Friday, April 30, 2010

One word, two words

I’m not normally one to broadcast my pet peeves but something has been irking me lately and I thought I’d share it with you all.

Part of being a fiction writer almost always involves doing something else to pay the bills, and for me that equates into not a small amount of editing and copyediting on a daily basis. Most copyeditors fall into a healthy range between two extremes: on the one side, a calcified opinion that the English language achieved perfection with Strunk & White and should not be tampered with; and the other … well, I suppose the other extreme would be a complete ignorance of the conventions of good grammar, punctuation, style etc. Like I said, most copyeditors fall in a healthy place somewhere in between: adhering to the general rules and conventions of written text, while understanding that English is a fluid language and can be bent and twisted in any number of ways.

I believe in this. I mean, I’m a huge fan of good grammar – of understanding the rules that comprise good grammar – but I’m also a huge fan of word play and neologisms and other deviations from the conventions. But my peeve is this: deviations and new conventions do not happen at random, with no logic. There is almost always some kind of grammar-based rule at work that allows the deviation from or evolution of our language to take place.

The chief example I’m thinking of is the difference between “log in” and “login”. These are two relatively new terms to our language, emerging sometime after the invention of the modern-day computer during the last century. The distinction between the two terms seems self evident to me but I always see people struggle to use the right one in the right place. Is it really that hard to grasp? The former is a verb, meaning to enter your username (another computer-based neologism) and password to gain access to digital information within a computer. The latter is a perfectly acceptable noun, meaning the place (usually comprised of data fields) where you commit this action of logging in. Yet time and again, I see website instructions that get them wrong. “Go to the log in and sign up for our free blah blah blah,” or some such foolishness.

It’s not like similar constructions haven’t already existed in our language for centuries. But of course people get those wrong, too. I’ve seen otherwise well-educated people confuse “everyday” (adjective) with “every day”; or worse, “maybe” with “may be”. I have my own blind spots, mind you. I cannot tolerate “impact” as verb, even though it has been one in modern English since the 1930s (and in Old English, it was actually a verb long before it was ever a noun). I can be sweet-talked into allowing it in certain circumstances, though I do draw the line at the nonsensical adjective “impactful.”

My point is this: the rules around these conventions are not arbitrary and are not based on gut feeling: they are very much grounded in the basic parts of speech. But pointing out these errors, time and time and time again, often to people who just go by what sounds right and wouldn’t know what a preposition or the subjunctive tense even is, leaves me feeling old and crusty. But am I wrong? Do other people run into this sort of thing? Am I being overly crotchety? Should I just wash my angst down with a glass of Gordon’s and tonic?

Let me know.

And on a completely unrelated note: It might be a while before you see a “Review: …” post on the blog. I’ve had the great privilege of being asked by a long-standing and venerable literary journal to write a rather lengthy essay on a fellow Maritime author, and am currently in the process of re-reading three of his books. I won’t be reviewing each of them here, though I will happily post a link to the essay should it get published online. And next up after I finished these three books is a 600-page tome published in the 18th century. So yeah, it’ll be a couple of weeks at least before you all see a new review from me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Crash, by J.G. Ballard

I’ve known about J.G. Ballard’s work for a number of years but it really took him dying last April to get his stuff fully onto my radar. Yes, I had seen David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Crash when it came out back in 1996, and I remember leaving the theatre with the verdict “it lacked focus” being about the nicest thing I could say about it. But finding a cheap paperback edition in a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago, I decided to give the novel itself a try.

Now I realize that Ballard holds the distinction of England’s most successful purveyor of a new-fangled sort of science fiction, of what we might call on this side of the pond “speculative fiction”, of the sort of postmodern writing that French critics get all moist about. And Crash is arguably his most famous novel, at least of his novels written in that vein. The protagonist is postmodernistically named “James Ballard” and the story revolves around the connection between sex and car crashes. Following a vehicular accident that leaves him scarred but also sexually awakened, Ballard is introduced to the perverse world of one Robert Vaughan, a man with an unhealthy obsession with automobile crashes and longs to end his life in a head-on collision with the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Ballard and Vaughan move through the novel having all manner of sex in their cars with a string of wives, prostitutes and mistresses – all of whom are little more than orifices to capture their overflowing pleasure. The novel, erm, climaxes in predictable fashion with Ballard and Vaughan having sex with one another – in a car, natch. Vaughan is later killed in a botched attempt to run his vehicle into Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine; he accidently jumps a rail and crashes into a busload of innocent tourists instead.

