Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: This Cake is For the Party, by Sarah Selecky

I had the great privilege of reading with Sarah Selecky about a year ago at the Pivot at the Press Club reading series here in Toronto. It was a fun night and she recited a fantastic excerpt from her short story “How Healthy Are You?” – a tale lovable for several reasons, not the least of which because it has a character named “Mark S.” in it. The story was, of course, part of the manuscript for her forthcoming This Cake is For the Party, a book that has since become the talk of the town, getting shortlisted for the Giller Prize and profiled in a number of major newspapers.

There are plenty of unifying tropes and character types that hold This Cake ... together. The majority of the stories are populated by urbanites in their late twenties or early thirties, coming into successes and money and finding and losing themselves, often for the first time. These stories are full of organic food and artificial friendships, expensive wines and waning love affairs. They capture with near-perfect precision the foibles of the modern-day yuppie attempting to navigate the complexities of the contemporary world.

The chief strength of Sarah’s writing is the way she is able to successfully hold up a mirror with descriptive powers that are spot on to reflect back observations that the reader has always taken for granted. In her story “Watching Atlas”, a character drinks from a glass of Coke, “… her teeth swimming through the caramel liquid.” In “This is How We Grow as Humans”, a young waitress is described “ … dressed in a black miniskirt, heavy boots and skinny bare legs. She has a piercing on her face: a small silver stud …” Each of these descriptions are instantly recognizable. Even the story “Standing Up for Janey”, which I considered the weakest of the bunch, has this wonderful way of describing expensive red wine bottles lined up on a rack – “moody.” Genius.

Of the 10 stories in This Cake ... , the strongest is clearly the final piece, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas,” a story that impresses on a number of levels. It’s written flawlessly from a first-person male perspective – without feeling misplaced in a collection that is unmistakably feminine at its heart – and tells the story of a man trying to love a woman who is sinking under the weight of her own mental illness. It skillfully examines the psychological cost of intense creativity, a kind of metaphoric and literal fire that consumes the woman at the centre of the narrator’s obsession.

The enduring strength of This Cake is For the Party is the way it lends a rich emotional life to its characters, even if (and especially if) many of those characters are faithless, lost or superficial. Everyone in the collection is drawn and examined with intense care, and it makes the book a rewarding read from start to finish.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

I feel a little late to the game lending my unadulterated praise to Alexander MacLeod’s debut short story collection, Light Lifting. The book already found its way onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, received solid reviews in The Globe & Mail, The National Post and Quill and Quire, and made itself the crown jewel in Biblioasis’s fall 2010 list. There’s not a whole lot I can add to the acclaim that this fantastic book has received over the last month and a half, but I’m going to try my best.

One of the aspects of Light Lifting that got a lot of people talking was how long it took MacLeod to write the collection – by some accounts as many as 10 years. This may have raised a few eyebrows considering that the book is comprised of just seven stories spanning about 210 pages. But after finishing the book, I wasn’t surprised at all that it took him so long: the craftsmanship behind each piece is absolutely off the charts, and any close reading will reveal the time and patience it must have taken MacLeod to put these stories together.

Indeed, one of the great strengths of MacLeod’s writing is the way he is able to modulate between different modes within a single story. This is typified in his two opening pieces, “Miracle Mile” and “Wonder About Parents”: in each example, we see the narration do a number of astounding tricks with point and counter-point. His stories often move from a direct first-person point of view to a kind of second-person didacticism or universality, as if his protagonists are speaking directly to us about some aspect of life that we already unconsciously knew or understood. They also shift effortlessly from the specific to the general, and from the immediacy of a present situation to a flashback of some relevant event in the past.

This accomplishment can’t be overstated: it’s incredibly hard to achieve this kind of perfected balance between so many narrative modulations, especially in a short story. But MacLeod makes it look effortless. I imagine there must have been a proverbial cutting-room floor where entire scenes (or even whole stories) were ditched outright, and what remained was substantively rewritten and rewritten until MacLeod got each piece’s queer alchemy, its resounding equilibrium, just right. In the end, the results speak for themselves: you finish each story and know that it could not have been structured any other way; you turn the last page feeling as if the tale you’ve just read has, in some way, always existed.

