Anyone searching for evidence that Russell Smith is one of the strongest stylists working the CanLit trenches today need look no farther than the opening sentence of “Gentrification,” from the author’s new collection: “It was, if anything, getting worse, the intersection.” Any less brazen writer – which, these days, seems to be most of them – would place the subject at the beginning of that sentence: “The intersection was, if anything, getting worse.” This formulation is at once more obvious and less interesting, less musical, less teasingly cheeky. (In fairness, most editors, themselves lacking a certain brazenness, would automatically rewrite Smith’s sentence if confronted with his more idiosyncratic rendering.)
But from the outset, Smith has never been adverse to taking risks with his fiction. And “Gentrification” is nothing if not risky. Like most of Smith’s oeuvre, it falls in the broad category of satire, which is not a genre most readers find amenable these days. Especially the kind of satire Smith practices, which owes more to the harsh nastiness of Juvenal than the gentle wit of Horace. Then there is the story’s subject matter, which addresses the loaded issues of class, race, and gender politics in contemporary multicultural Toronto.
The focus of the story is Tracy, who lives with his wife, Morgan, in a roiling neighbourhood bounded by factories and rooming houses, and home to a cornucopia of races and ethnicities, including a community of Eastern European immigrants who “were taping up posters in their fantastic language, with lots of k’s and i’s, a language for warfare, and all the posters had the word ROMA at the bottom, sometimes with an exclamation mark, like a soccer chant.” There is also Francis Doyle, the aging Irish relic who still blithely refers to black women as “coloured girls” and Asians as “Orientals.”
And there are Deiondre and Teelah, the black women in question, who rent a basement apartment from Tracy and Morgan. Teelah is the more feminine of the two – she “actually dressed like a girl,” in Tracy’s assessment, which makes it easier for him to ogle her “puffy brown belly” and her “enormous round butt” with its “twist of thong rising above the hip.” Deiondre, by contrast, “look[s] like a boy” in black jeans and a hoodie, her hair done up in “wild and spiky” dreadlocks. The two women have a baby Tracy has never seen, though both he and Morgan have been privy to the child’s wails during the many violent arguments their tenants engage in.
The whole neighbourhood has been privy to the battles waged by Deiondre and Teelah, which involve screaming and cursing and slamming of doors and walls, and in one case fisticuffs and hair-pulling that spills out onto the street for all to witness. Tracy tries to intervene on several occasions, but is forestalled by Deiondre’s obstinacy and the indifference of the police.
Then there is Tracy’s own reticence to get involved – even in the face of prodding from his wife, who calls the situation “intolerable” – a reticence that springs, we can infer, from a nervousness around the perception of a university-educated white male making incursions into the lives of a black lesbian couple on welfare. Tracy knows they are on welfare because he sees the cheques that arrive in their shared mailbox; he becomes indignant when he sees Deiondre getting into a cab, which he feels – with vast reserves of self-righteousness and judgment – is an unconscionable extravagance for someone in her circumstances. (Significantly, the middle-class white man sniffs that taking a cab is something he “would never have done.”)
No doubt Tracy feels a misplaced sense of superiority regarding Deiondre and Teelah; the two women, nevertheless, fully comprehend the power in the way their situation might be perceived by an outsider, and exploit this to their advantage, playing music so loud it resounds throughout Tracy and Morgan’s own living space, then suggesting that Tracy is attempting to prohibit them from their own form of cultural expression when he goes to complain: “We have a right to enjoy ourselves just like you,” Deiondre tells him. “Even right here in Canada.”
Tracy’s conflicted attitude regarding Deiondre and Teelah has much to do with his desire to break away from the constraints of his social class and lifestyle and rub shoulders with what he considers to be a rougher, more exotic milieu. Whether he is allowed to indulge his base desires or forced to repress them depends on the situation and the availability of willing enablers. Morgan staunchly refuses to continue posing for nude photos that Tracy uploads to a softcore porn site as a means of securing a little extra cash, and one of the local Roma women rebuffs him when he tries to approach her with similar intentions. Yet Teelah flirts with him and a bartender talks him into ordering doubles when he goes slumming in a local dive bar.
