31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 8: “What We Talk About” by Andrej Blatnik; Tamara M. Soban, trans.

May 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Law of Desire

Law_of_Desire_Andrej_BlatnikThe English title of Andrej Blatnik’s 2010 story collection is You Do Understand. This could reasonably serve as a motto (the question mark is implied) for much of the Slovenian author’s work. Blatnik writes about understanding or, more frequently, misunderstanding: the struggle of individuals to make themselves relatable to others and the difficulties inherent in communicating even basic needs. The law of desire, in Blatnik’s conception, is that it must remain unfulfilled: “A desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore,” the author has said. “Isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?”

As its title suggests, “What We Talk About” riffs on Carver, focusing on the fraught nature of interaction between men and women in a post-postmodern world. The first-person narrator encounters a woman at a library where he is returning a book (the book is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). The man strikes up a conversation with the woman – both of whom are appropriately unnamed in the story – and they go for coffee. They go back to the woman’s apartment, where they engage in a telling dialogue:

“And what are we going to do now?” she said finally.

“Now we’re going to kiss,” I said.

“Oh no, we’re not,” she said.

“I didn’t think we would,” I said.

“Then why did you say it?”

I shrugged.

“You thought you had to. But you didn’t.”

I made no comment on that. “What do you suggest?” I asked.

“We could talk.”

“About what?”

“About kissing, if you like.”

“It’s too innocent,” I said.

“Okay, then about something less innocent.”

“About what?” I pretended not to understand.

“About exactly that,” she said calmly, unruffled.

“You don’t talk about it, you do it,” I objected.

“You’re behind the times all right,” she said.

“So what’s in then?” I asked.

“Not to do it, but only to talk about it.”

Actually having sex, in this conception, would be passé; to talk about having sex, however, perfectly fulfills the post-postmodern impulse for absolute subjectivity. It is impossible to truly know another person, therefore any attempt at intimacy is doomed from the start.

Not to mention that sex is dangerous. The man tells the woman of a friend who is afraid that his girlfriend might catch AIDS by eating salad out of the same bowl as someone else. Then there is the violent confrontation that occurs on the street on a subsequent night. The woman is surrounded by a group of roughnecks who threaten her with physical (read: sexual) violence; the narrator steps in and gets beaten for his efforts, saved from a much worse fate only by a passing police car.

The physical confrontation here is of course another means of communication and, in the event, one that is more direct and clear than anything else in the story. There is a political aspect underlying this confrontation (the gang leader derisively curses the man by saying, “Fuck off, southerner”), but largely it is gendered: the men communicate through violence and, quite explicitly, through the kind of violence they have consumed in the media. “I was aware I had to do something,” the man thinks, “but I don’t have much experience with this type of situation. Well, I knew what they did in the movies, at least.”

Much of the man’s approach to human interaction is gleaned from the movies. He borrows a videocassette of the movie Short Cuts from his brother (more Carver); Altman’s film is probably not the best thing to watch if one wants to clarify how to negotiate smooth interpersonal relationships. But the man admits that his understanding of the world is mediated and second-hand: “Most of the people I come into contact with are like me. We go to the movies. We read books. We listen to music. No harm in that, but it’s not real either, so to speak.”

It may not be real, but it is one of the only ways by which the man knows how to interact with other people. When he and the woman end up in a bar, their conversation swirls around mundane external matters, resolutely refusing to become in any way personal or significant: “we thoroughly exchanged our views on the development or rather decline of motion pictures since Casablanca, touched upon the exorbitance of rents, lauded the new municipal decrees allowing much longer opening hours for bars than in our student years, and so on. Small talk.”

Yet small talk is ultimately better than no talk: it transpires that the man has a girlfriend, who has abandoned him for a trip to the mountains with a mutual male acquaintance. The two are probably having sex, but the man will never know for sure, because he and his girlfriend have a tacit understanding that they will not discuss it. Similarly, when the girlfriend comes home early and encounters the man and the woman at their apartment, she leaves them alone for the night and does not ask questions about what transpires (answer: nothing sexual).

The man spends much of his time in the story trying to convince the woman to divulge to him the nature of her business. He is initially convinced she operates a phone sex line; the truth is much less salacious, but more absurd and finally quite sad. The woman runs a service whereby people call her up and divulge their innermost secrets, thoughts, and desires, which she then strips of all emotion and writes down in an objective, third-person voice. This is the ultimate actualization of an inability to communicate or to acknowledge the importance of a feeling or desire; callers must shroud themselves in anonymity before they can talk to another person about their true emotions or intentions.

Needless to say, any kind of true communication is unavailable to the narrator of the story. “I couldn’t possibly do what I had been contemplating doing for the last couple of minutes,” he thinks. “I could not tell her my story. The one that weighed on my chest.” For the sparse and denuded universe of Blatnik’s story, this is the ultimate tragedy: in a world that has been reduced to media-saturated subjectivity, what we talk about is nothing.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 6: “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

May 6, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Blood_Splatters_Quickly_Ed_WoodIt is rare to encounter an authentic pulp sensibility. Raymond Chandler employed pulp tropes, but he was also a gifted stylist, as were Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. James Ellroy is a stylist who has also created a sex-and-violence-infused alternate history of America in the twentieth century. Jim Thompson possessed disturbingly acute insight into deviant psychology. But real pulp – quick and dirty, unrefined, salacious – was frequently confined to cheaply produced magazines of the 1930s and ’40s with titles like Spicy Detective, Dime Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. Beginning in the late 1960s, another place to locate this material was in the less reputable (though glossier) skin mags.

It was here that Edward D. Wood, Jr. found gainful employment with Bernie Bloom, publisher of Pendulum Publishing, whose titles included Flesh & Fantasy, Balling, and Young Beavers. Bloom apparently prized Wood for his productivity, at least until the writer’s problem drinking became too much of an issue and he was fired in 1974. (Wood died of an alcohol-related heart attack in 1978.)

