The preparation for writing a dissertation primarily involves reading and synthesis.
Once the topic is chosen (in my case, the fiction of Peter Ackroyd and the politics of literary postmodernism/historiographic metafiction), the anxious doctoral candidate understands that they must become conversant in their field—being required, at some point, to publicly defend their dissertation in order to be granted the degree, and understanding as well that the focus of their study will likely be the field area they'll be highlighting when they land (or try to land) a job.
Since I was investigating historical fiction, I read about the various controversies that have dogged the genre since its inception. And one that has stuck in my head took place in Europe in the 1830s. A literary critic, let's call him Z, called for the passing of legislation regarding historical novels. In his (unrealized) dream, a historical novelist would be required to distinguish which part of the novel was historically actual from parts of pure invention. Z's worry was that any reader of historical fiction would be duped: the novel, posing as a mode of historical writing and knowledge, would trick the reader into believing falsehood as fact.
Z foresaw clear trouble with the proliferation of historical novels. Even though the reader knows the historical novel is fiction, the historical novel form, which cleverly mixes together the real and the imaginary—here's a fake historical novel example: Marie Curie née Sklodowska is born in Warsaw in November of 1867 (fact); her aged nurse, Minnie Castevet, feeds the infant tannis root when Ma and Pa Sklodowska are out of sight because Marie is Satan's spawn (um, fiction, adapted from Rosemary's Baby)—and therefore there's no way for the average reader to tell one from the other, especially because the inventions are typically reasonable or probable instead of outrageous or clearly fantastic. The result? Due to the seductive properties of a novelist's storytelling, readers come to accept a 'fact' that is nothing other than a novelist's fancy. For Z, the impact would be dire: an ignorant populace that doesn't really know the difference between what happened, what might have happened, and what did not happen. Egad, call the lawmakers!
The memory of Z's call for governmental intervention surfaced when I was reading Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. The novel is set in the mid-1980s and is narrated by Saul Indian Horse; Saul's in rehab facing his alcoholism and its causes. Encouraged by a counselor to peer into his past, Saul reluctantly obliges. The recollections are harrowing: his family is torn apart; he's forced into a residential 'school' that is closer in spirit to a POW facility; and once he leaves the school and travels the country, he encounters a Canada densely populated with hateful racists who seemingly want nothing except for him and his people to die and disappear.
Wagamese's vision of Canada was disturbing, not least because it made me question the difference between the national narrative and truth.
Indian Horse also raises a question (it's a long question, sorry): When the culturally-sanctioned 'story of Canada' is one of evolving multiculturalism and 'things getting better' (with blemishes on the story like residential schools or war-time internment camps being distant mistakes accompanied with formal governmental apologies and rhetoric about 'bad old days' and 'lessons learned' and 'never again') collides with Wagamese's story of a nation circa 1960-1980 that does not have pockets of racism but is rather populated by a white population that's unified by its explicit racism, how do we (readers who can view these stories side by side) locate the truth?
In George and Rue, George Elliott Clarke's account of the lives (and executions) of two of his relatives, Clarke envisions Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1930s and '40s as oppressively racist; white individuals freely and frequently express anti-Black sentiments, and the bias of institutions (from schooling to hiring practices) likewise assures the continued existence of an egregiously out-of-balance society.
Based on "bleakly truthful circumstances," the novel blends together research material like trial transcripts and newspaper reportage with "fiction": Clarke writes, "I have taken prodigious and relentless liberties with 'facts,' so that the psychologies, identities, genealogies, and even some place descriptions are purely imaginary." In doing so, Clarke contextualizes the murder that George and Rue commit (declaring, "I also believe that their being closed off from opportunities served to create the conditions for the violence they enacted as well as the violence from which they suffered") for at least one clearly political goal: "But as an artist, as a Black Canadian artist, I had to relate this story that tells a true history of Canada—not the propagandistic, rose-coloured-glasses version."
For readers, part of the puzzle of George and Rue is determining the differences between fact and "fact" and fiction. And in thinking about Clarke's act of correction: countering a "propagandistic, rose-coloured-glasses version" of history with a "non-fiction novel" that takes "prodigious and relentless liberties with 'facts'" in order to tell "a true history of Canada."
Wagamese's book comes with no annotation about its goals or its method. Yet in telling of one Ojibway man's experience in Canada in the recent past (the narrator's flashbacks begin in 1961, when he was eight years old), Indian Horse aligns with Clarke's inasmuch as Wagamese presents a radically different version of the Canadian history that many take as a given. It's historical fiction as intervention, and asks—or challenges, depending on your investment in a certain Canadian historical narrative—that you reconsider what you think you know and rely on a work of fiction as the basis for your decision.
I used to teach Bharati Mukherjee's essay "An Invisible Woman," which first appeared in a Canadian magazine in 1981. In the essay, Mukherjee's living in New York City, to her a metropolis that's emblematic of the United States—"violent, mindlessly macho, conformist, lawless." And though she's been attacked and robbed (twice) and defrauded over a short period of months, she's thrilled to be far away from coldhearted Canada.