The thematic structure on display here is pretty easy to spot: the isolation of technology and its connection to the isolation of loveless sex. We get that. But a sure-footed theme is not enough if the novel fails to embrace other tenets of good fiction. The biggest issue with Crash is the presupposition that lies at heart of its thesis: that there is some innately erotic relationship between a car crash and sex. The gaping, twisted metal, the labial yawn of a shattered grill, the concussive bang of read-ender, the protruding gear shift between your legs – it’s all supposed to remind us of the clinical anatomy of fucking. I didn’t get it. I’ve never once been exposed to a car crash and felt even the slightest hint of sexual connection. And I don’t think it’s just me – there really isn’t anything inherently sexual about a car crash. Not even a little. But without that suspension of disbelief, without the reader willing to embrace this most absurd of presuppositions, the novel falls apart. In Kafka, we get that Gregor Samsa woke up a bug; we buy into that construction before the end of the first page. In Crash, Ballard goes off in his own loony direction without ensuring that his readers are, erm, along for the ride.

The problem is that Ballard spends so much time assembling his thematic structure that he doesn’t concern himself too much with characterization. The character Ballard, as well as Vaughan and the women they fuck, move through the novel with only the most crudely primitive motivation. After the umpteenth description of semen spurting across the dashboard, of someone settling “her vulva over his penis” in the backseat of a Ford, I began to ask myself – What exactly is at stake in this story?

The answer, sadly and finally, is nothing. As important as postmodernists will find this novel’s themes for decades to come, its story and characters disappear quickly from the discerning reader’s consciousness after the last page. Rather like exhaust from a tailpipe.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Review: Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott

Every now and then it’s great to read a novel that has acted as a prototype for its very genre. Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott, certainly fits into that category, as it’s one of the first examples of what we now call the “historical novel”. Published in 1817, it’s actually set a century earlier, in 1715, in the north of England and in Scotland during the first Jacobite uprising.

It tells the story of Francis Osbaldistone, son of a rich merchant in London, who is expelled from his father’s home for the gross indecency of pursuing a career in poetry. Francis is sent to the house of his hard-drinking uncle Hildebrand in the north of England in the hopes that he will help the family business collect assets owed across the border in Scotland. While in Osbaldistone Hall, Francis runs afoul of his conniving cousin, Rashleigh, and falls in love with the beautiful Diana Vernon. After crossing into Scotland, Francis meets a wild medley of offbeat characters, not the least of which being the titular Rob Roy MacGregor. Roy is a kind of Scottish Robin Hood, gaining legend for helping the oppressed and downtrodden of the Scottish Highlands.

Rob Roy has a fairly straightforward structure, establishing a series of basic binaries that hold the themes of the novel together: England versus Scotland, poetry versus commerce, the poor versus the rich, etc. It also spends a bit too much of the early part of the novel focusing on Francis’ infatuation with the lovely Diana and their many instances of flirtatious jousting. But once the novel introduces the Scottish characters, it takes off with the kind of energy one would expect from a 19th-century romance or adventure novel. The story is full of a wonderful mythologizing of Scotland itself and a sense of the historical importance of the novel’s time and place.

If most people today know of the legend of Rob Roy, it’s probably because of the 1995 film staring Liam Neeson. This movie had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Mel Gibson’s much more popular (but entirely corny) Scottish epic, Braveheart. Rob Roy was a vastly superior film but was undermined by the infamous scene of a curt, brutal rape that kept audiences away. The Neeson film does not really follow the same story as the novel, but it actually does give a far more engaging look into the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor than Scott’s book does.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The nuance of profile writing: Stephen Henighan takes on John Ralston Saul

I'm a little behind on my magazine/periodical reading, but there is one article that I wanted to share with you from what is now no longer the current issue of the The Walrus: this piece by Stephen Henighan profiling John Ralston Saul is probably one of the best examples of feature writing I've seen in a long time.