If Wood is remembered today, it is likely not so much for his fiction (though he was undeniably prolific, producing both novels and stories), but for his work as a filmmaker. In the 1950s, Wood and a company of actors (including an aging Bela Lugosi and professional wrestler Tor Johnson) made a series of films that are cult classics, essentially for being among the worst movies in motion picture history. Most famous among these are the cross-dressing epic Glen or Glenda and the sci-fi disaster Plan 9 from Outer Space. (According to Bob Blackburn, who provides the introduction to Blood Splatters Quickly, the original title – Grave Robbers from Outer Space – was changed at the behest of the Beverley Hills Baptist Church, which was one of the financial backers on the movie.)

In 2014, OR Books brought out Blood Splatters Quickly, which collects thirty-three of the author’s short stories. What is most immediately surprising about these is their range: yes, there are stories about lesbian cowgirls, misogynistic cannibals, and cross-dressing porn stars, but there is also the Vietnam war story “No Atheists in the Grave,” the mock-elegiac “Epitaph for the Village Drunk,” and the naturalistic “Pray for Rain,” which, if you close one eye and squint, could be channelling Steinbeck.

“Scream Your Bloody Head Off” owes more to EC Comics than East of Eden. The opening story in the collection, it is representative of an author steeped in the tropes and traditions of genre horror and Grand Guignol. Writing on Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon coins the term “horropornonoir” to describe Wood’s default mode; this word seems as good as any to characterize the particular approach the author employs here.

The basic story is straight out of James M. Cain: a woman comes at her cheating husband with a knife, the husband kills her, then has to decide how to dispose of the body. It is in its specifics that “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” deviates, quite substantially, from the work of the earlier author.

Stella, the dead wife, has discovered that her husband, Johnnie, has been having an affair with the couple’s neighbour, Barbara. What most infuriates Stella, however, is not the mere fact of her husband’s infidelity. Stella has also been sleeping with Barbara and can’t stomach the idea that her husband was having sex with the same woman. Her revenge fantasies involve (naturally) a butcher’s knife and emasculation: “She was going to cut him up but good and see that he went to the coffin without that thing between his legs. What he had used on earth so often he was not going to get a chance to use in hell.”

Wood injects a stream of jet-black humour into the post-mortem scenes in the story, as the hapless Johnnie searches for a way to dispose of his wife’s corpse. His initial idea – to dump the body in the lake – is not feasible because it is the dead of winter and the lake is frozen. Similarly, the ground would be too solid for a shovel to crack, so burying the body in the woods is out. The solution he comes up with – which is as implausible as it is outrageous – is to bleed the body dry in the bathtub, cut up the dessicated remains, and feed them into the kitchen garbage disposal.

Of course all of this is sick and perverse – that is the point, and the nature of the medium. And Wood displays absolutely no facility with psychic distance, switching indiscriminately from Johnnie’s perspective to Stella’s when necessary to convey essential background information to the reader.

But there is an undeniable energy to the story, and an evident glee at the prospect of seeing just how far the author can stretch his scenario. The offences perpetrated on a woman’s body are standard genre tropes that have fallen into disrepute in some corners of late – in many cases, for good reason – although the same kind of stuff can be seen pretty much any night of the week on reruns of CSI or Criminal Minds. As for Johnnie’s retribution at the story’s end, it comes in a form that is unexpected and mordantly funny (it involves a neglected piece of Stella’s bloody scalp and a flight of stairs).

“Degeneracy runs rampant!” Wood writes in “I, Warlock.” “Call down the degenerates!” This could be a rallying cry for the author’s entire oeuvre, and for “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” specifically. There is a kind of degeneracy to the story that is absent from the work of other, more respectable genre practitioners. It is true pulp fiction, not the ersatz, art-house stuff that too often gets filtered through a soft-focus lens to render it palatable to a mainstream audience.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 5: “Goodnight, Sweetheart” by James Purdy

May 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

Complete_Short_Stories_James_PurdyJames Purdy is a writer who constantly found himself shut out of the front ranks of the American canon. This was not for want of admirers. Among the literati who sang the author’s praises, Purdy could number as fans Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Gore Vidal. Reviewing the novel Cabot Wright Begins in 1964, Susan Sontag called Purdy “indisputably one of the half dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” Contemporary fans include filmmaker John Waters (who supplies an introduction to the Liveright edition of the Complete Short Stories), Jonathan Franzen, and Tao Lin.

Not everyone is so effusive, however. Waters points out that the critic Edmund White “claim[s] to be ‘allergic’ to Purdy’s work,” while Dwight Garner, reviewing the Complete Short Stories in The New York Times, suggests that Purdy “remains one of those American originals who is mostly more interesting to read about than to actually read.”

No doubt Purdy is controversial, as even a casual acquaintance with the stories should indicate. He is frequently disdainful of women, if not outright misogynistic. The story “About Jessie Mae” features two nattering biddies who are a caricature of small-town gossips, and “Lily’s Party” is a pornographic horror show about a woman who is passed back and forth between two sexually ravenous men. In “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name,” a husband viciously beats his wife after she admits wanting to revert to her maiden name. (The husband’s name, which “irritated her,” is Klein, adding at least an incipient note of anti-Semitism to the mix.)

There is no doubt that Purdy, who died in 2009 at the not unenviable age of 94, was a provocateur of the first order, which goes some way to explaining his appeal to people like Waters and Lin. He could also be an irredeemably cruel writer, which helps explain Franzen’s affinity. And he was possessed of a streak of vicious humour that is pure Dorothy Parker. But in terms of his tone and approach – part satire, part fabulist – his closest literary relative is arguably Nathanael West, whose depictions of a specifically American kind of malice and anomie feel right at home alongside Purdy’s own writing.