And the idea of slumming is key here: Tracy flirts with danger and exoticism, but shies away as soon as the otherness gets too close or begins to frighten him. He can flirt with the overtly feminine Teelah, but does not know how to handle Deiondre’s aggressive assertiveness. He finds the Roma girls exciting – “their hair was so flowing and shiny,” and they “made themselves look hot with their pudgy little bellies and supermarket clothes” – but is wary of crossing a line that might put himself in any kind of personal peril: “it would be dangerous to get involved with a gypsy girl, in any way, as the men were quite possessive and violent.” Note also the gendered nature of Tracy’s courage: he is fine approaching women he considers “hot,” but steers clear of men he assumes are violent and the butch Deiondre. (In this regard, one might also note Tracy’s own feminine name – to say nothing of his wife’s more masculine one – something he himself remarks on in the story.)
Here the story tilts in the direction of one of Smith’s abiding themes: authenticity, and the lengths people will go to construct artificial identities to fool both outside observers and, crucially, themselves. Tracy may delight in the coming gentrification of his neighbourhood because it will raise the property value of his house, but he fears the concomitant flattening out of the social stratification that surrounds him, which will deny him easy access to the kind of faux grittiness he is attracted to. On the surface, he plays the role of the upwardly mobile urbanite, cooking vegetarian meals for his university friends and assiduously checking in on his wife’s temperature and the viscosity of her mucous as they attempt to get pregnant, but underneath it all exists a piercing need for a different, more apparently dangerous and exciting lifestyle.
This is why his final epiphany – that the internet offers him a whole range of opportunities to revivify his amateur photography business, “something Morgan wouldn’t be interested in … no matter how lucrative it was” – makes him so happy. He can rent a mailbox from a location “just across the tracks” and set up a photo studio in his basement (which he will paint “clean white”) now that his two abrasive tenants have finally decamped. The ultimate irony in the story is that Tracy pretends to desire an escape from what he perceives as the boredom of his proscribed existence, yet pulls back at the first sign of any real danger. The thing he most fears about gentrification is that it will make his surroundings more closely resemble himself.
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future, or so the song has it. It is December, which is the time of year for list-making, for looking back on the previous 12 months and cobbling together roundups of the best books, movies, music, etc. Traditionally, December is the time I take stock of how much I haven’t read: how many interesting or well-received titles have slipped by in the crush of work obligations, paid reviews, reading for literary juries and panels. This is not to suggest that these endeavours don’t yield riches, but I’m constantly amazed at this time of year how much I have fallen short of the mark in terms of what I intended to read. At the beginning of October, I compiled a list of eight books I wanted to read if I could find the time. By the middle of December, how many of that octet have I managed to get to? Precisely zero.
Which is not to say that I haven’t been reading: my various professional obligations ensure that I’ve been doing little else. Anyone who reads for a living will inevitably find that much of what gets published is unremarkable: of the thousands of books that are produced each year, any number will be competently executed, even enjoyable, but very few leave a lasting impression. Glancing back over my reading in 2010, I’m struck by how much of it was adequate, but forgettable; how many books were perfectly serviceable, but have not lingered in my memory.
Still, there were some high points. What follows is not a list of the best books of the year, because there’s no way for me to know (have I mentioned how many books I haven’t read from the past year?). Rather, these are books that stayed with me. For whatever reason, these books made an impression.
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: It’s rare to find a work of fiction that so carefully and lovingly details the specifics of people working. Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 collection, Once, did this, and so does Alexander MacLeod’s remarkable debut. The characters MacLeod focuses on are not the recondite aesthetes or romantics of so much CanLit: they are bricklayers and delivery boys, runners and auto mechanics. The details of their exertions are rendered so vividly, with such precision, that a reader comes away from these stories feeling almost physically wounded. MacLeod’s interest in characters at decisive moments in their lives is reminiscent of O’Connor; his ability to evoke entire worlds in the span of 30 pages rivals Munro. Truly one of the most impressive literary debuts in a long, long time.