Sadly, most magazine writers have only two speeds when it comes to profile writing: hagiography or snark. In this piece, Henighan shows us how important nuance and balance is when tackling a profile subject. You never feel that he's shilling for or idealizing Saul. At the same time, when Henighan does go after the various shortcomings of much of Saul's fiction, it doesn't come off catty or undermine Saul's value as a subject. The balance and tone are just right. Magazine writers could learn a lot from this article in particular, and Stephen Henighan in general.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More love for Draft

For those of you who didn't make it out to the Draft Reading on Sunday, or even if you did, you may want to check out A.J. Somerset's blog. He has posted a couple of pictures of the event - one of Michael Bryson reading from his short story collection The Lizard and one of me reading from the new manuscript. (A question for all of ya: Is it just me, or does it look like there's something horribly wrong with my left eye?) At any rate, thanks to A.J. for posting these.

For those of you who don't know, A.J. Somerset is this year's winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award for his forthcoming novel Combat Camera, slated for release by Biblioasis this September. If it's anything like previous winners of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, the novel should be bursting with some of the finest writing this country has to offer and a voice that's hard to resist. You can read more about the book and its author here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Let Me Down Easy

Had an excellent reading this afternoon at The Merchants of Green Coffee as part of the Draft Reading Series. The theme was "rejection", and my fellow readers - Michael Bryson, Dani Couture, Ellen Jaffe and Ian Burgham - were all excellent. I strongly recommend you go and seek out their books. The good people at Draft also put together a small anthology for every event, and they asked me for an essay to go in the one for this one. I thought I'd also share what I wrote here on the blog. You can find it below. Enjoy!

Let Me Down Easy
By Mark Sampson

So four pages on rejection, then. Why four? Why not forty? Or four hundred? Four hundred pages on rejection, and I’ll bundle it up and mail it to a small but prestigious literary press in Toronto. And six months later I’ll get a form letter back, telling me my four hundred pages on rejection have been rejected. Then, a year after that, I will attend a literary event in Toronto and I will spot that small but prestigious literary press’s acquisitions editor sitting at the bar. She will be wearing an inexpensive denim frock and a necklace made of turquoise stones. I will be wearing tweed that I bought at Value Village. I will sidle up to her during the break and introduce myself. We have, after all, already shared a queer intimacy – I have addressed a cover letter to you. She will smile politely and perhaps even pretend to remember my manuscript, one of eighty-five that no doubt crossed her desk that month. But all the while there will be that look behind her thin-lipped smile, the look I’ve seen from countless women in countless bars, the look that says: Buddy, won’t you please just go away.


Actually, I’m not. There are numerous similarities one can draw between literary and romantic rejection. Both require a thick skin and an unwavering sense of yourself in the face of constant rebuffs. Both require perseverance and a commitment to self improvement, to learn from each let down and make yourself a little bit better for next time. And both come, alas, with their own Pavlovian trappings. In the world of romance, it’s those dreaded words, I just want to be friends. In the literary world, it’s opening your mailbox to find a manila envelope with your address written in your own handwriting. You cannot control your knee-jerk response to either of these soul-crushing events.

I received my first rejection letter when I was seventeen. I was living in Charlottetown at the time and had submitted a short story to the local literary publisher, Ragweed Press. This was, thinking back now, the literary equivalent of asking out an older woman. I don’t know what I expected Ragweed to do with my 20-page story – perhaps be so bowled over by my genius that its editors would order me to write ten more so they could publish them in a book. Anyway, in the rejection letter, dated April 26, 1993, editor Lynn Henry compliments me on the quality of my writing, the authenticity of my manuscript’s “voice” and my use of “realistic details and language”. But she also, in the gentlest terms possible, tells me she finds my story’s ending contrived – a bit too neat, a bit too much of a “wrap up”. And even though my submission is “not suitable for our publication program at this time”, she encourages me to continuing working on this and other short stories. Then, in a handwritten p.s. at the bottom, she chides me – again, ever so gently – for forgetting to include a S.A.S.E. with my submission.