The story “Goodnight, Sweetheart” begins with an eighth-grade schoolteacher named Pearl Miranda fleeing her schoolhouse and taking refuge in the home of a local man named Winston Cramer. When she arrives on his porch, Miss Miranda is completely naked; she claims that when she was alone in the classroom after school, a man with a gun burst in and stole her clothes as “a trick” to avenge his younger sister, whom Miss Miranda had had expelled. Winston suspects that Miss Miranda has been raped, and tries to convince her to visit a doctor in the morning.

It is tempting to read the story in a straightforward manner, but as always with Purdy, such temptation should be resisted. A brief sketch of the story’s plot belies the elliptical nature of Purdy’s treatment; “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is ostensibly a work of naturalism, but its plain dialogue hints at hidden meaning beneath the surface. Miss Miranda claims she has taken refuge with Winston because she was compelled to: “I had to come here tonight,” she tells him. “You know that.” This snippet, so easily passed over in a cursory reading, is strongly suggestive of something beyond what we know of these characters directly. As is Winston’s dismissal of his neighbour, Bertha Wilson, witnessing the naked schoolteacher enter his home: “‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Winston said. ‘Nobody will think anything about us.'”

The italicized final word draws attention to itself, prompting questions in the reader’s mind: what is it about Miss Miranda and Winston – apart or in tandem – that might exempt them from suspicion in the eyes of their fellow townspeople? At almost sixty years of age, Miss Miranda is a spinster, and Winston lives alone in the house he shared with his mother until the older woman’s death. He does his own cooking, a fact that prompts an odd reaction from Miss Miranda: “‘I bet you’re a good cook, Winston. You were always a capable boy.’ Her voice lowered as she said the second sentence.” To what, exactly, does the reference to Winston being “a capable boy” refer, and what would prompt Miss Miranda to lower her voice at this moment? (When Winston responds, Purdy underlines that it is in an artificially loud tone.)

There is another reference to lowered voices between the two, at the story’s end. They are in bed together, Winston having tucked the woman in after she succumbs to violent paroxysms of shivering. “He had thought to go upstairs and sleep in the bedroom that had been his mother’s” we are told, “but he didn’t know whether he had the strength to get up there, and in the end he had crawled back under the covers next to Miss Miranda.” He speaks to the old woman twice, telling her goodnight. The second time he does so by uttering the story’s title phrase: “‘Good night, sweetheart,’ he said again, in a much lower voice.”

The repetition of the hushed voice here is notable, as is the term of endearment, though there is nothing overtly sexual about this particular moment. On one level, it could be read simply as one person attempting to comfort another, though the context and the nature of the experience Miss Miranda has undergone renders this reading problematic at best. As the two lie together in bed, we are told, “both muttered to themselves in the darkness as if they were separated by different rooms from one another.” This, too, is an echo of an earlier moment in the story, when Winston absents himself to the kitchen and Miss Miranda overhears him mumbling to himself. “She supposed all lonely people muttered to themselves, and it was one of the regrettable habits she could never break in herself.” Are these, then, merely two lonely people, one of whom has suffered a traumatic experience, or is there much more going on?

The story is largely suggestive of the latter. During their interaction, Miss Miranda – to whom Winston always refers with the honorific – reverses roles with her supposed comforter, holding his head when he becomes sick from what he initially blames on a virus, then later attributes to appendicitis. “The doctor will come and fix us both up,” Winston tells Miss Miranda late in the story, an assertion the reader cannot help but question.

The unease in the story resides in what is deliberately withheld. The true nature of the relationship between Miss Miranda and Winston is never revealed, and at the story’s penultimate moment Miss Miranda catches a glimpse of Winston’s deceased mother in a picture hanging on the bedroom wall; she appears “pretty much as Miss Miranda remembered her.” This remark is never explained or clarified, nor is the exact nature of what happened to the teacher made explicit. “Goodnight, Sweetheart” provides a snapshot of small-town America in which the home appears to be a haven or a refuge from the evil of the world at large, but it remains unclear exactly what truths the home itself conceals within its walls.

In her assessment of Purdy’s output, Sontag identifies a number of distinct modes in which the author can be seen to work: “There is Purdy the satirist and fantasist; Purdy the gentle naturalist of American, particularly small-town American, life; and Purdy the writer of vignettes or sketches, which give us a horrifying snapshot image of helpless people destroying each other.” The author of “Goodnight, Sweetheart” appears to hover somewhere between the latter two states; in its glancing, abstruse presentation, the story leaves it to the reader to determine how to interpret the discomfiting particulars. Like many of Purdy’s stories, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is constructed like a trap, with the careless reader its unsuspecting victim.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 4: “The House Made of Sugar” by Silvina Ocampo; Daniel Balderston, trans.

May 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Thus Were Their Faces

Thus_Were_Their_Faces_Silvina_OcampoThe work of Argentinian writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has largely been overshadowed by that of three other figures: her sister, Victoria, a publisher and critic; her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friend, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. These four luminaries formed a tight circle, promoting and influencing one another. In 1931, Victoria Ocampo established Sur, a significant literary journal of the modernist movement in Latin America. The journal published the work of Casares and Borges, along with other important writers such as José Ortega Y Gasset, Ernesto Sabato, and Julio Cortázar. Victoria was also, not incidentally, the first publisher of her younger sister’s literary work.

Ocampo, whom Borges describes as “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” came to writing after having studied as a visual artist with Giorgio de Chirico. “I came to know the trials of artists, and the joys,” she wrote in 1987. “I submerged myself in colors that reflected my soul or the state of my spirit.” She claimed to have grown “disillusioned” with painting, and turned to writing as a means to reconcile concepts of colour and form. “Writing is like having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die.”