Mukherjee's view of Canada is condemnatory: "I have not met an Indian in Canada who has not suffered the humiliations of being overlooked (in jobs, in queues, in deserved recognition) and from being singled out (in hotels, department stories, on the street, and at customs)." She'd moved to Canada imagining it would be "a kind of haven" after "the unsophisticated, beer-swilling rednecks of Iowa," but instead found a country that time and again politely denied its racism, sanctimonious in (but in fact delusional about) its colour-blindness.
Most of the students assigned to read the essay (who were, incidentally, born after Mukherjee's essay appeared) said they "couldn't relate" to Mukherjee's experiences. They were comfortable disagreeing with her on two counts: 1: Canada is clearly "less racist" than the USA; 2: Mukherjee's view may have been valid "back then," but it is seriously out of date. The students claimed they were not blind to or naive about racism; still, they believed it was now isolated, not systemic nor widespread. For them, Mukherjee's essay was a historical curiosity that spoke not only about another time but in a sense another place. Their points of view suggest either the validity of the 'things are better' national narrative, or else the pernicious influence of what Clarke calls the "rose-coloured glasses" story, a historical narrative that's designed, I assume, to encourage mainstream Canadians to pat themselves on the back.
What clothing is appropriate for the interview?
The question crept up on Marta before bed as she shuffled hangers and
cobbled together an outfit for the next day’s classes. A tried and true
sweater and skirt combinations, or something else? She was favoring a
new purchase to clothe the hired-gun role—Marta Spëk, Film
Consultant—but could not match the acquisition and sketchy persona to
specific wardrobe pieces. Artful layers of black, an imposing suit,
sporty casual wear? Impeccable credentials are what matter, Marta told
herself, and nevertheless fretted each time she laid out a uniform for
the workday. She concluded that style was beside the point: it was only
executives and actors who must weigh that; behind-the-scenes personnel
are invisible so far as the public is concerned. Still, the compulsion
rooted itself: create the pitch-perfect first impression. Logic warred
with impulse and lost, and between home and campus she window-shopped in
earnest and grew watchful for fashionable pedestrians. As for what to
avoid, she needed to look no further than faculty meetings populated
with dust-hued woolens, practical fleece vests, and faded cotton
trousers; based on the evidence, a life of the mind left little room for
The resulting compromise paired an old but
timeless tweed skirt with a costly and uncharacteristically bright
patterned blouse—the sales associate’s two cents: “Jewel tones are an
important statement this season.” It was balanced, Marta had thought on
the date of purchase, a modest though confident look-at-me declaration.
Later, she squirmed over literal clownishness.
A few years ago
she’d overheard a student in a freshman composition class say to a
friend, “some personality and a little beauty would be nice” in response
to a question she’d arrived too late to catch. The reasonableness of
the comment had struck her, as had the friend’s abrasive retort: “Yeah,
but nice tits rule the runway, man.” Placing the Film Consultant look on
the bed, Marta calculated—prayed—that her choice had attained a
reassuring degree of personality and beauty. There was nothing to be
done about modest breast size. Details were the final step—no brooch,
one cocktail ring, scent applied well before arrival. While glasses
ought to be left at home, contact lenses inevitably led to watery eyes.
She’d wear glasses and make the switch in a restroom at the studio.
Apply a coat of nude lip gloss too. Yes, definitely.
Paying my own way, Marta thought, this cannot be an auspicious sign. Even as internal speech-making, the emphatic cannot
felt loud and empowering; Marta repeated the silent word resolutely.
Jaw set and arms crossed, she conjured an appropriately cinematic
sequence of being seated immobile inside the train and watching the
studio rep—young, panicked, job on the line—search for Dr. Spëk in vain,
eventually having to return and report the vexing failure to appear, a
wrench thrown into the works, if only momentarily. As vengeance fantasy
it was mild and bargain basement cheap, Marta conceded as she
embroidered the details, but pleasurable nonetheless.
rising pique was interrupted by a synthetic female voice declaring the
approaching eastward station with an automaton’s uninflected vowels:
“The next station is Metrotown.” Marta craned her neck again to study
the cheerful route map above; only three stops remained.
An electronic gong activated, the doors whisked shut, and the cars accelerated in computer-directed increments.
Although the Skytrain was not the limousine buffed to an obsidian
lustre she’d grown to anticipate, and a catered lunch at the warehouse
production office dropped at the edge of suburban development did not
match an exquisite meal at Spot Prawn @ The Four Seasons, the adventure
of being airborne—gliding, nearly floating if the tracks were factored
out—was a simple and true satisfaction.
Marta respected the
hygienic elevated trains for the utopianism they represented, smooth
curved metal, glass, and plastic—untouched by grime, graffiti, litter,
and, seemingly, corrosive time—that proclaimed sure faith in
mind-boggling technology to remedy all past ills and usher in a future
in which strife, poverty, and that pesky gap between pristine vision and
pock-marked reality were relics, odd and distasteful curiosities from a
bygone age, like slavery, night soil buckets, and rickets. Such
hopefulness: it existed at a level of magnitude she could never reach.
For that faith even obstinate biological limitations presented no
hurdle; ingenious implants, prosthetics, supplements, and replacement
organs promised limitlessness, an immortality of a sort. A veritable
fountain of hale, unblemished youth.
