New reviews online: Spencer Gordon, Carol Shaben Terence Dickinson, and Cary Fagan

January 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.

First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.

Cosmo, Spencer Gordon

Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.

This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.

Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.

Into the Abyss

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.

National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.

Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.

Hubble's Universe

Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.

Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).

And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.

The Boy in the Box, Cary Fagan

There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).

Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.

New reviews online: Annabel Lyon, Shelley A. Leedahl, Nina Bunjevac

December 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?

The novel is the sequel to Annabel Lyon’s enormously successful 2009 book, The Golden Mean.

The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.

The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.

The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.

When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.

The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.

And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.

Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.

Some kind of monster: Corey Redekop’s unconventional zombie tale

October 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Tom Waits’s voice was once characterized as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell. This description resonates in an early set piece from Husk, in which the narrator, newly resurrected from the dead, tries to regain control of his vocal chords. The result, we are told, resembles “the sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs.” The moment is typical of author Corey Redekop’s approach in his second novel: it’s utterly macabre, yet simultaneously flat-out hilarious. “There’s a point where everything becomes very funny,” Redekop avers.

Certainly, Husk is not your stereotypical zombie story. First of all, it’s narrated in the first person by a protagonist named Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies a horrible death in the washroom of a moving bus, only to wake up on the slab mid-autopsy. (Restraint is not a quality Redekop indulges in this novel. Sheldon’s death scene, for instance, rivals the suppository sequence from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its gleeful disgust factor.) But then, Redekop explains, he had no intention of writing a typical zombie novel. “I’ve read a couple of books that have zombies as their protagonists,” he says, “but they were honestly all along the lines of The Walking Dead, so they’re still shambling hordes and somehow this one still has intelligence, but they’re still out there eating people, and they can’t really talk. Which is fine: it’s the classic standard for a reason. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me, it’s just that I don’t think I can write that kind of story.”

Indeed, Husk took several different directions on the road to being written. “I had an idea for a zombie detective novel,” says Redekop, “which I wanted to set in a 1950s, Raymond Chandleresque alternate reality. But I could not get the voice right, and I knew I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice.” He eventually abandoned the detective story conceit, although he did retain one element of that manuscript: “The truth is: I liked my first sentence.”

The opening sentence of Husk – “I miss breathing” – sets the tone for what follows. It also nods in the direction of the book’s oddly (for a zombie novel) ruminative quality. But none of what follows was planned in advance, the author claims. “I honestly just decided to follow the character. I didn’t have a preset plan, I didn’t know where the plot was going to go. A lot of it came as a complete surprise to me.”

The surprises included the fact that Sheldon Funk is gay. “I didn’t know he was gay until he killed his lover,” Redekop says matter-of-factly.

The character’s name was less of a surprise, and alludes to the author’s own Mennonite background (Redekop says of Husk, “It’s A Complicated Kindness of zombie novels”). “I’m Mennonite, and I needed a last name. I was playing with the last name of Thiessen, but it just didn’t work right. But then I came across Funk, which is actually a very traditional Mennonite name, and I just thought it really worked for the character.” Redekop adds with a laugh, “I was just trying to please my Mennonite readers.”

Redekop professes fidelity to the classic zombie mythos, and in particular credits the influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. “It was such a milestone,” he says, “and so out of left field. You think it’s going to be a cheap, $10,000 grindhouse film, and then you leave ninety minutes later shaken to your core because he tapped into something incredibly primal.” But despite this influence, Redekop insists that with Husk, he wanted to do something different. “I knew that wherever it was going, I didn’t want it to become a sort of zombie apocalypse novel. It’s not that that’s not interesting, it’s just been done very, very well, and I didn’t want to retell a story that’s already been told.”