The tensions involved in this assessment – between sprite and demon, happiness and a “wish to die” – are strikingly prevalent in Ocampo’s fiction, which is not in the realist mode, but operates rather in the realm of fabulism. In her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a newly released compendium of Ocampo’s selected stories (some appearing in translation for the first time), Helen Oyeyemi refers to Ocampo as “a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school.” This might make her stories appear unfamiliar to North American readers; they may appear less so to Latin American readers steeped in a tradition of magic realism.

“Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry,” Oyeyemi writes, “where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses.” If an encounter with Ocampo’s fiction on the part of a reader weaned on the subtle epiphanies of Chekhov and Joyce proves initially disjunctive, the writing is nevertheless entrancing, calling the reader back or driving her forward, notwithstanding the unfamiliarity and sense of discontinuity. In Oyeyemi’s words, “there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray.”

“The House Made of Sugar” is typical in this regard. Originally collected in Ocampo’s 1959 volume The Fury, the story is a bitter fable about a failed marriage, full of uncanny happenings and weirdness. It begins in a manner that is straightforward enough, with the unnamed male narrator meeting and marrying Cristina. The new bride is highly superstitious, and refuses to live anywhere there has been a previous tenant who might have left psychic scars on the property. When the narrator finds the titular house, he lies to his wife about its former occupant, a woman named Violeta. In short order, visitors begin arriving at the property and mistaking Cristina for Violeta; as the events of the story become stranger, Cristina’s identity blurs into that of the other woman.

Ocampo plants the seeds for what is to come from her opening sentences, which refer to the superstitions Cristina suffers from. The second sentence makes reference to a “coin with a blurry face” and “the moon seen through two panes of glass” – images of distortion and elision that will be actualized by the story’s end. These details immediately place the reader off kilter, nodding at a sense of unreality and creeping unease that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds.

The house itself contributes to this sense of disturbance. “Its whiteness gleamed with extraordinary brilliance,” Ocampo writes, hinting at notions of innocence and purity that will be systematically dismantled by the story’s close. The appearance of the house as being made of sugar lends it an otherworldly aspect, like the magical castle in a fairy tale, but this also proves chimerical. “It seemed our tranquillity would never be broken in that house of sugar,” the narrator says, “until a phone call destroyed my illusion.” In this story, as elsewhere in Ocampo’s work, domestic bliss is illusory, a condition the narrator testifies to, albeit unconsciously, by his admission that in the early days of their marriage he and Cristina were “so happy that it sometimes frightened” him. “We loved each other madly,” the narrator claims, and the attentive reader will note the thud of foreboding in the final adverb.

Of course, the marriage is doomed from the start, based as it is on a lie. The narrator is so paranoid about the possibility that Cristina might discover the truth about the house’s previous tenant that he begins to spy on her and follow her on her travels. For her part, Cristina takes in a stray dog, is visited by a mysterious man dressed as a woman who accuses her of dallying with someone named Daniel, and begins to sing spontaneously and incessantly. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life,” Cristina says, “her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes. I’m bewitched.”

The narrator’s lie becomes manifest in his wife, whose identity – and, perhaps, even her actual person – gets subsumed by Violeta. By the story’s end, the wife has fled and the pristine white house stands empty. “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar,” laments the narrator.

Oyeyemi points to an interview from 1980 in which Ocampo suggested that she had been passed over for a national literary prize because her fiction is too cruel. “The House Made of Sugar” does not read as a cruel story; in its uncanny aspects and the central doubling motif (not to mention the manse at its centre that serves as a locus for the characters’ dissolution) it resembles Poe, but the overall feeling is one not of malignancy but sadness. It is a fable about the ineffability of personality and the ultimate inability of anyone to truly know anyone else. It leaves its readers, like its characters, gutted and empty, as empty as the titular house – “the ideal place, the house of our dreams.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 3: “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” by Hilary Mantel

May 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories

The_Assassination_of_Margaret_Thatcher_Hilary_MantelIn February 1989, Elvis Costello released his twelfth studio album, Spike, which contained a track called “Tramp the Dirt Down.” A furious political lament, the song viciously lambasted Margaret Thatcher, at the time the U.K.’s sitting prime minister. “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam,” Costello sang with unbridled venom. The song imagines the politician’s eventual death and burial: “[W]hen they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

One year earlier, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate, which included the song “Margaret on the Guillotine.” Morrissey addressed the sitting politician in lyrics that are less poetic than Costello’s, but no less corrosive: “The kind people / Have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you / Make me feel so tired / When will you die?” In a statement following the Iron Lady’s death in 2013, Morrissey reiterated his detestation of the woman and her politics, and decried the fact that the media had taken the opportunity of her passing to engage in a healthy dose of revisionist history: “Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to rewrite history in order to protect patriotism.”

First elected in 1979 as Britain’s first – and to date, only – woman prime minister, Thatcher remained in office until 1990, when political infighting prompted her resignation. During her time in power, she presided over a country fiercely divided about economic policies that many felt targeted society’s most vulnerable citizens (Thatcher was a proponent of the U.S. economic platform favouring low taxes, spending cuts, and tax breaks for the rich and powerful, a platform that came to be known in the 1980s as “Reganomics”). More potently, perhaps, she was also a fierce policy hawk, advocating increased spending on the military and intervention abroad, most notoriously in the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Thatcher went to war against Argentina in the tiny South Atlantic colony, a contentious move that nevertheless resulted in her election victory the following year.

To say that Thatcher was a divisive figure is anodyne, though her opposition was solidified – as Costello and Morrissey’s musical responses attest – among artists, a group largely disdained by the government of the day, and a group that can usually be counted upon to express empathy for the victims of neoconservative policies – victims who typically congregate among the ranks of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the disaffected.

