Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Acceptance and publication: Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ) #83

So apparently I have an essay in the latest issue of CNQ. Who knew! I certainly didn't. I wrote and submitted the piece back in the summer but wasn't given any date for publication. I found out it was in print only after my future in-laws read the piece and conveyed to RR how much they enjoyed it.

At any rate, the essay discusses an early novel by David Helwig called The Glass Knight, published back in 1976 by Oberon. As I mentioned in my review of his poetry collection The Year One last year, I'm a big fan of Helwig's work and find his writing some of the most consistently enjoyable stuff around. If CNQ gets around to updating its website, I'll drop a link to it if it's available.

News of this publication couldn't have come at a better time. I've had three especially tough-to-take rejections over last month that have just wrecked me, so it's good to see my name in print even if it's just for nonfiction. Thankfully - thankfully? - the Korean novel is still in considerational limbo out there in the publishing ecosphere, so hope springs eternal. I also have a poetry collection now making the rounds, God help us.

Oh, and yes - future in-laws. Ahem. Yes, RR and I are engaged. Have been since May. I know, I know, I should've mentioned it on the blog sooner. But I'm mentioning it now. August 11, 2012, baby! Healthiest life decision I've ever made. Can't wait.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Review: The Enchanted House, by Beth E. Janzen

Sometimes, you just can’t judge a book by its (back) cover (blurb). If you were to read the impenetrable bumpf describing Beth E. Janzen’s first full-length poetry collection The Enchanted House, you’d probably be left scratching your head as to exactly what the poems were about. The back cover’s vague plaudits indicate that something is going on here, but they belie the clear-eyed and deliberate vision that Janzen brings to her work.

With a nod to Margaret Atwood (who provides the book’s epigraph and not a small amount of its influence), The Enchanted House explores the fissures of relationships and the challenges of being a stable self in an unstable world. Like its titular image, Janzen’s collection is a single structure compromised of many rooms, using reoccurring tropes and images to move the reader around its chambers.

The most prominent of these devices is the poetic rendering of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus from Greek mythology. With pieces like “Persephone: Birthday” and “Persephone at 30”, Janzen superimposes contemporary images onto a classical figure. The best of these pieces is “Persephone at 13” which explores not only the inherent angst of a teenager’s relationship with her mother but also a burgeoning sexuality, a girl’s discovery of men, the various phallic identifications ( “snakeskin purse”) and their seminal residue (“His body erupting from the lake/ the light trapped above his lip” … “He’s promised he’ll come for me/ split the world like a seed …”)

This keen eroticism is another wonderful room in The Enchanted House. Janzen does erotic very well. There were lines in poems that made me catch my breath for the way they captured the subtle force of physical intimacy. For example, from “Sleep Train (Georgia O’Keeffe)”:

The conductor asked for my ticket and
I kissed him till he fell into my mouth
and disappeared

The sky was that big

Or take this passage from “Untitled Transformations”. Here, we could easily see the lines descend into cliché, but Janzen uses her great skill at picking just the right word at just the right time to bring her image into fresh focus:

… Your tongue enters
my mouth, mobile as a snake, over my teeth, then deep
into the cup of my throat.

There are other reoccurring tropes. Janzen, who lives on Prince Edward Island, does a great job with some shore-related poems, specifically “Low Tide” and “Invitation” (the latter containing probably the single strongest closing line of any in the book). But the last reoccurring image I want to explore is something that isn’t as readily accessible on the page, something the average reader might miss if she wasn’t careful. There is a restrained but unmistakable violence to several of the poems in The Enchanted House, and this is a startling counterpoint to the collection’s gentler moments. This image from “Burned Man in the Passenger Side” – about, aptly enough, a badly burned man in the passenger seat of a car – speaks for itself:

Fruit of a new-peeled agony
shiny skin, all scar tissue
where they peeled the black away
and let the fragments scatter

Even eroticism can descend into moments of destruction. Here is a description of the lingering effects of a long-awaited kiss from “Kisses Easily Obtained Are Easily Forgotten”:

Instead, out of the quiet
it’s on us, it gores us,
tears through to entrails.
Blood-soaked, under an infinite sky
we die, saying I was ready.

It is a testament to Janzen’s talent that she balance so many tropes – classical figures, violence, seeds and leafless trees, the rhythm of tides, the mysteries of eroticism – in such a short and concise (some might even say minimalist) collection of poems. The Enchanted House as many rooms to explore, all of which contain hidden and not-so hidden treasures.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, edited by E.O. Parrott

Just a quick capsule review of this book, which is more of a reference guide to a wide variety of poetic forms, both well known and not-so well known. Parrott has assembled a collection of – and this is a generous description – “light verse” exemplifying various modes of poetry, from the haiku and sestina to the glosa (here called “glose”) and the nonet.

Early on, How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry includes cutsey-poo poems that distill classic works from Blake, Poe, Wordsworth and Tennyson into shorter and more digestible bits, which will be offensive to any of us who actually took the time and effort to read the original work. Thankfully, the book does get better as it goes along, delving into more complicated and obscure forms such as the virelai (both ancien and nouveau) and univocalics. These help show off the chops of Parrott's contributors.

It is good to be reminded every now and then what a heroic couplet is or that such a thing as a limeraiku exists (you guessed it: it’s a combination of a limerick and a haiku), and for this How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry is worthwhile. But for the most part, this book takes a daft and dippy approach to what many of consider to be a very reverent and important art form.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: The Long Day Wanes – A Malayan Trilogy, by Anthony Burgess

The fall of empire can be such an unpleasant thing. Up becomes down, moral relativism runs amok, and competing forces battle to fill the void left by the departing hegemony. It’s also an occasion for the sheer ludicrousness of existence, the unstable grasp we often have on human interactions, to come to the fore. So who better to write a farce about the collapse of colonialism and its very human effects than Anthony Burgess? This was a man who tackled complex moral questions in his work and had a deep investment in the absurd; he was also at the frontier of an empire’s collapsing influence in the world, having worked in the 1950s as an education officer in Malaya (now known as Malaysia) just as the country was gaining its independence from Britain.

The accumulation of Burgess’ experiences resulted in his first published fiction, a trilogy of novels known collectively as The Long Day Wanes. (The title comes from a line the Tennyson poem “Ulysses.”) The three books – Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East – form, in Burgess’ words, a kind of triptych view on the fading sunset of British imperialism in Asia. Its central character is one Victor Crabbe, who, like Burgess, works as an education officer in Malaya and finds himself entangled in the machinations of the country’s struggle for independence. And while Crabbe remains the constant protagonist across the three novels, his story is buttressed by a richly drawn cast of supporting characters reflecting the multicultural makeup of Malaya at the time – a country populated by Chinese, Indians, Arab Muslims, expat Brits and, of course, the native Malayans themselves.

Burgess was well-equipped to examine this poly-ethnic environment. Unlike many of his fellow British expats, who often isolated themselves from local communities in Malaya, Burgess roamed freely among the cultures that surrounded him, mastering their languages and their mores. Indeed, The Long Day Wanes is peppered liberally with terms in Malay, Hindi, Sanskrit, Chinese and Arabic – all languages that Burgess was, remarkably, fluent in – to the point of requiring a lengthy glossary at the back. And while this multiculturalism is a major source of the trilogy’s intellectual pleasures, it also sits at the heart of its farcical predicaments. Crabbe puts it well early in the first novel when describing the makeup of his classroom, which has rallied together to protest a decision by the school to expel a fellow student:

Crabbe was touched. The form had welded itself into a single unity on this issue. Tamils, Bengalis, and one Sikh, the Malays, the one Eurasian, the Chinese had found a loyalty that transcended race. Then, hopelessly, Crabbe saw that this unity was only a common banding against British injustice.

And therein lies the central conundrum that faces Crabbe through these three books. He is aware of the noxious impact that British colonialism has had on the lives of locals. He is also aware that any solidarity shown by Malaya’s various ethic groups is only superficial, and they will soon compete with one another – often violently – for cultural dominance in an independent country. But Crabbe is also a product of his upbringing and vocation: he still believes, despite everything, that the educational, cultural and intellectual achievements of Great Britain can have a positive – dare we say civilizing?– influence on the country, a kind of humanist stopgap against the sectarian anarchy that boils beneath the multiculturalism. In that sense, he sees the source of the poison becoming, paradoxically, the source of its antidote.

This, then, sets the stage to explore each of these comic novels in turn. Individually, they are a hilarious exploration of the expat experience; taken together, they are a grand portrait of the moral puzzles left by the legacy of colonialism.

Time for a Tiger

The title of the first novel is taken not from some high-minded literary reference but from a beer ad. Tiger Beer was one of the first truly cross-border brands of alcohol, and so it’s fitting that it plays an undercurrent role in a novel about the mixing of cultures. Here, we’re introduced to Crabbe and the central catastrophe that has brought him to Malaya: the death of his first wife back in England after Crabbe crashed their car into an icy river. He has subsequently married his second wife, Fenella, for whom he is far less suited, and brought them to the East to escape his distressing past. Unlike Crabbe, who finds solace in Malaya’s heat and strangeness, Fenella longs to return to England and all that it embodies. This schism – Crabbe’s post-traumatic need to be abroad and Fenella’s idealizing of home – lies at the heart of their crumbling relationship.