Much has been made of the rugged masculinity of Light Lifting, but there is also a rugged intellectualism here too, not to mention a ton of old-fashioned authorial tenderness. MacLeod is just as adept at writing about a dad wiping poo off his baby’s backside in a gas station bathroom as he is writing about laying brick or young men enthralled by athletic competition. It’s a versatility that impresses over and over again. These are very human stories, and very humane. They are gentle and violent, specific and universal, and chock full of insight and keen observations.

I look forward to seeing what MacLeod will do next – and here’s hoping it doesn’t take him another 10 years to do it.

Beer before liquor, liquor before beer, etc etc – Toronto’s Gourmet Food and Wine Expo

So I’m spending this Monday recovering from a mild hangover after spending six gloriously boozy hours at the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo yesterday afternoon at the Metro Convention Centre here in Toronto. The event was a belated birthday present from my brother Kurt (who performs in a four-piece a capella group called Cadence - yes, it’s his full-time job and yes we are all infinitely jealous of him.) Kurt and I hadn’t seen each other in a while (he’s been on tour in Europe; I’ve been finishing the second draft of the new novel) so it was great to stagger around the Convention Centre together and get ourselves acquainted with - oh let’s been honest, make friends or possibly built life-long relationships with – a vast array of beers, wines and spirits that we hadn’t tried before.

After a perfunctory stroll around the floor to check out the various booths and kiosks, we settled in for some serious drinking. Since it was still relatively close to the breakfast hour at that point, we decided to start with an oatmeal stout from Montreal’s St. Ambroise brewing company. This was a fantastic beer and great way to kick off the afternoon. It had the same look and consistency of a Guinness but its favour was far more complex, melting its oatmeal base to the slight hints of chocolate and coffee. A solid breakfast beer if I’ve ever tasted one.

We moved along to wines and made some incredible finds. After deliberately avoiding the Ontario vineyard area and being underwhelmed by a couple of Spanish and Argentinean products, we stumbled upon something I’ve never tried before – a New Zealand pinot noir. It was called Stoneleigh and was, quite simply, the best pinot noir I’ve had in a long time – probably since living in Australia. Stoneleigh is incredibly well-crafted and impressed me with its subtlety and exquisitely fine finish. A perfect wine for, say, impressing the in-laws or serving with a meal you slaved all Saturday afternoon over. Kurt had their sister product Villa Maria and was equally impressed.

After taking a meal break (yes, very important to eat during these excursions – fried rice and a mango salad, both good for soaking up alcohol and reinvigorating the body), we switched back to beer. We tried a very tasty microbrew from eastern Ontario’s farming area called Beau’s All Natural. The guy working the booth was passionate about his product and justifiably so: the beer had a refreshing, clean taste from start to finish, a beautifully crafted beer.

We moved along, avoiding the Alexander Keith’s booth (because we’re no longer undergrads) and the Sam Adams area (because American beer is, well, American beer). It was at this point that we found the drink that absolutely stole the entire afternoon for us, that floored us with its brilliance and made us come back two more times for refills. This was a beer from Scotland called Innes & Gunn. Oh. My. God. Where has this beer been all my life? I mean serious! Discovering this beer was like discovering Atlantis, like finding a pot of gold in your living room, like meeting the girl of your dreams at a literary reading series. It was THAT GOOD. I&G makes its beers by using casks left over from other alcohol – scotch, Kentucky bourbon, etc. – and the flavours were like nothing I had ever had before. There’s no doubt that this beer, no matter what the cost (and it IS on the pricey side) will find its way into regular rotation at my house.

We took another food break (floor was beginning to wobble at this point) and then moved along to other booths and kiosks. We enjoyed a very lovely fruit wine called Muskoka Lakes made entirely of cranberry and blueberry. This would be a perfect wine for serving at dessert or to show a girl how sensitive and progressive you are. We did find a couple of duds over the course of the afternoon: there was a brandy from the former Soviet republic of Georgia that grew less potable with every sip (we should have known better), as well as a Japanese whisky that was passable at best.