One thing Redekop was not worried about was being slotted into a specific genre category. “I’ve been a librarian and I realize you need to categorize things.” That said, it is apparent after a very few pages that Husk is not easily categorizable. “I’ve seen the book in one store classified in the horror section,” Redekop says, “and I don’t think that’s actually accurate. It’s got gore, but I think there’s only one or two scenes that might come across as truly disturbing, and even then I don’t know if I did them all that well. … The book has horror elements, it has comedy elements, and if you had to classify it, you’re certainly going to mention zombies or the undead, because that’s going to attract a certain reader. The only risk is will other people not read it because of that? But that’s valid for every single book out there.”

While Husk may not cleave to the stuffy, middlebrow tastefulness that typifies so much CanLit, Redekop does not feel that its content, or its idiosyncratic approach, places it outside the pantheon, which is in fact much more heterogeneous than many people seem willing to acknowledge. “I know people who have said, ‘I don’t read Canadian literature. I just hate it.’ Well, okay: you’ve obviously never read anything beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.”

Still, the author is not so disingenuous as to assume that all readers will be attracted to his undead character study. As part of his pre-publication publicity endeavours, Redekop created a book trailer that perfectly captures the novel’s darkly comical, yet vaguely unnerving nature.

“I was at my cabin with my extended family and we had a bunch of nieces and nephews there, all twelve and under; they’re all kids, so they’re all loud and screaming all the time. They love to draw, so I had the idea that maybe they could draw me some pictures and maybe I could do something with them.” The “something” Redekop came up with rates as one of the most inspired book trailers of the year. “I wanted to do something that captured how weird the book was, the offbeat nature of it,” he says.

“I think there’s something very wrong about the book. If you get the trailer, you’ll like the book. If you don’t get the trailer, you’re not going to like the book.”

You’ve been warned.

Poison pen: Stacey Madden on violence, literary influences, and publishing his first novel

October 19, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”

The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”

The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.

Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”

At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”

The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”

Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”

Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”

Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”

Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”

Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”

He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”

“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.

“Books are here to stay.”

Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.

Banned Books Week: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

October 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

She was the first “nice” girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her exceedingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him – he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there – it was as casual a thing to her as the tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Banned Books Week: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

October 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous

September 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

When Émile Zola published the second edition of his short novel, Thérèse Raquin, he felt compelled to append a preface responding to critics of his day who had taken him to task for writing what they considered to be a highly immoral book. “Some virtuous folk,” Zola wrote, “in no less virtuous newspapers, puckered their faces in disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it on the fire. Even the literary papers – those same literary papers that every evening report the gossip from bedrooms and private dining rooms – held their noses and spoke of stinking filth.”

No doubt these readers had some justification for their passionate reactions. First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a woman thrust into a tedious arranged marriage with her cousin Camille. Thérèse is introduced to her husband’s friend, Laurent, who is much more virile, lusty, and animalistic than her gormless husband. Thérèse and Laurent embark on an affair and, almost incidentally, conspire to kill Camille. The second half of the novel traces the murderers’ psychological deterioration as a result of their crime. (In this, Zola’s novel shares a trajectory with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published a year previously.)

While Zola’s book has elements in common with other, better known novels of adultery – Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – it actually cleaves closer to American noir fiction: echoes of Thérèse Raquin can be detected in the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

What set early readers on edge was not so much the novel’s subject matter, which is no more lurid than many 18th-century Gothic novels, but Zola’s resolute refusal to judge his characters. The author insisted on a naturalistic, almost scientific approach to his characters: he would observe them, but not condemn them. In his preface, he likens himself to an anatomist impartially examining his “naked, living anatomical specimens.” And while he avers that a “sincere study purifies everything, as fire does,” he takes umbrage at those critics who would charge him with obscenity or immorality, claiming that such terms are of little use in discussing literature:

In our times, there are only two or three men who can read, understand, and judge a book. I accept criticism from them, certain that they would not speak until they had discovered my intentions and assessed the results of my efforts. They would be very careful not to mention those great empty words: “morality” and “literary modesty.” They would recognize my right, at a time when we enjoy freedom in art, to choose my subjects wherever I please, asking me only for works that are conscientious, and knowing that only stupidity harms the dignity of literature.

