Song of Kosovo. Chris Gudgeon; $29.95 cloth 978-0-86492-679-1, 320 pp., Goose Lane Editions
When people think of war in the context of CanLit, it is typically the First World War that comes to mind. But lately, a group of writers has been finding inspiration in the Bosnian war of the 1990s and the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Jim Bartley’s Drina Bridge, and Lesleyanne Ryan’s Braco have all mined the area and its turbulent recent history for material. Significantly, however, each of these authors has chosen to treat their subject in a style that is more or less naturalistic; realism and a strict fidelity to the historical record are the orders of the day.
Chris Gudgeon takes a different approach in his galloping, galumphing novel about the toll that the Milosovic regime, and NATO’s response to it, takes on one family. While Gudgeon does not entirely disavow naturalism, he marries it to an approach that is, in part, frankly absurdist, as befits a place with such a tumultuous history and mythology.
In Gudgeon’s conception, the two are never very far removed. Myth informs Serbia’s history as directly as it informs the experience of the novel’s protagonist, Zavida Zankovic, a young Serbian man who exists by dealing drugs and other contraband on the black market before being abducted and forced into military service.
Zavida is frequently visited by the ghost of Milos Obilic, a warrior who fought in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, “the pivotal, albeit highly mythologized, moment of Serbian history.” After slaying the Ottoman leader, Sultan Murad I, on the field of battle, Obilic himself was killed, though as Gudgeon recounts it, he was not merely decapitated: “They cut Obilic’s body to ribbons, fed most of him to the dogs, and paraded his head and massive genitals on top of spiked standards.” Describing Obilic’s importance to Serbia, Zavida puts it this way: “Everyone’s shit stinks after three days, as we Serbs say, and Obilic’s shit is the grandest, warmest, vilest pile of crap of all.”
Zavida’s insistence on the centrality of myth to the Serbian experience extends to his description of his pious mother, whom he compares to the Kosovo Maiden, “famous for wandering the battlefields of Kosovo in search of her betrothed.” The Kosovo Maiden, Zavida avers, is “a fixture in the popular imagination … rivalled only perhaps by the velvet Christ and those poker-playing dogs.”
Humour is an antidote to the degradation and violence that the Serbian people are heir to, first at the hands of Milosovic, then at the mercy of NATO’s bombs. “To the madness that is Serbia!” is a toast that is invoked in a tavern before the first bombs begin to fall. During the bombing, as NATO B-52s alternate their lethal payloads with packages of CDs and propaganda leaflets, Zavida asserts, “I’m really beginning to like this war.” At another point, the planes drop bags of condoms printed with the word “democracy”: “I handed the package to Tristina. ‘Bill Clinton sends his regards.’” The humour Zavida and his fellow Serbs engage in is frequently tinged with the kind of virile machismo that runs through the culture. “The Americans would never attack,” one line of reasoning goes. “Their President, after all, liked jazz music and fornication. He was practically a Serb.”
But the humour and mythology that serve as coping mechanisms are ultimately ineffective at keeping the violence of history at bay, and Gudgeon is adept at showing the extent to which this violence is not only quotidian, but also bears the qualities of rank absurdism. In one instance, a group of men continue drinking in a tavern as the bombs fall, only gradually coming to realize that one of their number has had the top of his head sheared off by a piece of shrapnel.
“History is a blanket we wrap ourselves in,” Zavida’s father says at one point. “It warms us at night but offers no real protection against bullets or fear.” The fear of constant, random violence is an important motivating factor in the Serbian psyche, Gudgeon shows; actions that may on the surface appear utterly irrational carry a strange kind of logic in a world that has abandoned all reason or predictability. Zavida’s father, an alchemist who quite clearly suffers from bipolar disorder, creates a public spectacle when he builds a bonfire out of a collection of books and proceeds to immolate them and, potentially, himself as well. In a place so beaten down by the depredations of history, the impulse to eradicate the historical record in a purgative fire seems almost understandable.
“How ‘true’ is this story?” Gudgeon asks in the novel’s opening pages. “That is, what elements of this story embrace a verifiable, measurable, and shared reality, and what elements are fabrications, the work of a semi-deranged mind, a prankster, a literary poseur?” His answer, ultimately, is that it doesn’t matter. What the author has created is not a work of documentary realism, but rather a collection of sense impressions of a country and a people undergoing catastrophic suffering. But Song of Kosovo is not a nihilistic book. By rejecting the dictates of strict reportage and producing instead an impressionistic work that combines history, myth, and legend, Gudgeon has written something that cleaves closer to emotional reality than naturalism ever could. The novel is tough, mordantly funny, but, above all, honest.
Vancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.
In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.
The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.
Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?
I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.
I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.
Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.
One aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?
Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.
The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.
Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.
However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).
With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.
In Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?
Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child, and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.
Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.
Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.
There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.
Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?
I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.
I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.
Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.
In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.
Orality within the textual.
I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.
Longtime readers of TSR will be familiar with my affinity for short fiction, and my oft-repeated contention that Canada ranks as one of the most fertile literary fields for this particular genre. Yet, despite boasting a wealth of talent, the reading public seems to shy away from short fiction for reasons that continue to elude me.
In a post for the cultural website Lemon Hound early last fall, I bemoaned the lack of attention stories and collections of short fiction receive in this country:
[There exists] a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form. Beyond those two, a partial list of top-rank Canadian short-story writers past and present should be enough to make most readers sit up and take notice: Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Bill Gaston, Sharon English, Andrew Hood, Matthew Shaw, Carol Windley, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Heighton, Donald Ward, Gloria Sawai, Alexander MacLeod, Michael Christie, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith. Some of these writers alternate between short fiction and novels, but the strength of their shorter works is comparable to the best of what is being produced anywhere in the world.
Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worst little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register.
Although this general disdain is frustrating, I’ve been trying to do my bit to spotlight the form, via the annual 31 Days of Stories on this site, and in writing for the National Post, Quill & Quire, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. (When I was asked to choose my favourite books from 2012 for Quill, three-fifths of them were short-story collections.)
So when Mark Medley, the Books editor at the National Post, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in undertaking a monthly column dedicated to Canadian short fiction, it took me all of about five seconds to say yes.
Called “Shortcuts,” the column debuts today on the Post‘s Afterword blog. It features a double review of two veterans of the CanLit trenches: Leon Rooke and Seán Virgo. Here’s a taste of the inaugural column:
Over the course of a writing career spanning the last four-and-a-half decades, and employing influences that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance art to the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Leon Rooke has determinedly been crafting one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of work in this country. If the house of CanLit has many mansions, Rooke’s is the one with the gargoyles on the turret.
This devotion to a ruggedly individual literary vision (it should come as no surprise that Rooke was born and raised in the United States – Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to be precise) results in writing that will, depending upon one’s temperament and pioneer spirit, appear bracingly original or frustratingly oblique. In any event, it is probably not incorrect to refer to Rooke’s fiction as an acquired taste. Once the taste has been acquired, however, devotees have learned to relish it, hungrily devouring each new work – and they run the gamut from novellas to poems to stage and radio plays – if for no other reason than to discover what unexpected combination of flavours the author will attempt to pull off next.
I’m very grateful to Mark and the Post for providing the opportunity to shine a light on short fiction in Canada, and am looking forward to what is sure to be provocative, challenging, and entertaining reading in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me.
My review of Nicole Dixon’s short-story collection, High-Water Mark, is online at the National Post‘s Afterword blog. The review has already come in for criticism on Twitter as a result of my invocation of what the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney feels is a hoary CanLit cliché.
– Jake(@VoxPopulist) December 14, 2012
Here’s the offending paragraph:
Dixon is uninterested in the kind of lyrical historical romance that was, for some time, the default CanLit setting. Her stories are abrasive and direct, marrying a fierce intelligence with a febrile style that refuses to shy away from profanity or explicit sex. There is a toughness to these stories that testifies to a refreshing honesty, a refusal on Dixon’s part to paper over the more nettlesome aspects of her material, opting rather to face it head-on in all its painful messiness. High-Water Mark is kitchen-sink realism filtered through a storm-tossed East Coast sensibility. And it is chock full of allusiveness and implication.
Twitter controversy aside, I thought Dixon’s book was a bit of alright.
In other news, Toronto-based poet Sachiko Murakami, this month’s writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto, asked me to choose a guest list for an imaginary literary holiday party. You can see my response, along with those of poets David McGimpsey and Alessandro Porco, on the Open Book site.
Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. Douglas Hunter; $33.99 cloth 978-1-44340-673-4, 382 pp., HarperCollins Canada
The year 2004 is remarkable in the history of the Tim Hortons chain of coffee shops/eateries. That was the year the term “double-double,” referring to customers’ preferred method of ordering Tim’s signature blend of coffee (two creams, two sugars), first appeared in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. At the time, Katherine Barber, the dictionary’s editor, told the CBC that the criteria for including the term in what had become the go-to reference book for the Canadian lexicon required ensuring it had penetrated the culture fairly broadly: “‘We had to determine if it was used only in Tim Hortons doughnut shops or more widely,’ Barber said. ‘We found evidence in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and the book Men with Brooms, based on the curling movie.’”