Kaleidoscope: Selected Poems by P.K. Page: The year got off to a melancholy start; January saw the death of P.K. Page, one of Canada’s towering poets. Page’s longtime publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has inaugurated a ten-year scholarly project that will collect all of the poet’s work online, and will be accompanied by a series of print volumes. The first of these, edited by Zailig Pollock, offers a chronological overview of Page’s development as a poet, including work from 1941 right through 2009’s Coal and Roses. The poems in Kaleidoscope are a testament to Page’s wit, erudition, spiritualism, and complete poetic mastery.
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s “climate change comedy” is a return to form following a group of lacklustre novels. The story of Michael Beard, a slovenly, overweight physicist whose wife has finally left him after a string of infidelities, Solar marries blistering comedy with McEwan’s penchant for cascading ironies, and bundles it all into a fast-paced, tightly constructed narrative.
The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter: Channelling the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood and the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song, novelist Winter crafts a corrosive work of “documentary fiction” from the story of a St. John’s woman who was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1993. Employing a fractured narrative that incorporates police wiretaps, court transcripts, and interviews with the participants, the author builds a collage-like tale of institutional corruption, betrayal, and a brazen miscarriage of justice. Though it’s by no means an easy book, The Death of Donna Whalen is nonetheless one of the most technically ambitious novels I encountered in 2010.
A Hunter’s Confession by David Carpenter: Not so much an apologia for the practice of hunting as an examination of its cultural, philosophical, and spiritual aspects, Carpenter’s book is a heartfelt attempt by an erstwhile hunter to grapple with the conflicting emotions and ambivalence the subject provokes for him. He examines hunting from a variety of perspectives: hunting in literature, women and hunting, the importance of hunting to Native societies. Ultimately, he concludes that there is an unavoidable morality attached to the hunt, and that it is not necessarily contradictory to claim that one is simultaneously a hunter and an environmentalist. Whatever a reader’s personal feelings about hunting, Carpenter’s book represents a serious, thoughtful, and eloquent paean to a way of life that “has fallen out of favor and out of fashion.”
Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips: The high-school novel for young adults is difficult to make fresh; Phillips pulls out all the stops by telling her story in verse and shuffling the perspective between four students and their officious English teacher. Phillips does a remarkable job characterizing the students using only their various voices: Natalie, the manipulative new kid at school; Kyle, the would-be musician; Tricia, the good girl who gets caught up in Natalie’s world of partying and danger; and Miguel, the Central American immigrant struggling to adapt to a world that seems utterly foreign. The teacher, who criticizes Miguel for the violence in his description of a massacre in his home country, is a vivid example of the ways in which adults become entirely disconnected from the concerns of the adolescents they are charged with helping. Phillips won a Governor General’s award for this innovative, provocative novel.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter: This book snuck up on me. By all rights I shouldn’t have liked it, because it includes a number of elements toward which I’m normally antipathetic: a family saga, lyrical writing, a narrative steeped in a sense of place. But Winter’s strong feeling for story, her refusal to reduce her characters to a simple set of binary opposites, and her achievement in creating one of the most memorable fictional fathers in ages set this one apart for me. This story of an intersex child struggling to carve out an identity for himself, and the community that alternately helps and hinders him, is one of the most pleasant reading surprises I had this year.
Fauna by Allisa York: Another novel with a strong sense of place: this time the hidden corners of Toronto’s Don Valley. York’s story of a group of misfits who populate an ad hoc animal shelter in the city’s core showcases the author’s skill with juggling multiple storylines and her facility for crafting beautiful sentences.
People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess: If David Cronenberg ever adapted an Alice Munro story, it might turn out something like this.
Girl Crazy by Russell Smith: The story of Justin Harrison, a professor at a technical college who becomes obsessed with a younger woman he saves on the street, Smith’s novel shines an often uncomfortable light on the subject of male sexuality and its attendant desires and perils. As Justin spirals deeper into a miasma of lust and desperation, the story becomes increasingly dark, finally releasing the protagonist to pursue a course that can only end badly. Smith’s satiric eye is in fine form here, as is his careful hand in structuring a novel. Part dark comedy, part neo-noir, Girl Crazy is a brisk, bracing book that takes the reader for one hell of a ride. Love it or hate it, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it.
