Down in the depths: (super)natural dread in new novels by Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter

March 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It might come as a surprise to hear that Andrew Pyper, one of this country’s most successful writers of literary thrillers, cites Alice Munro as an influence. Though, to think about it, the comparison should not be entirely unexpected. There is, of course, the strong and frequently acknowledged streak of so-called “Ontario gothic” in Munro’s writing, and there is no doubt that the Nobel laureate’s stories frequently engage with some pretty dark subjects and themes. But more than that, Munro is well aware of what any good writer of horror knows: to elicit emotion, it is essential to invest your reader in your characters and their situation. You have to give your readers a reason to care.

The_Damned_Andrew_PyperThis is true of all writing, of course, but it is particularly salient in the horror genre, since writers of scary or supernatural stories require suspension of disbelief on the part of readers in order to pull off their effects. “There are certain prosaic tactics a writer can use to scare a reader,” writes Nick Cutter. “Perhaps most importantly, make readers care about the characters. A truism of all horror is: if you don’t care about the characters, it is unlikely you will care what happens to them.” Again, true enough across the board, but absolutely essential to the genre at hand.

Which is one reason why new novels by Pyper and Cutter are so deeply rooted in characters and their stories. Not the otherworldly terrors they fall prey to – although there are plenty of those to go around – but the dreadfully normal business of life: family, love, death, and loss.

On one level, the two writers could not be more different. Pyper has acknowledged an affinity for a quieter, more British strain of fiction that works on a reader’s psyche by increments, without resorting too effusively to overt violence or gore. Cutter, on the other hand, is something of an attack dog: his two novels (so far: there’s another one coming later this spring) assault their reader with snapping, slashing teeth and snarling aplomb. Yet there are undeniable similarities connecting the writers’ most recent offerings.

Pyper’s seventh novel, The Damned, appears two years after his previous work, The Demonologist. In addition to being the author’s most popular hit to date, The Demonologist marked a definite move into full-fledged genre territory. Pyper dipped his toe in the supernatural in his 2011 novel The Guardians, prior to which the terrors in his books were largely of this world. But with The Demonologist he dove in head first, and he continues to swim these waters in The Damned.

The new novel tells the story of twins – Danny and Ashleigh Orchard – both of whom die in a fire when they are sixteen years old. Except only one of them stays dead. Danny is revived and becomes a renowned exponent of near-death experience, writing about his encounter with heaven in a book he calls After. As a result of the book’s popularity, Danny meets other “Afterlifers” – people who have similarly died and been brought back to the mortal plane. One of these is Willa, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy named Eddie. When Danny falls in love with Willa, the restless spirit of Ash (who hates her full name and always goes by the diminutive – get it?) becomes jealous and determines to destroy the nascent relationship so as to keep her brother all to herself.

Though there is more to it than that – there are indications that Ash was murdered, and that she wants her corporal brother to investigate the crime and expose the culprit – the story is essentially a love triangle between Danny, his new flame (sorry) and his needy sister’s ghost.

Pyper’s tactic is to place Danny at the centre of the story, allowing him to carry the emotional weight. Danny acts as the novel’s first-person narrator, so everything is filtered through his eyes and his sensibility. In this way, Pyper grounds the novel’s more outré elements in a central consciousness readers can relate to: with one foot in this world and one in the next, Danny can act as a kind of tour guide to the other side, while never losing his essential connectedness to our messy physical realm.

The_Deep_Nick_CutterThis connectedness is essential in getting readers to accept the supernatural aspects of the story, which is something that Cutter exploits in The Deep, about a global pandemic called the ’Gets, the symptoms of which mimic a kind of jacked-up Alzheimer’s. The cure for the ’Gets may lie deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though the team in charge of discovering it has lost contact with the undersea lab, the Trieste, and its chief scientist, the brilliant but egotistical Clayton Nelson. One of Nelson’s colleagues – Dr. Cooper Westlake – has resurfaced, but what has happened to him is not pretty (to say the least), leading the team of above-ground researchers to suspect something is amiss on the Trieste. They recruit Clayton’s brother, a veterinarian named Luke – to descend to the bottom of the ocean and investigate.

What Luke finds eight miles below the surface of the Pacific beggars description, but the scenes of gory mayhem Cutter allows himself will be familiar to readers of his debut, The Troop. But whereas that story featured an ensemble cast of Boy Scouts trapped on an island alongside a particularly nasty biological antagonist, The Deep shares an affinity with The Damned in filtering its story through the perspective of a single male protagonist.

Cutter also ups the psychological aspect in this novel by supplying Luke with a backstory about a young son who disappeared in a public park one fall day during a game of hide-and-seek with his father. The incident costs Luke his marriage – his wife blames him for allowing their son to vanish – and the commingled guilt and post-traumatic stress are what simultaneously drive Luke and haunt him.

It is significant that both these novels have father figures at their hearts: fatherhood has clearly had an impact on both authors, and their fiction reflects the heightened emotions inherent in finding oneself in charge of a young person’s safety. Danny and Eddie forge a bond as father and stepson, in part because the young boy can also see Ash and knows that Danny is not crazy. Luke’s despair at the loss of his son is a manifestation of every parent’s terror that something dreadful and inexplicable might befall their child at any time, for any reason, and there is little or nothing they can do to prevent it. By comparison, the imagined horrors of spectral twins and unnameable creatures from the depths seem almost mild.

