Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Canadian Short Story Writers, Mediocrity from Coast to Coast?

   I have written and published exactly one short story (and am, this week, finishing a draft of my second: "The Final Appearance of Victoria Grunt"), so amongst the various labels I do apply to myself "short story writer" doesn't ever come up.
   Still, when I read a review on the weekend, I experienced a twinge of empathy for writers who choose the short story form; and then I felt insulted. I can only imagine how dedicated short story writers reacted when they caught this review.
   Anyhow, the review was a glowing one of Steven Heighton's The Dead Are More Visible. The writer regards Heighton as an author of the "first rank," on par with Joyce, Nabokov, Gallant, and Munro. The praise is no doubt deserved.
   In order to laud Heighton, though, the writer apparently felt compelled to dismiss not only the majority of short story writers in Canada, but also all Canadian universities with creative writing programs, their professors, and their graduates.
   In addition to being incredibly snide and patronizing, the writer's generalizations are equally vague and unsupported. With shopworn critical terminology, he explains how there's a cadre of writers of "first rank" fiction; they belong to a "different league."
   The lumpen rest (forming the other 99% of writers, whom he identifies as "the small army of writers who can jump over the bar of adequacy and win attention and some praise"), meanwhile, are regarded as embodying "[m]iddling competence"; evidently, their singular trait to is "carpenter together serviceable sentences to make a readable story or novel." Meow!
   This reviewer does not cite a single name from this small army of barely adequate writers, nor does he quantify: how, for instance, does fiction of the Olympian first rank differ from the mundane rest?
   Instead, he presents a highly subjective opinion as an empirical fact.

   Here's the relevant paragraph:

   To say Heighton is an immensely talented writer is true enough but insufficient. Thanks to creative writing programs, Canada has many skilled writers who can carpenter together serviceable sentences to make a readable story or novel. Middling competence in fiction is now the Canadian norm and enough to win prizes and even sell a few books. Unfortunately, given the small army of writers who can jump over the bar of adequacy and win attention and some praise, it is forgotten that there is a much smaller cadre of writers who belong to a different league, who write fiction of first rank. If Joyce and Nabokov seem like too distant and foreign as points of comparison, then here is a comparison closer to home: the best stories in this book — the title tale, “Shared Room on Union” and “Nearing the Seas, Superior” — are as good as the fiction of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. Or to be more blunt, Heighton is as good a writer as Canada has ever produced.

    A few weeks ago I wrote admiringly about Dale Peck's excoriating review of Rick Moody's work.
   I admire that review not because I also loathe Moody's work, but because Peck has conviction bolstered by evidence. Rather than making a bitchy statement like, "Most American male writers suck," he asserts that there's a genre of American writers he dislikes. He names them, indicates specifically what he believes is flawed with their approach to fiction, and backs up his criticism with concrete examples from their works. Had his review dismissed American fiction writers wholesale as examples of "middling competence," and then failed to support his claim with a single instance of actual evidence, I would have regarded his undertaking a failure and his criticism as, well, fatally botched.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Fiction Installment #22: (Part II, Ch 2, Marta) "In the Orchard"