Meanwhile, Malaya is in the throes of upheaval: as the country prepares for independence, the threat of Communist terrorism hides behind every corner. Crabbe becomes entangled in the country’s power struggles in a situation that involves him purchasing a car from an alcoholic police officer (this, despite the fact that Crabbe now has a phobia of driving as a result of his accident back in England), him having an affair with a Malayan divorcee, his involvement with his students’ Speech Day at the school where he teaches, and the subsequent visit to a village along a route that is controlled by Communists. These interwoven threads expose Crabbe to the inherent hypocrisies in Malaya’s attempts to avoid descending into communism and result in his having to be transferred to a new posting at a new school elsewhere in the country.

The Enemy in the Blanket

By far the strongest of the three books, The Enemy in the Blanket picks up Crabbe and Fenella’s story after they’ve arrived at the new school in the fictitious sultanate of Dahaga (the Malayan word for ‘thirst’.) Fenella has learned of Crabbe’s infidelities and it strains their marriage even more. Shortly after his placement in the new school, Crabbe runs into a long-lost university chum named Rupert Hardman, a failed lawyer who is converting to Islam in order to marry a wealthy Muslim widow named `Che Normah. The machinations ramp up in a number of wonderfully convoluted ways: Crabbe sparks a feud with a disgruntled coworker named Jaganathan who looks to supplant him as the head of the school by drumming up a McCarthy-like witch hunt that exposes Crabbe’s youthful experiments with socialism (this following an impromptu discussion Jaganathan has with Hardman about Crabbe’s past); meanwhile, Crabbe begins having an affair with his boss’s wife, a nymphomaniac named Anne Talbot; meanwhile, the Sultan of Dahaga is attempting to seduce Fenella, ostensibly to gain possession of Crabbe’s car (this kind of token expropriating of foreigners’ automobiles was, according to Burgess’ memoir, a common occurrence in Malaya during pre-independence days); meanwhile, Hardman realizes just how austere and demanding Islam can be as `Che Normah commences with a relentlessly religious henpecking; meanwhile, the country spasms with sectarian angst.

What’s interesting is how the dynamics of these characters’ relationships –multicultural, fragmented, decentralized from a sense of self – mirrors the broader political situation in Malaya. Crabbe and Fenella’s marriage finally disintegrates and Fenella looks to return to foggy, cold and cultured England in order to take her place as a published poet of some renown. Crabbe and Anne Talbot fall in love but cannot be together for complex reasons. And Crabbe confronts Hardman about the situation with Jaganathan, perceiving it as a betrayal of their friendship when in fact it was simply a case of Hardman making a slip of the tongue about communism in Jaganathan’s presence. In the end, the future for everyone is uncertain, loyalties are vague and the past cannot be unwritten.

Beds in the East

The title of the final book in the trilogy comes from Antony and Cleopatra, act 2, scene 6: "The beds i' the east are soft; and thanks to you,/That call'd me timelier than my purpose hither;/For I have gain'd by 't." Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the three novels, perhaps because Burgess has lost patience with providing a nuanced portrait of what is ultimately for him a foreign culture. Malaya’s various ethnic groups are treated with less sensitivity here than in the previous two volumes, but there is something even more wrong. The novel is almost completely undone by a near-misogynist rendering of a character named Rosemary Michael, a foil to Crabbe’s position at yet another school who exudes a perpetual (and perpetually annoying) cocktail of female hysteria and vanity. You cringe each time she’s onstage, longing for Fenella’s subtler anguishes.

The arc of the trilogy falls apart a bit as well: Crabbe and Fenella have finally split up and Crabbe finds himself alone and trying to help a young composer named Robert Loo further his career as a truly nationalistic composer. There’s a beer salesman named Tommy Jones who is the embodiment of the ‘ugly foreigner.’ There’s a British anthropologist named Moneypenny who is studying Malayan cultures and who has lost complete touch with reality. None of these tracts seem to amount to much. The book’s saving grace is its hilarity, embodied in part by the character of Lim Cheng Po, a Chinese lawyer who has been completely Anglicized, to comic effect.

Despite the weaknesses of its dénouement, The Long Day Wanes is a powerhouse collection of novels and a testament to Burgess’s polymathic mind and interests. These were his first forays into fiction (what he considered at the time nothing more than a gentleman’s hobby) and proof of the mad, varied genius that he would display throughout his career.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Q&Q review of Eye Lake, by Tristan Hughes

Ack, I lied! My other Quill & Quire review, that of Tristan Hughes's wonderful novel Eye Lake, is indeed online - over at Coach House's website. (Just goes to show one should check Google before checking anything else.) Anyway, I've seen hardly ANYTHING else out there about this splendid book, which is a shame. But you should definitely go pick up a copy; you won't be disappointed.


My Q&Q review of The Return by Dany Laferrière

Quill & Quire has posted my recent review of The Return, by Dany Laferrière. You may recall this novel, translated from the French by David Homel, making the long list for this year's Giller Prize. I wasn't exactly blown away by the book, but I still think there's enough in it to make it worth reading.

I have another review in the pages of Q&Q right now, but it doesn't seem to be online yet. I'll post the link as soon as it is.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Verbatim, by Jeff Bursey

I had the great pleasure of reading with Jeff Bursey back in August at Type Books here in Toronto, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading his 2010 novel Verbatim. The event at Type was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done, as it involved myself and others participating in Jeff’s portion of the show by assuming a role from Verbatim and reading out lines like a kind of play.

The need for this approach to a reading is evident as soon as you crack Verbatim’s pages. The book is written almost entirely as transcriptions from Hansard, the apparatus that records and transcribes the proceedings of a Westminster-style parliament. Jeff’s novel is set in an unnamed and fictitious Atlantic Canadian province in the 1990s and lays out with incredible verisimilitude nearly a year of debates—sometimes heated, sometimes inane—between the incumbent Social Progressive party, the official opposition the Alliance Party, and various other smaller players.

Of course, the real story is not what’s happening on the floor of the House but rather what’s happening behind the scenes, at Hansard itself. A new director has been hired, known in the novel strictly by his initials “SV”, and he’s looking to shake up the institution and drag it into the modern age. Needless to say the editors and transcribers, several of whom have worked there for decades, are not enthused by his plans for change. The conflict between SV and his colleagues takes the form of emails that intercut the transcriptions from the House at random intervals.

It’s a fascinating conceit and one that Jeff executes brilliantly. What impresses about this book is how much it can convey through this very tight narrative constraint. We have a sense of the characters, their motives and their feuds. We have a sense of the province itself: it’s larger than Jeff’s current home province of PEI (where he himself works for Hansard) and has several industries, but it is also suffering through a lengthy and brutal recession with no relief in sight. There is a whole world created here, one with its own history and its own angst.

Jeff has great fun playing with the instability of his narrative, especially once SV begins making some radical decisions that impact the transcriptions themselves. Some seem innocuous enough – he begins allowing the use of contractions, for example, for those instances when Members actually use them – but others are more drastic. At one point, he releases an unedited version of the House’s proceedings to prove a point about the value of Hansard, which exposes the ignorance of both the elected members and the transcribers who record them. The Speaker uses the word “irregardless”; elected officials backpedal and muddle their way through speeches; a transcriber fumbles the phrase “fin de siècle” to hilarious effect.

The satire here is sharp and reveals something darkly comic. While the House argues endlessly about all manner of provincial minutiae, and Harsard practically collapses under SV’s devious pedantry, we can see this province truly struggling with some serious social and political issues.

What a reader can ultimately walk away with from Verbatim, I think, is the idea that backbiting, spin and outright lies dominate the political discussion in this country, and yet somehow we keep moving forward and functioning (more or less) as a society. This is equally true of the white collar environment, where change is slow and progress is often nonexistent, and yet it keeps working, somehow, through all the conflict.

It was a joy to see these ideas explored through a work of fiction with such a demanding constraint put on it. Verbatim is a strong work from a writer with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster held the rare distinction of being a modernist writer without writing much like a modernist. While Joyce was going insane with recreating stream of consciousness on the page and Woolf with the quotidian detail of everyday life, Forster was busy with far more classical ambitions. His work tackled big-P Picture ideas through the lens of Flaubertian realism, and this put a lot of his writing at odds with his modernist contemporaries. Indeed, there is a passage in A Passage to India, his 1924 magnum opus that took 10 years to write, that pretty much sums up Forster’s take on the so-called modernist condition:
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
Take that, Virginia Woolf.

Starting with his earlier works like Howard’s End and A Room with a View, Forster was deeply preoccupied with the idea of cultures or mindsets butting up against other cultures or mindsets as a result of British imperialism, and this was no more so the case than in A Passage to India. It tells the story of an Indian doctor named Aziz who is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a visiting white woman from Britain named Adela Quested while on a tour of India’s fabled Marabar Caves.

