31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 1: “Tick Tock” by Guy Vanderhaeghe

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Daddy Lenin and Other Stories

Daddy_Lenin_Guy_VanderhaegheCharley Brewster has a problem with his hands. They hurt, a pain that is agonizing and incessant. Some four decades ago, the volatile young man was something of a brawler, courting fights that landed him with five fractures to the bones in his hands. The last of these scraps ended with his antagonist suffering a fractured orbital bone and Brewster being sent to jail for two years less a day.

Older and putatively wiser, Brewster, now an assistant professor of English, has not been bothered by discomfort in his hands for forty years. The onset of his recent affliction, “a dull, background ache … lodged in the bones of his hand, broken by sudden bursts of acute, electric pain,” coincides with the arrival of a new couple to the apartment next door to his.

The first encounter with this couple occurs outside the building, as the two are unloading a U-Haul truck piled with furniture. The woman is a “waif-like bit of a girl,” with “a despairing, hopeless look” on her face and “enormous brown eyes swimming with tears.” The man is a giant, possessed of “a grotesquely swollen torso and a massive column of neck that tapered into a shaved head like the nose cone of a missile.”

It becomes clear in short order that the couple, Melvyn and Dina Janacek, are engaged in an abusive relationship, with the husband using his superior strength and imposing physique to threaten and intimidate his wife, and possibly to assault her physically as well. Brewster attempts to intervene, first by involving the police – who are unsympathetic to the plight of what they perceive as a haughty and arrogant academic with his nose out of joint – then, finally and inevitably, in the only way he really knows how: by using his tormented fists.

“Tick Tock” is the best – and, not unimportantly, one of the funniest – stories in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first collection of short fiction since 1992’s Things as They Are? The author won a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for his first book, Man Descending, another collection of stories, but is so well known as the author of the intervening “western trilogy” of novels – The Englishman’s Boy (also a GG winner), The Last Crossing (which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004), and A Good Man – that these days even Vanderhaeghe himself acknowledges precious few people remember he ever wrote short fiction.

The author of “Tick Tock” is older than the author of the stories in Man Descending, but no less pointed and pugilistic. The story examines postmodern masculinity in all its contradictions and vagaries. Descended from working-class stock, Brewster was launched into his academic career while in prison for assault, the beneficiary of a program that offers university-level classes to convicts. But he has never been able to entirely divest himself of his roots as a physical scrapper, notwithstanding the toll his advancing years have taken on his body.

Brewster’s conception of masculinity is certainly more straightforward than that of his girlfriend, Eva, chair of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, who uses contrasting videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to demonstrate to her students “representations of masculinities.” Eva is representative of the kind of postmodern ideologue much in vogue in academia these days; her media-saturated, pop-culture inflected classes score highly on Rate My Professor, whereas Brewster is subjected to borderline illiterate screeds by students who are appalled that he would demand their essays be punctuated properly.

Indeed, Brewster defines himself as a dinosaur (“your department’s sleepwalker” is Eva’s preferred term), and it is no surprise that the careerist Eva is the more successful of the pair. Nor that she is disdainful of Brewster’s own particular representation of masculinity, which she defines as “the bad hegemonic variety.” When in Brewster’s presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” go off pretty much constantly.

The academic satire in “Tick Tock” is blisteringly funny – especially to dinosaurs like Brewster who still believe that university essays should be punctuated properly – but Vanderhaeghe is more subtle and more nuanced than a brief thumbnail sketch might lead one to believe. It is Eva, after all, who is ultimately effective in separating Dina from her abuser, while Brewster, reduced to his aging and aching fists as his only recourse proves absolutely ineffectual or, to use a more loaded term, impotent. Much of Brewster’s antipathy results from envy at Eva’s success: fifteen years his junior, she has already managed to secure a chair in a department, while he remains stalled at the level of assistant professor, biding his time until he can fade into retirement.