Overall, the afternoon was a success and I left feeling like I had just made a ton of new friends. Kurt and I (and possibly other like-minded drinkers) will definitely be back next year.

Addendum: Advice for the hungover

Not that I was this bad off this morning, but here is a word of wisdom to those of you who suffer from the occasional drink-related malady. This is my iron-clad guarantee for recovery: Gatorade! I kid you not. Try drinking a bottle of it before you start boozing, another bottle just before you pass out for the night, and a third bottle after you rouse in the morning. If you have access to a sauna (in your gym, say, or your apartment complex), I recommend spending some time in it after you’ve regain consciousness with that third bottle of Gatorade. The combined process of sweating out toxins and drinking in vital electrolytes from the Gatorade will restore you to perfect health within minutes. Note: It must be Gatorade. None of this will work if you cheap out and use one of its many knock-offs.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani

Moez Surani’s debut poetry collection Reticent Bodies arrived on my nightstand with a great deal of advanced praise. There are a couple of flattering blurbs on the back cover – one from Steven Heighton and another from George Elliot Clarke – and RR had mentioned encountering Surani and/or his work and being quite impressed. He was also the recipient of the 2008 Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which is no small feat.

Reticent Bodies does not disappoint. Here are poems in an array of forms and styles – from unabashed examples of meta-poems to the deeply personal confessional lyric. Surani is comfortable in a variety of modes and is willing to write about the very big and the very small.

One thing a reader notices about this collection right away is Surani’s attempt to fit his verse into the broader context of literature in general and poetry specifically. The literary references fly fast and furious throughout this book – mentions of Neruda, Rilke, Austen, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Cervantes, Flaubert, Ovid and de Maupassant. They often come with more than just a brainy undergraduate’s reverence for the masters: Surani is interested in exploring how the writers he love fit in or reference his own deliberate vision for his poems.

There are deeply personal poems in this collection as well – so personal that Surani often risks skidding into impenetrable or abstruse territory. Thankfully, he has the good sense to go right up to that line without crossing it. Poems like “Packing for Montreal,” “Yardsaling with Robin”, “(walking home)”, “A Debt” and “Untitled 2” offer snapshots of small, personal, domestic moments that lend just the slightest flash of luminance. This is a poet is obviously unafraid to take virtually any personal experience and render it into an exquisitely craft wisp of illumination.

Overall, Surani shows tremendous promise in this debut collection and proves he is capable of forging a strong, singular voice for his verse. Definitely looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The fall issue of All Rights Reserved is online

So being stranded here in Toronto, I missed the launch party for the fall issue of All Rights Reserved in Halifax last night. But thankfully the new issue is now online, and it's great to see that my three lowly poems arrived safe and sound among its pages.

Also great to see a number of familiar names as I perused the poetry section this morning: Robin Richardson (whom I got to see read here in Toronto recently at an Insomniac Press poetry launch) has a lovely poem called "Time is a Slut"; the ever clever Darryl Whetter has a piece called "Over Under Over", which seems to build on the fossil-related imagery he had in a poem about Mary Anning published recently in The Fiddlehead; and of course, my good buddy J.J. Steinfeld has a beautiful little diddy in here called "Prowling." (And, by sheer coincidence, one of my poems is actually dedicated to J.J.) While I'm at it, I'd also want to draw your attention to Vassen Vassilev's cleverly titled poem "3001: a space iliad." Genius.

I do believe I'm supposed to receive the print version of All Rights Reserved through snail mail in the coming days or weeks, so I'll be able to give it a closer read then. If I spot anything else worth noting, I'll certainly let you know.


Review: Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball

I knew Jonathan Ball a little bit during my time living and studying in Winnipeg, and a few years later he was gracious enough to include some of my poems in a chapbook anthology he put together called The Martian Press Review. Clockfire, published by Coach House Books here in Toronto, is Ball’s second full-length collection of poems; the first, Ex Machina, was released by BookThug last year.