Oh, if only the girls I went to high school with had taken such care in turning me down!

I once received an oral rejection – literary, of course. I was a couple of years into undergraduate at this point, living in Halifax, and had submitted a story to a literary journal in Winnipeg. The editor turned it down, but was impressed enough by what I submitted to call me, all the way in Halifax, to deliver this news. I was stunned, and immensely flattered. His call is especially surprising in retrospect, considering the kind of doggerel I was writing and submitting at the time – populist junk full of vampires and teenage romance (no market in that, obviously). The editor went so far as to say that he might be in Halifax in the coming year for some Writers Union meeting or other, and wanted to meet me and take me out for a drink. For whatever reason, we never hooked up. I consider him the one that got away.

I don’t know if this is true for other authors, but I have found that my rejection letters followed a discernable pattern as I crept, ever so slowly, toward acceptance and publication. That first note from Ragweed notwithstanding, the vast majority of my early rejections arrived with no commentary whatsoever; most were merely an unsigned photocopy of a form letter. Then I would occasionally get one that included a hastily scratched sentence at the bottom, something like, “Plenty of promise here – keep submitting!”, the editorial equivalent of a pat on the butt. Then came more detailed notes about exactly why I was being rejected: problems with character motivation, a bland beginning, an unconvincing ending, too much description in one place, not enough in another, etc etc.

And finally came letters – and here I began to feel that actual acceptance was nigh – where the editors couldn’t really articulate why they were turning me down. There was lots to love about whatever I had submitted and nothing technically wrong with it. It was, in essence, publishable. But so was an entire stack of other submissions on their desks, and they had to make some tough decisions. Of course, I can easily compare the tone of these letters to what one might encounter out there in the dating world: “It’s not you, it’s me … You’re wonderful, you are … I just know that you’re going to make some (other) publisher very happy one day …”


There are those who believe that if you keep submitting enough stories to enough publishers that eventually you’ll get something accepted. I am not one of these people. Just as I don’t necessary believe that there is “someone out there for everyone”. It’s a sad fact of life that there are just some people who are bound to encounter rejection at every turn. Sure, they might get a brief, occasional taste of success in their romantic lives, but will ultimately find themselves banished again and again to the cold grey bed sheets of singledom, what Mark Anthony Jarman calls a “sexual Nebraska”. And professionally, some people may keep writing (as they have been instructed to do), may keep submitting (as they have been instructed to do) but will never get to touch that brass ring of acceptance. It happens. It might be happening to you right now. You may even know this about yourself. Or you may be in denial about it and coming up with creative ways to lie to yourself. You may go out and buy yourself a tweed coat, grow a beard and cut your hair short to mitigate insipient baldness. You may even show up at literary events in Toronto and ingratiate yourself upon strangers who find you pleasant enough but have absolutely no interest in anything you have to say. It happens.

I’m kidding, of course. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Because I’ll tell you this, there is nothing quite like having something you’re created accepted for publication, nothing quite like a stranger getting so excited by something you wrote, and wanting to support it. Actually, I’m wrong. There is something like it. Falling in love is like it, and having someone fall in love with you. To know that that everything you’ve worked for has prepared you for this moment, that every trial you have endured as been to make you worthy of this person.

It’s definitely worth the wait.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Literary doin's are a transpirin'

The weekend is upon us, and if you happen to live in the Toronto area and are looking for some bookish activities to take in over the next several days or so, allow me to make some recommendations.

There is of course my reading as part of the Draft Reading Series this Sunday, April 18, at the Merchants of Green Coffee, 2 Matilda Street, Toronto. The fun starts at 3 pm. Other readers include Michael Bryson, Ellen S. Jaffe and Dani Couture. More info here. The theme of the afternoon is "rejection", one of my absolute favourite topics. And yes, I will be reading stuff from the new novel-in-progress.