Marta’s gaze turned to
fellow passengers. That engineer’s vision of a golden new age was
instantly undermined by the reality of the anemic flesh and myopic eyes
of the skinny slouched teenager who had boarded three stops before. One
seat in front of the youth, an elderly balding man was rocked by a head
spasm a cane and frailty belied. Deflated weariness prevailed on the
many-hued faces. Sniffles, coughs, and sneezes of flus and
colds—allergy-induced outbursts too, she’d hazard—were audible, staccato
interruptions to the steady whirring hum of the forward-moving
compartment. It was this constancy of imperfection—breathing in deeply
she could detect faint traces of aerosolized nicotine and alcohol
residue wafting from nearby pores, sour breath, as well as body odour of
the armpit and mothball varieties—that unmuzzled Marta’s skepticism.
As she turned away from the commuters she caught a spectral image in
the glass, alerted immediately to practical outlet mall spectacles,
national average height, and flat, non-cascading hair in the
medium-brown of her mother’s entire family. Traditionally, outbreaks of a
neurotic fixation on the negative were the consequence of nervous
stress. Like a bad mood or a cloud today’s manifestation would duly
pass; on the return trip, interview complete and decision made, there’d
be none of this saturnine, no joy in Mudville assessing of the
disappointing world. Marta counted on it. She’d taken a lengthy
personality test years ago and one of the findings she’d been happy to
hold on to was an “even-keeled” rating; complex algorithms had proven
her a steady ship on all currents. The image was satisfying. As for the
other, less trophy-worthy findings, they had been relegated to an
indifferently visited self-improvement file located in a backwater cell
cluster in her brain.
Beyond the glass, the enormity of the
panorama was dizzying. All the evidence of ceaseless human industry
staggered the senses. Each hill was crowded with structures, and every
house completely loaded with stuff sliding toward obsolescence and an
eventual RIP in a teeming landfill. So many families, Marta thought, an overwhelming archive of joy and pain.
Marta retracted her attention, hugging the notes and books arranged in
the valise close to her chest—she’d chosen the valise instead of the
usual canvas book bag with the hope that the mock-ostrich leather and
vaguely European pedigree would broadcast an au courant world-class professionalism.
[Up next: the second part of Marta's trip to the production offices.]
Not much non-fiction, but reams of CanLit (stories/novels/poems)—Richard Wagamese, Yasuko Thanh, Vincent Lam, Billeh Nickerson, Lynn Crosbie, Alix Ohlin, Heather Birrell, Mike Barnes, Sky Gilbert, Anne Fleming. Also one book of essays: Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover. Americans Cheryl Strayed (memoir) and Nell Freudenberger (novel) too.
And after that flurry, I'm taking a break from reviews until Fall titles.
Exposure to so much violence, death, and misery risks becoming a huge downer; with luck, a summer of matinee blockbusters, weekend camping trips, and happy vegetarian BBQ meals with the occasional glass of sauvignon blanc will recharge my depleted reserves of optimism. (I'm kidding. In truth, my own writing efforts require more than half-assed attention...and the looming final revisions of my co-editing behemoth—After NAFTA, a collection of 21 scholarly essays on contemporary North American dystopian literature—should return me to a gloomy state of mind.)
Does the reading public take blurbs seriously? The type of blurbs I'm
talking about here are the ones the normally appear on the
first-printing edition of a book, before reviewers have said their
These blurbs are written by other authors and adulate
the work being published. In providing nothing but praise, then, all
these blurbs essentially have one goal: assisting in sales. "Dear
Reader," they pronounce, "the author of the book you're considering is
worthy of your attention.
But because they all make the same
claim—re: Dear Reader, the author of the book you're considering is
worthy of your attention—they basically say nothing at all. After all,
in being exclusively positive, they're not really assessments. (No
publisher prints this blurb: "Despite a weak ending and florid writing,
there are some worthy features in this novel.") By being seemingly
indiscriminate, blurbs are simultaneously like those film critic
comments accompanying the worst imaginable release ("Wow! Heart-pounding
action!! And my pulse is still racing!!! Go see it now!!!!") and
the nod of approval from a reputable critic whose views you trust. How
can anyone differentiate one from the other, then? How do you read
between the lines?
If their gushing quality renders them
suspect, so too does the content of blurb. A couple of new books I
rather enjoyed recently came with blurbs awash in words like "observant"
and "talented" and "good writing" and "one-of-a-kind"—presumably to
inform would-be buyers that these books are not written by unobservant,
untalented, and dime-a-dozen authors whose publications showcase either
bad or run-of-the-mill writing.
But, really, calling a
published author observant? That's on par with proclaiming a grammar
teacher to be literate. No kidding, what else are they going to be?
Ditto "talented." Does it not go without saying that any author
publishing a book of literary fiction possesses talent?
Perhaps what really matters is not what the blurb itself proclaims but
who is making the proclamation. Maybe the book buyer thinks, "If
[well-respected author] is saying such kind words, then this book really
must be terrific."
I'm not sure. I scan the blurbs (which
usually seem no different than the comments produced by blurb generator
websites), look at flap jackets, and sample a couple of pages to get a
sense of the author's style. And, naturally, I read reviews.
Earlier this year the New York Times
sponsored a debate (well, a discussion; there wasn't much in the way of
a point proven or a conclusion drawn). Stephen King said: "One thing
I'd never do is blurb a book just because a friend wrote it.