***

Andrew Pyper and Nick Cutter will be appearing in Toronto tonight – Friday the 13th – as part of the Dark Side II: Highway of Horror Tour. Tonight’s event, sponsored by ELLE Man, takes place at the Spoke Club, 600 King Street West, Toronto. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets $35.

A campus novel or “a collection of sketches”: the “dzeefeecooltsee” in classifying Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin

March 6, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Pnin_NabokovWhat to make of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin? First published in book form in 1957, it is sandwiched between the author’s two most famous works – Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Perhaps this helps account for its somewhat less-heralded status. Add to that its dominant tone, which is comic, and its relative brevity (the Vintage paperback edition runs just under 200 pages).

Then there is the vexing question of the book’s genre: is it a novel, or a collection of linked stories? Segments of the book were serialized in The New Yorker, in part, as David Lodge points out, as “insurance” against the criticism and lack of sales the author felt sure would accrue to Lolita from a reading public scandalized by the book’s salacious subject matter. When Pnin first appeared, some critics suggested that it consists of a series of sketches about a fanciful character who teaches Russian at a minor American college; this prompted the famously tetchy author to sniff in a letter, “it certainly is not a collection of sketches.”

Nabokov had the ability to elevate indignation into an art, but he had a point: notwithstanding the self-contained nature of certain chapters in Pnin, there is an overarching structure to the work, made clear in the final section, which serves as a kind of recapitulation of all that has gone before. Explanations and elaborations are withheld until the closing chapter, which makes explicit the carefully constructed nature of the book. The second chapter, for example, makes glancing reference to “a tremendous love letter” Pnin wrote to his ex-wife, Liza; the letter itself appears in the second part of chapter seven. (The novel has seven chapters, the last of which is broken down into seven sections: it’s hard to get more programmatic than that.)

And then there is the novel’s style. Free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness that recalls Proust, a writer Nabokov admired, but also, as Lodge asserts, shares in common aspects of the 19th-century Russian realists, in particular Tolstoy, of whom the eponymous central character is enamoured. One early joke has the hapless professor appear for a lecture before a women’s group, where he is mistakenly introduced as the son of Dostoyevsky’s doctor. (Back in Russia, Pnin’s father, “an eye specialist of considerable repute,” had treated Tolstoy for conjunctivitis.)

The writing itself is florid and rococo, which will not appeal to a 21st-century readership in thrall to sound bites and instantaneous comprehension (Nabokov is not a writer whose work can be read quickly or cursorily). Pnin was only the fourth novel Nabokov wrote in his adopted language of English; like Conrad before him, the author seemed to feel a need to display mastery over a language he came to only as an adult. Here, for example, is an early description of Liza:

There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark. Whatever eyes Liza Pnin, now Wind, had, they seemed to reveal their essence, their precious-stone water, only when you evoked them in thought, and then a blank, blind, moist aquamarine blaze shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea had got between your own eyelids. Actually her eyes were of a light transparent blue with contrasting black lashes and bright pink canthus, and they slightly stretched up templeward, where a set of feline little lines fanned out from each. She had a sweep of dark brown hair above a lustrous forehead, and a snow-and-rose complexion, and she used a very light red lipstick, and save for a certain thickness of ankle and wrist, there was hardly a flaw to her full-blown, animated, elemental, not particularly well groomed beauty.

The long sentences, with their cascading series of subordinate clauses, may sound odd or difficult to readers more comfortable with a declarative, journalistic style of presentation, and Nabokov’s delight in insouciant alliteration (“shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea”) and other wordplay seems almost designed to throw casual readers off. A staggering number of proper names proliferate throughout the novel, many of them also characterized by playfulness and allusive meaning. Liza’s new husband, for instance, is called Eric Wind. His graduate student, “a plump maternal girl of some twenty-nine summers” and “a soft thorn in Pnin’s aging flesh” is Betty Bliss. And Liza’s therapist, “one of the most destructive psychiatrists of the day,” is Dr. Rosetta Stone.

Pnin shares with his creator a detestation of therapy and therapists, and a love of the Russian masters – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. But Nabokov frequently renders his protagonist as a figure of ridicule, a bumbling oaf prone to falling down staircases backward and speaking in a kind of broken English dubbed “Pninian English” by those around him. “If his Russian was music,” Nabokov writes, “his English was murder. He had enormous difficulty (‘dzeefeecooltsee’ in Pninian English) with depalatization, never managing to remove the extra Russian moisture from t‘s and d‘s before the vowels he so quaintly softened.”

This may provide another impediment for modern readers who demand a sympathetic protagonist, since Nabokov’s preferred tone is one of haughty sarcasm, even in a novel that is notably less cold and unsparing than the scabrous Lolita. The choice of narration helps in this regard: Pnin’s story is filtered through the sensibility of a first-person narrator, allowing readers to distance themselves from the professor and ascribe the crueler elements of the characterization to the anonymous figure relating the story.