Brown wins the Trillium, Smith comes clean about publishing “hotties,” and Atlantic Canada Reads moves into the home stretch
Remember way back in January, when yr. humble correspondent wrote about the apparent sexism in literary awards and best-of lists that tend to disproportionately reward male authors and ignore their female counterparts? Remember the Charles Taylor Prize shortlist that precipitated that post, the one that was the exclusive domain of four middle-aged white dudes? Remember more recently, when I pointed to the surprisingly robust (seven-title) shortlist for the 23rd annual Trillium Book Award, which featured six women and one lone man (the same middle-aged white dude who won the Charles Taylor Prize, in fact)? Well, the Trillium winner was announced at a luncheon in Toronto today, and the $20,000 prize was awarded to … Ian Brown, the lone nominee in possession of a Y chromosome. (Brown beat out heavyweights Alice Munro, Anne Michaels, and Margaret Atwood, as well as short-story writer Alexandra Leggat and novelists Emily Schultz and Cordelia Strube.)
Now, I don’t want to suggest that Brown won because he is a man. That would be ludicrous. His book, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son, has been a critical and commercial success, and had already won the B.C. National Book Award for Non-fiction in addition to the Charles Taylor Prize. The jury that awarded him the Trillium was composed of two women, editor Meg Tayor and author Ibi Kaslik, as well as poet Robert Winger. I have no doubt that they made their decision based on literary merit alone (and the usual horse trading that goes along with a three-person jury). Still, the fact that the lone man in a seven-person field emerged victorious will not do much to quell the rumblings of institutional sexism that have been heard in some literary circles recently.
And speaking of sexism, Russell Smith, charging in where angels (and weak-kneed devils) fear to tread, has a column in today’s Globe and Mail in which he posits that Canadian publishing is replete with – how does one put this delicately? – women of a certain pulchritudinous nature:
From our point of view, it’s hard not to have a constant crush on all these gorgeous 32-year-olds with graduate degrees from McGill. At the moment, since I’ve just published a novel, the most important professional contacts in my literary life are my editor, my agent and my publicist. By a fluke not unusual in publishing, each one of these happens to be shockingly beautiful. And of course bookish, fashionable, sophisticated, funny, all the rest. Totally unbelievable hotties. Honestly, I don’t know which one I am more in love with. And you have to spend time with them, not just talking about how long the sex scene should go on but also about how brilliant you are. And you have to go to all those fancy awards dinners with the free bar and all the backless gowns. How does a guy cope?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Smith is engaging in a kind of Martin Amis-esque provocation here, and the fact of the matter is that if you cut through the deliberately exaggerated rhetoric, he makes a couple of good points. Men (at least, healthy heterosexual men) are attracted to members of the opposite sex. In a professional situation, the smart ones exercise the kind of self-control that human beings are known for (much of the time, anyway). Having said that, the fact that Smith frames his discussion in the context of the recent sexual harassment scandal at Penguin Canada leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the use of the term “unbelievable hotties” and the attendant declaration of lust represents, at the very least, an error in judgment. In a more troubling vein, it lends credence to the notion that men value the women in publishing more for their bodies than their brains, which is exactly the attitude that needs to be overcome if we are ever to move past the divisive events of the last few weeks.
On a more positive – and completely unrelated – note, Chad Pelley’s Atlantic Canada Reads competition has kicked into high gear. The books have been chosen and defended, and voting has begun. The six candidates in contention are:
Lisa Moore’s February, defended by Trish Osuch
Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, defended by Perry Moore
Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, defended by Stephen Patrick Clare
George Elliot Clarke’s George & Rue, defended by Matt Stranach
Darryl Whetter’s The Push & The Pull, defended by Nicole Dixon
Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, defended by Laura Repas
It shouldn’t be hard to guess which of these titles yr. humble correspondent is pulling for, but in case you’re wondering, you can mosey on over to Salty Ink, where a few literary types give brief pitches for their favourites from this dirty half-dozen.
Last night at The Spoke Club, Open Book Toronto hosted the inaugural edition of the Toronto Literary Salon, in partnership with The Spoke and Thompson Hotels. Yesterday’s event featured a panel consisting of authors Russell Smith (Girl Crazy), Joey Comeau (One Bloody Thing After Another), and David Eddie (Damage Control). The panel was moderated by Nathan Whitlock (A Week of This).