Then, the following night (Monday, April 19), M&S launches its spring poetry line featuring Dionne Brand, Paul Vermeersch, and John Steffler. The event takes place at The Dora Keogh (one of the few genuinely Irish pubs in this city), 141 Danforth Ave. I'm sure all of the presenters will be amazing, but I'm comin' out especially for Paul. I've heard him read from this new book several times now while it was still in manuscript, and a fantastic poem of his appeared in a recent issue of The Walrus. His new collection is called The Reinvention of the Human Hand, and I can't wait to get my hairy little fingers on it.

Last and certainly not least, RR is reading next Wednesday (April 21) as part of the HEAR/HEAR Reading Series, an adjunct of the Now Hear This program, which helps place Toronto writers at Toronto high schools as writers in residence. The reading takes place at the Free Times Cafe, 320 College St., and starts at 7 pm. RR hasn't told me what she'll be reading, but I'm hoping it'll be the fantastic short story she recently published in the literary journal Room. Funnily enough, we'll be jaunting to her reading after taking in another one earlier in the evening by Russell Smith, who has just published a new novel called Girl Crazy. You can check out this very helpful article Smith did earlier this week for The Globe & Mail on writing sex scenes. Wot!

Okay, enough talk about readings. It's time for me to get back to writing the novel. Damn thing still hasn't learned to write itself ...


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

I did a reading at McMaster University a few weeks ago, and during the break found myself talking to a student about taking risks in one’s writing. I said that many of the books I admire contain some element of risk for the writer, some aspect that extends the author beyond his or her comfort zone. Every act of literature, I said, should take some sort of risk, even if it’s a small one. For many authors, this usually translates into rendering a difficult part of their identity or autobiography into fiction. But for others, the gambles are larger, more involved. Some authors put a lot more chips on the table in the hopes of a much bigger payoff.

No one can argue that The Golden Mean was not a huge risk for Canadian author Annabel Lyon; she’s clearly swinging for the fence in this book. The novel is set in ancient Greece. It details the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and his most famous student, the boy who would become Alexander the Great. It is laden with meticulous research. Its narrative intrigue arises from both recorded history and abstract philosophical concepts. And perhaps most riskily of all, the story is told in first-person narration from Aristotle’s point of view. There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with a project of this magnitude. Surprisingly, and delightfully, nothing does. The Golden Mean is an unmitigated success and a masterpiece. Lyon deserves every plaudit she has received – including winning the Writers Trust Fiction Prize and shortlist nods from both the Giller and the GG – for this exquisitely crafted and highly readable novel.

I think there’s some value in examining several of the risks that this book takes. We could start with its setting and the research involved in making it come to life. It’s hard enough to craft a story around ordinary people of a specific time whose lives have no real consequence on the tides of history. Harder still is to inhabit the lives of history’s big players – in this case, Aristotle, Plato, Alexander and Alexander’s father Philip, the king of Macedon – and make it all work at a human level. The key is to integrate, rather than merely graft on, your carefully gathered research into the small, everyday details of your characters’ lives. Make no mistake, Lyon’s readers are fully aware of history’s pull on these characters – talks of invading Persia, actual battles, the jostling for power, the specific time and place in Aristotle’s biography. Yet she captures such perfect, quotidian detail along the way: these characters prepare meals, they have sex, they have dinner parties, they give birth, they squabble over domestic trifles. You never once feel that these people are mere tools of the research. Lyon has made them the living, breathing, messy humans they were.

Then there’s the whole issue of laying a philosophical construct at the heart of your narrative. In this case, it’s Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean between two extremes – a concept he attempts to impart on Alexander time and again as the boy prepares to ascend to the throne. I have no explanation as to how Lyon got this to work; it just does. It’s one of those moments of magic that a serious work of literature can often achieve. Lyon shows incredible control over her need to press this Big Idea onto her story. Too much of it would have rendered the book contrived. Too little, and the reader would have missed it.