Whereas the novel opens with a kind of false gentility on the part of the occupying Brits, a weird sort of proto-political correctness in their interactions with the natives, the assault on Adela exposes the inherit racism and superiority they feel. Adela’s fiancé, the deeply bigoted Ronny, breaks off their engagement after she retracts her accusations against Dr. Aziz. (Ronny sees this as a betrayal of the white race.) His mother, Mrs. Moore, who befriended Aziz before the assault, finds the trial against him a strain on her humanist beliefs. And even Aziz’s closest friend, Cyril Fielding, finds that far too much now separates them, culturally speaking, than unites them as the trial takes its toll on their friendship.

I admire Forster and keep returning to his work for two chief reasons, one of which I could never pull off in my own writing and one of which I do attempt to do in my own way. The first is his ability to create fully formed, flesh-and-blood characters who also simultaneously represent various ideas about something. This is incredibly hard to do and Forster is a master at it. Everyone in A Passage to India encompasses some broader aspect of the social or even geo-political situation of the setting, but this is in no way heavy-handed or reduces the dimension that the author gives each of his creations. In this way, Forster probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf that some critics would have you believe. He is great at capturing the very spirit of his characters while still allowing them to represent some idea larger than themselves.

The second aspect is his skill with what I might call metaphoric modulation. I love the way certain scenes or interactions in his writing call to one other in subtle but powerful ways. For example, the Marabar Caves are literally a disorienting place (indeed, Mrs. Moore abandons the tour of them due to claustrophobia, which effectively leaves Dr. Aziz alone with Adela) but they are also meant to represent the vague, disorienting nature of Britain’s relationship with India, and with the indeterminate events that pass between Aziz and Adela. These metaphors get modulated throughout the text, echoing through various passages and helping to lend a level enrichment to the writing. Again, it isn’t heavy handed or obvious; but for close readers, these echoes make for a more rewarding experience. They also help to give the narrative something different (and better) than a traditional ‘arc’ of plot. You become more concerned with how certain strands of metaphors will come together and work themselves out than you are with any preoccupation with ‘what happens next.’

Forster spoke disparagingly about this novel in his later years, calling it dated once the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in the late 1940s. But contemporary readers will see how this text stands up, how it exposes the very personal affects of colonialism and the tensions that arise from the post-colonial hangover. A Passage to India, more now than ever, reveals how prejudice can echo endlessly around the caverns of our ignorance, and how we can lose sight of our deepest beliefs when falsehoods are allowed to reverberate unchecked.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

It’s probably no accident that the cover of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, looks a bit like an incomplete Facebook profile. The notion of an online persona looms large in this book about an erstwhile hockey enforcer named Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr. who uses email to confront an old university chum named Adam after Adam has filched part of Rank’s life story in a novel he's published. Rank is at once a wholly realized character and an incomplete online presence, and it is a testament to Coady’s literary power that she can make this dichotomy come off not as a flaw in her novel but rather as its great strength, a big part of its raison d'être.

I’ve been a huge fan and advocate of Coady’s work since reading her first novel, Strange Heaven, more than 10 years ago. I can tell you without a gram of hyperbole that The Antagonist is her finest work to date by a good country mile – and that’s saying a lot, considering how brilliant her other books are. Indeed, allow me to borrow RR’s comment about short story collections and Alexander MacLeod’s Lift Lifting: if someone were to go about tailoring a novel for my exact and specific tastes, the end result would resemble something like The Antagonist.

The reasons for this are many. The book’s epistolary style, first and foremost, is inherently risky, and I love that Coady faces its challenges head on. She builds an entire world for us within the boundaries of email and then extends those boundaries with such skill that we hardly sense how effectively she’s suspending our disbelief. I also love that Rank doesn’t tell his story in chronological order but instead adheres to his tale’s own sense of arc, one that transcends chronology and mirrors the jumbled, back and forth way we often convey stories to each other.

I also love the way this book balances its humour (and there’s a lot of it – huge passages that left me laughing out loud and holding my sides) with its moments of sadness. Rank, so misjudged for his hulking, goonish aura, is acerbic when describing the trials he must endure. His father, Gordon Sr., hires him to work at his fast food joint, ostensibly to flip burgers in the kitchen but mostly to “bust punks’ skulls,” and the resulting scenes are hilarious. But there are moments in this book where Rank’s hurt – the damage he has caused to himself and others because of the prejudices over his size and strength – is so palpable that you’ll have to stop reading to take a breath. The scene where he injures an opponent on the ice and then literally vomits in guilt back in the locker room is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read. It lends a sad and tender shading to this caustic, laugh-out loud tale.

As well, there are hundreds of little verisimilitudes scattered throughout The Antagonist that will cause fireworks of recognition to go off in your brain. This is especially true if you grew up in a small town in Canada, or attended a small liberal arts university, or been in a fight, or gone inside a club where middle-aged women are standing on the bar leading a sing-along and/or doing a half-hearted striptease. Coady captures it all, holds this entire world on her page at once, allowing you to lose yourself in a place that is so very familiar and yet so very surprising.

The Antagonist is up for this year’s Giller Prize, announced next week, and should Coady win it will give her some much overdue recognition. She is one of our finest novelists and someone whose work should be read over and over and over again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: The Perfect Order of Things, by David Gilmour

I am probably not the target audience for David Gilmour’s new book, The Perfect Order of Things, and yet I am, paradoxically perhaps, an ideal reviewer for it – considering that I haven’t read any of his previous works before. The Perfect Order of Things borrows narration from Gilmour’s previous books to create a sort of neo-meta-narrative strategy, in which an unnamed protagonist revisits the places and times in his life where he has experienced some form of suffering or another. This conceit may be fascinating for readers of his previous books, but how would it stand up for someone like me, who is coming to his work cold? (Which isn’t even true: I did read his brilliant essay on Tolstoy in The Walrus a few years back, and was fascinated – and a little skeptical – to hear that he had baked it into the work of fiction on offer here.)

At first blush, my answer is: not well. On the surface, this pseudo memoir (it would be wholly improper to call The Perfect Order of Things a novel) comes off as scattershot and disorganized, a rat’s nest of a text with no unifying vision. When you haven’t read Gilmour’s other books, a lot of questions come up as you’re reading this one. Questions like, why does one ex-wife (“Rachel”) get a full first name while another (“M.”) is reduced to a single initial? Questions like, why does the narrator say in one chapter that he has read Proust but in another, later chapter say he hasn’t, describing the French writer’s work as something “only a stiff prison sentence could accommodate”? Questions like, if the narrator is such a phenomenally under-appreciated author, why does he write a nonsensical sentence like this, “Fifteen years earlier, he’d been the biggest star on television, the action hero of an absurd futuristic series where he played half man, half cyborg”? (Isn’t a cyborg already a “half man”? What would a “half cyborg” be compromised of?) Maybe these questions get answered in Gilmour’s previous books, but they aren’t answered here.

The problem is that Gilmour’s narrator is practically intoxicated on his own vanity and self-absorption; and consequently, I had real trouble finding a comfortable place to settle inside the world he was attempting to create. Part of this may be generational. When it isn’t hitting its solipsistic buttons, The Perfect Order of Things comes off as a kind of soft-core Boomer Porn. And I’m not just talking about the long and mostly pointless chapter extolling the virtues of The Beatles. Gilmour’s narrator is like a distillation of the very worst qualities of his generation, a man blithely oblivious to how privileged his cohort as a whole has been and how easily he’s getting through life, a man who is convinced that the universe ceases to exist each and every time he closes his eyes. (A fact verified by the final paragraph of the book.)

But just when I’m ready to write this memoir off, to dismiss it as a 220-page wank by a man belonging to a whole group of Canadian writers fading into a much-deserved obsolescence, Gilmour clobbers me with some incredibly sharp prose and vivid description. While the narrator’s observations of random people are almost always petty and mean-spirited, I can’t help but marvel at how apt they are. Take this description of film critics that Gilmour’s narrator spots while attending the Toronto International Film Festival:
Badly dressed, overweight social cripples ambled through cinema lobbies, often in twos and threes, quiet in their superiority, their “knowing” better than anyone else, so subtle in their condemnation that it made your heart hammer to tell them you liked something. They didn’t tell you you were wrong; they just dropped you into a Rolodex of inferior creatures and returned their attention to each other.
I was also thoroughly entertained by “The Pigeon”, a chapter in which Gilmour’s narrator goes stalking after an odious book critic named Rene Goblin (based, apparently, on contributing Globe and Mail reviewer and overall CanLit whipping boy Andre Alexis) after he’s received a bad review in the national paper. While the reoccurring symbol here – a stain on the narrator’s couch as a stand-in for the stain the bad review has left on his book – is heavy-handed and amateurish, I still found myself getting wrapped up into the arc of this chapter’s tale.

The Perfect Order of Things is bound to be forgotten five minutes after you’ve finished the last page, and rightfully so. Still, many readers will emit little titters of delight along the way before consigning it to a final guffaw of dismissal.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: A Glass Shard and Memory, by J.J. Steinfeld

It was really great to settle back into a new book of stories by my good friend J.J. Steinfeld. A Glass Shard and Memory is his first full-length collection of short fiction since 2003’s Would You Hide Me? (A short novel he published in 2009, Word Burials, did, however, include a handful of short stories at the back.) As I mentioned in a review last year of his latest poetry book, I’ve known J.J. for a while now and always hesitate to label what I write about his stuff a “review.” But this is a writer whose work I very much believe in, and it deserves more attention than it gets.