The final scene in the story, with its vaguely masochistic undertones, returns to the conception of masculinity as located in physical power, but inverts it, leaving Brewster subject to the depredations of a goon who, we come to realize, represents a distorted mirror’s image of the protagonist’s own younger self. This doubling motif – which persists throughout the collection – is absolutely appropriate for a story in a book titled Daddy Lenin: Janacek becomes a kind of surrogate son to Brewster, a reminder of the commingled potency and relative simplicity of youth and the diminution that accompanies getting old.

In its shifting ground, its satire, and its incisive probing of male psychology, “Tick Tock” finds its author firing on all cylinders. Readers familiar with Vanderhaeghe only through the western trilogy might be surprised at the author’s facility with a contemporary milieu and characters; fans of Vanderhaeghe’s earlier collections will simply be glad to have him back writing in the form after an extended absence.

New names, surprise inclusions mark Giller shortlist

October 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

This year’s shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – a pumped-up six books, whittled down from a pumped-up, seventeen-book longlist – is surprising both for what it includes and, arguably, for what it omits.

Two of the six finalists were, in my opinion, foregone conclusions going into yesterday morning’s announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues have been receiving almost universal accolades, and have already found places on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist. The only thing arguing against their inclusion on the Giller list would be the jury’s conscious attempt to strike out in another direction. Really, though, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised that those two made the cut.

The same certainly can’t be said for Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of stories, Better Living through Plastic Explosives. (There were audible gasps in the room when the title was announced.) This is a second collection comprising a group of fictions that could best be described as dystopian satire: not the kind of thing that usually falls within Giller’s comfort zone. Its appearance on this year’s shortlist indicates strong support from the jury and a willingness to break out from the kind of kitchen-sink realism that tends to dominate CanLit awards lists. Love it or hate it (and readers have been divided: some adore the book, some quite definitively do not), it represents an unexpected, though not unwelcome, new direction for the Giller’s spotlight to point.

Lynn Coady was nominated for her fourth novel, The Antagonist (actually her fifth book, counting the short story collection Play the Monster Blind), which makes independent publisher House of Anansi Press the only house with multiple books on the list (they also publish DeWitt). The final two spaces were reserved for relatively better-known names – The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” Canadian standard-bearer, David Bezmozgis, for his first novel, The Free World; and Michael Ondaatje, the only certified heavyweight on the list, for his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table.

What is notable about this list (besides the complete exclusion, for the second year running, of any titles from Random House of Canada or its imprints*) is the fact that the list is dominated by relatively reader-friendly, narrative driven books. Even the Ondaatje is by all accounts the author’s most accessible work in years. This is a trend with awards lists in 2011: from the Booker to the Writers’ Trust to the Giller, this year’s juries seem to prefer books with strong stories and an emphasis on character and setting over the kind of über-literary, stylistically challenging works that are often favourites for award consideration.

Perhaps as a corollary, a number of names that are familiar to Giller watchers failed to make the final six this year. Previous nominees Wayne Johnston, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Marina Endicott didn’t make it past the longlist, and 2007 champ Elizabeth Hay didn’t even make it that far. This year’s jury is clearly unafraid to look beyond the usual suspects, extending what can only be hoped is a trend inaugurated by last year’s jury in its shortlist selections. (It should be noted that despite the iconoclastic shortlist, last year’s jury chose the most quintessentially CanLit title – Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists – as the eventual winner: this is a trend that hopefully won’t persist.)

The presence of Annabel Lyon on this year’s jury led me to hope that more than one short-story collection might make the final cut (I’m disappointed not to see Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, which I quite liked, on the list, and I am left wondering exactly what Clark Blaise has to do to get some recognition in this country). Lyon is joined on this year’s jury by American novelist Howard Norman, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and thanks to a quirk in this year’s longlist selection process, the entire population of Canada.

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be announced at a gala ceremony in Toronto on November 8.

*We’ll allow for the moment that McClelland & Stewart, which publishes Ondaatje, is not a de facto Random House imprint.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?