That's the road to hell. Whenever I do it, it's because I think it's a
story readers would really like. A book like that is worth banging the
drum for, if only to be on record."
Meanwhile, Sharon Bowers, identified as an American literary agent and the author of something called A Very Candy Christmas,
concluded that the blurbing convention is a despised perpetual motion
machine: "Everyone hates it. So why does everyone keep at it? Do
really care? Not as much as they care about a seething, roiling pot of
social media, a regular column or a radio show, or the golden calf, TV.
Still, nobody would agree to a moratorium; blurbs are an integral part of the package, a necessary evil, a box that must be ticked."
If the claim Bowers makes has validity, blurbs, "a necessary evil," are
outmoded and pointless but yet widely practiced; the rationale behind
them is no longer questioned because it's just the way things are done.
Like throwing rice at weddings or a bride wearing a white veil...
According to Wikipedia, blurbing in its current form has been around
since 1907. Even back then, apparently, it was subject to skepticism and
mockery. Over a century later, this "integral part of the package" is
still widespread, a machine the chugs along for no apparent purpose.
It's a practical habit of my profession to categorize by likenesses and to corral books into thematic units.
That way, when we're* assigned amorphous courses to teach—Studies in Canadian Literature, say, or Studies in Contemporary Literature—and know that we need to order books well before the courses they belong to actually take place (the assignment arrives in February for courses beginning the following September and January), there's a stock of titles that 'fit' together and lead to a course offering some kind of conceptual coherence.
*Okay, this "we're" is pure speculation. Really, I have no idea if that's how other lecturers approach reading. It's not an absurd guess, though.
Anakana Schofield's debut novel Malarky made me laugh aloud several times. Our Woman, its sometime narrator, has a, well, bracing Irish sense of humour and undiplomatic way of communicating her thoughts. And Schofield's account of Our Woman's mental troubles, marital and parental woes, and sexual home-schooling (taking place mostly in rural Ireland) is remarkable for the comfort it shows with moving between extremes—giddy hilarity on the one hand and the depths of sorrow on the other.
Fiction that came to mind while reading Malarky included a number of women-at-the-edge novels with unconventional approaches to narration: Jackie Kay's Trumpet, Audrey Thomas' Mrs. Blood, Don Hannah's Ragged Islands, and Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic. Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel is there too, of course. Thematically, Schofield's novel would also be good company with Suzette Mayr's terrific Monoceros.
The grouping here is not meant to suggest Malarky owes any kind of debt to the other titles. That's not the case. Schofield's exploration of her character's plight stands on its own.
Finished with the weekly kickboxing session under the joy-free regime of tattoo-sleeved thug-warrior Franco—the man a shoo-in should a Russian gangster require a personal trainer—Jake was left with half an hour to spare. Figuring he’d squeeze in a few sets of arm reps, he strode toward the free weights.
For a weekday morning the gym was crowded. Jake nodded to regulars, flashed a smile of encouragement to a husky newbie giving fitness another go—who wouldn’t applaud The Biggest Loser’s hard-won transformations?—and wasn’t shy to let dawdlers register his impatience, or work in with the top-heavy muscle bound knuckle draggers who wanted nothing more than to monopolize equipment and suck back muscle-growth drinks like penned livestock, even though they’d piss out unabsorbed protein hours later. Polite deference had its place, but not at this grab bag of shark-grin realtors, pretzel-stiff nightclub security hued the tanning bed mahogany of Predator-era Schwarzenegger, gum-chewing junior executives, and stringently maintained spouses of white collar breadwinners: with everyone here posturing in alpha mode, push or be pushed was the law of the jungle. At peak times, the circuit machine line of heaving guys with corkscrewing neck ink re-cast the place as a middle class mirror of San Quentin’s exercise yard.
Though committing to a block of ninety minutes every second day, Jake possessed no special interest in fitness and health. Now that he’d attained the target specs maintenance was what mattered; showing up was a perennial item on a chore list to strike a line through, and not an accomplishment to brag about. He steered clear of running groups, core strength evaluations, boot camps, half-marathon training programs, staff offers of body fat assessment, and any back-slapping locker room gab about protein drinks (soy versus whey), powdered supplements (ditto), and “absolutely kick-ass, dude” lat/delt/pec/ab routines.
Musculature was simply a goal, not the must-have lifestyle promoted by magazines he scanned, nor even a topic to discuss at length. He couldn’t see it as anything except banal repetition, although a necessary means to an end like a driver’s license or a passport. If he could purchase a prefab physique with as little effort as he’d made for the condo’s décor or the shirt currently hanging in his locker, he would. But he judged a shortcut like steroids to be a risky, medically unsound gamble. And, besides, shriveled balls were out of the question. Otherwise, he’d write a cheque and be in like Flynn. Loyalty to routine, the next best option, was just onerous duty. Catching his reflection in a mirror, Jake confirmed the dedication had produced the desired results.
For work and leisure the semblance of being fit and healthy was crucial. What Jake had noticed since following a strict gym schedule was that people—men and women, though in their own ways of course—checked him out. That was true even in shadowy places where his silhouette alone remained visible. Whatever the truth might be—his insides might be riddled with disease for all anyone knew—taut bulkiness was universal shorthand for health and capable well-being. He had read a piece online about scientists claiming that a cut physique was understood at some microcellular level to stand for reproductive durability; sniffing out good genes, human survival instincts fixed on muscles. Health—or its body double anyway: wide shoulders, narrow hips, an erect posture, scant fat bulges—meant vitality, and that in turn gave the bearer presence and an advantage, not to mention social capital. And added visibility—of the right kind—was respected currency, any child could grasp that. He’d done the math.