And it is not as though Pnin is presented entirely without empathy. The description of his youthful affection for Mira, a Jewish woman killed in a Nazi death camp during the Second World War, is enormously affecting, as is the very real sadness that befalls Pnin upon learning, near the end of the book, that not only is he being denied tenure, but he is being forced out of his job by petty and antagonistic members of the college faculty. The scene following this revelation finds Pnin alone in his rented home – the first in a series of residences he seems to find truly liveable – cleaning up after hosting a party for his colleagues. Here Nabokov dispenses with his rhetorical flourishes and opts instead for an unadorned presentation, which is heartbreaking in its directness and candour:

He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.

The loneliness and frustration in this scene is palpable, and gives the lie to anyone wanting to accuse Nabokov of being a heartless writer.

Lodge characterizes Pnin as an early example of the subgenre that has come to be known as the “campus novel,” despite the fact that Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise predates it by some thirty-seven years. But there is no doubt that Nabokov takes the opportunity to skewer some of the more galling and pretentious aspects of the academy – what is surprising is how recognizable his portrait remains.

The new fall term sees “in the margins of library books earnest freshmen [inscribe] such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature,’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poems an especially able scholiast [has] already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it ‘birds.'” The college’s earnest attachment to outmoded ideas is savagely ridiculed: “Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoevski and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Words like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue.” And granting bodies give money to vapid projects, such at the one run by Dr. Rudolph Aura (those names again), a “renowned Waindell psychiatrist” who has come up with the Fingerbowl Test, “in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of colored fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.”

However one wants to position it – campus novel, collection of linked stories, comedy of manners, immigrant character study – Pnin offers plentiful literary interest densely packed into a very brief volume. That it resists attempts at classification is likely part of its author’s design for the novel, but may also account for its relative lack of recognition as compared to the other volumes in the writer’s oeuvre. In any case, the novel remains an object of abiding interest, and more than a mere curiosity by a writer forever associated with his better-known, iconic text.

Canada Day CanLit: some thoughts on reading lists, and a list

July 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Today marks Canada’s 147th birthday, and if a quick glance at my social media feeds is any indication, the appropriate way to celebrate is by making lists of great Canadian books. Though I am typically averse to list-making, I will grant that this seems like a fittingly patriotic way to display a genuine love of both the country and its literature.

What I find interesting about the vast majority of the lists I’ve stumbled across (not all, mind you, but most) is their homogeneity, which is ironic in a nation as large and as culturally diverse as Canada. Not just homogeneity in terms of the titles that keep appearing (though that does occur), but homogeneity of tone: the Canada Day book lists I’ve seen tend to be earnest, inoffensive, and almost defiantly middle-of-the-road. (It could, of course, be argued that this makes them absolutely reflective of the country that spawned them.)

One reason for this is that the lists usually confine themselves to the novel genre, though even there the same few titles keep cropping up, most of them already more than familiar to the vast majority of the reading public. Very few roundups include any collections of short fiction, despite the fact that this accounts for the best of what we produce in this country’s literature. And there’s virtually no poetry, although I’ve long since ceased marvelling at this phenomenon.

Though generic blinders may account for part of the narrowness I’ve seen, another contributing factor, it seems to me, is a resolute focus on big books from multinational publishers. Few of the lists kicking around, in my experience, pay much (if any) attention to small or regional presses, which is where the vast majority of the most interesting and exciting publishing is happening in this country. This is not to suggest that there is nothing of interest coming out of the bigger houses (see below), but iconoclastic, experimental, boundary-pushing work is confined, predominantly, to publishers not often acknowledged for the books they produce or the chances they take. Coach House Books, Anvil Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Véhicule Press, Thistledown, BookThug, Biblioasis, Nightwood Editions, Invisible Publishing, The Porcupine’s Quill: these are the houses taking risks, pushing the envelope, and – not incidentally – discovering the authors who will go on to sign six-figure deals with HarperCollins or Random House. (ECW Press could be added to that list: in terms of volume, it’s not really a small publisher, though it acts like one.)

Most (not all) of the impressive CanLit I’ve read over the past few years has come from smaller houses; most of it flies below the radar of what gets recirculated in the major media and online; and most of it is nowhere to be found on prize shortlists, year-end best-of lists, or any other traditionally accepted metric of what constitutes “essential” writing in this country.

On Canada Day, then, here is a list of the five best Canadian-authored books I’ve read so far this year.

All_Saints_KD_MillerAll Saints by K.D. Miller (Biblioasis)

A perennial critical favourite, Miller is not nearly as well known as she should be outside a small and devoted coterie of readers. (The critic Jeet Heer called her “Canada’s greatest unknown writer.”) Miller’s new linked story collection focuses on the titular Anglican church, which, in an age of galloping secularism, has fallen on hard times. All Saints is infused with humour, a surprising degree of eroticism, and an uncompromising eye for human fallibility and frailty.

Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

Imagine Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs collaborating on a screenplay adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four for director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and you might have some idea of what reading Bangladeshi-born Ghalib Islam’s first novel feels like. Violent, hallucinatory, and written in a style that mimics high modernism with liberal dollops of magic realism, Islam’s debut is a stark rebuke to the dominant Canadian literary tradition. But the novel, which incorporates reality television, state surveillance, and American militarism abroad, is also frighteningly relevant to our current historical moment.

