31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 8: “The Body Swap” by Emma Donoghue

May 8, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

From Astray

AstrayA stranger comes to town. That’s one of the most reliable of plot motifs, and for a very practical reason: it’s hard to describe a town if it’s already banal to its inhabitants.” So writes Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue in the Afterword to her 2012 collection of historical fictions. “The writer,” Donoghue continues, “needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course, put another way, what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger.” The strangers in Donoghue’s stories find themselves on the margins – of society, of convention, of accepted morality. The stories in the collection focus on issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation; the material is often fraught with the weight of history and humanity’s collective sins.

In this respect, “The Body Swap” is something of an outlier. It is a more or less straightforward caper story, which also showcases the author’s frequently overlooked facility for humour.

The story follows a group of counterfeiters in 19th-century Chicago who are suffering because their most skilled engraver of phony bills, Ben Boyd, has wound up in Joliet State prison, serving a ten-year sentence. The counterfeiters come up with a wild scheme to spring him: they will steal the corpse of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom in exchange for Boyd’s release.

The stranger in this story is Jim Morrissey, first seen in a Madison Street bar known as the Hub, where he has been regaling the owner and regulars about his recent prison stint. The group of conspirators adopt Morrissey as a member of their gang, albeit reluctantly at first. The dialogue-driven exchange in the Hub’s back office highlights Donoghue’s skills at ventriloquism, and her playfulness:

“I’m hoping you gentlemen have a mind to bring me in on some business,” Morrissey volunteers.

“What kind of business?” asks the older man.

“Oh, come on, Mr. Hughes. The coney trade, the bogus; shoving the queer.”

“Knowing the lingo doesn’t mean knowing the business,” observes Hughes.

“I never claimed to. The proverbial blank slate, that’s me. You need a shover, is that it? I could pass bad bills with a straight face.”

Hughes releases a sigh like air from a tire. “The business is all done in.”

Morrissey looks taken aback. “You say?”

“Time was, there was more queer than good floating round Illinois,” Hughes laments. “With all those newfangled notes and greenbacks the Government printed during the War between the States, who could tell bogus at a glance? But since they formed this Secret Service to crack down on us, trade’s turned tight as blazes.”

“It used to be you could bribe them to turn a blind eye,” Mullen contributes, “but these days …”

“And now they’ve banged up our Michelangelo.”

The group accepts Morrissey into its fold, not realizing that he is actually an undercover Secret Service agent who has been charged with breaking up the gang.

This whole story – the counterfeiters, the undercover agent, the audacious grave robbery – may seem far-fetched in the extreme, but for one small detail: it actually happened. In a note following the story, Donoghue sketches the historical incident that serves as the basis for her tale, and acknowledges a debt to two books on the subject, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack and Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

What clearly fascinates Donoghue is the nebulous line between the cop and the criminals in this story. According to the author, Lewis Cass Swegles, the Secret Service agent upon whom Morrissey is based, himself ended up in Joliet on a burglary charge. (This after the jury in the counterfeiting trial attempted to get him brought up on charges of entrapment.) In her Afterword, Donoghue writes that Swegles/Morrissey “is clearly more akin to the counterfeiters he lives among (if undercover) than to the detectives for whom he works.” Indeed, the very business of working undercover is itself a kind of counterfeiting: passing oneself off as something other than what one really is.

The theme of authenticity pervades the story, and it is often difficult to determine which side is more “honest.” Hughes, who is something of a philosopher, muses about the fundamental nature of money in American society: “Money’s not real gold anymore … It’s only a kind of paper that the government calls precious; it’s a trick in itself. Well, I say Boyd’s bad notes are just as good. Who am I robbing, tell me, if I buy a horse with a queer bill?” Hughes posits that by switching from gold to paper – that is, from an object of actual wealth to a mere signifier of wealth – the U.S. government is acting as a kind of counterfeiter (“it’s a trick in itself”), pawning off something with no intrinsic value and claiming it is worth something. This, in Hughes’s eyes, is at least as duplicitous as what the counterfeiters get up to in their business. (The character of Hughes reminds the reader of Bob Dylan’s famous admonition, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”)

The theme of honesty versus duplicity is extended in the story’s backdrop, the disputed presidential election of 1876. Although Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, the election was called in favour of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, notwithstanding controversial recounts in several states, including Florida. It is said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. If all this has depressing echoes of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, those echoes are probably intentional on the part of the author. Of the 1876 election, Michael F. Holt writes:

With control of Congress split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, disagreement about exactly who could count the votes produced a constitutional crisis that evoked threats of armed violence from some Democratic quarters. To resolve it, Congress created an unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated Federal Electoral Commission consisting of fifteen members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court. There was no bargain, usually described as the Compromise of 1877, to end Reconstruction; the Commission’s Republican majority, voting on a party line of 8-7, awarded all twenty disputed votes to Hayes. The resulting 185–184 victory proved the narrowest margin in American history. Bitter Democrats declared the election “the Fraud of the Century.”

In some quarters, the results of this election remain in dispute today. For Donoghue, this adds yet another level of resonance to her comic tale of counterfeiters and would-be grave robbers, another level of implication, and heightens the irony in the story’s closing line: “Now that’s the truth.”

Tempus fugit, etc.

October 1, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

The fall book season is now well underway and true to form, the preponderance of book festivals, awards lists, launches, and other noisy ephemera of the literary world serve only to emphasize how much I haven’t read. Practically daily, I’m asked if I’ve read the latest buzz book, or some obscure outrider from a small Norwegian publisher, and my answer is almost always a strained, “No.” This is inevitably accompanied by downcast eyes and a shameful countenance, despite the fact that no single human being could possibly read even a fraction of the books that get published in a given year.

Writing in Maclean’s, Sarah Weinman suggests that this year’s crop of fall fiction is less impressive than 2009’s, “which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem, and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin.” All I can say in response is that if my to-read pile (a.k.a. the “wishful thinking” pile or the “Hail Mary” pile) is any indication, there is a veritable cornucopia of interesting fiction out now or forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Here is a short list of titles I’m looking forward to reading, presuming I ever get the chance:

C by Tom McCarthy: Zadie Smith called McCarthy’s debut novel, 2005’s Remainder, “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years.” The new book is an historical novel set at the turn of the 20th century and focusing on Serge Carrefax, the son of an inventor who runs a school for deaf children. Carrefax suffers from “black bile,” competes with Marconi to develop wireless technology, and travels to an archeological dig in Egypt. The Guardian calls the book, which is the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, “a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity.”

Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates: John Gardner famously referred to “that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates,” and in a career that has spanned close to five decades, she has done her best to live up to this description. Now in her seventies, Oates still averages two to three books each year; even her most devoted fans find it difficult to keep abreast of her astonishing literary output. Sourland, her latest collection of short stories, was described in The New York Times as “angry and tough and deeply, viscerally unsettling.”

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Well, come on.

When Fenlon Falls by Dorothy Ellen Palmer: Set during the summer of 1969, this debut novel from Canadian author Palmer tells the story of Jordan May March, a 14-year-old adoptee who was conceived during Hurricane Hazel and concocts a diary in which she imagines different circumstances for her conception. The metafictional narrative involves the CHUM Top 30 hit parade, JFK, Queen Elizabeth, and a caged, butter-tart-eating bear named Yogi.

Room by Emma Donoghue: Loosely based on the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and fathered several children by her, Donoghue’s novel was overlooked by this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury but has received glowing accolades both here and abroad and has landed a spot on the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Narrated in the voice of five-year-old Jack, the book is split into two halves: the first taking place within the small room that has been his only home since birth, the second following his release with his mother, and centred on the new set of perils he must navigate in the outside world.

Nemesis by Philip Roth: Also in his seventies, Roth is not quite as prolific as Oates, but has been averaging one book a year for the last four years or so. His new novel, set in 1944, tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a polio victim whose ill health and bad eyesight have kept him out of the war. As the polio epidemic begins to inflict the small Jewish enclave of Weequahic, New Jersey, writes Tim Martin in the Telegraph, “Cantor finds himself pinned between desire and duty, and – since this is late Roth, after all – being dragged, grimly and inexorably, under life’s steamroller.”

I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore by Anne Perdue: I was on the jury that awarded Anne Perdue the Marina Nemat Award for creative writing from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and couldn’t be happier to see her first book of short fiction making an appearance with Insomniac Press. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall says that Perdue’s “voice is just as convincing in the body of a teenage dish-pig, an alcoholic grandmother, or a raging suburban dad. Her characters feel as real as anyone you’ve ever met; they’re scared and scarred, with wells of kindness pooling beneath the skin. And the universe they inhabit is much like ours – a cracked one, where fury, joy, madness, or molten lava could burst through the surface at any moment.”