Obviously it wasn’t a well-kept secret anywhere except the suburban obesity belt since on any given minute he could spot guys, younger ones typically, quickly lifting their shirts between sets to flex abs as perishable as hothouse flowers, faces satisfied despite being set in masks of cool evaluation.
Jake didn’t crave attention, not really, or at least not to the extent of the so-called talent he’d had the displeasure of working under in recent shows. Still, a fraction of limelight struck him as being good for business, deserved too. Success should be the reward for putting in the hours, that was the way of the world. If he was going to bother to make the effort of showing up, then why not generate some buzz—“Looking good, Jake” or, better yet, “Who’s that guy?” Sure, capturing the spotlight wasn’t equivalent to commanding respect, but it was close. The level of recognition seemed proper, hard-earned. Jake felt certain that if he could enter the same party twice, one time in today’s incarnation and the other carrying his frame from a decade ago, his former self would wander the room freely and capture a mere fraction of the eye contact. Being memorable, forgettable, or run-of-the-mill: as if there was anything to agonize over.
[I'm still serializing...that's the chapter's first half.]
The majority of my career-time is spent in classrooms talking about composition and literature, reading books in preparation for talking about composition and literature, and grading student writing.
After that? Writing projects and reviewing books.
I've never worked an hour on a film set, but my previous marriage was to someone who is currently a local Production Coordinator; in typical fashion, he started off as a lowly Production Assistant and picked up cigarette butts, guarded crew parking lots, and ran errands in all purpose go-fer mode.
So while—unlike Jake—I was not granted an opportunity to become a parking lot P.A. for a Daryl Hannah TV movie, one night I did hang out for a few (long) hours at a location shoot for a Daryl Hannah TV movie in Stanley Park. And whereas Marta goes on a disastrous date with an A.D. who exposes her to an exotic world far from the temperate Ivory Tower environment she knows so well, my experience was a dinner at Vij's with upper-echelon crew (visiting American guys); and one one them did in fact ask me the exact question about Alice Munro that's posed to Marta. (Admittedly, the man's fantastic ludicrous supposition about faculty chatter and classroom discussion—"Okay students, when Del Jordan is, like, a total bitch to her mother in 'Age of Faith,' do you think that's because the story is autobiographical?"—was worth a chuckle.)
Despite the guy's offense, I can't remember my reply. I'm sure it was neither witty nor belittling. No doubt I was cowed by the America costume designer who posed the question (hubby and I were the lowest rank at a table that included a producer and a director; and I was a graduate student, a complete outsider). My answer was probably similar to Marta's: meek, polite, mildly corrective.
Years ago, when I first discovered the Village Voice and thought I'd gotten this close to being a cosmopolitan New Yorker (back then, an important personal goal), I read Stan Mack's cartoons, which came with a promise: "100% Guaranteed Overheard." The cartoonist said nothing whatsoever about the original context.
It's an omission that makes a world of difference.
The two memoirs I read immediately before Kevin Chong's kinda, sorta memoir, My Year of the Racehorse, were Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and J.J. Lee's The Measure of a Man.
A portrait of a harrowing 'Christian' childhood and an aftermath that included depression, a suicide attempt, and intermittent bouts of madness, the exposé aspect of Winterson's memoir is not there—I assume—for the titillation of a voyeuristic public (that would be an equally cynical and self-loathing performance on her part); instead, in sharing formerly private experiences and a decades-in-the-making story of recovery, the broad purpose of Why Be Happy is educative.
A significant portion of Lee's memoir recalls growing up with an alcoholic father whose failed dream of becoming a Somebody in the culinary world of Montreal resulted in an escalating series of familial disasters. Woven within the book, though, are snippets from the history of male fashion—the suit jacket in particular—and scenes from Lee's adult attempt to become a tailor (a skill he hoped to attain partially because he yearned to professionally re-size a too-large suit that belonged to his deceased father so that it fits). Like Winterson, Lee's memoir exposes personal pain. Yet in telling about the process of coming to terms with his past and learning about manhood from what appears to be a dubious role model, the experiences the memoir describes allow a reader to apply Lee's insights, successes, and limitations to their own set of circumstances.
These approaches to memoir sprang to mind while taking notes on Chong's book because now and then I wondered, "Why are you telling me this?"
Chong's book is subtitled "Falling in Love With the Sport of Kings," and the best part of it for me illuminates a sport and culture about which I knew practically nothing. And as a tour guide through the Vancouver version that mysterious world, Chong comes across as witty, urbane, and knowledgeable; in other words, he's the exact kind of person you want leading the way.
As though rebelling against the potential and apparently fatal dryness of that cultural historian/museum docent role, Chong—who mentions a desire to be cool a few times in the book—throws in an increasing number of personal anecdotes, about friendships he's neglected, romantic relationships that have gone off the rails, and so on.