Clockfire is a collection of poetic renderings of what are essentially unstage-able plays. It’s a clever conceit maintained throughout this slim volume and taken to a macabre and absurdist extreme. The stated intention of the book is to undermine our traditional notions of theatre and what it’s capable of doing for us, to render obsolete the very pathos that the stage is supposed to provide. From the collection’s opening salvo:

You know before you sit, before you turn your attention to the stage, that nothing you see shall impress you, nothing in this darkened room will change your life … You want something from the theatre it cannot give. You want to be hammered by anvils and shaped by fire.

To this end, Clockfire answers its own charge. Here we find an array of theatrical musings that subvert our expectations of the possible and twist our brains into postmodern pretzels. We have a play where a magician makes the audience disappear and won’t bring it back (“The Magic Show”); a play where the audience is systematically slaughtered as part of the performance (“Like Lambs”); a play where the audience has its memory wiped clean (“Tabula Rasa”); a play that spans several generations of audience members, an idea oddly reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (“Seven Generations”).

One of the best plays is one where the audience is told at the beginning to turn off their cell phones during the duration of the performance, and then the unseen actors proceed to make frantic and repeated calls to each audience member’s silenced phone, mimicking the voices of their loved ones: “Improvising disasters. Begging for answer … When every voicemail box is full, the curtain falls.”

Some of Ball’s plays have downright gruesome premises, more akin to a horror novel than to an august collection of Canadian verse. But all the while, the collection is constantly challenging our imaginations.

Of course, the unstated intention of this book is to subvert its own subversion, which it does in subtle and beautiful ways. The temptation with a premise like this book’s is to eschew the idea of pathos entirely and glaze these poems in what might best be described as ‘postmodern crypticisms’. But it’s a temptation that Ball, for the most part, does not give in to. My favourite poems here are the ones that fragment or distill some aspect of the human condition, thus revealing a new perspective on it. I loved, for example, “The Mirrored Stage” (a fairly self explanatory title) and the play “Eight Minutes”, which is set immediately after the destruction of the sun, in those eight minutes that it takes for the last of its light to travel to Earth.

The most impressive aspect of Clockfire is that Ball is able to build suspense or tension with just the lightest brushstrokes of words. Unlike so many other poetry books lately that use some trendy, gimmicky conceit to hold the collection together, Ball’s work is an unmistakable page turner. Clockfire is a cogent, confident book, oddly uplifting and rarely caving in to the more cynical side of its postmodern premise.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

Rock and Roll novels aren’t exactly a dime a dozen in Canadian literature, but after inhaling Ray Robertson’s Moody Food over the last week or so I’m beginning to wonder why. In fact, after finishing the last page of this roller-coaster ride of a book, I was struck by a rather odd conundrum: how on Earth could a novel like Whale Music by Paul Quarrington, a rock and roll novel that I found daft and obvious and missing a core sense of seriousness, go on to win a Governor General’s Award, while Moody Food, which is richer, funnier, more profound and better written, just sort of slipped off the charts without much notice? Call me crazy, but I think the critics really dropped the ball on that one.

Moody Food is set in the 1960s and tells the story of Bill Hansen, an earnest young man living in Toronto’s (at the time) hippy-infested Yorkville neighbourhood, who finds himself roped into the rock and roll lifestyle by the mysterious and alluring Thomas Graham (loosely based on musician Gram Parsons). Together with Bill’s girlfriend Christine, another girl named Heather, and a witless on-again-off-again alcoholic named Slippery Bannister, Bill and Thomas form the alt-country musical group The Duckhead Secret Society. The novel details the band’s rise and fall – from playing in a sketchy dive in east-end Toronto and signing on with an excitable record producer from the United States to their maniacal tour of bars and taverns in heartland U.S.A. and their ultimate meltdown during a show in Los Angeles. Along the way, we see all of the tropes of a quintessential rock and roll story: Bill and Thomas unbraiding over their dependence on increasingly stronger narcotics (a real rainbow spectrum, actually – from the groovy green of marijuana to the soul-graying shoot-ups of heroin); the band squabbling over their creative direction; and more than a couple of free-love infidelities.