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas: The publisher of Toronto-based Tightrope Books has a new collection of dark fantasy stories out with ChiZine Publications, a small press that is also publishing new work by Craig Davidson and Tony Burgess this season. So, basically, I want to read ChiZine’s entire fall list.

And there you have it. Books that command my attention this fall, if I can manage to tear myself away from the rest of my life for long enough to get to them. Stay tuned.

Scotiabank Giller longlist features surprise inclusions, omissions

September 20, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

No one can accuse them of being predictable. Anyone who was trying to outguess this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury – made up of broadcaster Michael Enright, novelist Claire Messud, and novelist and short-story writer Ali Smith – likely spent most of the day scratching their heads over the 2010 longlist. Granted, most of the mainstays on CanLit prize lists don’t have books out this year, the exception being Jane Urquhart, who has indeed found a spot among the baker’s dozen announced today. I’d say she’s pretty much a shoo-in to make the shortlist, too, but if today is any indication of how things will proceed from here, such prognostication is foolish in the extreme.

This year’s jury tilted toward lesser-known names and smaller publishing houses, in the process passing over some of the best-reviewed books of the year, such as Miguel Syjuco’s Illustrado (which has already won the Asian Man Booker Prize), Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (winner of the Betty Trask Award and longlisted for the IMPAC and the Orange Prize), and Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize). In their place, the jury chose books by Johanna Skibsrud and Cordelia Strube, both of which were published in calendar year 2009, debut story collections by Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky, and a thriller set in Israel by Avner Mandelman, a virtual unknown here in Canada, despite having previously published two books with the small press Oberon. (Like Mary Swan in 2008, Mandelman’s new book doesn’t even have a Canadian publisher: it’s published by Other Press in the States and distributed here by Random House of Canada.)

Truly, this is one of the most bizarre longlists any Giller jury has produced. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The list in full:

  • David Bergen, The Matter with Morris (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Douglas Coupland, Player One (House of Anansi Press)
  • Michael Helm, Cities of Refuge (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting (Biblioasis)
  • Avner Mandelman, The Debba (Other Press)
  • Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press)
  • Sarah Selecky, This Cake Is for the Party (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press)
  • Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)
  • Joan Thomas, Curiosity (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Dianne Warren, Cool Water (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Kathleen Winter, Annabel (House of Anansi Press)

At three nominations, McClelland & Stewart leads the pack, followed by HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press with two apiece. Like The Debba, Tom Rachman’s bestseller The Imperfectionists is published by an American house, The Dial Press, and distributed here in Canada by Random. The author is Toronto-born but currently lives in Rome.

The jury also tapped Douglas Coupland for his idiosyncratic Massey Lectures, Player One, which take the form of a novel. (Writing in The Globe and Mail, John Barber says this is “the first lecture series nominated for a literary award,” which is not entirely true: John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, won the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award.) Where Coupland’s novel is concerned, at least one person would beg to differ with the jury’s assessment: writing in the Telegraph, Ian Crichtley said that the book’s characters are “more like computer avatars than people,” and that they “become more long-winded the more dire their situation becomes.”

Of the longlist, the jury writes, “This is a vibrant and exciting list. We came very harmoniously to our final decision, which, in the ranging of its featured books between astonishing debuts and brilliant new work by already well-known, major Canadian writers, and between the historical and the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, the long, the short, and the unexpected in both story and form, stands as a showcase in its own right of the vision, the energy, the internationalism, and the open-eyed versatility of contemporary Canadian fiction.”

The key word, of course, being “unexpected.” I had high hopes for this year’s jury, given that two out of the three members are from outside the country and thus not prone (one would expect) to fall back on the traditionally accepted verities of CanLit. And both Smith and Messud have boundary-pushing sensibilities, which led me to hope that we might see something a bit more out of the box emerge from this year’s prize. So far, the jury has not disappointed. This is a truly eclectic and, yes, unexpected list. If the jury maintains the courage of its convictions, the 2010 shortlist, which is to be announced on October 5, has the potential to be the most interesting group of books since 2006. Then again, we all know how things turned out that year.

Stay tuned.