While the embryonic voyeur in me has to admit to a certain degree of, um, gossipy satisfaction with the revelations of dark secrets from Winterson and Lee, Chong's detours into episodes from his daily life irritated me in the way that a vapid celebrity tweet does. Though Katy Perry might be entirely earnest when she publishes "There's nothing like a best friend when you're ill" through Twitter, anyone can see the sentence is disposable; it's an essentially meaningless communication that ultimately serves the needs of the celebrity to be a trending brand name.
Transposed to a book about horse racing, minutia from the author's life seems out of place. It's a matter of taste, I suppose. My ideal museum docent is a charismatic educator and rightly assumes that he doesn't need to tell me how much beer he drank the night before. The art on the walls is enough to keep the tour group attentive.
The protagonist of The Age of Cities, my first novel, is named Winston Wilson. The form of the novel is that of an unpublished manuscript—telling, discreetly, of a gay man's ultimately frustrated coming of age in 1950's Vancouver—discovered in a thrift store and presumably written by an anonymous author some time during the mid-1960s. Questions raised by Winston's vagueness and overall passivity were built into the 'found object' nature of the manuscript. It had never been published; it may have been unfinished; it could have been written by someone with no experience as a professional writer...readers could factor in these unknowns when gauging their reaction to Winston's character.
Marta and Jake in This Location of Unknown Possibilities have been occasionally frustrating insofar as they've been polarizing: someone will tell me that they wouldn't want to spend five minutes with Jake because he is self-absorbed and cold-hearted in equal measure. My partner, meanwhile, likes Jake and finds his confidence sexy, but would cross the street to avoid any encounter with Marta, who he thinks of as being a joyless, uptight, and, well, boring. I see them as flawed and difficult (like, ahem, I am), but also capable of self-reflection and gradual transformation.
If we judge the merit of characterization by how we react to them as people (okay, they're just printed words on a page, but the suspension of disbelief for reading a realist novel is that our mental process transforms squiggles of ink on paper into into figures that are analogous to flesh and flood humans), then I suppose it's a measure of success if various readers have differing feelings about Marta and Jake. As in real life, one person's meat/treasure is another's poison/trash.
From professionals? I've heard different responses.
A literary agent in Toronto who generously made the effort to read the entire novel, emailed "They're not very nice, are they?" by way of explaining how impossible it would be to sell the novel to a North American market—the U.S. much more so than Canada, in her view, presumably because American readers demand redemption, closure, and successful journeys more than despondent Canucks. As a writer who accepts the commandment "Be neurotic" quite readily, I was initially perplexed by the lit agent's implication: make them nicer, for nice characters sell. I thought of fiction by Mary Gaitskill, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis...not nice, not even close. After that, I flirted with paranoia ("That's her official explanation, but what's the real reason she's turning me away?). After that? I gave up on long-distance mind reading, short-distance reading between the lines of an email, and reminded myself that paranoia is a lose-lose state of mind.
Anyway, this (apparent) requirement of niceness seems idiotic, and seemingly insulting to both readers and publishers. Do publishers really need to create digestible and non-threatening and redeemed characters over and over and over because readers in the Age of Oprah only buy product that follows a 'journey to healing and wisdom' trajectory? That might make sense for genre fiction of various kinds and self-help books because they're consumed exactly for their formulaic properties. To my mind, though, literary fiction is exempt from (or less concerned about) reiterating the tried and true.
Another professional claimed that she didn't "believe" Marta, that in her estimation Marta was not convincing as a female character. The implications here are ranging. There's identity politics (a man can never understand a woman/create a realistic female character, but creates instead unconvincing 'drag' facsimiles in the Desperate Housewives vein, or mere reflections of their male bias and unconscious sexism). And there's imaginative failure (the clear limits of imagination and technical ability are evident in my inability to create a female character a female reader accepts as legitimately realistic).
I'd be happier to accept failure of imagination. Being told that I cannot write a convincing female character because I am male is an ideological trap. It would result in writing myself (the person I know best). But something other than me would be an impossibility. I'm Canadian, left-handed, Caucasian, vegetarian, and gay... there's no way I could ever hope to invent a right-handed, meat-eating, Mexican-American straight guy from Texas, right?
[Blogging is messaging in a bottle, I'm learning. If anyone reads this and want to throw back a comment, I'm all eyes.]
When I was a child, my father occasionally talked about a friend from his distant past who'd been "so smart he was crazy." Apparently—like most dad stories, this one demanded a few grains of salt—the friend's genius was mechanical in nature ("He could invent anything he set his mind to!") and yet he built ridiculous, useless follies, such as a circular house with a huge gear in its basement that allowed for 360° rotation.
The story was set vaguely in the 1960s, so it could be that either the inventor or my father had been influenced by the space-age ideas of James Bond movies, or those Matt Helm knock-offs starring Dean Martin. As I understand it now, the story was meant in part to warn against looking too smart (no one likes a show off) or being too intelligent (a normal-range IQ has distinct social advantages).
At the time I didn't give dad's cautionary tale much thought since I was so intrigued by the house's unique ability. As for the friend, he eventually became unhinged and was institutionalized.
Superior intelligence is commonly thought to be as rare as it is unstable; it belongs to madmen (Jim Jones, Hannibal Lecter, each crazy like a fox and plain old crazy) or visionaries (Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Conrad's Kurtz), and is judged to be a gift that can also be giftig.