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)

Like Miller, Kathy Page is an author who is not terribly well known outside a certain circle of readers, despite the fact that her novel Alphabet was nominated for a 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award. Her new collection is cast in the fabulist mode of Angela Carter, with stories about a society that has outlawed kissing due to an orally transmitted virus, a sea creature who takes the place of a lighthouse-keeper’s missing wife, and a journalism student who takes the notion of communing with nature to a bizarre and unsettling extreme.

The_Stonehenge_LettersThe Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky (Coach House Books)

Karlinsky’s second novel takes the form of an academic investigation. It begins by inquiring as to why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize, but veers off into the story of a codicil in Alfred Nobel’s will that offered a cash reward to any Nobel laureate who could solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Appropriating the apparatus of an academic treatise – including footnotes, bibliography, and appendices – allows Karlinsky to engage in a whole array of postmodern metafictional playfulness, and to ask some pressing questions about the meaning and uses of history.

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster Canada)

A clutch of Boy Scouts accompany their troop leader to a deserted island off the coast of PEI, where they fall prey to the depredations of a horrifying and ravenous “disease.” A furious, fast-paced combination of Lord of the Flies and The Ruins, Cutter’s novel is one of the best straight-ahead literary horror outings in years. Be warned: the gore is plentiful, but so is the gleeful energy and manic inventiveness.

Fast, raw, and nasty: Nick Cutter talks about The Troop

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The_TroopLast month, I posted a review of a forthcoming horror novel by pseudonymous Canadian author Nick Cutter; that novel, called The Troop, is an early contender for one of my favourite books of the year. In advance of its February 25 publication date, the author agreed to answer some e-mail questions about the origins of the novel, the use of violence in fiction, and the appeal of the horror genre to both writers and readers.

Where did the idea for The Troop come from?

I got the idea from a fortune cookie, if you can believe it! No, no, that’s a lie. It was from a Star Scroll that I bought at a Mac’s Milk. Okay, that’s a lie too.

The best I can tell you is this: A few years back I was at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and they had an exhibit on water. How we use it as a species, how it’s used around the world … and the things that live in it. There was a tiny little area set off one side of the sprawling exhibit, a dark little room with a videotape running on a loop. A doctor talking about the little creatures who take the villain’s role in this book – one of those roles, anyway. I was fascinated. The novel kind of popped into my head.

Why write a pure genre novel under a pseudonym?

Well, it was more my agent’s idea than anything. I love genre stuff. Horror, thriller, pulp, noir, sci-fi and fantasy, you name it. Some of my closest friends in this city either run or write for ChiZine, a genre press I know you’re familiar with. My first books, as you also know, were written under a pen name – they were horror, too.

Now, in that case my mother actually found a half-written novel on my computer, the snoop that she is (this was back when I was in undergrad; I was staying at their house over the summer, so I suppose she was somewhat entitled …) and saw this revolting, violent, nasty novel and said: You absolutely cannot drag the good [family name] through the mud; if you insist on publishing this, for Heaven’s sake do it under another name! That makes my Mom sound like a character from Downton Abbey, which she is not, but anyway, I acquiesced, despite the fact that my family name is not really “good” – we’re a family of knaves and rum runners, carpetbaggers and scoundrels, happily and admittedly so, so it was weird to hear my mother make the request.

The “Nick Cutter” pen name is a similar situation. My agent felt that there should be some separation between literary stuff and genre stuff, so this was the idea we settled on.

I just don’t want anyone thinking it’s because I’m ashamed of my work in this field, or put less work into it or anything like that (though I suppose that’s the reason why people might not use their real names …) Long story short, it’s rather easy to discover who Nick Cutter is.

You had pretty much been “outed” by the national media well before the novel was published. Did the public revelation of your “true identity” rankle with you?

Not at all, for the reasons above. Horror was my first love. I think this would be even less of an issue if my most recent novel hadn’t been nominated for a literary prize. But I haven’t ever written any book thinking awards would be in the cards. I don’t give any thought at all to any of that. The whole “literary” side of my career has been a surprise, right from the word go. I truly thought I’d be a horror writer. I wanted that, which is why this novel means a lot to me.

You wrote a previous horror novel, The Preserve, under a different pseudonym; that novel also dealt with a group of male characters in a horrific situation that was manipulated by humans. What is the attraction of this situation from a writer’s perspective?

I think, most simply, a lot of my horror ideas conform to standard tropes. One of the most common and workable ones is: take these characters, isolate them, introduce a threat, and let nature take its course. You can find an endless number of horror books and movies that follow this very simple and highly effective formula. It’s great because of course they can’t get external help, their civilities towards each other break down, dissension sets in, fear and paranoia grip them, and sooner or later the Devil comes out to play. Backgrounding all that is the story of how those characters came to be there, suffering the way they are. It often compounds the horror to know that other people – their actions, their callousness, their evil – put those characters in that terrible situation.