Finally, we could talk about the narration. I mean, you have to talk about the narration. Canadian writers are wonderful at a great many things, but I don’t think literary ventriloquism is necessarily one of them. Thankfully, Lyon has set a new standard for Canadian fiction that chooses to adopt a voice that isn’t just a thinly veiled facsimile of the writer’s. I haven’t been this impressed with an author’s ability to write in first person of the opposite gender since Arthur Golden’s feat in Memoirs of a Geisha. In The Golden Mean, Lyon manages to completely let go of her female, 21st-century perspective on the world and embrace Aristotle’s voice and inner life with such force. I mean, she absolutely revels in it. What struck me was how absolutely bang on her grasp of maleness is, of the constantly shifting and unstable plates that is masculinity, and the role that sex and sexual conquest plays in that. She gets it. And it’s no small feat that she gets it.

I hope lots of people read this novel, people who wouldn’t normally take a chance (a risk?) on a book that’s so unapologetically historical. There’s so much more going on in this text; and besides, it’s a damn good story. The Golden Mean could hold its own with any piece of serious World Literature. It’s deserves our attention.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: Saturday, by Ian McEwan

It’s hard to write a casual critique of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday without confronting Irish novelist John Banville’s scathing indictment of the book in his review of it for The New York Times. Banville is arguably most famous for his curt acceptance speech after winning the Booker Prize that same year, in which he quipped, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.” One gets the sense that Saturday was exactly the kind of novel he was trying to diss.

So what kind of novel is Saturday? In Banville’s words, it’s “dismally bad”, a series of set pieces crudely assembled “with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set”; he find’s the book’s political discussions “banal”, its cast of characters like cardboard cut outs. He writes, “If [British Prime Minister at the time] Tony Blair … were to appoint a committee to produce a ‘novel for our time,’ the result would surely be something like this.” In other words, for Banville, Saturday is not a work of art.

It is true that, as a novelist, Ian McEwan generally errs on the side of pure clinical technique rather than unfettered artistic expression, and this aesthetic is in obvious display in Saturday. Perhaps Banville’s panning of the book was meant to instigate a discussion about whether novel writing has degenerated into mere craft rather than an attempt to create a lasting work of art. To my mind, that debate is a sucker’s game and one that a book like Saturday is bound to lose. Novels can and should attempt to be both craft and art. That’s a given. It’s also a given that they can fall down in their attempts to be both; in fact, most novels do. But even if they do, they can still be serious and enjoyable novels – novels that instill in us a sublime sense of enrichment, even if it originates from an imperfect technique or expression of art. For my money, this is exactly where Saturday lands.

A little background: the novel is set within a single day – Saturday, February 15, 2003. (A diurnal novel, one might say. The knee-jerk observation is that this is an hommage to Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway.) Successful British neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes in the early hours of the morning with an aimless sense of dread. He gets up and goes to his window, where he sees a plane with one of its engines on fire streaking across the sky on its way to an emergency landing at Heathrow. With the attacks of 9/11 still fresh in the collective psyche, Perowne wonders if this burning plane is another act of terrorism. He learns only later in the morning that it was in fact a simple mechanical issue, but the incident lingers with him for the remainder of the day. And what a day it will be for Perowne: his young daughter Daisy, a recently published poet, is returning home from Paris after being away for six months, and the Perownes are planning to mark her arrival with a celebratory family dinner party, which will include Henry’s wife Rosalind (a lawyer working for a liberal London newspaper), their 18-year-old son Theo (a buddy blues musician), and Rosalind’s father Grammaticus (also a poet, Daisy’s tempestuous mentor). Henry has a full day planned before the evening party, which includes a game of squash with a colleague, a visit to his senile mother in a nursing home, and a trip to the fishmonger to pick up seafood for the meal that night.