By no means modest, Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists calls for a revitalization of the flawed secular world; the book got me to thinking about our distrust of visionaries. As much as we agree that utopian sentiments are admirable (re: the perennial Miss Universe answer/Madonna at the Superbowl proclamation: "World peace"), schemes for actual implementation raise alarms. No doubt we've learned to be skeptical (if not afraid) of practical utopianism; the twentieth century offered a bounty of reasons to be wary of revolutionaries with authoritarian Programs, Plans, and Solutions.
When de Botton speaks in general of making the world a happier, altogether better place, I found the rhetoric seductive. Enacting requirements, however, left me cold. Whether mild (restaurants where the seating must be communal, screens in public places that constantly remind us of our cosmic insignificance), or radical (a scheduled time exactly once a year where society would sanction excess and sexual promiscuity, education as repetitive intonation of wise ideas), de Botton's grand vision was a catalyst for my own reaction: to run far away from any such place.
As much as I was impressed by the audacity of de Botton's recommendations and the sheer daring of his utopianism, my stronger reaction was fear and resentment: who has the right to force me to share my table with others or to regulate when I must be sexually active or remind me that I, like all humans, am insignificant? The step from establishing and enforcing set social practices for the good of us all to those awful places imagined by Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell seems quite small: one day you're free to choose, the following day you're not; and if and when you choose to reject rules and rebel, you're sent somewhere for reprogramming for the good of us all.
De Botton anticipates that secular readers love their freedom, their choice, and their individuality, and that they'll see evil or madness in his call for remaking the world. Although I enjoyed the book's challenges tremendously, there's no way I'd vote for a political party aiming to make his ideas a reality.
The squat fact of Undre Arms was mood leavening every day Marta approached the apartment building’s proud coat of arms stenciled black, green, and gold on the glass of each entrance door. Years ago she’d substituted a set of hairy tradesman’s arms lifting cinderblocks for the twin lions, oak leaves, and medieval-style shields, and it was those imaginary armpits that now greeted her.
Dating from 1969, the three-story shoebox came from an engineer’s office with no taste for Age of Aquarius embellishment. Marta’s forecast called for its numbered days: homely touching on forlorn, the graying stucco and mildewed patches could be foolproof lures only to developers, who viewed low-rise apartment blocks as bygone low-density no-nos that should be converted into high-density, small footprint profit.
Compared to any of the recently erected city condos selling for obscene dollars per square foot, Undre Arms was a spacious bargain; even with the scurrying, paper-devouring silverfish insurgents that bred in drains or beneath floorboards and never failed to startle, Marta fondly called the place, and its ample closets stuffed with books, home. She expected to linger there until making the fateful, adult leap to home ownership, a leap inevitable and yet so momentous—the daredevil’s inaugural skydive or the suicide’s posture on a building’s top story edge?—that with thoughts of the awesome commitment and expenditure she continuously pushed the date forward.
Marta’s parents were both firm believers in squirreling away for the unavoidable rainy day. Every time the real estate topic arose she’d wonder if that fateful day had dawned. Delaying the decision again, she foresaw being pushed out: arriving home one afternoon and finding an unwelcome letter crammed under the door that announced the building’s sale and imminent destruction. “Vacate the premises immediately”: no doubt the owner’s son, eyeing a future of conspicuous sports car consumption, would savour the phrase.
After settling—voicemail checked, mail read, take-home work filed, a dish of no-fat yogurt eaten—Marta dedicated a few minutes to the computer, checking work email one final time before halfheartedly Googling name combinations, beginning with “Hester Stanhope biopic.” She found little, and nothing of value.
Evidently no Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth I, or Virginia Woolf, Lady Stanhope warranted no big budget, no public relations underling paid to stimulate advance interest, and not even a compulsive blogger unleashing pre-production trivia. As for “Jakob Nugent Lora Wilkes” and the production company, the information was likewise scant.
Marta imagined local production companies operated with such minuscule budgets that they could claim notice only with a film festival debut. Less charitably, she supposed the Stanhope project might be a made-for-a-specialty-television-network movie and so destined for justified obscurity from the moment it had been okayed. Or worse, she feared, the screenwriter might have disinterred The Nun of Lebanon—the biography’s revelation about Stanhope’s doomed love affair barely scandalous when published in 1951—and converted the woman’s life into syrup, all emotional anguish and tearful au revoirs.
Marta admired the long dead aristocrat’s instinct for adventure, not to mention the willingness to thumb a nose at convention. Though “Film Consultant - Marta Spëk” might ultimately appear in the smallest of fonts as the credits rolled, Marta felt averse to collude with a production company that would sully Lady Stanhope, the forgotten accomplishments, or the old time derring-do. Stanhope had been an odd bird who grew increasingly eccentric each year, and her pipe-dream reign in the ruins of an abandoned monastery would be easy to misconstrue. Granting the film’s exploitative designs, Marta supposed her professionalism might fortify scenes, smooth down rough edges, and cull out vulgarity as well as anachronisms.
[So ends Chapter 1. What's next? Chapter 2, naturally; it's the first serving of Jakob Nugent.]