Were Zola alive today, he might find himself making many of the same arguments. Indeed, the puritanical voices claiming that art need be ethical, moral, or didactic have never gone away. Novelist and critic John Gardner perhaps put it most bluntly in his 1978 book On Moral Fiction, in which he baldly states, “Nothing could be more obvious, it seems to me, than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production’s moral worth.” (The hedging apposite clause – “at least some of the time” – is a strong indication that Gardner himself remained ultimately unconvinced of the blanket truth of his assertion.) Although less dogmatic and much more nuanced, Wayne C. Booth, in his study The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, also champions the idea that books should serve an ethical or moral purpose for their readers: “The fact that no narrative will be good or bad for all readers in all circumstances need not hinder us in our effort to discover what is good or bad for us in our condition here and now” (emphasis in original), with the implicit corollary that we should elevate the “good” and avoid or disavow the “bad.”

Strains of Gardner and Booth could be detected as recently as last week, when the 2012 Man Booker Prize jury announced its shortlist. While he admitted that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates” among the jurors, this year’s chair of judges, Peter Stothard, went on to comment that he and his fellow jurors were “exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values” of the nominated books.

In brief, “vividly defined values” seems like a strange criterion on which to base an assessment of literary worth. The language is vague and imprecise, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the word “values” is not confined merely to the literary sphere, but contains within it some moral imperative. The obvious questions then arise. Whose values are we referring to? From what realm do they spring? Are they moral values? Philosophical values? Political values? Theological values?

Then we must consider the question from the perspective of the writer. What is a writer’s responsibility, to herself and to her readers? Is she responsible for promoting a particular ethical or societal code, or is she responsible merely to the work of art? If we admit that one of the functions of literature is to be truthful to the world as the writer finds it, how is it possible to insist on some moral imperative in art given the evident immorality that surrounds most of us, most of the time? Is the function of art to better its recipients, or is it simply to present, in the kind of scientific manner Zola advocated, an accurate literary representation of a time and place?

It is obvious that evil occasionally triumphs in the world; why should it not also be allowed to triumph in works of literature? (It might be useful to remember that John Milton was roundly excoriated for making Lucifer the central figure of Paradise Lost.) Think of the great moral, virtuous, upstanding novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Now try to imagine an entire literature informed by it. The mind positively reels.

No doubt there are many, even today, who would argue that the function of art is to better humanity. And it seems to be true that those who expose themselves to artistic works are more tolerant and expansive than those who don’t. It is also true that one must take care about what one exposes oneself to in a literary context: much more benefit will be gleaned from reading Zola and Dostoevsky (who were, it should be pointed out, both highly moral writers) than, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

However, the idea that literature must be affirming in order to be worthwhile does not follow.

Warning: This is not a f***ing kids’ book

August 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

A delightful new trailer for Corey Redekop’s second novel, Husk, forthcoming this October.

Maidenhead, part two: she said

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

In the second of part of a two-part discussion of Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead, author and academic Myna Wallin offers her thoughts on the book. (Part one of this discussion can be read here.)

Gore Vidal’s seminal work on female sexuality, Myra Breckinridge, begins with the line, “I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess …” Tamara Faith Berger calls her protagonist Myra, who ironically enough wants very badly to be possessed, but not by Aaron, who “worships” her, kissing her and telling her “there’s this space in me, kind of opening up … to love you.” Love isn’t what Myra is after. She wants to be pissed on and she wants to be slapped.

Reading Maidenhead, a volatile, punch-you-in-the-gut version of a coming of age story, I am reminded of Marya Hormbacher’s memoir, Wasted, about the life of an anorexic young woman. In Berger’s provocative novel, Myra becomes embroiled in a ménage à trois, where self-delusion, sex, and a dialectic philosophy of the master/slave paradigm become so entangled in her mind that her submission, her willing participation, starts to make as much sense as starving oneself does to the central character in Wasted.