   For an accidental find, Angel had proven invaluable. Touching on Psycho or Marnie here, Dressed to Kill there, Marta had revisited and elaborated on the topic at subsequent conferences. Variation-on-a-theme papers were a venerable if unmentioned tradition at such gatherings: forever eyeing the publish-or-perish quota—the cliché updated by tense younger academics as publish-and-perish—the congregated scholars welcomed the efficiency. Utility aside, Marta enjoyed rooting through non-literary source material as much as the political dimensions of the subject; the male-penned account of feminine duplicity was richly complex and imbued with an agreeable taint of controversy.
   By the fourth time Marta stood at a lectern for the mandatory twenty minutes to uncover the intricacies of Angel’s narrative—complete with audience-pleasing film stills placed atop a overhead projector—both the character and the speaker had ceased to be students. Over the course of Avenging Angel, Angel III: The Final Chapter, and Angel 4: Undercover, Angel could no longer be labeled a “high school honor student by day,” having graduated and become a respected police photographer. Nor was she a mini-skirted “Hollywood hooker by night,” though she agreed to pose as one—for one last time—in order to trap yet another prostitute-fixated murderer. Exempt from B-movie plot mechanics, Marta’s better paying new role at the classroom’s helm did not demand so much as a change in attire.
   Hollywood’s retread economy was a welcome ideology to Marta since she exploited its reliance on low-budget reiterations. The timely latest installment was grist for the conference paper mill—her constant work now generated with one primary aim: the mecca of tenure. Marta barely needed notes to explain Angel’s tidal flux of feminine agency; a single sitting through the latest sequel had replaced the earnest and painstaking shot-by-shot explication of former days. As for the conference talk, the required minutes worth of material was easily stitched together during a flight. She felt proud if absurd when cluing into a fact: she might be a leading scholar on Angel, the globe’s preeminent Angelographer. Checking later, she’d confirmed the unique monopoly.
    Marta spoke about Angel 4: Undercover and listened to the panel’s three other speakers—occasionally feigning the ritual expression of rapt interest evident throughout the audience. After responding to a request to clarify a point and throwing in a comment during the roundtable, she left the windowless room and walked at a brisk pace to the exterior doors of the brick campus building that housed the entire event. Fresh air and a winding pathway were nerves-settling. The unofficial goal of the conference—a stiff and polite and nuanced after-session mingling that eventually stripped down to crowing over publications and grant funding, 3.5 Richter scandals, and fathomless complaint—always suffused Marta with dread and a rip-tide undercurrent of nausea.
   Marta was aware of course that any group—from kindergarten on—invented its unique means of instituting hierarchies and channeling animosities. And she didn’t need to be told that without tactical participation, a career could atrophy. Landed in a group of any variety, though, she ordinarily and habitually conceived of reasonable exit strategies and then gravitated toward lone corners and peripheral tables of finger food and beverage urns. Or, if fortune was smiling, there’d be print of some kind to scan, publisher book displays at which she could devote long minutes. She likened the movement to a plant leaning toward sunlight; more than comprehensible, it was perfectly organic and sustaining.
   For this one occasion, she forgave herself for not dividing the room into will nots, haves, has beens, and have nots, and then arranging contact with the haves, artfully dropping mention of CV-worthy accomplishments and exceptional busyness—chapters to write! funding applications! student thesis supervision! journal articles! far-flung conferences to attend! book reviews! classes to organize!—into measured conversations, and illustrating how bold new grant-nourished research would ensure the ongoing skyrocketing of an esteemed reputation. Even a courtier’s tongue required rest.
    The conference was held in Boise, “The City of Trees”—so she’d read about the place, whose completely recognizable name had floated up unaccompanied by facts, images, or trivia. Say “Jupiter” and Marta would imagine a solar system illustration, enormity, dozens of moons in whizzing orbits, pinky-orange swirls of volatile gas clouds, and the Great Red Spot; but Boise only summoned Idaho and with it the seemingly contradictory occurrence of vast flat potato fields and angular swathes of coniferous trees. Boise’s cloak of anonymity was attractive.
   Early into the many-paneled conference proceedings—a hive humming with intellectual enterprise of varying merit—Marta had succumbed. She decided now was finally the time to “scratch an itch” (the phrase, along with “shit or get off the pot,” jumped directly from her father’s stock of tart phrases, marvelous and vulgar but never repeated aloud). Aged two years, give or take, the condition was entrenched, she admitted, resembling one of those inconsequential yet apparently chronic maladies of television commercials, like dandruff, winter dryness, and the terrible anxieties apparently caused by dingy carpets and coffee-stained teeth. Or feminine itch, Marta had thought. It appeared to be a syndrome only the right medicine could heal. 

[The chapter comes in five segments. This bit is 2 / 5.]