There are human villains in the novel, but the chief villain is, so to speak, “environmental.” Why did you choose this approach?

The primary idea was to create a villain you couldn’t outrun. You couldn’t run out of the spooky house; you couldn’t escape the basement where the terrors lurked. This monster lives under your skin. You carry it around with you. So the only real hope is that you don’t let it get inside.

Horror fiction often reflects the pervasive social fears of the time: giant mutated ants as metaphors for nuclear fallout in the 1950s, or vampires as metaphors for AIDS in the 1980s. Is contagion a key terror to be exploited by horror writers in the new millennium?

I imagine so. I think things like environmental devastation and the like will have more of a role in horror going forward; they certainly do in my stuff.

Before it was rampant consumerism or the Red Threat or stuff like that; it proved a fertile ground for horror. Now I think you look around and see the ways in which the life we’re living doesn’t quite seem sustainable, and there’s no agreement on how to tackle some of these monolithic problems facing us as a species – those things put the fear of God into me.

Nick_CutterAny time you feel helpless in the face of a vast, unquantifiable, and unbeatable force, there’s horror there. So The Troop echoes that just a little bit – though honestly, I didn’t write it with any kind of political or social motivation. I just wanted to write a fast, raw, and nasty fireballin’ horror book like the stuff I read as a teenager.

I find that nowadays so much of the horror is done by literary writers who kind of segue into it (mea culpa), and there’s always some kind of political allegory, or some kind of arch irony to it: this is horror, wink-wink, but smart, thinking people’s horror, not the kind of stuff you’d find on the drugstore spinning racks.

Well, I loved that kind of horror! Still do. And I find when it gets politicized or diffuse, the way some literary horror can be, it’s not disturbing or scary to me. It’s defanged and more palatable, but that’s not what I wanted to write. I don’t think that King and Barker and McCammon, my horror idols, had those motivations when writing, or those constraints. There are outliers like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is very literary and experimental but still scary as hell. Anyway, I decided not to bother trying to split that particular atom. Old-school horror. That’s what I went for.

Like most of your work, The Troop is a strongly masculine book: there are no female characters in it. Why do you gravitate to the masculine perspective and experience so insistently in your fiction?

Oh, I think probably because I wanted to keep it in a zone of experience that I knew and felt confident with. If I’d used a troop of Girl Scouts, it would have been a disaster because I really can’t claim to know how they’d think and it would have come off as some awful Judy Blume pastiche. I have no real idea how teenage girls think or behave in private with each other. So I just stuck with what I knew, and was able to cast my mind back to those days when I was a Scout, hanging out with other boys.

One book that has strong resonance in The Troop is Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins, especially in a scene in which one character attempts to divest himself of what has infected him by cutting it out with a Swiss Army Knife. Did you have Smith’s novel in mind as you wrote The Troop?

That’s a great question and a good catch. You and my editor have eagle eyes. I read The Ruins when it came out years ago. Loved it. When it came to writing The Troop, I wasn’t consciously aware of that resonance, although there’s a difference in that the character who cuts himself is goaded into it by another character, whereas in The Ruins that character acts alone. Regardless, the resemblance is definitely there.

Scott Smith blurbed The Troop; in fact, other than my agent and father, he was the first person to read it. His blurb probably helped sell it. He also gave some really great edits, which I implemented before the manuscript was subbed. After he bought it, my editor brought up this scene in relation to The Ruins. I had to hustle to the bookshelf and read the book again, and yes, there’s definitely a similarity. I couldn’t believe Scott hadn’t made note of it, actually. So I didn’t have Smith’s book in mind as I wrote, but for that specific scene, a debt is due.

The violence in the novel is plentiful and graphic. As a writer, what is your relationship with, and your attitude toward, violence in fiction?

It’s great! I dig it!

In all seriousness, if it serves a point I’m all for it. I spoke about this somewhere else, when someone asked if I’d gotten the “tone” of the book right. I said that I wasn’t sure I found the right tone, really, but it’s impossible to find the tone that suits every reader. If I’d softened some of it, the real horror lovers (at least lovers of a certain type of horror) would’ve said I’d chickened out instead of going for the jugular; and since I wrote it the way I did, no holds barred, you’ll have some readers saying I went too far. It’s a no-win situation, so I just wrote it the way that felt most natural to me.

Y’know, there’s kind of a sentiment in CanLit (at least as I interpret it) that you ought to gloss over or find a poetic distancing device to describe horrific events. I remember reading some book, can’t remember the title, that described a mortar blast dismembering someone, and it was painted in such a distant way, metaphors of flowers blooming and paper dolls ripped apart and whatnot, totally uninvolved and distanced from how the event would actually unfold. It felt like a huge cheat to me, a lie and a bromide to a certain readership who could only accept reading about such an event if you painted the outside corners of it, poeticized and almost romanticized it.

I think that’s cheap, and it’s kind of weak-willed on both an author and a reader’s part. If you’re gonna write it, write it. Don’t gloss it or weasel it or try to turn something rotten or terrible or terrifying into something palatable and sane and cleansed. Or do that, but don’t get pissy when someone else takes a different tack on the same scene, one that paints it in what may be its truer, unflinching colours.