National Business Book Award winner Douglas Hunter mentions the dictionary milestone only once, in passing, in Double Double, his new volume on the history of the company that, in one sense at least, has become indelibly associated with the Canadian identity for many people. “Tim’s is routinely said to have inspired the Canadian ‘double double,’” Hunter writes, “although when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary recently tried to verify this, they couldn’t nail down an indisputable source.”
Hunter makes this observation at the beginning of a chapter titled “The 100 percent: Tim Hortons Becomes the Inclusive Canadian Experience,” in which he floats the argument that the perception of Tim Hortons as the location of choice for hardworking, average Canadians – as opposed to, say, Starbucks, which caters to effete, latte-swilling elites – is largely chimerical, at least from the perspective of corporate governance. Hunter references a York University marketing professor who contends that the Tim Hortons brand is built around the idea of inclusion, not exclusion: “[A] rich businessperson and the unemployed worker can both walk down the street carrying a Tim Hortons coffee and feel comfortable,” Hunter writes. “That’s a unique brand proposition that Tim Hortons does not want to harm. Tim Hortons has always been about the 100 percent.”
While this may be true in terms of branding tactics at head office, it is clearly less true for the politicians who seem to feel it a necessary part of a campaign to appear in a Tim Hortons outlet, holding a steaming cup of java, as a means of forging a connection with Joe and Jane Average Canadian (whom Hunter opposes to “Richard or Rachelle Pretentious Internationalist, frequenter of Starbucks and espouser of non-working-family values”). So essential has this image (or myth) become that Stephen Harper, who does not drink coffee, made a point of pausing in a 2009 address to sip from a Tim Hortons coffee cup (the cup contained hot chocolate). Michael Ignatieff, a tea drinker, also went out of his way to court the Tim Hortons vote during the federal election of 2011. When the Toronto Star‘s Susan Delacourt snapped a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup on a table in Ignatieff’s campaign bus, social media lit up. “‘The Conservative bloggers went wild,’ [Delacourt] recalled. ‘It was, “The elite, latte-drinking Iggy is revealed.”‘ She thinks the image was retweeted more than 500 times.” (The offending beverage belonged to Zsusanna Zsohar, Ignatieff’s wife.)
The process by which Tim Hortons became an iconic part of the Canadian landscape is Hunter’s focus in Double Double. He touches on many key aspects of the corporation’s development, beginning with its inception as a side project for the store’s eponymous NHL defenceman, who was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, the last time the team won a Stanley Cup. The major historical points are enumerated: Horton’s partnership with Ron Joyce; the (apparently alcohol-fuelled) fatal car crash in 1974; Lori Horton’s lawsuit claiming she was duped when she sold her half of the company to Joyce; the company’s IPO and attempt to break into the market south of the 49th parallel. Casting his net broadly, Hunter necessarily sacrifices depth of penetration, but there is much interesting information on offer. The chapters on branding and marketing strategy are particularly interesting, especially in addressing the way the chain positions itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. (Hunter contends that the Tim Hortons/Starbucks rivalry is overstated: McDonald’s is actually the larger threat to Tim’s bottom line. And the observation that Tim Hortons is seen as a coffee supplier in Canada but a doughnut purveyor in the States is a fascinating insight into the divergent psyches of the two countries.)
But the resolute focus on the corporate aspect of the story means that the other side of the story – the one involving the millions of people who daily consume the products that Tim’s offers – largely goes missing. The book’s subtitle promises to explain how “Tim Hortons became a Canadian way of life,” but Hunter does this from the viewpoint of the brand, not that of the commuter standing in line every morning to get his or her caffeine fix before heading into work. Hunter deftly explains corporate endeavours to entice customers during each discrete “day part,” and examines the company’s attempts to broaden its customer base by offering more nutritious menu fare and European-style frothy beverages, but apart from quoting a few posts on the Tim Hortons Facebook page, the voices of the people who actually consume the products being sold are never heard. As a result, we get the company’s MBA-influenced attitude toward consumer psychology, but aren’t permitted to assess that psychology first-hand.