A Glass Shard and Memory is in some ways similar to previous collections of J.J.’s, but in other ways very different. Many of his reoccurring themes – preoccupations that have permeated his work over a publishing career that now spans some 30 years – are in evidence here. There is the lugubrious pall of the Holocaust hanging over the children of its survivors. There is the lingering effects of the past on the present. There are also the surrealist twists, the dark humour, the characters obsessed with the works of Franz Kafka and with the very absurdity of existence itself.

But I also see J.J. experimenting with other tropes and themes. Forgive the wretchedly academic term, but there is a certain “intertexuality” on display in a number of these stories. The title piece, for example, about a literary scholar who is traumatized with memories of a childhood impacted by the Holocaust, makes reference to J.J.’s very first published book, a collection of stories called The Apostate’s Tattoo. Another piece expands upon a poem that J.J. published in one of his poetry collections, a surrealist tale about a chance encounter with a very-much alive Marilyn Monroe in a Halifax library in 2002. These examples of “slippage” are a wonderful, cheeky wink from the author to his previous works and the audience that has read them.

There is also some reoccurring images very specific to A Glass Shard and Memory, and they help to pull the collection together. Several stories have references to ladies’ stockings, providing a unifying air of ribaldry to the book. (In fact, I’d say that this is J.J.’s most sexually charged collection to date.) And in a number of stories, we see repeated incidence of people who remind characters of other people they’ve known in the past. It’s very subtle, but these moments – where characters feel they have met someone before, or someone looks exactly like someone else from a previous time in a character’s life – create an atmosphere of unease, a sense that these stories’ realities could split open at any moment, become something disjointed and beyond the characters’ control.

My favourite pieces in the collection are actually stories I’ve encountered before. “Estimating Distances” and “Nowhere to Be Found” were first published in the previous iteration of The Danforth Review. The first is a gentle, beautiful story about two former lovers who live at opposite ends of Canada and whose lives have gone in very different directions. The second is just about the funniest story you’ll ever read about clowns and the clowning profession. Also included is the piece “Fantasy Apparel”, a tense, nerve-wracking tale about a graduate student’s encounter with a sex worker, first released as an audio story with Rattling Books’ EarLit Shorts audio anthology series. (RR’s story “Christmas with My Mother” is included in the same edition as J.J.'s piece.)

With 28 stories in all, some united by theme, others disparate in circumstance, A Glass Shard and Memory offers a lot for readers to chew on. This is a fine collection of short fiction crafted by one of this country’s most underappreciated purveyors of the form.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir, by Shane Neilson

Perhaps the best way to describe what Gunmetal Blue is, is to describe for you what it is not. Poet, critic and family physician Shane Neilson has not written a pat memoir making pat connections between medicine and literature. Nor has he written a densely academic treatise about the role poetry plays in healing. He hasn’t written a sensationalized tell-all about his patients and how their suffering informs his poems. He hasn’t written a feel-good story about a depressed young man who overcomes adversity.

What he has written is a raw-boned, devastating, unflinching, uncomfortable and fiercely honest portrait of his life as a doctor and a poet. Neilson describes these duo careers (it’s unfair to call them hybrid careers, since he works so hard at them both) without a hint of sentimentality or pretension. Medicine is a matter of life and death, but for Neilson, so too is poetry. He weaves its importance into the very fabric of his life, treating it not as a pleasant adjunct to his existence but as a core component of it. Gunmetal Blue is about a man finding his voice both as a physician and as a scribe. It is cold-eyed and elliptical. This is a memoir as memoir should be.

It begins with Neilson’s suicide attempt not long after he has finished medical school. He has already started the unrelenting grind of working in a Halifax emergency room by day and writing poetry at night. He also has, if that were not enough, a wife and young daughter vying for his attention. Through his nascent writing, Neilson attempts to exorcise a past coloured by an abusive and alcoholic father. (You can find several of these poems in his very good 2009 collection Meniscus.) His description of this burgeoning and concomitant depression is rife with objective distance, and yet it is no less emotional for it. It culminates with Neilson writing a note to his family and then jumping off the third-storey roof of his house.

He survives, obviously, but awakens in the hospital severely injured and deemed a further threat to himself. During his long recovery in the psychiatric ward of Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre, Neilson finds himself now on the receiving end of medical science – its care and its indignities – and once again turns to poetry for solace. He finds kinship in the work of fellow Maritimers Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan, two poets who were not unfamiliar, respectively, with mental and physical illness. Indeed, Neilson begins to ask what role madness itself might play in the creation of art:
Life on the ward may be like life anywhere, but there is one special question here for poets. Does madness generate creativity? Is madness creativity’s sponsor? Or is the truth rather that madness ruins the expression, that it is author of the experience but has no authorship of the poem? Is Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility actually spiked lunatic punch? I stared at the ceiling for hours, sedated, and decided that I couldn’t tell.
Throughout Gunmetal Blue, Neilson questions these impulses, what he aptly describes as the “dog whistle of poetry.” He says that, as a doctor advising patients about their health, he often feels like a leader of horses to water. But he also knows that it’s the same for poetry, its abilities to re-sensitize us to being alive, to provide small moments of illumination, to give us some semblance of control over our existence. And yet poetry is not something that most people are naturally inclined towards.

Fast forward several years and Neilson is now a family doctor working in rural Ontario. He gives us a window into his relationships with patients, relationships that are at once very intimate and very clinical. Much of the narrative describes Neilson imparting advice onto his “flock” and then watching the consequences when it is dully ignored. One story is especially devastating. A man has had a minor stroke and yet will not take the medicine that Neilson has prescribed because he doesn’t like its unpleasant side effects. Neilson strenuously advises the man to reconsider, but he won’t. And so, the inevitable eventually happens:
Jimmy, silently singing that swan song of denial, had a much bigger stroke, and became hemiplegic and aphasic. I visited him in hospital, and he expressed surprise that I would want to see him, since he “didn’t listen to me.” I sat beside him as he stuttered and stopped, only partially coherent. But I got one message clearly: that now he was very, very sorry. And when he expressed this, it was with an awareness of how much he had lost, and how difficult the future would be.
So where does poetry fit into all this? For Neilson, the answer does not lie in the glib offerings that medical journals (some of which publish poetry) make to the craft; and I suspect he’d also have no truck with the endless parade of turgid, jargon-laden, crypto-political academic writing that gets produced on Medicine and Literature. For Neilson, the answer is more akin to poetry itself – what he labels a “benign optimism.” Using Nowlan’s brilliant piece “The Boil” (“now/ at last/ master/ rather than/ servant/ of the pain”) he makes this plea for poetry’s purpose within a medical context:
I want to show you the spirit of what I mean when I wax rhapsodic about what poetry can do. Instead of providing a happy-news message that cure is forthcoming, that despite the odds the patient will overcome, poetry can provide a more benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal from it its mastery. One can exchange servitude, if not for dominance (the boil, though pierced, may form again), then at least for a measure of control.
This failure of a “happy-news message” may sum up Gunmetal Blue itself, but what it offers instead is far richer, far deeper, far more honest.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), the book has thus far been excluded from this year’s major nonfiction prize lists. But somehow I doubt Shane Neilson cares. I suspect he’s content with what he has given us. Gunmetal Blue is a memoir that does what a good doctor does, what good poetry does. It offers us, through assuredness and understated honesty, a chance to make ourselves better. If only we’d listen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

As everyone probably knows by now, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues has gotten nods from pretty much every major literary award it’s been eligible for, including the Man Booker (announced later today), the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Literature. For a novel to pull off that kind of feat, one could argue, it needs to be about more than just one thing, to have more than one essence at its core.

Half-Blood Blues certainly fits the bill. For some, this book will be a richly researched historical novel about the terror that the Nazis brought to every aspect of daily life in Europe during the late 30s and early 40s. For others, it will be about the golden age of jazz and the inherently seditious spirit of that music. For still others, it will be about the problematic issues of miscegenation, statelessness and bigotry.

I got something much more basic and primal out of it. For me, Half-Blood Blues is a yarn about good old-fashioned jealousy. Male jealousy, no less. Edugyan has nailed with pitch-perfect tenderness the sort of rivalry that can arise between men when one’s talent is not equal to one’s desires and self image. The story, about a group of black musicians recording jazz in Nazi Germany and France, is narrated by Sid, who finds his abilities dwarfed by his fellow band mate Hiero. Edugyan articulates Sid’s envy in a passage I had to read over and over again for its brilliance:
He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damned unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, Go help youselves, ladies and gents. Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. But ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they is. And I just was not.
Edugyan does many things well in this novel and only a few things not so well. She really captures the nuances of Sid’s voice and the way it changes between the two time periods in the book. She’s done an excellent job rendering Louis Armstrong into a full-fledged character, putting together apt descriptions of his mannerisms and then shading them with her own imagination. And she creates incredible tension in scenes where the band encounters Nazis in an official capacity, the helplessness and terror of it all.

I did find that the novel dragged a little during the build-up between Sid and his love interest, Delilah: the narration dwells a bit too long on his adolescent emotions when so many more interesting things are happening around him. I also thought there was a bit too much philosophizing near the end of the story: Edugyan would have done better to leave us alone to come up with our own conclusions.