This really should be the kind of novel a guy like me poo-poos, a novel ready to fall victim to cardboard characters, predictable plot twists and mewling nostalgia. But oh man, Robertson would have absolutely none of it. This guy writes within an insane sort of zest, a deep love for the freedom of a blank page, and with a dedicated attempt to renounce dullness with every sentence. The whole believability and forward momentum of Moody Food hinges on Bill’s voice and character, our sense of who he is both morally and personality-wise – and Robertson absolutely nails it. He is relentless in getting this story out and pointing to both the humour and the sadness contained within.

One of this book’s great strengths is that Robertson, who was born in 1966, is able to write about the sixties without sentimentalizing it, without succumbing to a sort of Baby Boomer exceptionalism in the mind of his protagonist. He gives us Bill and Bill’s era, warts and all. He captures the unwashed energy of Yorkville at the time, but also alludes to the impenetrably posh neighbourhood it would become. He weaves in the hits of the day as a kind of background music in the novel without making them feel exploitative or tacked on. And he places The Duckhead Secret Society in context with the greater rock milieu of the time; there is even a wholly believable run-in at one point with Jim Morrison and The Doors.

I shutter to think how much research and effort it would have taken Robertson to build this novel from the ground up and make it feel like a part of rock and roll history, but he has done so admirably. The moments of comedy in Moody Food are well-balanced with the moments of seriousness. And I don’t say this about many novels, but this one truly did linger with me long after I finished the last page. Bravo.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Event (in absentia): All Rights Reserved Fall Launch Party

For any readers in the Halifax area, I'd like to extend an invitation to this week's launch of the fall issue of the All Rights Reserved literary journal. I have three poems published in this issue. Being in Toronto, I won't be able to attend the party myself, but apparently a couple of my poems will be read aloud in my absence.

Here are the particulars:

When: Thursday, November 18, 5:00–7:00 pm
Where: The Company House
2202 Gottingen Street, Halifax
Free admission (donations gladly accepted)

If you do end up attending, I love to get a report on how the evening went. You can leave a comment on this post if you like.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Sharing my good mood around

I'm still sort of floating around on Cloud Nine since yesterday's big accomplishment. It's a rare occasion for me to have a mood stay this positive for this long, so I've been looking for ways to keep the good feelings rolling. And I figure since it's Friday afternoon and you're all probably somewhere running out the clock and waiting for the weekend to start anyway, I thought I'd share a few things that are funny, uplifting or otherwise full of mood-altering awesomeness.

If you've got a free hour, I strongly recommend you do yourself a favour and listen to this interview with the late Irish memoirist and novelist Nuala O'Faolain. I swear, this is the most enriching and entertaining thing I've ever found online. O'Faolain is deadpan and hilarious as well as deeply emotional and brutally honest about growing up a woman in Ireland. This interview is the equivalent of comfort food for me: I've listened to it several times since it first aired on CBC last year, and it always lifts my spirits.

If reading is more your thing, then you may want to check out this article in Slate that puts a positive spin on the Democrats' big losses in the US mid term elections earlier this month. I walked away from this article feeling enriched and a bit more confident in the way the world is going. Hopefully you'll feel the same way.

Or maybe you just want to listen to an awesome catchy song, a blast from the Southern Ontario past that will get your heart racing and your positive vibes vibrating. If so, allow me to present this:

My mood is so good in fact, that I'm even willing to be hospitable to Baby Boomers. Here's another video, this time from that generation's more affable embassadors. If you aren't uplifted by this, then there's a very good chance that your parents did not have any children who lived:

Have a great weekend, everybody!


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

It might be a stretch to say that Sandra Beck owes a narrative debt to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, but it’s certainly fair to say that John Lavery’s debut novel builds upon the spirit of that earlier work. Sandra Beck is a book consumed by the idea of ‘two solitudes’ as an abstract concept, the binary that is still so encoded into the Canadian psyche.

