Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Personals, by Ian Williams

You know, I read Ian Williams’ first book of poetry and enjoyed it a lot. Felt it was a solid effort, a pleasurable collision of the personal and the postmodern. I had a feeling, after finishing that collection, that Williams would go on to do something grander and even more impressive. Well, he has lived up to that promise and then some with his 2012 collection Personals, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Prize.

Much like You Know Who You Are, Personals is able to impressively blend emotional—even sentimental—experiences with some finely wrought experimentation. The collection takes as its premise the idea of personal ads providing a poetic structure to reach out and connect with our fellow humans, but the book is actually much more than that. Many of these poems read like incantations, charming us with a series of repetitions that build an alluring velocity in Williams’ verse.

We can see examples of this from the book’s opening salvo, “Rings.” Here, each section of the poem ends with a closed loop of words forming an actual ring. But the real propulsion comes from the constant and deliberate use of repetition in the more standard lines:

Like, a girl on our lawn says, you want to hear me talk
like my sister when she’s on the phone? Like she always
says like. Like this. Like me and my boyfriend
went to the mall and like I saw him looking at a girl
and like she was totawy into him. Like I can tell.

We see examples of this sort of repeating poem throughout Personals, in poems like “American History I” with its rhythmic use of the word “right” and “Personal History I, Canon” with its almost identical use of the term “copy.”

Personals also comes loaded with references to all manner of popular culture and consumer products. Everything from UFC and Wal-Mart to Bran Flakes and Old Spice cologne make an appearance. These allusions give Personals a certain down-to-earth immediacy: readers will be able to situate themselves in a middle class, post-capitalist world even as Williams takes them through an emotional or linguist journey. The contrast between the poetry’s references to everyday objects and its more experimental approaches creates some pleasurable connections that will stay with the reader.

Williams writes about personal relationships with a great deal of brio and the various constraints of this collection only help to enhance those preoccupations. Personals is very personal, and well worth reading.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Acceptance: Now or Never Publishing

Well, you know what they say: why have one book on deck when you can have two? Yes, I'm very pleased and excited to announce that Vancouver's Now or Never Publishing has offered a contract to release my short story collection, tentatively entitled The Secrets Men Keep, in 2015. This will come in the year after my novel Sad Peninsula will be published by Dundurn here in Toronto. I'm of course tickled pink to now have two books in the queue, especially considering it's been six years since Off Book came out.

For those of you who are interested, I did do a blog post about the manuscript about a year ago. Several of the stories in it have been published (or accepted to be published) recently: one appeared in PRISM international earlier this year; one is in the current issue The New Quarterly; one is forthcoming in The Antigonish Review. In total, eight of the 13 stories have found homes in journals in Canada and the United States.

The good folks at Now or Never Publishing were very fast and very enthusiastic with their response. I submitted to the press just a few weeks ago after reading The National Post's review of Liz Worth's new novel PostApoc, which NoN published this fall. They also released my fellow Norwood Publishing refugee Charles Crosby's latest novel back in 2008, as well as other notable titles.

Anyway, very excited by all this and am looking forward to working with them. Stay tuned to the blog for further updates as things develop.


Monday, November 18, 2013

My review of Giant by Aga Maksimowska in The Antigonish Review

... has appeared online at The Antigonish Review's website. My take on Maksimowska's novel is a bit mixed, but on the whole I found it a beautifully written and intriguing read. Anyway, I'm posting it here for your reading pleasure. Let me know what YOU think.

Also, speaking of The Antigonish Review, my short story "The Fantasy" is still forthcoming in the journal and (I think) will appear in the next issue. So keep your eyes peeled for that as well.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Quill and Quire review of The Last of the Lumbermen by Brian Fawcett ...

is now online at the Q&Q website. I was pleased to give this rivetting novel a star review, even though it had as its subject matter two topics I have little interest in: hockey and small-town life. Just goes to show that one can overcome personal taste if the writing is good enough. Which Fawcett's is, so go check out his book when you get a chance.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Acceptance: QWERTY Literary Magazine

I'm happy to report that I received a lovely acceptance letter from the good folks at QWERTY Literary Magazine for a poem of mine entitled "A Millisecond of Gravitas." For those of you who don't know, QWERTY is an undergrad-run literary journal out of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. It has published lots of cool writers over the years, and I'm extremely pleased that I'll be appearing in its pages. I've been told the issue containing my poem will be out sometime in December, and I'll post an update here when it is.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Review: M/F, by Anthony Burgess

One could say that Anthony Burgess was doubly cursed when it came to recognition. He always wanted to be known as a composer of music who happened to write novels on the side rather than a writer of novels who happened to compose music on the side. Worse, the novel he was best known for—A Clockwork Orange—was something he dismissed as a minor work, a hack job he pounded out in six weeks that just happened to be made into a popular film a decade after it was published.