What is remarkable about artistic responses to Thatcher along the lines of Costello’s and Morrissey’s is the fact that they focus, explicitly and literally, upon the desire for their subject’s death. Costello assumes a death by natural causes, whereas Morrissey imagines a more violent retribution; in this, he is closer to Hilary Mantel in her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” which caused a stir last year when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime” program.

Whether a story that imagines Thatcher’s assassination in 1983 at the hands of an IRA assassin could be considered gentle bedtime fare is one thing. But the furore that erupted around the broadcast took a much more political bent, with conservative commentators expressing outrage that a writer could imaginatively convey the murder of a British leader, even one year after the former politician’s death and some twenty-four years after her stepping down as prime minister. A commentary in the Mail on Sunday at the time referred to Mantel’s story as “an insignificant catchpenny squib,” and stated that her opinions of the former prime minister are “adolescent.” The editorial did grant the author a certain backhanded freedom: “She is free to offend and upset those who were maimed or bereaved in an actual IRA attempt to murder this country’s legitimate premier – just as others are rightly free to despise the author’s views.” But it went on to suggest that the BBC’s decision to broadcast the story was a result of left-wing media bias.

The attacks on the story arose, naturally, from a position of outrage and completely ignored the fact that it is a work of imagination (whose author, significantly, waited until its subject was actually dead to publish it, unlike the two musicians cited above, and unlike the American author Nicholson Baker, whose fantasia about killing George W. Bush, Checkpoint, was published while the notorious U.S. president remained in office). Nor do they note the story’s evident literary qualities. The IRA sniper’s gun, for instance, is colloquially known as a “widowmaker,” a defiantly ironic appellation when dealing with a story about Britain’s first female prime minister. The first-person voice (that of a woman whose apartment the sniper cons his way into in order to carry out his scheme) is consistent and believable, shifting imperceptibly from the kind of tea she has to offer the intruder to considerations of whether he plans to murder her, too.

And the political analysis is, all protestation to the contrary, nuanced and thoughtful. Here, for instance, is the narrator ruminating on the state of Ireland during the Troubles:

Patriotism was only an excuse to get what they called pie-eyed, while their wives had tea and gingernuts then recited the rosary in the back kitchen. The whole thing was an excuse: why we are oppressed. Why we are sat here being oppressed, while people from other tribes are hauling themselves up by their own ungodly efforts and buying three-piece suits. While we are rooted here going la-la-la auld Ireland (because at this distance in time the words escape us) our neighbours are patching their quarrels, losing their origins and moving on, to modern, non-sectarian forms of stigma, expressed in modern songs: you are a scouser, a dirty scouser. I’m not, personally. But the north is all the same to southerners. And in Berkshire and the Home Countries, all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.

Moreover, the same controversy did not befall the author’s two Man Booker Prize–winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which similarly deal with political violence and intrigue, but are set far enough in the past that sensitive readers can refrain from having their feathers too unduly ruffled. (Though certain cynical commentators did note the timing of the BBC’s broadcast of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and suggested that it was a PR stunt to promote the upcoming television adaptation of Wolf Hall.)

And if the story gives offence, where is the harm? It should give offence: its subject is grave, the history behind it is dire, and the issues it raises are still ongoing. As a work of imagination, it reckons with difficult material in a way that is direct and unsparing, but not without empathy for all that. It’s just that its empathy is located with the victims of the Iron Lady’s reign, not the government she presided over or its beneficiaries.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 2: “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by Edna O’Brien

May 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Love Object: Selected Stories

The_Love_Object_Edna_O'BrienEdna O’Brien begins her story “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by breaking the rules. Short fiction, we are told, is a form that relies on concentration: of theme, of language, and of character. Stories are most often psychological, but the psychologies they limn tend to be individual; it is uncommon for a work of short fiction to incorporate a large cast of characters or to examine a cross-section of society. As Frank O’Connor has pointed out, the novel is the great social genre in literature; stories focus closely on one or two characters.

“‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” is approximately twenty pages long; the first half is taken up with an expressionistic, bird’s eye view of an Irish town. Addressing the reader in the second person, O’Brien presents brief sketches of a number of the villagers, past and present. These include Angela, an ex-nun who leaves the convent and takes up residence with her less attractive sister. Angela becomes enamoured of her sister’s husband and eventually dies of a wasting disease. We are introduced to a “respectable lady” who has her shoes stolen by an itinerant tinker (a kind of Irish gypsy). Another abode houses a defrocked priest; yet another contains “an unfortunate woman” who spends her day as a cleaner “while her husband skulks in woods to assault girls and women.” Some of the town’s women are so wanton, we are told, that the predatory husband does not need to force himself on them: they give themselves over to him willingly.

It is far from accidental that O’Brien, in her opening paragraph, insists on the sleepiness of the town, its apparently boring and “somnolent” aspect. A traveller might find the village “picturesque,” a place where life “has a quiet hum to it.” Such a traveller, O’Brien’s omniscient narrator asserts, would hardly pause while passing through “on [the] way to somewhere livelier.”

O’Brien is operating in the manner of David Lynch in Blue Velvet: she offers the veneer of a quaint village in rural Ireland, only to yank back the curtain to display the perverse venality that lies behind it. There is a strong streak of Gothicism in all of this, along with an emphasis on religion: one of the first landmarks noted in the opening paragraph is “a stone, Roman-type church.” Yet there are early indications that the religion that infuses the town is fractured and debased: Angela has left the convent, after all, and the priest has been defrocked.

From these early intimations, O’Brien zooms in and sharpens her focus in the story’s second half, which moves from the general to the specific. Here we are introduced to Ita McNamara, a devout sacristan who turns out to be the story’s central character. (It is surely atypical for a writer of short fiction to withhold the first appearance of her protagonist until the latter part of the story.)