But these are small quibbles about a brilliantly executed book. What I loved most about Half-Blood Blues was the way that Sid’s rivalry with Hiero isn’t just an end in itself; it plays a pivotal (but not contrived) role in the plot. Petty jealousies have life-altering consequences in this story, and the passing of decades does little to dull the need for admission and forgiveness.

Edugyan has written a great book that will hit readers on a multitude of levels. It’s definitely worthy of the accolades it’s received.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My kooky ideas about improving literary award juries

So it looks like there’s another fracas developing around the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry here in Canada. Whenever I see stories like this, my mind begins filling with all kinds of thoughts on how we might improve literary judging in this country, to make it less incestuous, more objective, more considered and less prone to conflicts of interest.

The problem is, I’m never convinced that the recommendations I’d make would ever work. I’ve only judged a small handful of writing contests and have never sat on a major jury for anything, so this is mostly pie-in-the-sky stuff. However, if you happen to run a major literary award and are in the mood to have a complete novice tell you how to do your job better, then this is the blog post is for you.

And even if you don’t run a major award but have opinions on these recommendations, I encourage you to leave a comment below. I’m especially interested in hearing why these ideas would never work.

Without further adieu:

Recommendation 1: Pick a five-person jury, no less. Make sure your choices come from a good mix of occupations within Canada’s broader literary infrastructure – academics, literary journalists, head librarians, published authors, arts administrators, etc – and also make sure there is a good regional, gender and (increasingly important) generational mix on your list. Vet the list for obvious conflicts of interest (e.g. you've accidentally picked an author who has a book in the same category she's judging.)

Recommendation 2: Get your five-person jury to read all of the given books under consideration. Don’t rush them – it’s gauche and totally beneath you to force your jurors to race through a mammoth fall list and make their decisions in time for a holiday shopping rush. Any award worth its salt won’t reveal a calendar year’s winner until the following spring. The reading should be a full-year undertaking, with decisions not happening until the first couple of months of the new year.

Recommendation 3: This is the most important one. Do not reveal the jury list during judging, even to the jurors themselves. I cannot stress this enough. Jurors should work at every stage of the process in complete isolation and ignorance of one another. There is no legitimate reason for jurors to interact with one another whatsoever. I would posit that if jurors discover who else is on the panel with them, it could taint how they read and judge the books under consideration. And if biases, agendas or axes to grind do exist, they will most likely wreak their havoc during ‘discussions,’ so eliminate discussions entirely. Instead, do this:

Recommendation 4: In lieu of a discussion, have each of the five jurors make their decisions based on a simple points system. This is what I suggest: from the full list of books under consideration, each juror picks a top 10 list, and each book on it gets 1 point. From his or her top 10 list, each juror then picks a top 5 list and gives those books an additional 2 points each (for a total of 3). Then, from that top 5 list, each juror picks an overall winner, which gets an additional 3 points (for a total of 6).

Recommendation 5: Allow each juror to also have a “worst 5” list. This can be comprised of books that he or she thought were awful, over-hyped or otherwise undeserving of the award. For each book on this list, he or she will award minus 3 points. This step is important, since it can help neutralize the biases or agendas that arise even when jurors work in isolation. After all, one juror’s “worst 5” selection might effectively nullify another juror’s overall winner. What remains can be a truer and more objectively achieved consensus. Once all the lists have been made, jurors then send them to your independent curator for review and tallying.

Recommendation 6: If conflicts of interest in the judging arise, the curator should resolve them at this stage. For example, let’s say one of the jurors is a writer who published a collection of short stories with a small press two years ago, and has now given three slots on his top 5 list to short story collections from that same press, then your curator may want to send the lists back to him and tell him to reconsider.

Recommendation 7: Once any conflicts of interest are resolved, the curator tallies up all the points from all books on all the jurors’ lists to come up with a master list of the top 5 books (this is your shortlist) and your overall winner. In the event of a tie (either for first place – i.e. the winner – or fifth place – i.e. the last slot on the shortlist) go back to the jury and ask them to re-rank the tied books (and only the tied books) to break the deadlock. Award points accordingly. No need to reveal the broader results of the voting or even who their fellow jurors are, even at this stage. Just ask everyone to reassess the tied books and get them to say “I rank this one first, this one second, this one third, etc.” Keep sending books back to your jury until the necessary tie(s) are broken. Finalize your shortlist and overall winner.

Recommendation 9: Reveal the shortlist at a press conference sometime in, say, early March. No need to reveal the jury list, even now.

Recommendation 10: Six weeks later, in mid April, reveal the winner and (finally!) the jury list at a gala celebration. Broadcast it nationally on CBC. Bring in ice sculptures and free booze. Toast the nominees and the winner.

So if anyone can help me punch holes in this, I’d definitely appreciate it. Leave comments below.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Hitting the Charts – Selected Stories, by Leon Rooke

I think it must be a lot of fun putting together a collected works of Leon Rooke. Such a wide oeuvre to choose from, hundreds of stories written since the 1960s. So much zaniness – and so many different kinds of zaniness – to be read and reread, and then selected, and then arranged into an order that answers to its own logic, its own peculiar arc.

Hitting the Charts brings together 19 of Leon Rooke’s better-known stories written over the last 40 years. Those already familiar with his work will recognize many of the titles: “Mama Tuddi Done Over”; “Sixteen-Year-Old Susan March Confesses to the Innocent Murder of All the Devious Strangers Who Would Drag Her Down”; “Some People Will Tell You the Situation at Henny Penny Nursery is Getting Intolerable.” And for those who, like me, have limited experience with his short stories, this collection is an excellent place to start.

To say Rooke is a proponent of voice appropriation is both an understatement and, paradoxically, inaccurate. He doesn’t so much appropriate voices as he inhabits them, letting the narrative tone be subsumed by the consciousness of his characters, their backgrounds, their milieu. Take, as a random example, this passage from his story “Hanging Out with the Magi”:
Velma spooned more lard fat into the skillet and stood for a few seconds with her feet planted in utter concentration, her lips puckered, stirring with a frenzy. Then she ladled the egg lumps onto a flimsy paper plate and brought them over.

“Here are your eggs,” she gaily reported, blowing hair up out of her face and into his eggs too if that was where hair had a mind to fall. “Here they are, hard and greasy and not fit for a buzzard and just like your mama used to cook them when she was up and able.”
I think it’s the “gaily reported” that gets me every time.

Most of Rooke’s ventriloquisms are informed by the cadences and patois of the Southern United States – he was born and raised in North Carolina, though has lived in Canada for decades – and it’s impossible to read his work without being swept up in those rhythms and intonations. In fact, when I got to “Henny Penny”, having not read it before, I decided quite arbitrarily to read it aloud to myself, and within a few lines had adopted a thick, Kentucky-fried accent. Within about a page, I had started gesticulating wildly with my hand as I read, much like Rooke does during his public performances of his work. (These are quite a sight to see. Anne Michaels, in a rare instance of lucidity, provides an apt description of them here.) There was no question that this should happen when reading “Henny Penny.” The accent, its rivers of tempo, cannot be ignored.

Of course, to pigeonhole Rooke as strictly a “voice” writer, as a barker of the absurd, as a post-modern trickster, is to do him a disservice. There is a highly crafted structure and pacing to each of these stories, a careful balance to the ingredients that make them so good. It’s also worth noting that Rooke is as unafraid to take risks with his subject matters as he is with his voices. One the stories, for example, called “Sidebar to the Judiciary Proceedings, the Nuremberg War Trials, November, 1945,” is comprised almost entirely of an exchange between Martin Heidegger and a craniologist.

And if all this sounds deeply complex and somewhat inaccessible, rest assured that Rooke is also capable of straightforward descriptions that bring sudden bursts of recognition in the mind. Here he is describing one of the characters in his story “Biographical Notes”:
Robin found little in life about which to be enthusiastic. He was fond of reminiscing over the recent past. If I went out with Robin and Wanda for a night of drinking and relaxation after a grueling day on the set, Robin’s sole delight was in reminiscing over what the three of us had done the previous evening.
Even if you don’t know somebody like that (and for me, I do) then you can at least concede that such a person can and does exist.

Rooke’s literary reputation has experienced a lot of ebbs and flows over the last 35 years. But I reckon (there’s that damn accent creeping in again) that he has just as much of a chance of being read 50 years after his eventual death as any of the so-called heavyweights in Canadian literature. Hitting the Charts is another solid example of why this is the case.

Related link (speaking of voice appropriation): My review of Rooke’s novella Pope and Her Lady.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The real question I want answered this literary awards season ...

... is what the hell is proper style for referring to the terms "long list" and "short list"? It seems we're all over the map. I was prompted to ask after spotting this piece on Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden on, which, if you include the web abstract, makes four inconsistent uses of the terms - longlist, long list, short list and, most inexplicably, short-list (as a noun) - in the span of about 350 words.