Modelled on the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Open Book’s new endeavour is meant to be a place where authors and readers can come together in a casual environment to converse, exchange ideas, and maybe even get into some friendly disagreements. From Open Book’s website:
Do what engaged and curious people have done for centuries and gather with writers for a salon. The point? To amuse each other, to be inspired by writing and culture, to expand one’s knowledge and opinions through conversation. Salons are where true dialogue (and yes, often feisty arguments) emerge.
There weren’t many feisty arguments to be had last night, in part, I suspect, because of the size of the group, which increased the intimidation factor. (The audience filled the room, spilling over into a little alcove at the back, which was separated by a wall, so the poor souls who found themselves sequestered there could listen to the proceedings, but could not see the panel.) Moreover, the event was more structured than it was perhaps intended to be, resembling more a typical reading and author Q&A than a free-form discussion between audience and panel. Things did loosen up toward the end, but time constraints cut the conversation short just as it appeared to be gearing up.
One reason the event felt so structured was that it kicked off with each author giving a short reading. (Apparently, neither the authors nor the moderator were aware that there was a reading component to the event prior to arriving on the scene.) As anyone who has ever attended a reading knows, the culture of author readings imposes a separation between the performer and the audience. It’s difficult to smoothly transition from that kind of format to a more open conversation among a large(ish) number of individuals.
There was some discussion among the panelists about whether they enjoyed giving/attending readings – Eddie was in favour of them, Smith was opposed (and did an hilarious, spot-on impersonation of the kind of droning, monotone voice that certain poets adopt when reading their work aloud). Yr. humble correspondent tends to side with Smith, finding the vast majority of author readings tedious in the extreme. There is also something frankly perverse about expecting authors – who are usually introverted individuals and who spend the bulk of their days alone in a room wrestling with the contents of their own heads – to get up on a stage in front of an audience and entertain. The panelists were in general agreement that a reading is a public performance, but it seems to me that an author’s performance exists on the page. Once the book is finished, the author’s job is done. It’s now the reader’s turn to engage with the text the author has created.
I say that I tend to side with Smith, because there are isolated instances in which an author has been so proficient at performing his or her work that I have actually found myself – almost against my will – enjoying the experience. One example of this is a David Foster Wallace reading I attended years ago at Harbourfront’s International Fesitval of Authors here in Toronto. Wallace read a section of Infinite Jest dealing with a couple of inept thieves who burgle the home of a French Canadian man with a head cold. When I read the passage myself, it seemed clever, but nothing special. However, when Wallace read it, providing the requisite pauses and emphases, it was eye-wateringly funny. Here is an instance in which an author’s interpretation of his own material actually transformed the material in my estimation, making it leap off the page where once it had just sat there, inert. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, authors (who may be incredibly engaging when speaking extemporaneously) lose all their charisma and appeal the minute they begin reciting from their work. Not for nothing do people in the know try to time their arrivals at book launches strategically so that they miss the readings but are still able to avail themselves of the open bar.
I look forward to future iterations of the Toronto Literary Salon (there are three more scheduled, one in early summer and the other two in the fall), and hope that they will de-emphasize the more structured component and encourage greater dialogue between authors and readers. The danger is that such a free-form discussion could descend into anarchy, or be dominated by one or two voices. However, the upside would be an enhanced engagement with authors off the page, and perhaps even a few of those feisty arguments that sound so intriguing.
Okay, I’m not. But I am in The Walrus, with a short review of Russell Smith’s new novel, Girl Crazy:
A simple description of Girl Crazy’s plot makes it sound like a heterogeneous mess: Lolita meets a David Lodge academic satire by way of Elmore Leonard. Indeed, for the first two-thirds, Justin’s deepening obsession with Jenna — and the increasingly dark places to which that obsession drives him — is so potent that the satire of a corporate-run education system appears to be fifth business, an unnecessary distraction from the novel’s central concerns. But this belies the canny subtlety of Smith’s structure. As the book progresses, Jenna becomes less and less of a physical presence; her last appearance is as a voice on the phone. As Justin moves through the novel’s final stretch, the various elements coalesce into a darkly comic study of fractured masculinity.
The rest of the review – along with reviews of six other big spring books – is online at The Walrus‘s website.