcastic opening lines of Iris Owens’ 1973 comic novel After Claude provide a tidy little microcosm of both the book and Harriet Daimler, its acerbic narrator. The “French rat” is a documentary producer who makes films about American life for his compatriots in the old country. Or, as Harriet delicately puts it: “Claude’s reports were like riot commercials. Student riots, antiwar riots, gay-liberation riots, convention riots, prison riots, ghetto riots; in short, Democracy at work. The only faces he ever filmed were covered with blood or gas masks.” Claude had taken Harriet in after her “ex-best friend and current enemy” Rhoda-Regina turfed her out following a “convenient nervous breakdown.” In the six months that follow, Harriet and Claude engage in a kind of psychological warfare that culminates in an argument following a movie Claude takes Harriet to see. The movie is an art film about the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that bears some resemblance to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew; Claude enjoys it, but Harriet sums it up in typically caustic fashion: “‘Thank God,’ I said, as we staggered toward the aisle. ‘I thought that fag would never die.'”

Harriet is a straight-shooter, always eager to speak truth to power, always looking to strip away layers of pretense to get at the unvarnished truth beneath: “[Let] me tell you about Claude’s wonderful friends, one day when you feel like being sick, all of whom are French and all of whom detest me, because instead of being an heiress, I am just an average American girl.” What quickly becomes clear is that, in addition to this, Harriet is also severely delusional, possibly insane. Her first-person narration is a marvel: angry and self-justifying, yet transparent enough to allow the reader access to the painful realities she is denying to herself.

Contrary to her own intemperate assertions, it is actually Claude who has ended things with her, having become exasperated by her constant nastiness and pathological neediness. This is something that Harriet will never be able to admit to herself; when the couple argue, she counters Claude’s straightforwardness by retreating into sarcasm:

“I want you out of this apartment. It’s my apartment. I took you in because I felt sorry for you. I found you wrecked on the stoop and brought you up here out of kindness. That was supposed to be for one night, remember?”

“Well, how do you think people get together in New York? Were we supposed to be introduced at Tricia Nixon’s wedding?”

Sarcasm is Harriet’s great weapon, which she wields as a means of smiting her opponents, but also to prop up the fiction that she and Claude share a passionate, devoted relationship:

“How is Jerry?” I asked and immediately suspected that Maxine had hypnotized me into mouthing these inane words.

Was she ready to tell me!

“He’s wonderful, he’s so wonderful. I just don’t deserve such a wonderful husband. It should only happen to you, Harriet, is all I wish. Guess what he gave me for my Norton’s birthday?” My Norton was their six-year-old deviated septum.

I was mad for her guessing game.

“A hysterectomy?” I guessed. But for a change she wasn’t paying attention. Her eyes had wandered off to her walk-in closets.

“Guess again.”

“A vaginal orgasm?” I tried gamely.

“Really.” She heard me that time and smartly flicked an ash with her ringed finger.

“A dark-brown, twelve-inch vibrator?” I was beginning to enjoy the challenge.

“Is sex all you ever think about? He built me a sauna in the dressing room,” she said flatly, sensing that I wasn’t going to fall on the floor in paroxysms of joy.

She waited for a response, but when it became apparent that I’d sunk into a wide-eyed coma, she upped the ante.

“And he’s engaged Felicia Bernstein’s masseuse to do me every morning.”

“Hmmm,” I said, “if anyone came here at nine in the morning, they’d arrest Claude for practicing unnatural acts.”

Harriet’s deluded portrait of her relationship with Claude is typical of her need for a man in her life; when Claude finally snaps and tells her that he wants her out of the apartment on a deadline, she waits until he leaves town on a business trip, then stocks up on supplies for herself, changes the locks on his apartment door, and barricades herself inside. She desperately tries to hang onto Claude despite overwhelming evidence he wants nothing to do with her; the double meaning in the book’s title, ignored by most readers, is essential to an understanding of Owens’ method (recall that the word “after” can mean both “in the time following” and “in pursuit of”).

When she is unceremoniously dumped off at the Chelsea Hotel, Harriet wastes no time falling into congress with Roger, a shady character who is the acolyte of a Mansonesque cult leader named Victor. Roger secretly tapes Harriet masturbating, which makes manifest Harriet’s unconscious need for abasement, a need that has been roiling just below the surface over the course of the entire novel. Critics who suggest that the shift in tone in the novel’s final stages, from a kind of light insouciance to something much darker, is a structural flaw miss the point: as Gerald Howard writes in Bookforum, “what lofts the book well above an amusing exercise in mad housewifery or late-stage black humor is its disturbing ending, the polar opposite of I-am-woman affirmation.”

Owens’ particular brand of feminism is perhaps a bitter pill for some to swallow, because it refuses to traffic in dishonesty. Harriet is portrayed as being highly intelligent – only a sharp intellect could engage in such corrosive wit – but also needy and masochistic. In her introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Emily Prager writes, “This predilection of bright women to twist themselves into bizarre submissive postures from which only humor can release them is something die-hard feminists will never address. But Iris and I were in agreement: there is nothing that warms a smart girl’s heart like a smile on the face of a sadist.” Masochistic Harriet clings to Claude remorselessly, even though she authentically considers him foolish and pretentious; her suppressed masochism finds its outlet in Roger’s casual exploitation. The sexual violation he perpetrates is another ironic twist of the knife: Harriet is drawn to fantasy abasement, but its real-world manifestation is ugly and disturbing. (Iris Owens had an abiding interest in this aspect of female psychosexuality: she authored a series of pornographic rape fantasies for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press under the pseudonym Harriet Daimler.)

Following her assault in the squalid room at the Chelsea Hotel, Harriet retreats to her own “cell,” where she lies “numb with fatigue,” smoking. “I had no thoughts, only a dim awareness of myself listening and waiting.” At the close of her corrosive novel, “a dim awareness” is all that Owens allows her protagonist. The reader, on the other hand, has been offered an incisive portrait of a potent, intelligent, conflicted woman. The awareness the novel provides its readers may not be comfortable, but it is honest and invigorating.

« Previous PageNext Page »