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Nell Freudenberger's 'The Newlyweds'

   On occasion you meet a couple deep in a romantic entanglement and wonder, "What does X see in Y?" (or: "Why doesn't X see that Y is a total jerk?). In answer, your thoughts run to low self-esteem for one and more-than-what-meets-the-eye for the other.
   For me, those questions were recurrent while reading The Newlyweds. As much as I enjoyed the effortless craft of Nell Freudenberger's writing in The Newlyweds—the woman writes enviably lovely sentences, ones that don't try too hard—and felt that spending time with Amina, the novel's protagonist, recently transplanted in upstate New York via Bangladesh, would be pleasant (Amina is, after all, smart, loyal, observant, and essentially good), George—the man she meets online, eventually falls for, chooses to marry, and moves across continents to live with—isn't a total jerk or complete bore, but as far as I could discern he's not far from either quality.
   He complains (a lot); he's a habitual naysayer; he's lacking in the spirit of adventure; he's not curious; George seems to have all those settled characteristics of middle age well before actually turning forty. And, my inner gold digger says, he's not rich enough to compensate for the qualities he sorely lacks.
   Picture Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino as a thirtysomething electrical engineer (or Steve Carell in his khaki Dockers and white New Balance sneakers at the beginning of Crazy, Stupid, Love), and you're in the ballpark.
   An unlikable character is no crime, of course, but in the case of Amina and George, that question— "What does X see in Y?"—popped up almost every time George made an appearance. His allure, at least to me, remained elusive. Maybe he's just not my type.
   Thankfully, Amina is at centre stage throughout The Newlyweds, and seeing American cultural norms through her eyes and watching her struggle to find balance between what she grew up knowing and has newly learned since arriving in Rochester six months earlier is delectable, a stimulating treat.

[The Vancouver Sun published my for-real review July 20.]

Fiction Installment #21: (Part II, Ch 2, Marta) "In the Orchard"