Anyway, that’s me bitching and complaining. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. I don’t want to throw shade on anyone, or on my nation’s literature, which by and large I love. All of which is to say, some scenes in the book were tough to write but they felt like vital scenes, true to my sense of the world. But people’s tastes are gonna vary on that, and that’s totally fine and understandable.

What is it about the horror genre that interests you as a writer? What keeps readers returning to the genre?

I love to be scared. It’s a masochistic impulse. Sadly, the more you try to push that fear button, the more dulled it gets from overuse. It’s harder and harder to scare people. So what keeps people returning, I imagine, is what keeps a heroin addict returning to the needle: that familiar rush. Problem being, at least an addict knows he’ll get a rush. A lot of books probably disappoint on that level.

Do you worry about being dismissed as a serious writer on the basis of your genre fiction?

When I consider the individuals who would dismiss me or anyone else on those grounds, and consider the fact that I don’t really give a shit about the opinions of such individuals, it doesn’t worry me at all, no.

Will you continue to write pure horror fiction alongside your more “literary” output?

The market will make that decision. If the books tank, I won’t be allowed to continue at all. If they do okay, I’d happily keep writing them. If one stream runs more fruitfully than the other, I imagine I might flow with it. I have a mortgage to pay off!

Language as a space of origins

November 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

An Arab Melancholia. Abdellah Taïa, Frank Stock, trans.; $20 cloth 978-1-58435-111-5, 144 pp., Semiotext(e)

An_Arab_MelancholiaAppearing recently at Toronto’s annual International Festival of Authors, novelist and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, a Moroccan living in Paris, spoke about his relationship to the French tongue. “I write in French, but it’s not my language,” he said. In Morocco, he added, French is the language of the rich. Taïa grew up in poverty, and the French he spoke was not the kind you learn at the Sorbonne. Rather, it was confined to “little words,” a lexicon that the author would develop into a spare, minimalist prose stye. “I feel I can do things with little words.”

What Taïa has done in An Arab Melancholia is to marshal those little words into a vivid picture of life as a young man in Morocco, Paris, and Cairo. Taïa is the first openly gay novelist from Morocco, and An Arab Melancholia is frankly autobiographical; the main character shares a name with the author, along with major life experiences. (“Everything I write is autobiographical,” says Taïa.) The result is a story that is deeply felt, made all the more immediate by being told in such direct, almost austere language.

Taïa follows the fictional Abdellah from the rough streets of Salé’s Hay Salam neighbourhood, where the effeminate twelve-year-old becomes the target of local youths who torment and nearly rape him, to life as a burgeoning filmmaker in Cairo and Paris. It is also a love story, detailing a series of romantic entanglements that befall the young Abdellah, from an Andalusian named Javier to an Algerian named Slimane, to whom the narrator addresses a lengthy letter that draws an explicit connection between Abdellah’s love and his native tongue: “I spoke to you in Arabic. In our language, the language we made love in, a love beyond what the law allowed.”

Here, as elsewhere, Abdellah explicates aspects of his identity in terms of his conflicted relationships with his country of origin, the Muslim religion, and the life he has fled in order to survive. While filming in Cairo, Abdellah meets a Christian from Darfur, and finds a “little moment of eternity” in which he is able to talk to the other man in Arabic. Elsewhere, he elaborates on the significance of this mindset as a Moroccan exile in Paris: “The Arabic language as a space of origins, a real, mental space where I dared to redefine who I was, dared to talk about everything, reveal everything and one day, write about everything, everything. Even forbidden love. And call it by a new name. A name that had dignity. As if it were a poem.”

In this sense, An Arab Melancholia is a story of borders – geographical, linguistic, and spiritual. Abdellah’s identity is inextricably tied into his experience as an outsider, an experience that is actualized in his literal position as an exile in Paris, but which is also compared to the experience of women in his native country, who find themselves similarly marginalized: “I existed for those traditional women, women who could be strong when they had to be, women who, like me, had been incarcerated by rules despite themselves.”

The novel opens with an image of Abdellah running, a metaphor that has resonance with the character’s attempts to escape the stifling environment of intolerance and repression that prevent him from living an authentic life. “Where was I headed?” Abdellah asks in the novel’s opening lines. “Why? I don’t know right now.” An Arab Melancholia offers a jagged and tentative road map charting its protagonist’s journey toward answering those questions.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission: notes toward a Canadian nouveau roman

September 13, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Permission_ChrostowskaPermission is a book that could not have been published in Canada. Literally.

Composed as a series of twenty-seven e-mails sent by a character named Fearn Wren to an anonymous recipient over the course of one year, the novel, by York University professor S.D. Chrostowska, came out earlier this year from U.S. publisher Dalkey Archive Press, the house that has also been responsible for re-releasing notoriously difficult texts by authors such as William Gaddis, William H. Gass, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The last association is appropriate, since it was Robbe-Grillet’s theories of the nouveau roman that called for an overthrow of the traditional conception of literature as a repository of the kind of naturalism practised by Balzac and Stendahl. Robbe-Grillet’s influence (and that of his major supporter, Maurice Blanchot) is apparent throughout Permission, which indeed cleaves closer to a European than a North American (or British) literary tradition.