Does anyone know what the correct usage is? Is it based on grammatical context, e.g. "the shortlisted (or short-listed) authors are the ones who make the short list", or is it British vs. American style? If you can shed some light on this, leave a comment below.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Upcoming reading in Toronto

It's a long way off, but I thought I'd mention now that I'm scheduled to do a reading here in Toronto as part of the Draft Reading Series on Sunday February 12, 2012. By sheer feat of coincidence, the (as for now, tentative) locale for the event is at my favourite bar in the city - The Only Café. I started drinking in this place even before I moved to the city and I continue to stop by to partake in their wide selection of German and Belgium beers on a regular basis.

I'll fill you in as more details about the reading surface. To tide you over in the meantime, please enjoy this song that the Lowest of the Low wrote about The Only. It's pretty rockin'.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

Carol Shields is one of those writers I keep coming back to when I’m in need of some flawlessly executed expansiveness. In her very good novel Unless and in her even better novel Swann, I fell immediately in love with not only the worlds she created but also with the seemingly effortless way she created them. Shields’s writing is as reliable as any in contemporary Canadian fiction.

So coming into Larry’s Party, her 1997 (and penultimate) novel, I had some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, I felt that this book just didn’t quite live up to the standards I’ve become accustomed to with Shields’s work. Larry’s Party takes as its story 20 years in the life of one Larry Weller. Born in Winnipeg in 1950, by the time we first meet up with him in 1977, he’s just gotten married to his first wife, Dorrie, and is well established in his unconventional (for a man) career as a florist.

Each chapter details a new year in Larry’s life and takes us through the various milestones of the Baby Boomer generation: he and Dorrie have a son, Ryan (conceived out of wedlock, which for the mid 1970s was still a big deal); they get divorced after five years of marriage; Larry eventually moves to Chicago, taking on a new career as a designer of elaborate specialty mazes for the wealthy and marries his second wife, a Women’s Studies scholar named Beth; he then divorces her after she takes an academic job in England; he develops a relationship with a third woman, Charlotte; and through it all goes through the various foibles of growing old and the twists and turns of life in the second half of the 20th century.

There’s a lot to admire about this book, but also a lot that annoys. Chief among the problems I had with Larry’s Party is its structure: each chapter is written as a stand-alone piece, as if this were a collection of short stories and not a novel. Characters and their backgrounds are reintroduced in each chapter and each chapter has its own small arc. And yet this is not a short story collection, and it’s not even a collection of linked stories. If it were, Shields wouldn’t be so preoccupied with the linear track of Larry’s overall story and would have made the various ‘slippages’ necessary for a linked collection to work. This is a novel, and yet is inexplicably framed like a short story collection.

The other problem I had was the number of secondary stories that just did not go anywhere. Larry’s mother deals with a great deal of depression as a result of playing a role in the death of her own mother-in-law (it involves, implausibly, the consumption of a toxic bean) but this subplot is never explored in any depth. Larry’s sister, Midge, is also a fascinating character but the various pitfalls of her life are forever kept out of our reach, and not in a good way. Ryan, who gets heavily involved in sports as a teenager, becomes embroiled in a steroid scandal, but we learn almost nothing about it.

Finally, Larry’s Party’s overarching metaphor, that of the maze, is a bit overdone by the end of the book. We catch on too early to the importance of Larry’s career as a designer of mazes and yet it seems even this motif is dropped without explanation. The final chapter, where Larry hosts the titular dinner party where all three of the women in his life show up, is dull, dumb and implausible. Larry is, it seems, left agog at the very existence of these women who have gone to become such successes without him. He is agog, it seems, at the very notion of a successful, independent woman.

While it’s true that Larry’s Party is rich in Shields’s trademark prose, it’s also true that it’s far inferior to her other work. I admit my expectations were very high, but I definitely wanted to see something better from this author.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Profile in Canadian Bookshelf

So something really cool has happened. RR and I have been profiled together in an article on the Canadian Bookshelf magazine website. It talks about living with and loving another writer, our relationship with each other's work, and how we get along with the ups and downs of the literary life.

It also contains audio recordings of us reading from The Big Dream and Off Book respectively. (Forgive the slurriness of my voice. In fact, the first reader to correctly guess how many beers I had right before the recording will ... hmmm ... receive a free copy of the novel!) Anyway, many thanks to Julie Wilson for taking the time to profile us.

This is all, of course, in anticipation of Rebecca's big launch of her new collection, which happens TONIGHT at the Dora Keogh in Toronto. 7pm, 141 Danforth Ave. Hope to see you there.

Renovating poetry

A couple of weeks ago I attended the launch for Sachiko Murakami's latest poetry collection, Rebuild, and while there learned about a neat project she's initiated to coincide with the book's release, called Project Rebuild. It's essentially a website housing poems that you can 'move into' - i.e. edit and renovate - in order to make a new poem. I thought I'd give it a try.

I tried to do something a little different with mine, so instead of renovating a single poem, I did a mash-up of a number of poems on the site. I also used a very famous spoken word song by Gil Scott-Heron as my source piece. Anyway, here are the results: The Renovation Will Not be Televised. Give it a read and, if you're so inclined, leave a comment here and let me know what you think.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Description of the Blazing World, by Michael Murphy

It’s difficult to talk about the various plot points of Michael Murphy’s debut novel, Description of the Blazing World, without giving the whole story away. The book has what we might call a diptych structure – that is, two separate narratives that alternate back and forth, chapter after chapter. The first stream introduces us to pathetic everyman Morgan Wells, who grows obsessed after a postcard arrives in his mailbox addressed to a different man with the same name. The second stream is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy whose mother sends him away from their Nova Scotia home to live with his older brother Dave in Toronto for a few weeks during the summer of 2003. While there, the boy discovers a letter hidden inside Dave’s copy of a 17th century science fiction novel called The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, unleashing a slew of mysteries about the boy’s family and sending him on a crusade to unlock the secrets of his recent past.

You don’t really get a sense of how these two narratives are connected until late in the novel, when Murphy begins skillfully exposing exactly what ties the poles of Morgan Wells’s story to the poles of the boy’s story. It’s hard to go into details here, since doing so would reveal spoilers that might ruin the novel for a perspective reader.

What isn’t hard to do, though, is tell you how great Murphy’s writing is. He has a fantastic eye for quirky details that bring his world to life, and a style that is at once funny and deeply engaging. I did find myself more interested in the boy than I did in Morgan, since he does seem to be the more fleshed-out character. I love the way he constantly corrects himself whenever he finishes a sentence with a preposition. I love his passion for Choose Your Own Adventure books. I love the way he possesses both a fourteen-year-old’s self deprecation and his sanctimony. And his observations (and critiques) of the adult-run world are pitch perfect.

What’s also interesting about this book is how Murphy can provide us with just one half of a character, for the purposes of the broader plot, without making us feel like we’re being ripped off. You don’t get a full angle on Dave or the boy’s mother, or even Morgan himself, until close to the end when everything fits into place. It’s like two seemingly disparate paintings, slowly being rotated and moved closer together, until it finally becomes apparent how they fit together and create a bigger picture.

The only flat note in the book was reading Murphy’s author bio and seeing that he’s now attending law school. Good lord, what for? Such a career might put a crimp in his writing time (I hear lawyers occasionally work more than eight hours a day), which would be a shame, since it would be wonderful to see more – a lot more – work from this talented young writer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

This was a reread for me, and it was quite interesting coming back to Hemingway’s short fiction after having not read much of it over the last 10 or 12 years. I figured it made sense, considering that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

I was happy to reacquaint myself with several pieces in here that I loved when I first reading – including “A Day’s Wait” (a story about a boy with a fever who thinks he’s going to die because he’s confused the metric and imperial thermometers), “Hills Like White Elephants” (about a couple discussing an abortion), “Fifty Grand,” (about a boxer who bets against himself) and several of the Nick Adams stories.

What was also interesting was how some of these stories failed to register with me the first time around but now strike me as incredibly powerful and memorable. A stand-out was in fact the first story in my edition of this collection, which is “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In just 30-odd pages, Hemingway creates a tale as rich and complicated as any novel in this story about a troubled husband and wife on a hunting excursion in Africa.

It’s tricky to try to say something original or unique about Hemingway’s writing; his work is so deeply canonized that comments about his themes or approach seem to be just part of the literary atmosphere. But I will say this: I think I’ve got a better understanding, after rereading this collection, of why Hemingway ultimately ended his own life. The man clearly saw the themes that preoccupied him – courage, honour, masculinity, battles in the external world as well as battles in the soul – as not only huge but monolithic. Unshakeable and unwilling to be negotiated. That’s the kind of pressure or world view you can handle easily in your twenties and thirties, but not so much in your fifties and sixties. I think these stories show us the psyche of a man who gambled with his soul with every piece he wrote.

What he’s left us, thankfully, are several of the finest pieces of short fiction the world has ever seen. He remains, 50 years after his death, a proven master at so many things that make a short story great: the concision, the precise turn of phrase, and the saying of very big things in small ways.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Review: The Millstone, by Margaret Drabble

“I suppose I must have a rock-like confidence in my own talent, for I simply did not believe that the handicap of one small illegitimate baby would make a scrap of difference to my career …” When Margaret Drabble published this line in her 1965 novel The Millstone, she may have meant for it to be taken comically, or ironically, or both. Forty-six years later, such a sentiment has thankfully drifted into the realm of the probable, but even the most-together single mom in 2011, never mind 1965, probably wouldn’t express it with such insouciance. The world is still a hard place for women who wish to both raise a child and have a career, and to do it without any help.