   Marta read a brochure clipped to the shade of the room’s bedside lamp. An “Economy Family Facility,” the Star-Lite Motel evidently counted every penny: “Guest credit cards will be charged $10 per missing towel, no exceptions.” Looking around spare and clean #10—complete with a set of three water glasses covered in crinkled hygienic plastic—brought to mind untroubled lakeside and mountain slope vacations budgeted by their autocratic mother, Marta and Lester in one room with Dianne and George adjacent, two wall-sharing doors normally connecting them. It was possible that decades ago she might have politely knocked on this very door next to the bulky television, her thrifty parents requesting privacy in their room and—never the doting kind—respecting that of their children.
   Marta now checked to confirm that the lock was secure.
   She inspected the closet and bathroom and found everything in order. Finding no ashtray—times had changed—she slipped the car keys on a novelty holder shaped like a fishing lure. Though the rental coupe wasn’t strictly necessary, Marta desired the mobility. I can go out for a drive now, she thought, and enjoy a freedom unavailable in the city.
   The entire winding valley of prodigious manufactured fecundity was familiar enough, but from the patches she spotted during the steep descent from the crest there had been substantial refurbishing. The single-family orchards and modest roadside stands with arrow-shaped signs announcing “Peaches, Cukes 4 Sale,” so plentiful once, were slouching into history; magazine-ready viticulture and the affluent metropolitan tourist demographic it attracted—discerning eyes peeled for organic preserves, half ironman marathons, grape cultivar trends, and gourmet lunches on chic verandas overlooking vineyards—had become the new economic order. A rectangular plot cut from the surrounding orchard of dwarf peach trees, the Star Lite was a vestige with a passenger pigeon future. 
    The arid valley was still crisscrossed with capillary dirt roads, Marta had noticed, picturing a drive on them after hours, air rushing though open windows, dust plumes trailing.
   The other burgs between the amoebic city sprawl and the Star Lite’s roadside solitude—scrappy agricultural pockets and undernourished communities built in close range to mined hillsides abandoned and overgrown or close to exhaustion—did not appear to have been touched by the aspirant’s grab-the-future-by-the-horns outlook so pronounced on the valley’s grape vine plateaus.
   Marta felt reassured as she journeyed by the hardscrabble outposts, recognizing gas stations, restaurants, motels, and log homes—entire main streets, in fact—possessing a trapped-in-amber quality that was cousin to the revived historic gold rush settlement deeper in the province’s interior. Surviving off visitor dollars, that destination promised to bring one version of history alive by hiring hordes of students each summer and paying them to stroll the dusty streets in character, the select calico- and wool-clad population educational viewing for the whole family, G-rated of course: no rape, racism, smallpox, domestic violence, or situational homosexuality, and perhaps just one town drunk rendered as red-faced and obnoxious yet benignly comical, a pioneer Falstaff.
   Although the gradual climb from sea level contained her within one time zone, Marta had been conscious of how strange it was to barrel so easily beyond the embrace of routine. Passing from drenched dense forests of hemlock, salmonberry bush, and clinging boreal mists to arid, needle-strewn stands of skinny pine, she noticed roadside great mullein (“desert tapers,” her mother’s fanciful coinage, sprang to mind first), and, at last, caught sight of the gateway marker, a loaf-form mountain, camel and puckered by dark undulating furrows. Marta’s shoulders began to relax despite the tension caused by traffic: nearby was the landscape of childhood vacations.
   The silence from the production office about tomorrow’s schedule was gnawing at Marta’s nerves. To her chagrin, the immediate future was not a mapped road but an opaque wall, and that made her peevish; the lack of a specific plan was proving irksome. Marta’s core punctuality—6 o’clock does not mean 6:10—routinely stood at odds with a world of delayed services and detained, inexact people. There’s nothing to do now except wait and wonder, she thought. Of course.
   At the motel’s front desk office, Mrs. Simms, the Star Lite’s affable and confiding owner/operator, had endeared herself to Marta with a sisterly offer of counsel—“You got any questions, Marta, anything at all”—she had said with a sly conspiratorial tone, as though Marta might be seeking a back-alley abortion, or moonshine in a dry county—“you come right to me. My family’s been operating this place for two generations, so believe you me, I’ve heard ’em all.” Cross-legged on a stool, Mrs. Simms hadn’t mentioned any calls. Fretful, Marta wondered if she’d missed an important email—one might have been sent after she left home. 
   The red light on the room’s telephone wasn’t flashing; she lifted the receiver to check for a dial tone.
   To her knowledge no one—and by now she’d learned the office’s unwavering chain of command: Jakob the apex, Lora next, and one of the pawn-like PAs at the base—had sent information about a “session” or “pow wow” (Jakob’s and Lora’s preferred terms for meeting, respectively) following check-in, so Marta guessed she was at liberty to plan out the evening.
   Standing by for an hour, she decided, was prudent. Perhaps a call to explain next day’s schedule was near the head of Lora’s list. Marta needed to sort out the per diem, too, excited by the novel concept of daily cash allotments handed out in discreet white envelopes, she imagined, like bribes in movies. She thought of dropping by and checking with Mrs. Simms one last time, just in case. Advice about nearby restaurants seemed a reasonable pretext.
   In the meantime, she’d try to relax inside the cinder block cube, vintage print spun nylon curtains drawn for solitude. The room was warm and smelled of the staleness of age as well as of lingering bathroom chemicals. She’d prop open the door after sunset.
   Marta slid off the canvas sneakers. Unpacking luggage could wait, ditto the drive and the inaugural wander along Main Street to investigate three blocks of retail offerings. Poised on the edge of the bed—covered with a slithery quilted polyester satin quilt that made her squeamish and would be soon be folded away in the closet along with the untenable poly-cotton sheets—Marta grabbed the remote and found the channel guide.
   She clicked on a station that specialized in drive-in classics and arrived in the midst of a favourite moment. Tracking the prostitute-fixated serial killer with the light of righteousness to guide them, Angel and Mae were skirting around the murky alleys of Sunset Boulevard during a breezy California night that nevertheless caused no movement in the stiff curls of Mae’s voluminous wig and Angel’s tightly permed hair. 
   The improbable scene—the 15-year old Angel/whore character being played as innocent by a 24-year old performer in thick layers of purportedly age-defying makeup that rendered her hardened and mannequin-like rather than sweetly, dewily adolescent—always prompted Marta to recall a sibilant-heavy review, one that for a time she’d delighted in quoting to fellow graduate students who had no empathy for her fascination with déclassé subject matter. The writer called the B-movie a “screwy, sickening, and semi-satisfying stew of shtick, sleazeball, and sentimentality.”
   Sleazy or not, Angel was also a fortunate—and heartily satisfying too, Marta would argue—discovery that became the subject of her first conference paper, an analysis of notions of prostitution and feminine duplicity that compared the wily centuries-old archetype Moll Flanders to a contemporary descendent, the soon-to-be avenging Angel. Some things never change, the essay had implied with resignation.