It’s no coincidence that Myra’s sexcapades begin on a family vacation in Key West during spring break. Myra envies the teenagers who are just two years older than her, like her sister Jody. They can do what they want, drink until late, and have sex away from the watchful eyes of their parents. Myra becomes the target for a hot, black “god” of a man, Elijah, a Tanzanian “genius musician” twenty years her senior. He has skin that smells like “caramel” and calls Myra his “angel” and alternately, his “little bitch.” Elijah and his violent cohort Gayl follow Myra all the way from the beaches of Key West to Toronto. Myra’s mother abandons her three children soon after, leaving them in the hands of her hapless husband and a couple of sneering, gossipy girlfriends. Without her mother’s guidance, Myra’s slightly older friend Lee must remind her that she is real, that her life is really happening.

Lee, however, has her own secrets and knows that the road to losing one’s virginity is a rocky one, both physically and mentally. Lee sees the pitfalls in both the language used to describe the experience of sex and the unreliability of the self, of one’s bodily urges, and of the massive confusion of being a young woman. Still, Lee gives Myra permission to explore her darker desires: “It’s okay you want it dirty with this guy. It’s okay you want that picture in your head to be true.”

The sixteen-year-old Myra as first-person narrator is an unreliable witness to her own story, so it is a relief when Gayl and Lee step in as a postmodern Greek chorus, offering bickering philosophical commentary throughout and a useful reprieve, a moment to pause and reflect between Myra’s exploits (or periods of being exploited, depending upon your perspective).

A series of binary oppositions runs throughout Berger’s novel: real/dreamlike; master/slave; privileged/oppressed; dominant/submissive; romantic/carnal. All of these Western constructs are as ripe to be dismantled as Myra’s virginity. So our protagonist – a precocious and prodigious intellect blooming along with her teenage hormones – writes a paper she calls “The Pornography Liberation Narrative and Sex Slaves: A Synthesis.” Berger sets up a series of questions for the reader: Is Myra’s experience inauthentic because of her own inexperience? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Or both? Do any of the philosophers she is so fond of quoting (Hegel, Bataille, Weil) provide a usable framework for her experience? Is there such a thing as Absolute Knowledge?

Berger has a welcome sense of humour that makes the violence and gut-wrenching power of her book bearable. Maidenhead is a thoroughly riveting read, questioning all kinds of assumptions and raising fascinating questions about female sexuality, family dynamics, motherhood, pornography, and more. Reader beware.

Myna Wallin is a Toronto author and editor, and author of the book Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar.

Maidenhead, part one: he said

August 13, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this summer, I was speaking with academic and author Myna Wallin about the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that began as repurposed Twilight fan fiction and has since gone on to become an international bestseller. (According to the Guardian, it is now the bestselling book in U.K. history.) Wallin and I are united in our astonishment that such an ill-written, poorly conceived work could catch on to such an extent, particularly given that there is another, similar book available – a novel at once darker, smarter, and sexier than its pallid contemporary. In an attempt to bring some attention to a novel that we think could provide readers with a better alternative to the so-called “erotic fiction” of Fifty Shades, TSR is featuring a two-part discussion of Maidenhead by Toronto author Tamara Faith Berger. My review appears today, followed by Wallin’s take tomorrow.

***

Maidenhead. Tamara Faith Berger; $18.95 paper 978-1-55245-259-2, 176 pp., Coach House Books

Abject adj. 1. miserable, wretched; 2. degraded, self-abasing, humble

“In the very fist place eroticism differs from animal sexuality in that human sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of those taboos. Desire in eroticism is the desire that triumphs over the taboo.” – Georges Bataille

“Bataille’s for boys.” – Maidenhead

To say that Tamara Faith Berger’s third – and by far her most mature and fully realized – novel is about the sexual awakening of a sixteen-year-old girl is like saying Moby-Dick is the story of a man and a whale. On the surface, the statement is perfectly accurate, but it is so reductive as to be positively laughable.