The novel updates the epistolary convention for the digital age, but not in any obvious way. Nowhere does the reader find the ungrammatical, symbol-laden syntax employed in text or instant messages. Rather, the e-mails that make up the narrative – if such a term can be applied to Permission – are written in sentences that often run to the academic and the abstract. Permission is a novel of ideas, but the ideas it is interested in are not the clichéd modern obsessions over humanity’s increasingly tedious relationship with technology. Instead, the novel is concerned with the nature of identity in a more universal sense.

“My concern with making meaningful life choices in pursuit of well-defined goals cast me naturally in the role of self-observer,” writes Fearn Wren, who, at this early stage in the novel, is identified only as “F.W.” And yet, as a “self-observer,” the narrator is not entirely lucid or reliable. The life story that unfolds is replete with gaps and lacunae: it appears that the author of the e-mails is a native of Warsaw who went to university in America, but these bare facts don’t really tell us much, and they must also be taken on faith as we have no supporting evidence to verify their veracity. (It becomes apparent toward the end of the novel that even the name “Fearn Wren” is a likely pseudonym.)

Instead of the normal biographical detail that would proliferate a character-driven novel of a more recognizable sort (what Holden Caulfield referred to caustically as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”), we are given extended meditations on the nature of silence, the Holocaust, imprisonment, and the significance of North American native tribal masks. “The objects that caught my attention,” Fearn Wren writes, “were the so-called Speaker and Echo masks, which at one time played a role in the potlatch, or giving feast.”

The notion of speech and echoes is resonant throughout Permission, as is the idea of gifting. Recalling Lewis Hyde, Fearn Wren positions the e-mail missives as gifts requiring no response; indeed, the silence from the implied reader is taken as “permission” to continue the correspondence. “Permit me to write to you today, beyond today,” reads the first line of the first e-mail. The narrator characterizes the writing project as “an experiment in giving,” and goes on: “I want nothing in return, nothing tangible – only permission to continue this spectral writing, so disembodied and out of place, so easily disavowed.” The intimate relationship between writer and reader, the nature of authorship, and the faith that written material, sent out into the world, will find a receptive and sympathetic audience, are central to the e-mails that develop over the course of a calendar year, gradually – almost accidentally – resolving themselves into a book-length narrative.

“My own identity,” Fearn Wren writes, ” … is random and immaterial.” This, too, recalls Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman philosophy. Fearn Wren is not a character in the traditional sense, just as Permission does not feature a story in the traditional sense – that is, the sense in which these things are normally understood (and taught) as springing out of a naturalist, realist mode. In his 1956 essay, “A Future for the Novel,” an essay that testifies to its author’s continued relevance to contemporary literary criticism, Robbe-Grillet writes:

As for the novel’s characters, they may themselves suggest many possible interpretations; they may, according to the preoccupations of each reader, accommodate all kinds of comment – psychological, psychiatric, religious, or political – yet their indifference to these “potentialities” will soon be apparent. Whereas the traditional hero is constantly solicited, caught up, destroyed by these interpretations of the author’s, ceaselessly projected into an immaterial and unstable elsewhere, always more remote and blurred, the future hero will remain on the contrary, there.

It may not be possible to call Fearn Wren a “hero” in any conventional sense: as the central figure in Chrostowska’s novel, the character is subject to a kind of progression, though nothing remotely resembling archetypal notions of journey or growth; even the figure’s real name remains a matter of dispute. And yet, the consciousness of Fearn Wren (or, perhaps more accurately, “Fearn Wren”) remains, inexorably and undeniably, there.

“I was also staunchly anti-artistic,” Fearn Wren writes at one point, here perhaps standing in for the author to a degree. “I could not stand straight-faced aestheticism and urbane pastimes, I wanted no part in accepted avant-gardes.” There is an almost defiantly anti-artistic aspect to the way in which Permission unfolds: it interrogates accepted notions of what constitutes a novel and what is expected of a reader in response. And yet, it is also in its way defiantly literary: unlike much of what gets passed off as “innovative” writing, it is virtually impossible to imagine Permission existing in any medium other than the one in which it has been cast. Its lack of scenes, plot, and character development force the reader to return to the words on the page, to actively engage with the ideas being put forth, and to wrestle with the intelligence behind their creation.

Permission is quite obviously not intended for a mass audience. In a literary environment ever more sympathetic to the infantilizing tendencies of boy wizards, sparkling vampires, and adolescent dystopias, there is not a huge clamour for the kind of formally and intellectually challenging writing Chrostowska engages in. Yet it is frustrating that the author had to go outside the country to have the book published. There are a few domestic houses – Coach House Books and BookThug spring immediately to mind – that do take chances on aesthetically challenging work (Coach House more in the area of poetry, although last year’s story collection Cosmo by Spencer Gordon was a bracing retort to the naturalist tradition of storytelling that continues to hold sway in this country). But the days when Jack McClelland would publish Beautiful Losers even though he admitted the novel frankly baffled him seem long gone.