[This chapter comes in five segments. This is 1 of 5.]

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Sky Gilbert's 'Come Back'


   Judy Garland decrepit—at age 138—but alive and brimming with fury in dystopian Toronto circa the mid-21st century? And she's preparing research for a PhD dissertation? And the world is apparently run by an Islamic theocracy based in Turkey? And virtual reality is the new black? Sign me up!

   Since I enjoy dystopian literature (often far more than my students: William Gibson's Neuromancer left a first-year class confused and resentful; ditto Riddley Walker in a second-year class), am fond of camp humour, spent quite a few years anxious and broke (and, yes, obligingly self-absorbed) as a graduate student, and have a passing awareness of Judy Garland, a patron saint of gay men everywhere, the catalogue description of Come Back was irresistible. Upon reading it I contacted a books section editor in Toronto and asked to review it. Cue the adage about judgement, a book, and its cover.

   Structured as a series of seven responses to an absentee PhD supervisor, the short novel reads as a fervent if long-winded dramatic monologue. At several moments while reading it, I was reminded of Buddy Cole from The Kids in the Hall. In the case of Cole, the bar is the setting, a mere backdrop; the content of the concise skit comes from Cole's attitude, appearance, body language, and, of course, words (and their sibilent-heavy intonation). 
   With Come Back, Judy Garland narrates. Dystopian Toronto (and the new global theocracy) replaces Buddy's bar setting. The novelist seems extraordinarily uninterested in exploring the conventional selling-point of dystopian lit: the nature, causes, and/or contradictions of this future society; Toronto/theocracy remains a static painted background that is a distant second to Garland speaking at centre stage.
   Garland does not spend much time explaining the past fifty years. Instead, she focuses on the decades before her official death in 1969; she pillories her mother and a female star or two who offended her; she defends her father and a few of the men with whom she formed romantic bonds; she talks about her relationship with gay fans. These parts are amusing insofar as the words Gilbert puts in her mouth are raging and caustic.
   The other key component of Garland's response relates to Dash King, a disillusioned gay graduate student whose life and writings are the proposed subject for her dissertation. King, a figure whose history explicitly echoes that of the author, gives Garland plenty of opportunity to discuss King as an important emblem of gay culture circa the 1990s and to engage with continental philosophers (like Derrida and Foucault) whose popularity spiked in the humanities during the same period.
   As for what a university and a dissertation looks like circa 2055, and why Garland appears to have no awareness of any thinkers or school of thought that emerged after the 1990s? Come Back displays little concern with fleshing out those minor concerns.

[The published review appeared in the Globe and Mail.]

Monday, 7 May 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Mike Barnes' 'The Reasonable Ogre' + Anne Fleming's 'Gay Dwarves of America' + Heather Birrell's 'Mad Hope'

   Reading these short story collections—and writing a review about them on the weekend that The Avengers raked in $207.4 million at the domestic box office—was demoralizing.
   This dejected state of mind didn't come about because the stories were lousy (they're not in the least). Nor as a result of the stories being supreme downers (of course some of them focus on heartache, misunderstandings, and mortality, but consideration of serious themes is one of the reasons I pick up short fiction).
   No, I felt a bit demoralized because these books will likely find the smallest of audiences.
   That situation is a result of how, generally, books are mediated. For instance, months in advance of the publication of her first novel (marketed to adults, that is) on September 27, 2012, the entire planet has some awareness that J.K. Rowling has a book coming out. More locally, the week before Vincent Lam's first novel was published (by Doubleday, a Bertelsmann subsidiary), national newspapers ran fawning profiles (as noted by the Winnipeg Review); the following weekend, all the major dailies ran reviews. As for Anne Fleming or Mike Barnes? Not a peep. There's no TV spokesmodel claiming how speedily these latter authors are trending worldwide.
   The problems with this situation of disparity are numerous, as anyone can see.
   The ones that I can't help but see are (1) by virtue of having no coverage, the small press authors and their books virtually disappear from sight: there's no public recognition if they cannot be seen. And (2), worse is the assumption by the trusting public of a meritocracy: that one author is subject to media attention because they and their work deserves the recognition (and, implicitly, another receives no profile or review because they and their work doesn't warrant acknowledgment).