Similarly, Hunter includes quotes and references to a plethora of CEOs, consultants, politicians, and marketing professionals, but does not allow sufficient space for the one group that could arguably provide the most unvarnished ground-level perspective of all: front-line employees in the chain’s stores – the shift workers and part-timers who actually pour the coffee and toast the bagels day in and day out. It is possible that many of these people, working within a corporate culture that maintains rigorous control over its brand image, would be reluctant to talk, or might be less than forthcoming about grievances or problems within the company, but the absence of their voices altogether renders the company portrait somewhat one-sided and incomplete.
Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?
The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.
The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.
The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.
When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.
The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.
And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.
Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.
Tom Waits’s voice was once characterized as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell. This description resonates in an early set piece from Husk, in which the narrator, newly resurrected from the dead, tries to regain control of his vocal chords. The result, we are told, resembles “the sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs.” The moment is typical of author Corey Redekop’s approach in his second novel: it’s utterly macabre, yet simultaneously flat-out hilarious. “There’s a point where everything becomes very funny,” Redekop avers.
Certainly, Husk is not your stereotypical zombie story. First of all, it’s narrated in the first person by a protagonist named Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies a horrible death in the washroom of a moving bus, only to wake up on the slab mid-autopsy. (Restraint is not a quality Redekop indulges in this novel. Sheldon’s death scene, for instance, rivals the suppository sequence from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its gleeful disgust factor.) But then, Redekop explains, he had no intention of writing a typical zombie novel. “I’ve read a couple of books that have zombies as their protagonists,” he says, “but they were honestly all along the lines of The Walking Dead, so they’re still shambling hordes and somehow this one still has intelligence, but they’re still out there eating people, and they can’t really talk. Which is fine: it’s the classic standard for a reason. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me, it’s just that I don’t think I can write that kind of story.”
Indeed, Husk took several different directions on the road to being written. “I had an idea for a zombie detective novel,” says Redekop, “which I wanted to set in a 1950s, Raymond Chandleresque alternate reality. But I could not get the voice right, and I knew I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice.” He eventually abandoned the detective story conceit, although he did retain one element of that manuscript: “The truth is: I liked my first sentence.”
The opening sentence of Husk – “I miss breathing” – sets the tone for what follows. It also nods in the direction of the book’s oddly (for a zombie novel) ruminative quality. But none of what follows was planned in advance, the author claims. “I honestly just decided to follow the character. I didn’t have a preset plan, I didn’t know where the plot was going to go. A lot of it came as a complete surprise to me.”
The surprises included the fact that Sheldon Funk is gay. “I didn’t know he was gay until he killed his lover,” Redekop says matter-of-factly.
The character’s name was less of a surprise, and alludes to the author’s own Mennonite background (Redekop says of Husk, “It’s A Complicated Kindness of zombie novels”). “I’m Mennonite, and I needed a last name. I was playing with the last name of Thiessen, but it just didn’t work right. But then I came across Funk, which is actually a very traditional Mennonite name, and I just thought it really worked for the character.” Redekop adds with a laugh, “I was just trying to please my Mennonite readers.”
Redekop professes fidelity to the classic zombie mythos, and in particular credits the influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. “It was such a milestone,” he says, “and so out of left field. You think it’s going to be a cheap, $10,000 grindhouse film, and then you leave ninety minutes later shaken to your core because he tapped into something incredibly primal.” But despite this influence, Redekop insists that with Husk, he wanted to do something different. “I knew that wherever it was going, I didn’t want it to become a sort of zombie apocalypse novel. It’s not that that’s not interesting, it’s just been done very, very well, and I didn’t want to retell a story that’s already been told.”
One thing Redekop was not worried about was being slotted into a specific genre category. “I’ve been a librarian and I realize you need to categorize things.” That said, it is apparent after a very few pages that Husk is not easily categorizable. “I’ve seen the book in one store classified in the horror section,” Redekop says, “and I don’t think that’s actually accurate. It’s got gore, but I think there’s only one or two scenes that might come across as truly disturbing, and even then I don’t know if I did them all that well. … The book has horror elements, it has comedy elements, and if you had to classify it, you’re certainly going to mention zombies or the undead, because that’s going to attract a certain reader. The only risk is will other people not read it because of that? But that’s valid for every single book out there.”
While Husk may not cleave to the stuffy, middlebrow tastefulness that typifies so much CanLit, Redekop does not feel that its content, or its idiosyncratic approach, places it outside the pantheon, which is in fact much more heterogeneous than many people seem willing to acknowledge. “I know people who have said, ‘I don’t read Canadian literature. I just hate it.’ Well, okay: you’ve obviously never read anything beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.”