Ita now lives across the road from the church, secreted inside a two-storey house that huddles behind a “disgrace” of a garden. “Everything is rampant: trees, shrubs, briars all meshed together in some mad knot, not only obscuring the path, but traveling right up along the windows, so that no one can see in.” In the context of the enfeebled and degraded images of religion we have already encountered, it is impossible not to read this as describing a kind of overgrown and decaying Garden of Eden, symbolic of Adam and Eve’s ejection and fall from grace.

Ita’s story is narrated retrospectively; at the time of her “catastrophe,” we are told, she was “a paragon” in the town, “the most admired devout person there.” Her downfall is precipitated by the arrival of a parish priest named Father Bonaventure, with whom Ita becomes entranced (the parallels between Ita and Angela are persistent and deliberate). Following a thunderous sermon during which Father Bonaventure rains down hellfire and brimstone on the village congregants, Ita steals a lily from the church. When she is found in her room after a commotion that night, she claims that the flower raped her.

Ita is, of course, branded a lunatic and sent off to an asylum, “where she spent the best part of a year and took to sucking in her cheeks, refusing to speak to anyone and having to be barred from the chapel because the sight of flowers drove her into a frenzy.” Here we have the psychological explication for the horrid state of Ita’s neglected garden in the present; it is also notable that the flower she steals from the church is a lily, with all its commingled associations of innocence, spirituality, and romantic love. The lily stands in for Father Bonaventure, the object of Ita’s desire who remains untouchable to her. When her brother discovers her in her room at night, Ita demands he seek out the priest so that he can exorcise the demon she is convinced resides within the flower.

The images of religious torment and disaffection that began as glimpses and allusions in the early stages of the story become furious and orgiastic by the story’s end; the picturesque town with the stone church at its entrance masks a seething tide of perversity and frank insanity. (It is notable, too, that the one specific feature of the church that gets mentioned in the opening paragraph is the graveyard that adjoins it, an association that gets picked up at the end in a reference to Angela, her sister, and her sister’s husband being “morsels for the maggots,” all of them buried creepily close together in the cemetery.)

Only in retrospect does O’Brien’s careful construction become clear; the symbolic and allusive elements seeded in the first half of the story blossom forth in the second. In the final paragraph, the narrator swivels round to address the reader directly one last time: “Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort Ita, would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining … or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full blast.” O’Brien insists on the reader’s complicity, but does not quite condemn the reader who, like the wayward travellers, might want nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. To remain is to be forced to contend with what lies beneath the town’s placid surface, what roils at the heart of this odd, disturbing, and audacious story.

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.

Two sides of John Boyne

October 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Stay_Where_You_Are_and_Then_LeaveDublin-born author John Boyne is most famous for the 2006 novel (and motion picture) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, an audacious work of young-adult fiction that addresses the fraught subject of the Holocaust. Among the book’s many honours are the Irish Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, the Iowa Teen Book Award, and the Que Leer Award for Best International Novel of the Year. The book was also nominated for the British Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a testament to Boyne’s fearlessness as an author: he is willing to tackle subject matter that many novelists writing for adults assiduously avoid, and to do so in a way that does not condescend to his younger audience.

Boyne’s new work for children is a First World War novel called Stay Where You Are and Then Leave. The protagonist is nine-year-old Alfie Summerfield, who is celebrating his fifth birthday in London on the day that war breaks out. For young Alfie, his birthday party is “both a happy and sad memory” – happy because he is in the presence of his family and his best friend, Kalena Janacek; sad because the adults in the group are consumed by anxiety over the declaration of war. Alfie’s mother, Margie, elicits a promise from her husband, Georgie, not to enlist – a promise Georgie breaks the following day.

After Georgie is sent off to France, and Kalena and her father – who are Jews from Prague – are shipped away for being alleged German spies, Alfie steals the elder Janacek’s shoeshine box and travels to King’s Cross tube station, where he launches a lucrative business shining shoes.

Boyne paints a sobering picture of life during wartime: the depredations, the lack – of food, of money, of security – the constant worry about friends and relatives in jeopardy. When Georgie’s letters from overseas stop coming, Alfie becomes convinced his father has been killed in combat; a chance meeting at his shoeshine stand suggests he may be wrong about this, and he embarks on a journey to discover the truth.

Boyne depicts the horrors of combat through Georgie’s letters from the front, and takes readers on a voyage through a hospital for soldiers sent home suffering from shell shock. These scenes are filtered through the perspective of the book’s nine-year-old protagonist, which lends them an added level of unease due to the psychic distance the author employs. Alfie is highly intelligent, but he remains a young boy, and the things he encounters exist far outside his level of experience and maturity.

It is a cliché that war forces children to grow up too fast, but Boyne uses his hero as a mechanism for examining the various tolls the First World War – and by extension, war in general – exacted on those left behind. Younger readers will likely not comprehend every implication contained in the narrative, but this is immaterial: the book’s refusal to talk down to its audience is one of its most impressive features.

After reading Boyne’s take on the Holocaust and the First World War, it would be easy to assume that his imagination runs exclusively to heavy historical material. Such assumptions would be wrong.

Barnaby_BrocketBoyne’s 2012 novel, The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, complete with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, is a lively, whimsical story that puts the lie to the notion that Boyne is incapable of crafting lighter fare for young readers. Which is not to suggest that Barnaby Brocket is an insubstantial novel: quite the opposite. The book takes up a subject dear to many young readers’ hearts: the perils and triumphs of being different in a world that prizes conformity.

