The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.

Listmania! The Millions and Wasafiri weigh in

September 25, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

We’re into the waning months of the first decade of the 21st century, and it seems as though people feel that it’s an appropriate moment to assess the temper of the times vis à vis world literature. To that end, The Millions has published a list of the 25 20 best books of the new millennium (so far), as voted on by a coterie of noted writers and critics.

The list contains some strong titles, and some surprising ones. The list in full:

#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

As ever with lists like this, the results are somewhat arbitrary, and immediately open to debate. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Roberto Bolaño doesn’t deserve a spot on the list, but whether the specific title should be 2666 or The Savage Detectives is up in the air. (Speaking of which, Up in the Air by Walter Kirn didn’t make the list.) Noah Richler would likely complain that there’s only one Canadian title represented. I’d respond that this just goes to show that Victoria Glendinning was more right than many CanLit pundits would care to admit.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, finding it too much of a self-indulgent technical performance, and I don’t think that either Twilight of the Superheroes or Varieties of Disturbance are representative of the respective authors’ best work (although each collection does contain strong stories). And Atonement? Remove the postmodern framing device and you’re left with a fairly standard historical romance, complete with all the requisite frippery. I’d replace these with some of my pet MIAs, such as The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, or The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (which, to be fair, was published in the original French before the year 2000).

Also absent from the list are such talked-about books as Remainder by Tom McCarthy, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.

Instead, three of the titles, including the top two, are books anointed by Oprah. Of the number one title, Scottish writer Margot Livesey writes:

The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.

Meanwhile, over at Wasafiri, there’s a list of 25 books that have been most influential on the course of literature in the last quarter-century. Not all of the titles were published in the last 25 years; the list is meant to gauge which books have had the most sway over literary thought, practice, and trends in the recent past. Chosen by a panel of international experts, the list (along with each title’s respective champion) is:

Aminatta Forna: The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Amit Chaudhuri: Collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
Bernardine Evaristo: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Frye
Beverley Naidoo: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Brian Chikwava: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Blake Morrison: The Stories of Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver
Chika Unigwe: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Daljit Nagra: North by Seamus Heaney
David Dabydeen: A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Elaine Feinstein: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
Fred D’Aguiar: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris
Hirsh Sawhney: River of Fire by Quarratulain Hyder
Indra Sinha: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
John Haynes: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Lesley Lokko: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Maggie Gee: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Marina Warner: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Maya Jaggi: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Horovitz: Collected Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Minoli Salgado: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Nii Parkes: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Roger Robinson: Sula by Toni Morrison
Sujata Bhatt: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Sukhdev Sandhu: The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
Tabish Khair: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Again, only one Canuck represented, albeit for two separate titles. And one title – One Hundred Years of Solitude – appears three times. (So, in fact, these are the 23 most influential books of the past 25 years, but who’s counting?) Of the Wasafiri project, Susheila Nasta says:

Writers have always moved worlds with words, transporting us beyond the known and familiar. The eclecticism of this selection showcases the true diversity which is international contemporary writing today. Twenty-five years ago “international writing” was considered off-centre. This selection shows how much the landscape has changed, with many of these titles now part of our literary canon.

So, what do people think? Are these lists representative, or do they need to be revised? Is such a project an exercise in futility from the very start? Or, at minimum, does it give literary types something to argue over at cocktail parties?

The outsider

June 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Whatever. Michel Houellebecq, Paul Hammond, trans.; Serpent’s Tail, $14.99 paper, 156 pp., 978-1-85242-584-5.

9781852425845It’s easy to argue that Michel Houellebecq is the poet laureate of alienation in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, but this is at once too facile and too reductive. Houellebecq’s brand of disaffected nihilism owes a debt to literary forebears such as Céline and Nietzsche, but it also incorporates a vicious antipathy toward Western capitalism and its spoils that was largely absent from the work of those earlier writers. Houellebecq shares with Céline a passionate outrage against the dehumanization of modern life, but his vision is distinct (at least in part) from that of, say, Camus. In contrast to Meursault’s recognition of the universe’s “benign indifference” (in L’Etranger), the worlds Houellebecq creates are fiercely inimical toward his characters’ attempts to forge any sort of connection or meaning. Tibor Fischer’s assessment of Whatever, Houellebecq’s acerbic 1994 debut, as “L’Etranger for the info generation” is a glib sound-bite, but one that does the novel, and its author, a disservice.