Marta breathed thanks for an empty seat. At this hour the busses were humid with vigorous student bodies pouring from campus. The boisterous chatter—of parties or concerts to attend, planned trips to ski slopes or white sand beaches, as though they were not harried undergrads subsisting on instant ramen and shoestring budgets so much as carefree Gamma Phi Beta initiates and football-hurling beer pong players filling scenes in an American frat house comedy—crowded the airwaves and made Marta feel depleted, lacking some vital genetic characteristic that would assure a place at the coveted centre, one of those smiling tall girls whose cascading, photographer-ready hair and beguiling doe eyes were accomplishment enough, a surefire means to a ringed finger resting on the social pulse, not to mention a comfortable end. She reached into her bag, faded black canvas and advertising a bookseller squeezed out of business and replaced by a clothing chain years ago. The CD player she withdrew was so obsolete it might well have been a bulky 8-track player or a gramophone complete with wooden trumpet speaker. No matter. Marta suspected that pulling a mandolin or a lute from the tote would cause no huge stir. Students fully expected an eccentric penchant for the quaint and outmoded to accompany their professors’ willful scorn for ephemeral styles and electronic indispensables. Bow ties, clock brooches, fountain pens, lisle stockings, wing tip brogues, briar pipes, Peter Pan collars over well-aged woolens, a closet of sturdy tweed: a professor’s prerogative, one that went hand in hand with the lifelong dedication to the Museum of Irrelevance, reading fading words bound within obscure books. Marta caught expressions—indifferent, uncomfortable, at times quizzical—on the faces of students dropping by the office with concerns over grades or assignments. Eyes eventually settling on the imposing shelves of books, they would sprout a genuine frown, a diplomatically unasked question completely sincere: “A reclusive career tending to forgotten grave markers in an infinite text necropolis: why would anyone choose that?” Marta was also prepared to admit to an element of projection in the mind-reading attempt: a truly accurate breakdown of student reaction might be “Huh?,” with soupçons of “Why?” and “Whatever.” Marta empathized to a degree. Any thought of Business, the nebulous career plan for the landslide majority of freshmen students, inspired only an involuntary moue. “Miss Spëk?” Marta bristled. Miss Spëk had been summoned, a familiar dun spectre. Dr. Spëk had been designed as the estimable replacement. Turning to look up, Marta’s smile was automatic. “Yes…?” The girl, pretty and soft-spoken, was a stranger. She crouched, now able to converse eye to eye. “I’m in your Po-Co Lit class. Queenie, um, Queenie Liu.” “Right. Was there something…?” Marta studied the black ensemble of layers, ruffles, and lace, recognizing the Kuro Lolita look, a subset of an exotic micro-trend on a campus otherwise clothed in surfer, snowboarder, and yogi brands. “Oh, right. Sorry. Is it okay to talk now? Here?” She cupped her ears. Marta slipped the earphones into the tote. “Sure, Mahler can wait. If you’d prefer it, we can set up an appointment.” “It’s just that, well, the semester’s been like really crazy. How do you feel about extensions?” “How do I feel about them? In general?” When student imprecision did not grate on her sensibilities, it sparked pedantry. “No. I mean, well, I mean, like, can I get, you know, an extension?” “And you know the deal, Queenie: ‘Extensions can be granted for legitimate medical reasons.’ Every student has a crazy semester, so professors tend to shy away from anything without medical legitimacy.” Marta fully intended to give that student what she desired, but was waiting to hear what ingenuity the student would air, what species of tragic circumstance she’d cough up, or how complicated a tale she’d unfurl. “Well, to be honest. My boyfriend is in this band, Dramaturd.” “Dramaturge?” “No. It’s a deathcore band.” Marta supposed the student expected a disturbed reaction or parental consternation. She said nothing. “Anyway, I’ve been writing songs with him. You know.” Widened eyes conveyed, “Boys will be boys.” Oh, the sweet bond of sisterhood, spurred on by love to make altruistic sacrifices for our men, Marta thought. But how unexpected that the student would try to bridge the generational gap and join arm in arm with that long procession of women who’d sacrificed so much to clasp a place of honour with the opposite sex. “How about a week?” “Agreed. One work week. Remind me about it on Monday, in class.” “Thanks so much, Miss—” “Doctor. But please call me Marta.” “Okay, Marta.” Strategic friendliness accomplished, the student returned to a friend. Marta was relieved too. Despite the front and centre lecture hall career, she didn’t count people skills as a natural or well-developed talent; wherever the milk of human kindness might originate, her supply was a tad erratic. Though transit experiences had taught her what to expect, Marta flipped awkwardly though folders of ungraded assignments; having them alphabetized before her stop would be handy. The student chatted across the crowded aisle. “No way, I have an all or nothing relationship with chocolate,” she said. Marta assumed that Queenie was replying to an offer. “What if it’s in baked goods? What about hot chocolate?” The friend’s tone was incredulous. “I’m hardcore against it.” “No way, that’s like extremely will power-y. It’s totally brutal.” Surrendering to cramped conditions, Marta slid the folders away and scanned trivial articles in a throwaway newspaper—pausing only to savour “caustic and insolent,” the phrase serving to sum up and pillory a far-off artist. For the final ten blocks Marta stared out at the familiar retail corridor of the route.
[That's the chapter's second part. The final installment of Ch. 1? Soon.]