Born to parents who pride themselves on being unwaveringly normal, Barnaby has a congenital condition that proves challenging, to say the least. Barnaby floats. In the hospital delivery room, the doctors and Barnaby’s mother lose track of him the instant he emerges from the womb; they locate him hovering around the ceiling. “Barnaby Brocket, the third child of the most normal family who had ever lived in the Southern Hemisphere, was already proving himself to be anything but normal by refusing to obey the most fundamental rule of all. The law of gravity.” All this is accompanied by an illustration of the doctors and nurses, along with the new mother, in the delivery room, staring upward in astonishment.

Barnaby’s unusual ability becomes such a bone of contention for his doggedly conventional parents that one day his mother cuts him loose from the leash she attaches him to and allows him to float away into a new life. He is rescued by two elderly women in a hot-air balloon, whereupon he embarks on an adventure of discovery that takes him to various locations around the globe, not to mention outer space. (Okay, middle space.)

As with his more serious novels, Boyne does not pander to his audience. The two women piloting the hot-air balloon, Ethel and Marjorie, are a lesbian couple, though this is not stated explicitly. Boyne hints at their situation in asides, such as the one in which Barnaby ponders why the women are holding hands. The implication, however, is clear: Barnaby and the women are kindred spirits, in the sense that they are all on the outside of conventional society in one respect or another.

Boyne deploys a light touch in dealing with these themes and subjects, consistent with the overall humorous tone of the book, which is a stark contrast to the subject matter in Stay Where You Are and Then Leave and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The author’s versatility is admirable (he also writes novels for adults, the most recent of which deals with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church), and whether serious or lighthearted, his fiction for young people is characterized by an intelligence and a high-mindedness (in the best possible sense) that, in a literary genre sadly glutted with vampires, werewolves, and fantasy dystopias, is fabulously rare.

***

I’ll be talking with John Boyne about his creative process as part of the 35th annual Harbourfront International Festival of Authors tomorrow at 12:00 p.m.

The world in its unease: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh and Walt by Russell Wangersky

October 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

A_Lovely_Way_to_BurnSometimes, fiction rubs up against real-world events in uncanny ways. When she began writing her latest novel, the first instalment in the Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh could not have known that it would be published the same year the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history would sweep across West Africa. And yet the disease, which is name-checked in A Lovely Way to Burn, bears striking resemblance to the fictional pandemic that serves as the backdrop for the book.

The atmosphere Welsh creates is grim: as a global pandemic colloquially called “the sweats” rages out of control, the citizens of London fall victim to the disease and paranoid hysteria in roughly equal measure. As people flee the city in large numbers, vermin begin to take over, a hospital is reduced to “a nightmare of darkened corridors,” and the streets take on “a blighted look.”

Against this stark background, former journalist Stevie Flint ignores advice and her best instincts, both of which tell her to leave the urban area until the sweats has somehow burnt itself out. But Stevie is driven by a need to find out the truth about her boyfriend, a celebrated doctor named Simon Sharkey, who has died, apparently of natural causes. In a city overrun by a deadly airborne disease, the term “natural causes” takes on dreadful connotations. Nevertheless, Stevie is convinced that Simon was murdered, and pursues her investigation in the face of antipathy from people who want to conceal the truth or use her – a survivor of the disease who may be immune – for their own ends.

In her acknowledgements, Welsh admits that her inspiration for the book’s mise en scène arose not from a specific outbreak but from a childhood characterized by “a mild obsession” with nuclear weapons, and from television. “The idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent has been around since ancient times,” the author writes. “Personally, I am amazed that we have survived this long, and while I don’t exactly look forward to the end of the world as we know it, the knowledge that it may be just around the corner probably enhances the way I live.”

The end of the world as we know it may be a bit rash: Welsh’s pestilent dystopia bears certain resemblances to the devastation in West Africa, but her fictional pandemic evinces a mélange of influences. The symptoms of the sweats are similar to Ebola, but the disease in the novel is airborne, making it much closer to SARS, which sowed panic around the globe in 2003.

Certainly, readers of A Lovely Way to Burn will not be able to dissociate the events of the novel from the events unfolding daily across the front pages of their newspapers. (Now that two American nurses have been infected with Ebola on U.S. soil, the West – in particular the States – has finally awoken to the urgent nature of the disease, something all too easy to ignore when it was confined to the African continent.) This lends the novel an added frisson that keeps the pages turning and the reader wondering edgily, “What if?”

Walt_Russell_WangerskyThere is unease aplenty in Russell Wangersky’s new novel, though not as a result of anything so exotic as a deadly airborne virus. The threat at the heart of Walt is staggeringly quotidian, which actually serves to make it that much creepier.

The eponymous character is a janitor at a grocery store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Walt occupies himself by picking up the shopping lists discarded by patrons leaving the store: tossed indifferently into trash bins, or on the floor. A loner who has developed a keen insight into human psychology, Walt has perfected the art of developing remarkably accurate profiles of the people who create these lists based on the contents, the handwriting, and the type of stationery. If a patron – always female – catches Walt’s attention, he uses their abandoned grocery lists as a springboard to stalk them online, eventually escalating to voyeurism and home invasion.

Wangersky is a journalist, and his spare, reportorial style heightens the disquiet in the book, as does his technique of fracturing the narrative between Walt’s first-person narration, the diary entries of a woman he is observing, and the perspective of one of a pair of cold-case officers on the St. John’s force who think there is something suspicious about the disappearance of Walt’s wife. One of the cops, Inspector Dean Hill, has recently split with his own spouse; there are clear parallels in the way Walt stalks his victims and the time Hill spends outside his estranged wife’s home, observing her from the darkened windows of his car.