Indeed, this is a novel obsessed with binaries, to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all the ones explored within its pages: the division between French and English within Montreal; the split between a daughter and father’s differing interpretations of a single person’s life; the grey area between police and criminals, between law enforcement and entertainment; and even a bifurcation in one man’s memory of how he came to meet the woman that he would come to marry. For such a short novel (just 261 pages), there are so many symbols to decode and mazes of narrative to work your way through.

Sandra Beck is a bizarrely structured novel that focuses on the life of its titular character without actually making her the protagonist. The book has two unevenly sized sections: the first and shorter part is told from the point of view of Sandra’s daughter Josée, written in stunningly clever and elastic-like prose reminiscent of another great Montreal novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. The second is told from the perspective of Sandra’s husband Paul-Francois (“PF”) Bastarache, who is a police officer and host on a local TV program about policing and crime.

Readers on the hunt for a unifying plot point between these two sections will be disappointed, as this isn’t Lavery’s aim at all. Instead, his book loops around in unconventional ways to explore its deeper themes and abstract concepts. Sandra Beck is concerned with interrogating and destabilizing our preconceived notions of how a novel should be structured, or even begun. Go ahead and read the first two pages of this book and you’ll discover a powerful intellect really trying to screw around with our ideas of what constitutes a stable beginning to a story.

If this all too discombobulating for the average reader, rest assured that Lavery makes up for it with the kindling-like crackle of his prose and his bang-on descriptive prowess. We have powerful images of Josée’s “jury of dolls” lined up in her bedroom, or the insomniac red of an exit sign in a light-night hotel hallway, or this gem of a passage, taken from a scene at an airport:

He was bolstered by this small triumph. And his sense of having been abandoned by his daughter was further mollified by the appearance, at last, of his suitcase breaking through the hanging rubber straps screening the baggage entry. The suitcase wobbled towards him, concentrating on keeping its balance, as though just learning to ride the conveyor.

It might be easy to get lost in the labyrinth that Sandra Beck’s twisting scenes create, but it’s totally worth it if you lend this book a close reading and your fullest attention. Few novels today dare to disrupt our ideas of what narrative can and should do. Fewer still do it as expertly this one does.

Giller night

Had a blast watching The Giller Award last night and was surprised as anyone when Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel The Sentimentalists won. I won't bother summarizing my evening, because RR has already done it so eloquently on her blog. This is one of her finest posts, and that's saying a lot.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: Forde Abroad, by John Metcalf

I actually read an excerpt of this novella on Google Books during one particularly lazy afternoon a couple of months ago, and so when I spotted a copy of it for sale at the Bookshelf in Guelph when I was there back in September, I jumped at the chance to buy it so I could finish the rest. For the majority of this blog’s target audience, John Metcalf needs no introduction: he is an author, critic, literary gadfly, esteemed editor for countless writers in Canada (RR among them), and, most recently, the target of a sideswiping by Andre Alexis in the pages of The Walrus. Due to the array of hats that Metcalf wears in CanLit circles, we can sometimes forget that he is also an accomplished fiction writer in his own right. Forde Abroad is a slim, taut volume brimming with hilarity and curmudgeonly anguish, a novella that definitely punches above its weight.

The book stars Metcalf’s reoccurring character Robert Forde, first introduced in the 1986 short story collection Adult Entertainment. In Forde Aboard, we find our cranky protagonist – a writer who may be just a wee bit based on Metcalf himself – on the cusp of a minor brush with international fame. His novel Winter Creatures is about to be translated into Serbian; he has been invited to take part in a literary conference in Slovenia; and his work has drawn the attention of a young scholarly admirer from East Germany named Karla. All of this occurs much to the chagrin of Forde’s caustic but steadfast wife, Sheila. The middle-of-the-night calls from the translator drive her to distraction; she can’t understand why Forde wants to go and ‘consort’ with academics for whom he has zero respect; and she’s deeply concerned that Karla’s interest in Forde goes well beyond what resides between the covers of his books. Forde decides to go to the conference anyway, charging himself with the duty of using this international stage to debunk myths about what literature from Canada actually is; and naturally, upon his arrival in Slovenia, a string of middle-brow amusements of the Waugh/Burgess/Kingsley Amis variety ensue.

