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?

31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 6: “An Ideal Companion” by Michael Christie

May 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

From The Beggar’s Garden

The stories in Michael Christie’s debut collection are about loneliness, and the lengths to which human beings will go to forestall or combat it. The protagonist of “An Ideal Companion,” Dan, is a Web designer living alone in Vancouver. He accepts a commission to design a website for a deli that sells organic food for dogs, and as a result of this work, decides that he should have a canine companion in his life. He chooses an Andalucian woolfhound, an almost extinct breed, that must be flown in from a breeder in Saskatchewan. Dan and the dog, which he names Buddy, begin to negotiate the realities of their new life together, and one day Dan meets Ginnie in a dog park. Ginnie is a nurse who has a Kerry blue terrier named Josephine; Buddy and Jo become fast friends and Dan finds himself falling into a friendship with Ginnie.

The problem is that Ginnie has a physical deformity: a harelip that becomes the focus of Dan’s attention. He fixates on it, self-consciously avoiding eye contact with Ginnie “lest she think he was looking at it.” When Dan’s best friend and ex-bandmate Winston invites Dan and Ginnie to his house for a barbecue, Dan worries “about having failed to prep his friend for Ginnie’s harelip.” Winston and his wife, Marta, however, seem entirely oblivious to Ginnie’s affliction – somewhat ironically, since Marta is a beautician whose own face is “G-force tight with the hue of a professionally roasted turkey.” The only explanation Dan can come up with for Marta’s apparent indifference to Ginnie’s deformity is that she must have “seen her share of disfigurement in the makeup-artist-slash-aesthetician business.”

Dan’s self-consciousness around Ginnie is juxtaposed with Buddy and Jo, who are completely at ease with each other from the start. Dan and Ginnie have an awkward sexual encounter that ends when Ginnie realizes Dan is fixated on her harelip: “She somehow knew her lip had once repulsed him. He started focusing his kisses on her lip to prove to her it wasn’t disgusting. He licked it and gave it playful nibbles, his tongue flicking over its ridge. He let out a sigh to show her how pleased and relaxed he was by all of this.” Dan’s extraordinary attempts to prove his ease around Ginnie have precisely the opposite effect, alienating her and shutting down any connection that might have developed between them. The dogs, on the other hand, feel no such hesitancy: the final scene of the story has Dan, who has been given custody of Jo while Ginnie travels to Toronto to tend to her gravely ill brother, walking in on the two dogs having enthusiastic sex with one another. “Buddy perked up and regarded Dan with a sort of smile, mostly on account of his mouth being just shaped that way, but Dan knew that there was real joy there, the little guy probably felt he was back in Spain, releasing some tension after a long day of vigilant herding.”

The ease with which Buddy and Jo interact is at once a comic debasement of Dan’s relationship with Ginnie, and an ironic comment on the way human beings complicate things unnecessarily, particularly where emotional entanglements are concerned. Dan cannot ignore Ginnie’s malady, although he wants to, he tries to – but the more he tries to ignore it, the more closely he ends up focusing on it. In his desperation to prove to her that it is a subject of no consequence, he ends up pushing Ginnie away. It is significant that at no point in the story do the two characters actually address the subject of Ginnie’s harelip in conversation. Their entire interaction is based around unspoken communication and body language, as though the subject were too explosive to even attempt to verbalize. It turns out that Winston is not as unaware of Ginnie’s condition as he at first appears: following their awkward romantic encounter, Dan has a telephone conversation with his friend during which Winston notes that Ginnie is not “Best in Breed at Westminster, if you know what I mean.”

Dan has been trying unsuccessfully to convince Winston that he is only interested in Ginnie as a friend. “You’re aware of my theories on female friends, Dan,” Winston says. “Non-existent. Oxymoronic. And I don’t want to tell you who the moron is in this situation.” Dan’s insistence that he was interested in Ginnie only as a friend is transparently false, a pallid rationalization on the part of a repentant man who realizes that he has placed too much emphasis on one small defect in a potential relationship. Whether he did so as a subconscious means of sabotaging the relationship is debatable, but it is clear that the Web designer who spends so much time in what Winston refers to as “Plato’s cave” is much more comfortable relating to a canine than to a woman with whom he might find both physical pleasure and emotional compatibility. That Dan’s ideal companion is able to find joy in sexual abandon where his master can’t is the final irony in Christie’s bittersweet almost-love story.

New review online

January 24, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I reviewed Michael Christie’s short story collection, The Beggar’s Garden, for the National Post. I quite liked it.

It is to his credit that Christie never demonizes his characters, nor does he reduce them to a series of tics or pat psychology. The people in these stories are complex individuals, fully capable of surprising the reader by acting in ways that are unexpected, yet wholly appropriate. In “An Ideal Companion,” a man befriends a woman with a harelip whom he meets in a dog park; although she becomes associated with her affliction in his mind, Christie maintains an ironic distance, such that the reader is able to see her for more than her physical deformity. The intimate moment that the couple negotiate is nicely handled, the awkwardness and recrimination given heightened power by the narrative restraint the author exerts. The same is true of the desperate Miss Lonelyhearts in “Emergency Contact,” whose love of an anonymous paramedic is so painful precisely because it is so sparely rendered on the page.

The rest, should you be interested, is here.