So which novels did Burgess want to be recognized for? Earthly Powers, his magnum opus shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was certainly up there, but so too was this slimmer, more manic picaresque, M/F, published in 1971. In fact, one might argue that M/F is, from a strictly technical standpoint, Burgess’s most accomplished work of fiction. The layering of puns, the word games, the well-timed comic barbs, the allusions to the theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Freudian symbolism—all lend credence to Burgess’ voracious intellect and versatility on the page.

M/F’s “plot”, to be sure, must be ingested with the sort of increased suspension of disbelief reserved for highly experimental novels. When Frank Kermode himself wrote that the story is difficult to synthesize, you know you’re in for a challenge. But here goes: Twenty-year-old Miles Faber has been kicked out of his New York City university after getting caught fornicating on the school’s library steps. Despite the efforts of his dead father’s lawyer to stop him, Miles sets out to the Caribbean island of Castita, where he looks to unearth the unpublished poetry of a creative genius named Sib Legeru.

The reason for his father’s posthumous attempt to thwart Miles is because strange familial connections, rooted in an act of incest, await him in Castita. Miles discovers a sister he didn’t know he had, as well as a perfect (and perfectly vulgar) doppelganger. When Miles accidently kills his double to save his sister from rape, he is forced to masquerade as him in order to trick the double’s mother, and in doing so finds himself in a position to marry his own sister. What unleashes is deeply comic exploration of the Oedipal complex, the nature of superstition, and literary power of wordplay. Like the great Greek tragedy that lends this book so much of its inspiration, M/F hinges on the solving of a riddle.

I must confess: I have but an undergraduate knowledge in the theories of Lévi-Strauss, and my tolerance for Freudian analogy can only stretch so far. Yet it is undeniable that there is a deep tendon of genius under the surface of M/F. Burgess weaves his puns and his allusions expertly and with great deliberation. Thankfully, one can read M/F simply at the level of its convoluted plot, missing much of its subtext, and still get a lot out of it. You’ll laugh. You flip the pages. And you’ll probably increase your vocabulary by a wide margin.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

At least 10 years overdue

It was great to see Lynn Coady win last night's Giller Prize--an honour that is long, long overdue in my opinion. I was disappointed back in 2011 when she didn't nab the award for The Antagonist (see my review of it here), and I also feel she could have easily won it for her novels Strange Heaven (published in 1998, when she was just 28) and Saints of Big Harbour (published in 2002). At any rate, so pleased she finally took home the honour. I was also pleased that the shortlist was comprised of such a crop of young-ish writers (no one was born earlier than 1964), a real feat considering the Giller has been traditionally dominated by Baby Boomers or older.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland

If there’s one thing that pundits love to talk about in this age of ongoing yet sluggish recovery from the 2008 economic collapse, it’s income inequality. The topic has been, for example, on the tongues of commentators as Wall Street billionaire Michael Bloomberg wraps up his 12-year stint as mayor of New York, a city that has seen both tremendous growth and tremendous growth in wage disparity under his watch. It has been a topic of much debate in relation to China, a country that has seen nearly 1 billion people elevated out of poverty in the last two decades and yet now boasts one of the largest gaps between the haves and the have-nots. And talk of income inequality remains the background chatter of any discussion about how the Eurozone is going to reconcile its chasm between the winner countries and loser countries as it tries to recover from the recession.

So Chrystia Freeland’s timing is quite good with this 2012 tome, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, a book that provides us with a window into the much-maligned 1% of society. Freeland wisely does not limit herself to examining the plutocrats of the United States and other pillar countries of the West. Instead, she sets as her thesis the notion that a one-percenter from the Upper East Side of Manhattan has more in common with a Russian oligarch or Chinese billionaire than he does with a middle-class office drone in Cleveland. Her book looks to examine both the history, the rationales, and the outcome of the modern-day plutocracy that we now take for granted.

In this attempt, Plutocrats succeeds on many fronts—especially in the first quarter of the book. Freeland establishes the proper historical context for how such breathtaking wage disparity was able to emerge, i.e. the industrial revolution that commenced in the mid-to-late 1700s and found its culmination in such late-19th century figures as Andrew Carnegie, whom Freeland cites extensively. She walks us through the Long Depression (1873-1896), the Great Depression (1929-1939) and how income inequality in these periods helped to spawn such eventual phenomena as global communism and the New Deal. She also discusses the great golden age of mixed economies (1945-1980) and how wage disparity was at its lowest and general prosperity was at its highest during this period. She then leads us through the economic coup d'état that occurred starting around 1980 with the Chicago School of Economics that saw the rise of globalization and neoliberal economic ideology. This led inevitably to the collapse of communism and millions around the world seeing their standard of living skyrocket, but also caused a level of income inequality that Andrew Carnegie could not have even imagined. And thus, here we are, saddled with a sub-society of plutocrats who are so much wealthier than the rest of us.