One thing you spot right off the bat in Forde Abroad is how brazen Metcalf is in relegating the notion of ‘story’ to the back burner. This is not a tale that’s overtly concerned with a regimented sequence of events or what happens from once section to the next. Indeed, many of the occurrences in the novella could have gone the other way or been excluded entirely and it wouldn’t have taken away from our pleasure in reading this book. That’s because the joy of much of Metcalf’s writing isn’t so much in the story he’s telling as it is in the language he embraces in order to tell it. I mean, the way he uses a well-timed paragraph break or even a single piece of punctuation to infuse a scene with humour, meaning or even simple cadence is truly breathtaking. Nobody else quite writes like this. Metcalf has full command of his indirect third-person narration and in the end you simply don’t care where the story is leading you. You’re too busy enjoying how these sentences send the synapses of your brain firing.

Of course, a complaint one might have with Forde Abroad is that there just isn’t enough of it. There are lots of avenues that this novella could have explored; there were a lot of doors left open. But that’s okay in my books. Better to have 64 pages of pure textual bliss than 640 pages of exhaustive literary posturing that doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a single sentence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: So I am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy

In many ways, I feel like I still haven’t recovered from the last A.L. Kennedy novel I read. When I finished her book Paradise two and half years ago, I felt like I had stumbled upon a writer whose approach to narrative and linguistic style left me both drained and exhilarated by their brilliance. For months afterward, I recommended that novel to every person I possibly could; I even brought it along when I was invited to speak to creative writing classes to read out excerpts as examples of what I thought really good writing was. And now, coming to So I am Glad – which was published nearly a full decade before Paradise, when Ms. Kennedy was just 30 years old – I have had my beliefs in this novelist and her singular power confirmed all over again.

So I am Glad is a bizarre tale of love, violence and one’s inability to fit into a time and place. The protagonist is Jennifer, a young woman living in Scotland in 1993. She shares a house with a group of friends and works as a voice-over performer at a local radio station. She also has a taste for S&M (her “dangerous enthusiasms”, she calls it), a proclivity she probably developed as a result of her parents forcing her to watch them have sex when she was a young girl. Her story takes a turn for the surreal when a man appears seemingly out of nowhere to occupy one of the vacant rooms in the house. He claims to be the 17th-century French writer and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. As Jennifer attempts to unravel his identity and how he came to appear so suddenly in her life, she finds herself falling in love with him and questioning the paths that have led her to the situations she now finds herself in.

What makes Kennedy’s writing so astounding – both in general and in this novel specifically – is her preternatural ability to map the inner workings and profound turmoil of a troubled mind. To describe a thoroughly dysfunctional person attempting to negotiate the contemporary world is her single greatest strength as a writer. This isn’t chintzy Woody Allen schtick set on endless replay; it is honest and bold and thoroughly original. In So I am Glad, we gain the full spectrum of Jennifer’s various anguishes: everything from her tempestuous relationship with her coworker and ex-boyfriend Steve to the mysterious back pain that plagues her throughout the novel is laid out bare and raw for us. She finds a kindred spirit in Savinien because, like her, he is displaced in his current time and place – in his case, quite literally so. Their shared torment lends both a tender and terrifying quality to their relationship.

Much like Paradise, So I am Glad is not for softies or the faint of heart. There are scenes here of excruciating violence, including an S&M episode with Steve that gets way, way out of hand. But Kennedy tempers the more hostile aspects of this book with some amazing aphoristic writing and wonderful observations about the human condition. As usual, only by creating the most neurotic character possible is she able to reveal some truly profound things about the world.

Having read So I am Glad, I’m not the least bit surprised that Kennedy has cemented her place as Scotland’s leading literary writer. And it won’t surprising when I find myself reading her again, and again, and again.