Of course, the big complication in Perowne’s day is the massive demonstration occurring on the streets of London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. This street protest diverts Perowne onto a secluded street on his way to his squash game, and there he’s involved in what at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill auto accident. Only, the car that crashed into his is occupied by three black hoodlums. A confrontation ensues. The lead ruffian, a street kid named Baxter, throws a punch at Perowne and threatens him. It’s during this altercation that Perowne, ever the observant scientist, diagnoses Baxter on the spot with the early stages of Huntington’s disease. Perowne manages to escape the situation without serious injury by confronting Baxter about his illness. Perowne goes through the rest of his day deeply shaken, not only by the altercation but how it relates to the protest over the Iraq war, the flaming airplane he saw that morning, and the general angst gripping the 21st century. He goes home and begins preparing the meal. Daisy arrives. The two get into an argument over the Iraq War. Theo and Grammaticus eventually arrive as well. Then the final confrontation begins. Rosalind comes home, only she’s being led by knifepoint into the house by Baxter and Nigel, one of the other hoodlums that Perowne had met earlier in the day. The confrontation results in Grammaticus getting his nose broken and Daisy being forced to strip naked in front of her family and read a poem. The scene ends with Perowne and Theo taking Baxter out by throwing him down a set of stairs, which results in him splitting his head open. In the final irony of the novel, Perowne becomes the neurosurgeon in charge of operating on Baxter to save his life.

Okay. Even people who love this novel would have to admit that it does all sound a bit ridiculous when you describe simply what happens in the book. For me, Saturday raised a number of plausibility issues: Is it conceivable that Perowne could diagnose Baxter’s illness so easily during their street confrontation? Is it all that likely that Perowne and Daisy would get into such a heated debate over Iraq after not seeing each other for six months (despite the hormonal roller coaster she’s on as a result of a hidden pregnancy)? Is it plausible that Baxter and Nigel were really smart enough to find out where Perowne lives? Does it make sense that Nigel simply flees the house at the very climax of the novel? Thinking about these problems, one begins to see why Banville accuses this novel of being crudely assembled.

Yet, there’s a lot more going on in Saturday – something encoded deep inside its narrative, something that Banville may have missed. To my mind, this novel is not about the Iraq War, 9/11 or early 21st century angst. It’s not about tenuous family relationships, the banality of politics, or the moral conundrums that the rich and lucky face when confronted by the poor and hapless. I mean, it’s partly about those things, but not really. Ultimately, this novel is about the double-edged sword of an irreligious existence. It’s about one man coming to realize over the course of a single day both the ecstasy and the anguish of living in a world where God does not exist. In that way, Saturday has more in common with, say, Jim Crace’s brilliant 1999 novel Being Dead than it does with Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses.

Perowne is a man who revels in the joy of an expansive, multifarious world of science; its logic creates him, sustains him; indeed, the immeasurable complexity of the universe is what propels him through life. Yet he finds something hollow at the core of these beliefs and cannot find a way to fill it. This double-edged irreligiosity is there when he sees the flaming plane:

If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea hat he’s been summoned; that having awoken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for now reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance.

This double-edged irreligiosity is there when has one of his challenging talks with Daisy:

…[A]nd Perowne … said that if he ever go the call [to create a religion], he’d make use of evolution. What better creation myth? … and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true.

And this double-edged irreligiosity is there in the most affecting scene of the novel – when Perowne goes to visit his senile mother. Banville is right to point out this is a genuinely gut-wrenching scene, but it’s not clear if he understands why. Within his mother’s illness, Perowne sees a dead end to his faith that there is no conscious being controlling the perfectly scientific universe he loves so much. This anguish is brought to the fore by the various irrationalities he has encountered over the course of the day. He longs to have order, to have a guardian watching over him to make sure that everything, everything in life makes sense. His mother is evidence that there is not, and it breaks his heart. Ever the skilled literary technician, McEwan makes sure that when Perowne’s mother spouts her dementia-driven gibberish, it literally makes no sense, that no connections are made between it and the wider themes of the book. A lesser novelist would have given in to the temptation to do so. This is where the craft and the art of this novel collide, and it is brilliant.

Saturday is a flawed novel in many ways, but it is still an important one. There has yet to be a fully successful novel exploring the trauma of our post-9/11 world – Jonathan Safran Foer failed in his attempt; Don Delillo failed in his attempt – but Saturday comes close. Ian McEwan is both a craftsman and an artist. And this novel deserves our respect.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Griffin Prize doubles award money

Looks like it's shaping up to be an excellent National Poetry Month, as Scott Griffin has just announced that his doubling the prize money amount for the Griffin Poetry for Poetry, from $100,000 to $200,000. Each of the poets on the two category shortlists (one for Canadian poetry, one for international poetry) will receive $10,000 each, with the winner in each category receiving an additional $65,000.