It’s this premise that lends The Millstone its tension, and its heart. The novel tells the story of Rosamund Stacey, a bright and successful graduate student who has a promising career as a scholar of Elizabethan poetry ahead of her. Since it’s the swinging sixties in London, Rosamund is romantically involved – though placidly, noncommittally – with two men at once, Joe and Roger. While finishing up her degree and living in the flat of her socialist parents, who are away on a year-long humanitarian mission to Africa, Rosamund falls pregnant to a third man, George, in a one-night stand that could best be described as less-than-consensual. Rosamund is stunned by her pregnancy and the sudden kink it places in her career plans. And yet her decision to keep her baby is swift and absolute.

On the surface, The Millstone might appear to be a novel about a young woman putting a freshly liberated society to the ultimate liberal test. Rosamund almost challenges the mores and beliefs of those around her, making them put their progressive views where their mouths are. Both Joe and Roger offer to marry her, but she turns them down. She finds not a gram of comfort from the nurses who help her deliver her baby, despite the soft-edged atmosphere one might expect from a maternity ward. And Rosamund’s roommate Lydia, who moves in under the pretense of helping take care of little Octavia when Rosamund needs to be working, is too preoccupied with the novel she’s writing (which, fittingly, is almost entirely about a young woman trying to raise a baby on her own) to be much help.

But there is an undercurrent to Drabble’s novel that is much more than that. The Millstone isn’t so much about a liberal world put to the test as it is about liberalism being subsumed by what we might call today ‘neoliberalism.’ In the greatest irony in the novel, the only time Rosamund lets go of her highly ironic tone and gives in to something close to an authentic emotion is when she contemplates shedding her parents’ socialist beliefs for the betterment of her baby. This happens when she meets another mother who espouses a profoundly 'Tory' sentiment that resonates deeply, surprisingly in Rosamund’s heart. The woman says:
“My concerns are my concerns, and that’s where it ends. I haven’t the energy to go worrying about other people’s children. They’re nothing to do with me. I only have enough time to worry about myself. If I didn’t put myself and mine first, they wouldn’t survive. So I put them first and the others can look after themselves.”
Rosamund is nearly floored by how much this right-wing world view speaks to her. She thinks:
I was, inevitably, touched almost to tears, for it is very rare that one meets someone who will give one such an answer to my question. She had spoken without harshness; I think it was that that had touched me most. I had so often heard these views expressed, but always before they had been accompanied by a guilty sneer at those who must be neglected, or a brisk Tory contempt for the ignorant, or a business-like blinkered air of proud realism. I had never heard them thus gently put forward as the result of sad necessity.
This is a chilling counterbalance to what has come before it in the novel. Drabble deftly takes a story that might have sunk into a quagmire of navel-gazing domesticity and blows it out to say something large, and largely disturbing, about the broader world and where it is inevitably heading. Her command of such thematic balance is especially impressive, considering she herself was still in her twenties when she composed this novel.

In the end, The Millstone is more than a relic to a by-gone age and its influence on motherhood. It is a reliquary to the emotional world of motherhood, its complexities and contradictions. It is a novel as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reading report

Had a great reading at Type Books last Thursday with RR and Jeff Bursey. If you missed it, Jeff put up a nice little write-up of it on his blog, which includes a nice photo of RR and me. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers

This is just going to be a short review, since I read this 1993 anthology of essays on the art of the short story more for professional development than I did for pleasure. I’m getting back into writing short stories again after a lengthy hiatus to write a new novel, and How Stories Mean came highly recommended as a text to get one thinking about the story as an art form, and to get the short story juices flowing.

Not that this is a criticism, but this anthology does reprint a number of older essays that I encountered in previous books, either written or edited by Metcalf, including the brilliant Sixteen by Twelve, The Narrative Voice and Kicking Against the Pricks. In How Stories Mean, Metcalf reprints his own “Editing the Best,” “Punctuation as Score”, as well as Ray Smith’s “Dinosaur” and other pieces. These are vitally important essays to understanding the Canadian short story and how one goes about writing one, so I certainly didn’t mind reading them again.

The book also includes fantastic essays by Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Clark Blaise, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Norman Levine and others. The best pieces in the anthology talk about the short story at both the level of art and of craft. It was wonderful to get into some theory about the short story from those who practice it well. I took several pages of notes on things that resonated with me.

There were a few duds in the book. The essays by Jack Hodgins claim to be original to this anthology, but they seemed to rehash a lot of the ground he covered in A Passion for Narrative. Kent Thompson has a couple of duds in here before he redeems himself at the end with his piece “Reading & Writing.”

Anyway, it was great to read (and in many cases, reread) these essays as I embark on putting together a suite of new short stories over the coming months. Don’t be surprised if you see a spike in the number of high-profile short story collections in my reading log.

Reminder: Reading tonight at Type Books in Toronto

Just a friendly reminder that I'll be reading at Type Books on Queen Street tonight from 6 until 8 pm, along with RR and Jeff Bursey. Please come out if you can make - there will be cookies! (Plus literature.)


Monday, August 22, 2011

Conclusion: The Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So both RR and I finished our rereading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany at the tail-end of last week as part of our Co-habitational Reading Challenge. While we both still consider the book a delightful romp and one of the great treasures of our young(er) reading years, we have to say that the book does totally fall apart in the second half or so. I suppose it’s a testament to how much you used to love a book that you’d go about giving it such a hard ride upon rereading it.

For me, the book began to resemble, around the second half or so, a rather large and cumbersome piece of IKEA furniture as I began to wonder whether Irving would end up with a bunch of unused pieces left over and whether he’d be able to tighten up all the screws by the last chapter. Sadly, there are a lot of dangling, unfulfilled or at least unsatisfying aspects to the end of this long, long novel. For one, I didn’t feel like I got enough closure on the mysteries of John’s mother’s life – her clandestine singing career and the secrets behind who John’s father actually was. I also felt really disappointed in the way the character of Hester – John’s sexually precocious cousin – just sort of disintegrates: she spends pretty much the entire second half of the novel vomiting, and then she becomes a famous musician. Huh? What? How did that happen?

RR and I both agreed that the more spiritual-mystical elements of Owen Meany got really out of hand the longer the novel went on. The earlier examples of it – like when Owen is convinced he is an instrument of God after accidentally killing John’s mother with a baseball, or when Owen sees his own name and date of death on a tombstone while playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a stage production of A Christmas Carol – all had natural, secular explanations to coincide with them. (The baseball thing was just a freak accident; Owen was suffering from a massive fever when he had his vision about his death.) But by the time Rev. Merrill begins speaking in Owen’s voice near the end of the novel, well, I was convinced that Irving had pretty much jumped the shark.

Thankfully, our disappointments in the novel have been tempered by our love of the first half, which is sweet and touching, so full of richly drawn characters and packed with some laugh-out-loud hilarity. “We’ll always have the Christmas pageant,” will be, I think, our mantra when we think back on this experience.

Anyway, this was a fun (if time-consuming) exercise and well worth the effort. We loved doing it, but also love the idea of getting back to our regular reading schedules. If you have any thoughts on Owen Meany, by all means drop us a comment. Or better yet, if you’re in the Toronto area, come out this Thursday (August 25) to Type Books on Queen Street West at 6pm and tell us in person: RR and I will be doing a reading there with PEI author Jeff Bursey. We’d love to see you if you can make it.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Update on our Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So if you’re been following along on RR’s blog, you can see that she’s already posted some wonderful stuff about our discussions of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which we’re rereading simultaneously. We had great fun going over the hilarious Christmas pageant scene last night, which to my mind is one of the funniest passages in all of American literature. (Pages 214 to 220 in the standard paperback edition, for those of you interested.) We’ve also discussed other comical moments involving the maids at the Wheelwrights’ place as well as the diminutive authority Owen seems to wield over his parents.

As RR touched on, one thing that continues to impress about this book is the fluidity and skillfulness that Irving shows in the structuring of time. I suppose with a 617-page novel, you have lots of room to manoeuvre between the past and present, but it still isn’t easy. Irving is excellent at giving each scene a cadence and crescendo that is then counterbalanced perfectly with a sudden jump – either forwards or backwards –in the timeline. He never once waivers in his trust of the reader that he or she is capable of following along.

Like with most things I read, I do have the occasional criticism. Beyond the minor plot contrivances that RR alluded to in her post, there are times when I feel like some characters don’t always act like real people. Chief Pike’s obsession with finding the baseball that killed John’s mother seems like a bit of a strain; it was clearly a freak accident, so why treat it so fanatically like a ‘murder’? Also, Owen’s mother’s space cadet-like behaviour – the fact that she almost never leaves her house, almost never speaks, never looks out her windows, never even makes eye contact with people – isn’t really believable. Also, I wonder if the last name of Dan - the man who provides love, support and guidance to John after his mother days - is a bit too obvious: Needham.

But nitpickery aside, we’re having a real blast rereading this big, fat, funny novel from our youth. Stay tuned to our blogs over next few days for more discussion points. And if you’re reading along at home (or if you and your housemate are reading a different book simultaneously) , drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Event: Reading at Type Books in Toronto

I know this has been making the rounds on a bunch of different websites, but I thought I'd mention it here as well: RR and I will be reading at Type Books in Toronto, along with PEI novelist Jeff Bursey, on August 25th.