The next two quarters of the book examine in detail the lives of these stratified billionaires, but there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion to Freeland’s descriptions and the writing starts to grow tedious. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t delve into the broader philosophical underpinnings that allow plutocracy to thrive. After walking us through what we might label Carnegian inevitability—the idea from Andrew Carnegie that income disparity was a bad thing but entirely unavoidable in the wake of the industrial revolution—she leaps forward into neoliberal inevitability, that is the overriding belief that because advances in technology and international politics have allowed for globalization to occur, then globalization must occur. What is missing is the moral argument for unfettered capitalism that emerged in the middle part of the 20th century, between the period of Carnegian inevitability and the period of neoliberal inevitability.

This moral foundation, I would argue, arose from a writer less nuanced than Milton Friedman, the doyen of the Chicago School, and one whose ideas found little traction at the time because she was writing during the height of America’s mixed-economy successes. That writer—one Freeland mentions only in passing—is Ayn Rand. While most intelligent people rightly dismiss Rand’s “philosophy” as little more than the one-dimensional ramblings of an intellectual pipsqueak, her credos are enjoying a resurgence among right-wingers and apologists for the plutocrats. This is because income inequality is, ultimately, not inevitable. It is a deliberate choice that society has made based on the moral assumption—an assumption articulated by Rand in both her fiction and nonfiction, and one reinforced by Friedman and the Chicago School and then made practical through Reaganomics and Thatcherism—that “greed is good,” that leaving capitalism unfettered will eventually lift all boats. The idea is: if I, as a lower or even middle-class person, experience an unprecedented and demonstrable rise in my standard of living as a result of unfettered capitalism, then why do I care how much more the top 1% makes than me?

Freeland barely skims the surface of these issues in the middle part of her book; and even as she builds to her engaging summations at the end, she never really delves deeply into this. There can be little doubt that globalization and economic neoliberalism have improved the economic status of millions around the world; anyone looking to argue against that on sheer data would surely look the fool. But if this is the case, then why is income inequality a bad thing? If the overall pie is getting much bigger than we could have ever imagined, then why should we be concerned if our percentage of the pie is going down? Freeland does not really answer this question effectively by the end of Plutocrats.

The reason, for what it’s worth, is that just because your economic status has risen doesn’t mean that you necessarily have more agency over your life. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. Surely the litmus test for any economic policy is that its core tenets allow for the next generation to live happier and more stable lives than the previous one. But neoliberalism has cataclysmically failed on that count. If an American graduating from university in 1970 could glimpse through a time portal at the America of 2013, she would be mortified by the far-fetched dystopian nightmare that she'd see. The age of cheap education, plentiful well-paying jobs for life and affordable housing is gone. Today, two-income families struggle to make ends meet. University or college education is growing increasingly out of reach for even upper middle-class households. Student loan debts now cripple two generations of graduates. Outsourcing, contract work, and layoffs become a regular and stressful occurrence. Jobs pay more than what our parents made (even when adjusted for inflation), but we’re inexplicably worse off. And these grievances are not limited to the West. In 1980, a full 80% of China’s population lived in abject poverty; today, the country is an economic powerhouse. Yet a recent survey showed that even middle-class Chinese label themselves less happy than they were 35 years ago. Something is definitely wrong. The reason income inequality is to blame is because it robs the majority of the population of agency over the long haul. The benefits may be short-term, but the drawbacks rewire how you are forced to live the rest of your life.

Thankfully, Freeland posits an antidote (albeit inadvertently) to this malaise early in Plutocrats. She has some great descriptions of the mixed-economy period, and readers should rightly see the re-emergence of mixed-economy ideology as our only way out. It’s intellectually lazy to pull one’s economic policies hard to the right (as we’ve been doing since 1980) or hard to the left (as many countries did in the first half of the 20th century) on sheer principle alone. The wiser thing to do, the harder thing to do, is to create a strategic and well-thought out mix of socialist and capitalist polices that are balanced and fair. Higher taxes, more strategic regulations, and the re-financing of public institutions would provide longer-term benefit to everyone, including those at the top. But it’s a strategy that governments are not interested in, and the majority of middle-class people don’t care about. We’re all too busy just figuring out a way to make a fast buck.