To learn more or to check out the shortlist of the very lucky poets, check out the link above.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: Pain-Proof Men, by John Wall Barger

I picked up this collection by Halifax-based poet John Wall Barger after reading a couple of his poems in a recent issue of The Fiddlehead. I was intrigued by the title of this book, but I also had a feeling that it would evoke some strong memories of my seven years living in Halifax.

Barger does not disappoint. Pain-Proof Men captures wonderful snippets of contemporary Halifax in all its salty, hardscrabble glory, even as it explores the poet’s own harsh inner world. Take, for example, The Fiddlehead poem that is also in the collection, “Slow Exposure” (revised somewhat from the journal’s version for the book, or vice versa): “Under the surgical lights of the Superstore/ a punk pushes past/ with the innocence & orange whiskers/ of a carrot. You worry for him/ until you note his bowling shoes/ & pulp fiction grin …” There is something entirely Haligonian about the images that Barger paints in this poem. While I would argue that a carrot’s whiskers are actually green, not orange, every other description in this piece is bang on in making a moment of tense self-realization at a Halifax supermarket come alive on the page.

Pain-Proof Men takes its title from the Arabic word fakir, a term for a Muslim Sufi ascetic or, more commonly, those carnival performers who can endure great acts of physical pain such as walking on hot coals or sleeping on a bed of nails. The notion of a pain-proof man is one that holds many of the poems in this collection together. We have men as stoics; we have men as protectors; we have men as Hollywood monsters. We have fathers who come to their sons bearing gifts that are the spoils of violence: from the poem “A Gift”: “He has mentioned a gift/ & now places a fossil/ he found in Eastern Europe/ beside my coffee/ & watches me./ It is a bone,/ a circular, horned ghost./ It’s from Auschwitz, he explains./ … It was, I see now,/ part of a child’s spine.” Mostly we have men who endure a kind of interior torture or loneliness that is somehow brought into clarity by the outside world.

As much as I appreciated these overlapping themes, I have to admit that I held a soft spot for the more Halifax-centric poems. My favourite in the collection is “The Ugliest Building in Town”. Barger writes: “This building, the ugliest in Halifax,/ makes me wonder/ if beauty exists anywhere.” I know this building. At least, I think I do. If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it sits on the corner of Robie St and Quinpool Rd and truly is the ugliest structure in creation. My friends and I used to call it “the Rice Krispie Square.” Barger describes it with deft precision, and imagines its destruction with joyous zest.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Happy National Poetry Month

April has arrived, and along with it July-like temperatures - at least here in Toronto. As many of you no doubt know, April is National Poetry Month, a time to reflect on all manner of verse and its importance to our literary culture. While I am the sort of bloke who reads poetry all year round, I understand that many of you are not. So if you'd like to take this National Poetry Month to connect with some really good collections of verse, allow me to recommend some.

These are 10 excellent books of Canadian poetry that I've read in the last three or four years. They're a diverse bunch for sure, but I think there are numerous things that unify them. I write poetry and have had some published hither and on, but I tend to judge a collection by how well it both inspires me to write more poetry but also makes me want to leave it to others who are obviously doing it so much better. Call it awe and envy. Each of these wonderful collections certainly instilled both in me. I hope they'll do the same for you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I really should go outside and enjoy some of this balmy April weather. Cruelest month my arse.
  • Wolf Tree, by Alison Calder
  • Palilalia, by Jeffery Donaldson
  • Repose, by Adam Getty
  • A Strange Relief, by Sonnet L'Abbe
  • Short Haul Engine, by Karen Solie
  • Crabwise to the Hounds, by Jeremy Dodds
  • Slant Room, by Michael Eden Reynolds
  • Track & Trace, by Zachariah Wells
  • Meniscus, by Shane Neilson
  • Misshapenness, by J.J. Steinfeld (my review)