   I know, I know. It's naive to rage about about the ways of the world (the ways of capitalism, that money rules, that might is right, etc) and to complain about (or even write about) this David and Goliath scenario in which David does not have the helping hand of God to even out the odds.
   But still. In a weirdly unbalanced industry, there's a 'Canadian' publisher like Random House (which is owned by Bertelsmann, a multimedia transnational conglomerate which employs over 100,000 and has billions in revenue), and then there's the publisher of Gay Dwarves of America, Pedlar Press, which has exactly one employee (that's a fact: while writing the review of these books I contacted each of the publishers for confirmation of the number of their full-time staff; and, of the three, none has more than five employees.) Guess which publisher's books have greater public visibility?
   Curious, I walked over to the local Chapters (typical, Vancouver's independent booksellers are few and far between). There, the crucial entryway book displays featuring New and Recommended and Hot and Bestseller titles were largely filled with publications from Random House-sized conglomerate publishers. There was no 'Think Globally, Buy Locally' display for independent presses. For the casual browser and impulse buyer, Mad Hope, The Reasonable Ogre, and Gay Dwarves of America were nowhere in view. Searching the online catalogue, I discovered that while there were two copies in total in stock (somewhere in the upstairs labyrinth), the third title needed to be ordered. Throughout the Vancouver area the inventory numbers were more or less the same.
   The upshot? Locating a copy of ___ [brand name author with brand name publishing house], took about fifteen steps. Meanwhile, finding The Reasonable Ogre required a catalogue search and then ordering and waiting for the book. Presented with these two options, it's obvious which one the vast majority of book buyers would choose.
   I'm guessing that practically everyone accepts that situation as unchangeable, a given. It's the same for music and movies (go Ke$ha! go Transformers!), so why should the book industry be any different? The meritocracy delusion hangs around persistently, too: if you're good enough, a big league publisher will notice you and with your next book they'll using their well-developed PR muscles to assure you of central placement in book review pages and high visibility shelves in a big box book retailer.

[The omnibus review of all three titles appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Fiction Installment #20: (Part II, Ch 1, Jake) "Kerplunk" con't

  The men drove away from the flat, overgrown town and ascended a long-haul hill on the black ribbon of highway leading south. Jake was pleased that the location matched the photo slideshow Nicos had emailed. “Dehydrated as a mummy,” he’d written. It was an apt description and a surprise considering the valley’s pooling lake water: from the shoulder of the asphalt all the way to the tops of the blunt-edged mountains, the austere terrain was devoid of green—sun-blasted grass patches, low scrappy brown-leaf bush clusters, rusty scars of raw rock, no shade anywhere. A bitch to work in, he could tell, but it would be a perfect stand-in for eastern Mediterranean desert.
   “Are there snakes out there?” Jake asked.
   “Probably. Looks like it. I’ll check into it if you want.”
   “I would. Snake bites, crap, those would be a headache.”
   “I’ll say.” Nicos tugged at a cigarette package in a pocket of the plaid cowboy shirt bunched on the seat.
   “That’s not going to happen while I’m in the vehicle,” Jake said, deciding that They’ll stunt your growth tipped the scale and was only plain cruelty dressed up as guy banter. 
   “Right, I forgot. Gotcha.”
   Jake stared out the window. In this blistering heat, a swimming pool might be the best part of the day.  “Let’s go directly to the office. I’d like to check in with Lora. I’ll give her a call now, tell her to update them on my check in time.” 
   “No problem. We’ll be there in 20. That was Kaleden by the way.”
   “That fruit stand we passed a couple of minutes back, that was Kaleden. Next stop, Bridal Falls. No, make that Okanagan Falls. I heard there’s tourist traps there, a Foamhenge and something called Mystery Manor, but saw a grand total of nada.”
   Jake slid a finger across the surface of his phone.