I met Jeff briefly about 10 years ago while I was home on the Island, and he contacted me out of the blue a couple of months ago to ask if I'd read with him while he was in town. His novel, called Verbatim, is set in the legislature of an unnamed Atlantic province. There will apparently be a bit of theatre accompanying Jeff's reading, which RR and I will be participating in, so it should be loads of fun.

Anyway, here are the details:

Where: Type Books, 883 Queen St. West, Toronto.
When: Thursday, August 25 from 6 until 8 pm.
Who: Mark Sampson, Rebecca Rosenblum and Jeff Bursey
How much: Free, but naturally we encourage you to buy the authors' books.

I did want to mention that, contrary to the marketing materials making the rounds about this event, I'll most likely read a scene from the new novel. It won't be the same excerpt I've read at recent events in Toronto, Perth and Moncton (and subsequently published here, in a literary journal out of Manitoba called The Quint, back in the spring), but something new. I hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am.


Review: Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, by Stuart Ross

Many writers attempt to find the absurd in the tragic, but few are able to translate their efforts into something highly, compulsively readable. Stuart Ross, in his new novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, certainly gives us a healthy dose of tragedy: his protagonist, Ben, a Jewish performance artist in Toronto, has lost both his parents to cancer, has a brother with a brain injury that has ruined his short- and long-term memory, and is constantly followed by the spectre of anti-Semitism. The absurdity is there, too – Ross’s trademark surrealism, including multiple conversations with actress Kim Novak about her role in the film Vertigo. But what makes Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew stand out is how its small, episodic scenes create a page-turning tension using the subtlest of narrative arcs: Ben is consumed with finding out whether a memory he has – that of his mother assassinating a prominent neo-Nazi – actually happened.

What struck me about this novel is how much it reminded of the works of PEI short story writer, poet and playwright J.J. Steinfeld. In both Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew and the majority of Steinfeld’s oeuvre, we find not so much direct survivor guilt over the Holocaust but rather guilt from the children of Holocaust survivors, the difficulty those children have of facing up to (and finding meaning in) a reality that could perpetrate such a mind-boggling atrocity. Indeed, Ben’s ability to spot random absurdity in the everyday seems to stem from his awareness of the grandest absurdity of all – the Holocaust itself. A friend’s mother is born with a debilitating deformity; his brother’s brain condition prevents him from recognizing the women he loves; a childhood bully terrorizes Ben for reading a book for pleasure. Everyone, it seems, is susceptible to the random cruelties of a random universe.

What’s interesting is the way the novel balances this randomness with Ben’s religio-cultural background. On the one hand, he is very aware of the role that God and religion play in his self identity – he has a bar mitzvah, he celebrates Jewish holidays, etc.; but on the other hand, you get the sense that Ben ultimately believes in none of it, believes that there is nothing beyond this one crack at existence that we are all given. This is typified in a scene where he describes a story he learns at Hebrew school about 12 rabbis who face a painful, brutal death when they refuse to reject their beliefs. As Ben puts it:

We were halfway through the story of the Twelve Rabbis when I started feeling really guilty. I imagined walking home from school one day, and getting cornered by some Christian boys. I pictured them wearing Boy Scout outfits. They say to me, Ben, give up your Jewish god and become Christian like us, or we’ll kill you right now. I think of potato latkes and jelly fruit slices … and of my mother sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me how all her aunts and uncles were killed by Hitler, and of my father slathering horseradish upon his lump of gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, and of my mother getting pelted with snowballs because she’s four years old and she speaks Yiddish. Then I think of being dead. Nothing happens when you’re dead, and you’re not even aware that nothing is happening, because you’re dead.
The juxtaposition here of an inherited Jewishness with an atheistic creed is startling.

But if it all sounds a bit depressing and ghastly, rest assured that it is not. Ross approaches these heady matters with an astounding sense of whimsy and humour. It’s wholly apt that his protagonist is a performance artist: what better way to express the comically arbitrary nature of life than through performances that are designed to exclude a grander sense of ‘meaning’? (As Ben says about his father’s reaction to his art: “He had no idea what I was doing – he was sure it was supposed to mean something and he was a simple man … ‘Whatever response you have is the correct response,’ I told him. ‘It’s not a matter of what I’m trying to say, but of what you get out of it.’”) Ben’s exhibits are, in one sense, typical of performance art: in one show, he eats a thousand donuts; in another, he submerges himself in a vat of ketchup and allows the audience to pull his hair; in another, he travels to Yellowknife to build inukshuks out of eggrolls. But it is that sense of playfulness, that child-like desire to express oneself as the universe spins around us, that makes both Ben’s personality and his art come to life.

Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew offers, in the end, no pat answers or solutions to the questions it raises. (Indeed, the sole plot point, that of whether Ben’s mother actually killed a Nazi, is never really resolved.) Instead, it simply gives us something deeper to ponder: the question of purpose, and the purpose of questioning. Perhaps there is no grander arc of meaning to the universe, but Ross is telling us that that’s okay. The artist’s job is to help us find patterns in the randomness. To find humour. To find beauty.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Introducing the Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So as many of you probably know, RR and I moved in together back in the spring. One of the things we did to cement our undying love and commitment was to painstakingly combine our huge personal libraries. While this has resulted in a massive wall of books now taking up the entire length of our living room, it did have the interesting side effect of producing a whole box’s worth of doubles. (This also included some double CDs –two copies of Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, for example. Don’t judge me.) Now, while we have managed to give away most of the double books, one copy that has persisted is A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. My theory is that everyone who is literate already owns a copy of this book, and therefore it's been virtually impossible to fob off to somebody else.

So we’ve decided to use this opportunity to introduce the Co-habitational Reading Challenge. We will both be reading Owen Meany at the same time, and use our respective blogs to post our conversations and insights on the text. Don’t be surprised if this reminds you a little of the Retro Reading Challenge I ran on the blog last year. It’s very similar in nature – we each read Owen Meany when we were younger (she was about 17; I was about 24) and absolutely loved it, and we’re curious to see if it holds up after all these years.

Naturally if you’d like to participate, we totally encourage you to do so. You can either read Owen Meany along with us or you and your co-habitational life partner can choose another book to read simultaneously and then pop back to our blogs and let us know how it’s coming along.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: Dog Eat Rat, by Tom Walmsley

There is something to be said about the beauty of concision. Tom Walmsley knows the power of the minimal, the insight and illumination it can bring to a reader’s mind. In his new novel, Dog Eat Rat, Walmsley composes scenes of incredible tightness, a ruthlessly stripped-down approach to action, dialogue and characterization. It’s a fitting style for this book, considering that his protagonist, Trip, while a private eye during the day, writes haiku in his off hours. This is a novel that knows the art of conveying very much with very little.

Dog Eat Rat is, in many ways, a parody of a hard-boiled detective story; and Trip is, in many ways, a deliberately stereotyped P.I., replete with a fucked-up life and all manner of self-destructive behaviour. The novel tells the tale of an exceedingly dysfunctional love triangle Trip has with two women: a fellow investigator named Ginger (and yes, for the record, she is a redhead) and a young woman named Suzi, who is looking to cast off her dull office job and break in to the P.I. business with Trip and Ginger’s help.

The investigation that sits at the centre of the plot is like nothing you’ll find in any typical detective novel. Trip and Ginger are hired by a man named George DeWitt to spy on his wife Rebecca, whom DeWitt suspects is cheating on him. However, he is not interested in catching her in the act so much as he is interesting in finding out what Rebecca’s paramour does with her in bed so that he, DeWitt, can become a better lover and keep her satisfied. (To be fair, this concept may stretch plausibility to a breaking point for some readers.) What results is a convoluted meshing of sexual and emotional entanglements among the novel’s primary characters: Trip and Rebecca hook up, Suzi goes after Dewitt, etc. etc. etc.

Dog Eat Rat is, as the title suggests, a story about messing around with life’s food chain – in this case, the emotional and sexual food chain between characters who are just barely holding themselves together. Walmsley scrapes clean any inclination he has towards sentimentality and shows the raw, unwashed consequences that come from fucking around with the natural order of relationships. The novel, in its own minimalist way, dabbles with bigger questions – like the existence of God and the slippery nature of fidelity, both to one’s self and to others – but Walmsley is driven by a near relentless obsession with keeping his prose tight, his action lean, and his themes hidden from our immediate view.

I have to admit, though, that the novel did fall apart a little bit for me in the last third. While I appreciate the aloofness of the writing, in the end I had to ask myself what was at stake in this story other than the sexual gratification of its characters. (In that sense, it reminded me a little of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, where the broader ideas are obscured by the characters’ need to simply get off.) Walmsley, at times, keeps a little too much below the surface; he severs the connection between sex and the bigger things he’s trying to examine.

But overall, Dog Eat Rat is an exhilarating read and a disturbing take on a well-established genre of fiction. There are scenes here I will turn back to over and over for the lessons they teach about the magic of brevity, about how to convey a whole world – deliciously imagined – through just a few lines.