“All I can say is that I think it’s an amazing book,” McClelland wrote to Leonard Cohen in 1965. “I’m not going to pretend I dig it, because I don’t.” Beautiful Losers remains in print to this day, and is widely considered a Canadian classic. Without courage similar to McClelland’s, what will our classics look like fifty years from now?

Fifty shades of bestsellerdom

April 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

SECRETI put together some thoughts about the recent erotic bestsellers S.E.C.R.E.T. and Fifty Shades of Grey for The Walrus; the piece is now online. What most interests me about these books is the extent to which they endorse traditional notions of romantic love and an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist ethos:

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and S.E.C.R.E.T. constitute what novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford identified as “very modern romantic fairytale[s].” The trajectory of S.E.C.R.E.T. involves the heroine, Cassie Robichaud, awakening to the notion that she should not feel ashamed of her carnal desires. As independent women continue to be castigated with such epithets as “loose” or “slut,” this is a powerful message. But far from being progressive, Cassie arrives at her epiphany by way of the same makeover motif celebrated in Pretty Woman and Disney movies, coming out of her shell when she is outfitted for a charity auction in a pink dress, makeup, and glittering pumps, then later decked out in fishnets and a bustier for a burlesque show. “What needs are being tickled in us when the princess dream has not died by the age of 35? ” asks Tamara Faith Berger, quite reasonably, in her recent review of the novel for the National Post.

Berger goes on to bemoan the book’s apolitical aspect, but this seems like a misreading. S.E.C.R.E.T., far from being apolitical – and even more than Fifty Shades – displays a highly conservative world view, first evident in the heroine’s sexual encounters. Cassie becomes utterly flustered at the notion of being intimate with another woman, and the sole lesbian character is only allowed a brief walk-on before fading into the background. The novel’s couplings present a narrow window on human sexuality: the most esoteric encounter involves an instance of anal sex described so coyly it is as though it were being viewed through a thick layer of gauze.

I should make clear the distinction between kink – which is at the heart of the BDSM-inflected Fifty Shades of Grey – and subversion, which to my mind involves a more persistent, pervasive interrogation of conventional ideas and assumptions. It is the political, consumerist aspect of these novels that interests me at least as much as – if not more than – their sex scenes.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dead at eighty-five; Iain Banks suffering terminal cancer

April 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Ruth_Prawer_JhabvalaSad news comes in threes, or so we are told. Yesterday, Canadian poet, travel writer, and editor Kildare Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure. Today, the Guardian reports that novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is dead at age eighty-five. Jhabvala is best known for her screen adaptations of novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James, written for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.

Although she won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay – for her adaptations of Forster’s novels A Room with a View and Howard’s End – the Guardian obituary claims that she considered her film work a “hobby”:

Her own fiction was what mattered to her, whether or not it did to anyone else. This was how it had been since she began writing novels in India in the 1950s, feeling: “I was at the bottom of a deep abyss. No one read them. But I enjoyed it.” The films were fun, but: “I live so much more in and for the books,” she wrote to a friend.

She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time’s revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.

Although Jhabvala had struggled with ill health for some time, she continued to produce fiction, with a new short story, “The Judge’s Will,” appearing in The New Yorker as recently as March 25. That story, about a judge in India who suffers a second heart attack and must confess to his wife that he has had a mistress for twenty-five years who is cared for in his will, engages themes of illness and death: Binny, the judge’s long-suffering wife, thinks “that all of the family diseases – both physical and mental – were bred in the very roots of the house,” and considers the appearance of the mistress “as if she were already a widow.”

Iain_BanksMeanwhile, fans of the Scottish novelist Iain Banks were shocked to find out that the fifty-nine-year-old author is suffering from late-stage gall-bladder cancer and does not expect to live more than a few months. In an open letter posted online, the author of The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road says that he is “officially Very Poorly.” The location of the tumours make them inoperable “either in the short or the long term.”

“The bottom line,” Banks writes, ” … is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.”

Banks says that having received the diagnosis, he asked his partner, Adele, if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow: “we find ghoulish humour helps.”

Writing in the Guardian, author and friend Val McDermid pays a poignant tribute to Banks and his work:

When The Wasp Factory was published in 1984, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to recoil in horror from the grotesquerie of its imagination and the grand guignol of its execution (and executions) but the quality of the writing and the power of its narrative drive grabbed them by the throat and made them read on.

I bought the paperback when it came out in 1985 and can still remember the excitement. I’d never read anything like it and my head swarmed with possibilities. I’d grown up with the Scottish sense of humour, so I had no trouble with the notion that something so dark, so disturbing and so bleak could also be laugh-out-loud funny. I’d just never seen it written down before.

That brio, that joie de vivre, has characterised all his work. Even in the darkest corners, there is always a shred of optimism, a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. He’s a storyteller whose faith in humans can embrace the worst of what we are capable of and still refuse to lie down and die.

“To the madness that is Serbia!”

January 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Song of Kosovo. Chris Gudgeon; $29.95 cloth 978-0-86492-679-1, 320 pp., Goose Lane Editions

Song of KosovoWhen 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 walk on the wild side: the hard-boiled world of Lawrence Block

January 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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

A Drop of the Hard StuffIn 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.

Getting OffIn 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.

Next Page »