[That's the conclusion of Chapter 1, Part II. Twenty-one chapters to go.]

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Lynn Crosbie's 'Life is About Losing Everything'

   Discarded framing devices for a review of Lynn Crosbie’s "fantastical memoir," Life is About Losing Everything:
   i. "Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music. So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, button that top button, and get set"  —from “Difficult Listening Hour,” Laurie Anderson
   ii. "It's never clear if she's entirely in control, or just off her rocker"  —from an online review of a Tori Amos concert

   Reviews about some books virtually write themselves, the successes and shortcomings easily identified. Occasionally, though, a book comes along that resists the review writer's tried-and-true approaches and they need to formulate a new tack.
   Bizarrely unique (uniquely bizarre?), Life is About Losing Everything is one of them.

   For now, I'll re-purpose blurbs from the back cover a newly published and well-financed American novel:
   1. "...rich and nuanced..."? Check, in its own way;
   2. "Wise, timely, ripe with humor and complexity..."? Sometimes, yes, though "wise" and "timely" seem vague to the point of meaninglessness (how many foolish and untimely books are published);
   3. "...draws women's complex lives as brilliantly as Austen or Wharton or Woolf"? Hmm, okay, I can see that;
   4. "...characters so rich and nuanced, and situations so pitch-perfect..."? No to the former, yes to the latter;
   5. the author "has rare humanity, and talent great enough..."? Sure, but what does "rare humanity" even mean?;
   6. "Every minute I was away from this book I was longing to be back in the world she created..."? Yes and no; I enjoyed Life, absolutely, but for me, "longing" is a bit strong to describe my response to a book. I sometimes long for an almond croissant and other times long for a lost love. I can put a book down and return to it a week later; like the loyalist of dogs, I know it'll be waiting for me unchanged.

[The for-real review appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jake—Canuck or Yank (and Does it Matter)?

   A reader who did not care much for Location overall also didn't like Jake in particular; he wondered why I'd chosen to make Jake a Canadian (because, the reader said, Jake "seems American"). 
   At no point does the novel identify Jake's nationality (he grows up in a vaguely defined small town, attended and dropped out of a fairly non-specific university, and bailed on a work-study commerce co-op program with a company that has offices all over the world). And that means the reader assumed Jake's nationality rather than finding actual evidence indicating it. Never mind that.
   What interests me is the idea of a character that "seems American." Built into the comment therefore is the idea that Jake does not seem Canadian. Implied there too—I believe—is the notion that there are unique and set national characteristics—that, were we to line up a handful of people in a room and watch them interact (with no tell-tale accents to guide us), we'd quickly, easily, and accurately divide the room into American and Canadian.
   Jake is a self-serving dick for much of the novel. He takes what he wants because he believes that doing so is both his right and his prerogative. Are those qualities only seen south of the Canadian border? Doubtful. Conrad Black, anyone?
   The stereotype of Canadians being nice, polite, even-tempered, and unassuming (with Americans being loud, aggressive, arrogant, and self-righteous) is something that floats around—normally assumed and unchallenged—in daily life. Amongst other purposes, that moral high ground makes us feel good, superior even to the superpower a few kilometres away that dwarfs us. 
   A literature that accepts those mythic national qualities as an accurate reflection of reality—or as empirical fact—is to my mind being both lazy and propagandistic. 
   All Canadians as nice, fair, and even-tempered? Yes, Paul Bernardo and Robert Pickton clearly embody those legendary Canuck qualities. The Canadian as unassuming, the modest quiet cousin to the loud, life-of-the-party Yank? Right, just spend a half hour with the cast of The Real Housewives of Vancouver.