The girl in question is Myra, whom we first encounter on vacation with her family in Key West, “the last blot of American land before the slaves thrived or sank in the sea.” It’s spring break, and Myra is surrounded by sex: college girls with “bums curved up like fruits” and “guys and girls dancing out there and drinking beers when it was two in the afternoon.” This is merely the first instance of sex and slavery being linked in the novel; indeed, the notion of slavery and victimization becomes a defining theme in a book that is all about shifting planes of power and control. (Unsurprisingly, Hegel provides a large measure of the book’s philosophical underpinning.)

Myra is desperate to lose her virginity, engaging in fantasies of encounters with the college boys she sees on the beach: “I had to keep imagining that I was losing my virginity so one day it would really happen.” On her second day in Key West, Myra breaks away from her indifferent family and meets a black man on the beach. Elijah is a Tanzanian musician possessed of a walking stick and an ocarina. The first time Myra encounters him, he lets her play the ocarina. The second time Myra encounters him, he takes her back to his room, where he urinates on her while masturbating.

All of this occurs in the first twenty pages of the novel. Myra and her family return home to Toronto, where her parents announce they are divorcing. Soon enough, Elijah and his girlfriend, Gayl, appear in the city and begin to lead Myra on a journey of discovery and abjection, a sexual odyssey that becomes increasingly dark and extreme as the novel progresses.

It would be tempting to call Maidenhead a transgressive work, but this label is fraught with implication. According to its dictionary definition, the word “transgress” means to “contravene or go beyond the bounds or limits set by (a commandment, law, etc.).” It is difficult not to employ this word in the context of a system of patriarchal (not to say Puritan) sexual morality; Myra’s experience is only transgressive if one applies a strict set of normative standards to the idea of sexual congress. The notion that female sexuality is complex, and that there may exist instances in which a woman in full control of her faculties might desire abjection or abasement in a sexual context, makes many people with a vested interest in preserving the current political and social power structure (read: men) uncomfortable. (Emily Prager refers to “the conundrum of rape”: the idea that what is horrific and deplorable in reality can, in a fantasy context, be sexually stimulating.)

Elijah and Gayl initiate Myra into a world of behaviour that passes beyond societally sanctioned norms of vanilla sexuality – humiliation, bondage, and sadism are all aspects of their evolving relationship – but Myra’s abiding intelligence ensures that she remains a volitional participant, even in scenarios that involve her ritual debasement. She invites her role as Elijah and Gayl’s slave even as she attempts to iron out ideas of master-slave dynamics in power relationships. She comes to see her own progression as a kind of sexual liberation narrative, once again emphasizing the relationship between sexual slavery and that other kind of slavery.

Abjection, Myra comes to suppose, is a way for a slave to retain power and self-determination. It is no accident that Elijah and Gayl are black: their own histories are riddled with power struggles in which they were the oppressed victims. “You need to grow up,” Gayl says to Myra during a key scene of violence late in the novel. “You took a vacation on the backs of slaves. You and your family having fun like that.” And elsewhere, when Myra attempts to downplay her privilege and power, Gayl sneers at her, “Did you have your own bedroom growing up? … I slept on the floor with four brothers … Head to foot and foot to head.” This is tricky territory, and Berger is unafraid to confront it head on.

Lest the above make it sound like the novel is a dry, philosophical treatise, it should also be pointed out that Maidenhead is a terrifically dirty book, in the tradition of Anaïs Nin and Pauline Réage. It’s a smart, serious, sexy work that asks questions most novels studiously avoid. The interpolated sections featuring Gayl and Myra’s friend Lee deconstructing aspects of the narrative are unnecessary and distracting, but are not sufficient to disrupt a reading experience that, on points, remains potent and raw.

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