Which is not to say that Houellebecq doesn’t invite such comparisons. The unnamed computer programmer who serves as Whatever‘s narrator speaks of his “total isolation, the sense of an all-consuming emptiness,” which he feels will be relieved by goading his colleague, the hideously ugly 28-year-old virgin Tisserand, into committing murder. The scene of the intended crime is the same as that in which Meursault murders the Arab – a beach – and the aura of racial tension is replicated, even ratcheted up a notch: the narrator suggests that Tisserand kill a woman he’s been eyeing, but the latter replies that he’d rather kill her “half-caste” lover. “Well then, I exclaimed, what’s stopping you? Why yes! Get the hang of it on a young nigger!” That the narrator wants Tisserand to kill the woman (or her lover) with a knife is not terribly subtle in its symbolic resonance: the notion of Tisserand, the virgin, penetrating one or the other of his would-be victims is the culmination of the narrator’s own debased sexual odyssey throughout the novel.

In the book’s early pages, the narrator, who has just turned 30, tells us that he has “had many women, but for limited periods,” and has been celibate in the two years since he broke up with his most recent girlfriend, Véronique. The “feeble and inconsistent attempts” he has made at sexual liaisons in the interim “only resulted in predictable failure.” To assuage his sexual frustration, he writes bizarre animal stories, such as “Dialogues Between a Cow and a Filly,” in which a breeder artificially inseminates a Breton cow, allowing the cow “to get stuffed”:

And stuff her they do, more or less directly; the artificial insemination syringe can in effect, whatever the cost in certain emotional complications, take the place of the bull’s penis in performing this function. In both cases the cow calms down and returns to her original state of earnest meditation, except that a few months later she will give birth to an adorable little calf. Which, let it be said in passing, means profit for the breeder.

Actually, let it not be said in passing, but rather let it be dwelt upon, since for Houellebecq, sex and commerce are inextricably linked. This connection will reach its apogee in the sex tourism business that Michel and his girlfriend, Valérie, establish in Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform, but it is here, too, in the narrator’s belief that economic liberalism and sexual liberalism are “strictly equivalent”:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market”. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Thus does the laissez faire attitude promulgated by the sexual revolution reduce some members of society to the level of erotic paupers. Sexual liberalism, like economic liberalism, is “an extension of the domain of the struggle,” reaching “all ages and all classes of society.” Or, in the formula the narrator posits: “Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.” This is bracingly satirical, and exemplifies what Houellebecq is best at: the snidely pithy diagnosis of modern urban anomie.

The phrase “an extension of the domain of the struggle” is the literal translation of Whatever‘s original French title: Extension du domaine de la lutte, a phrase that is at once more appropriate to Houellebecq’s core concerns in the novel and more teasingly elliptical. The debased English title highlights the narrator’s ambivalence toward pretty much everything – his life, his job, other people – but elides the righteous anger that seethes underneath it: anger at a society that has consigned itself “primarily to consumerism,” the sole remaining “consolidation of [its] being.” This consolidation is made manifest in the “leprous façades” of Paris, “behind which one invariably imagines retired folk agonizing alongside their cat Poucette which is eating up half their pensions with its Friskies,” and in “the inevitable advertising hoardings flashing by, gaudy and repellent.”

Here we find one of the most evident cleavages between Whatever and L’Etranger: whereas Camus wrote about an existence devoid of God, in which Meursault is forced to reckon his free will in the face of what Warren Zevon termed “the vast indifference of Heaven,” there is a God in Houellebecq’s novel: money. The narrator (like Houellebecq himself at the time) is a middle manager at a computer software company, where employees are counted as “assets,” and he moves in a society in which losing a car “is tantamount to being struck off the social register.” (It’s no accident that one of the few characters described as “happy” in the novel is a socialist.) The God of commerce hovers remorselessly over the novel, and this God, like the breeder in the narrator’s short story, is “not … a merciful God.”

Early on, the narrator spots a piece of graffiti that reads “God wanted there to be inequality, not injustice,” and “muse[s] on who the person so well informed about God’s designs might be.” The note of sarcasm is readily apparent, but it’s undercut later on by the acknowledgement that “a totally liberal economic system” fosters and exacerbates the very inequality that a capitalist God must want. It is only at the novel’s close, when the narrator finds himself in a meadow, with none of the appurtenances of modern consumerism at hand, that he feels, “with impressive violence, the possibility of joy.” He goes on: “The landscape is more and more gentle, amiable, joyous; my skin hurts. I am at the heart of the abyss.” This is perhaps the final, ironic twist in Houellebecq’s aversive little narrative: under the rubric of modern consumerism, divesting oneself of material desires only serves to lead one to the heart of the abyss.