As a portrait of a disturbed mind told from the antagonist’s perspective, Walt shares elements in common with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and The Collector by John Fowles. Like those books, Walt also features a male character who preys on women, but though Wangersky has written about a misogynist, it would be a mistake to suggest he has written a misogynistic book. He follows in the footsteps of Mailer and Dostoevsky, delving into the psychology of a deeply disturbed character as a means of attempting to understand the motivations behind some of the darkest impulses in the human psyche. That he does so in such a dispassionate way, and using such everyday circumstances as a backdrop, only serves to heighten the creeping discomfort on the part of the reader.

***

I’ll be speaking with Louise Welsh on Thursday, October 30, as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. I’ll also be hosting Russell Wangersky at IFOA on Sunday, October 26, as part of a panel that also features Adam Sol and Matthew Thomas.

The scorched earth society: The Everything Store by Brad Stone

September 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Brad Stone; $20.00 paper 978-0-316-21928-0, 394 pp., Back Bay Books

The_Everything_StoreTry this: open a new window in your browser, and type in the URL Relentless.com. Note the website you are redirected to.

Relentless was one of the working names Jeff Bezos was toying with for what eventually became Amazon.com. Another potential name for the site was MakeItSo.com, a reference to the catch-phrase of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. These two monikers are typical of the polarity that exists within the Amazon CEO, at least as he is portrayed in Brad Stone’s book about the internet giant’s “origin story.” Reading The Everything Store, the impression one gets of Bezos is one part cutthroat businessman, one part technogeek futurist.

Both aspects of Bezos’ personality have been important to Amazon’s survival, though it is the ruthlessness that cuts through Stone’s portrait most persistently. Bezos recognized earlier than most people the significance of the internet, and its potential as a disruptive force across a broad spectrum of industries. He chose books as a launching pad because books are “pure commodities,” though Stone points out that Amazon soon diversified, moving first into music and DVDs, then later into toys, jewellery, and other areas, each time with the same aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to doing business.

During the 1999 Christmas shopping season, for example, one Amazon buyer discovered that stock of a particular Pokémon product, which was especially popular that year, had been depleted in the company’s warehouse; she sent employees out to buy up stock from their competitors, going so far as to avail themselves of the online Toys R Us free shipping offer. “Because they were so new to the e-commerce space,” Stone quotes the Amazon buyer as saying, “they really did not have the tools to alert them to us wiping out their inventory until it was too late.”

Years later, in an attempt to outbid Walmart in the sale of an internet company that owned the lucrative website Diapers.com, Amazon artificially drove down the price of diapers online, engaging in what Stone refers to as a “Khrushchev-like willingness to take the e-commerce equivalent of the thermonuclear option in the diaper price war.”

And when Bezos decided to dive into the choppy waters of e-reading by developing the first Kindle, he told the executive in charge to “proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.”

That single-minded determination, coupled with an absolute refusal to countenance fools or naysayers, is responsible for much of Amazon’s success, including its ability to weather the financial storm created when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. “They have an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around them to emerge the winner,” says one anonymous commenter quoted by Stone. Elsewhere, Rick Dalzell, one of Bezos’ key collaborators for much of Amazon’s history, says of the CEO, “What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

Stone provides a remarkably even-handed overview of Amazon and its CEO, though he pulls no punches in describing a corporate culture that is frequently as remorseless with its own workers as with the industries it targets. Its owner, who Stone makes clear is inseparable from the ethos of the company he oversees, is so frugal that he famously posted ambulances outside his warehouses in the stiflingly oppressive heat of summer rather than pony up for air-conditioning. Stone describes the vein that pops out in Bezos’ forehead when he is about to launch into one of his volcanic rages (which Amazon employees have come to term “nutters”), and provides a list of “greatest hits” – the savage public putdowns he inflicts on his subordinates. (These include gems such as “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself,” and “Are you a lazy or just incompetent?”)

People employed in book publishing – an industry Bezos takes great glee in disrupting (“eviscerating” might be a more accurate word) – will no doubt feel a large measure of satisfaction in reading Stone’s account, which depicts a company that is at best amoral, and callous about the collateral damage left in its wake, though this satisfaction should be tempered, at least somewhat, by a recognition of how slow they were to wake up to the existential threat Amazon posed to them.

Their willingness to jump on the digitization bandwagon by scrambling to meet Bezos’ blithely unrealistic demands for ebooks with which to stock his new Kindle store was predicated upon the notion that digital books would be the saviour of an industry that was feeling pinched by low profit margins and the steady erosion of sales from brick-and-mortar bookstores (due, in no small part, to the steep discounts negotiated by Amazon). They were astounded when Bezos then turned around and announced that he would be pricing digital new releases and bestsellers at a flat rate of $9.99.

A strong storyteller, Stone takes his readers through this material, and its fallout – the accusations of collusion on the part of the Big Six U.S. publishers; the American Department of Justice antitrust suit against those publishers and Apple – in a manner that reads more like a thriller than an economics text.

But there is also the inescapable reality that this story is still evolving, and Stone’s book ends just at the point when the narrative may be changing. Amazon’s recent contretemps with Hachette Book Group, putatively over ebook prices (once again), has resulted in pushback in the form of an open letter objecting to Amazon’s policies and practices. That letter, signed by more than 900 authors (including such brand names as Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, Donna Tartt, and Nora Roberts), has proven troublesome for the company that built its reputation on the backs of those very authors.

One of the key ironies arising out of a reading of Stone’s book involves an early section describing a long-shot bet made by Bezos in the early days of the company. The brazen CEO decided to discount the fourth volume of J.K. Rowling’s massively popular Harry Potter series by 40 percent and to offer expedited delivery. The gamble paid off, and Amazon was rewarded with hefty media coverage and a slew of newly loyal customers. In the current farrago with Hachette, which involves heavy-handed tactics such as delaying shipping on the publisher’s titles and removing pre-order buttons in certain cases, one of the books affected is the new mystery by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith, you may recall, is the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

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