Still, the author is not so disingenuous as to assume that all readers will be attracted to his undead character study. As part of his pre-publication publicity endeavours, Redekop created a book trailer that perfectly captures the novel’s darkly comical, yet vaguely unnerving nature.
“I was at my cabin with my extended family and we had a bunch of nieces and nephews there, all twelve and under; they’re all kids, so they’re all loud and screaming all the time. They love to draw, so I had the idea that maybe they could draw me some pictures and maybe I could do something with them.” The “something” Redekop came up with rates as one of the most inspired book trailers of the year. “I wanted to do something that captured how weird the book was, the offbeat nature of it,” he says.
“I think there’s something very wrong about the book. If you get the trailer, you’ll like the book. If you don’t get the trailer, you’re not going to like the book.”
You’ve been warned.
“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”
The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”
The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.
Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”
At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”
The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”
Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”
Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”
Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”
Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”
Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”
He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”
“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.
“Books are here to stay.”
Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.
A couple of things interest me about the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, which was announced on Monday. For those who missed it, the five anointed titles are:
- 419 by Will Ferguson
- Inside by Alix Ohlin
- The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
- Ru by Kim Thúy
- Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky
The first thing that struck me was the number of people – even highly bookish people – who claimed to be unfamiliar with these titles. I realize that I operate from a position as an industry insider, but even so, these are hardly obscure books from small publishers. Certainly Will Ferguson is a known quantity in CanLit, and Alix Ohlin has been written about and discussed widely, including fallout from a notoriously vicious review she was given by The New York Times (itself not exactly an obscure organ). Ohlin also found herself on the shortlist for another major award – the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – earlier this fall. (She is the only author to appear on both lists.) Thúy’s debut novel is already a prize winner, having picked up the Governor General’s Literary Award for its original French version, and both Richler and Wangersky are authors with multiple publications to their names.
But then, perhaps my surprise is unfounded. Precious few people in English Canada pay attention to what gets published in Quebec, so it’s hardly unexpected that Anglo readers would be ignorant of a Francophone first novel, even one that has won a major literary prize. Thúy’s novel is also the most frankly literary of the five books, and not the kind of thing general readers seem to be gravitating toward in large numbers these days. Both Richler and Wangersky have tended to fly under the radar for the bulk of their writing careers.
Anecdotal evidence from booksellers suggests that none of the five nominated titles sold up to expectations prior to the Giller shortlist announcement. This, too, seems unsurprising in a year in which anything unrelated to Fifty Shades of Grey or not written by J.K. Rowling has tended to fall through the cracks.
And there are no powerhouse titles that everyone can agree on this year. Last year saw two books – Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues – dominate prize lists both here and abroad (in addition to the three major domestic prizes, both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the U.K.). This year, of fifteen spots on the power trio of shortlists for fiction – the Giller, the GG, and the Writers’ Trust – only three names overlap – Ohlin, Tamas Dobozy, and Linda Spalding – and no one appears on all three lists.
So perhaps the lack of awareness around the authors on this year’s Giller shortlist is to be expected. Still, in a year in which some really overlooked names continue not just to fly under the radar, but to vanish from the field altogether, it’s a bit startling. If a scant few readers can claim familiarity with Will Ferguson or Alix Ohlin, how many can be expected to have heard of – much less read – worthy books by John Vigna, Anne Fleming, Yasuko Thanh, Alice Petersen, Tamara Faith Berger, Andrew Hood, or Esmé Claire Keith? On second thought, don’t answer that.
The second thing that interests me about this year’s shortlist involves something that John Barber alluded to in his column for The Globe and Mail. About Monday’s shortlist announcement, Barber writes:
Although sufficiently complimentary about all five of the nominated titles, this year’s Giller jury was fulsome on the subject of 419, tipping it as the clear front-runner in this year’s competition for the $50,000 prize.
Indeed, the jury citation for Ferguson’s novel, read by juror Anna Porter at Monday’s press conference, is somewhat remarkable. It calls 419 “something entirely new: the Global Novel.” This, of course, is nonsense: globetrotting thriller writers have been writing “global novels” for years. Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy built very lucrative careers doing exactly that. Nevertheless, the language is tellingly effusive.
So, too, is the jury’s assessment that “It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius.” Note the significance of what has happened here: right out of the gate, this year’s Giller jury – also composed of American author Gary Shteyngart and Irish author Roddy Doyle – has declared one of their nominees a work of genius.
All things being equal, it appears 419 is the book to beat when the prize announcement is made on October 30.
It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.
Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)
The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”
What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.
Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:
“The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.
“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”
So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.
Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.
But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.
Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.
Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.