Thursday, 20 September 2012

Fiction Installment #32: (Part II, Ch 4, Jake) "Grunt Work"

 A Red Bull canister fell and clattered on the asphalt as Jake swung open the door. He tossed it into the pick-up’s empty bed. “Hey, Pig Pen,” he said, observing the litter—balled napkins and food wrappers lining the dash, empty energy drinks crowding the floor, and Styrofoam take-out strewn alongside water bottles on the bench seat. Nicos maintained the lustrous exterior of his vehicles with the anal-retentive standards of a military boot camp CO, but expressed a profound shift in philosophy for interiors. The weird split always struck Jake, who thought a mid-point between extremes seemed realistic, closer to cosmic balance; anyone comparing his desk and bedroom would notice matching tidiness levels.
    “Hey, boss, you know me. I like to nest.” Nicos swept discards to the floor and patted the seat. “Okay princess, now here’s a safe place for your hairy Royal Doulton ass.”
    Jake, bested by the subordinate’s rapid-fire brain, slid into position without a reply. Nicos revved the engine.
    “We ready to rock now?”
    “Go,” Jake said, relieved that the interior’s air-conditioner blew away any stench from Nicos’ putrefying snacks. As for the heavy smoker’s residue, he’d just man up about that and hold his tongue. He unlocked the phone and tapped out a message to Lora: “Tell me again, why’d we hire this guy!?!”
   A life-of-the-party personality, Nicos’ compulsion to talk ballooned exponentially when he’d passed long hours alone. Jake calculated that the Location Manager must have been solitary overnight in a motel and likely granted minimal contact during breakfast despite firm efforts at the quick fix of chatting up the waitress or diners at nearby tables. Sharing the cab now would not be too different from circulating in a room of desperate speed-daters eager to spill as many words as possible in their three-minute allotment of “Let me tell you all about me, please.” Stalling for time was possible, Jake could see, but texting work missives could grab only a few moments of privacy.
   Nicos’s mouth switched on as he shifted out of Park. “The compound’s not even ten kliks away,” he said, louder than necessary, “but the crash site is a fair bit of a haul. It’s out of the way for sure, but I figure the pay off is worth it. You’ll see. It blew me away, that’s for sure. A-f-ing-mazing, considering what we had to work with, anyway. It’s not exactly the Himalayas out there—it’s a fricking desert, well kind of a desert, technically the Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone, but everyone says Okanagan Desert—so finding a sheer mountain face was no small feat. I mean, c’mon, Christ, talk about unreasonable expectations. Dunes woulda been a cinch. Even CGI woulda been easier, way easier.” Nicos turned to face Jake, drawing attention to the sloping Bob Hope nose—another incongruous item for slow-day office speculation. “But I lucked in anyway, chatted up these hippie wannabe dudes on longboards and they told me about this retired gravel pit that I would never a found by looking at any map. Sometimes I’m pretty impressed with myself. Yeah, it’s a gift, that’s all I can say.”
    From past truck ride episodes, Jake was fully aware that Nicos could—and would—say much more. “Hold on a sec. I need to get this sent,” Jake said. He tapped the glass, scanning old online profile messages and photos and waited for Lora’s reply. Being on location and away from city amenities always made his testosterone levels spike, he’d swear. Hormonal torment: maybe the herbal pill magic had begun kicking in, after all.
   “So, you were saying there’s nothing closer, eh?” Jake said, no longer able to ignore Nicos’ swiveling head and quests for eye contact.
    “You saw the pictures, right?” Nicos turned to Jake again, expression obscured by shuttered mountaineering sunglasses. “There’s some hills with a few scattered rocks, right, but nothing epic as per orders.” Nicos flipped through a binder, steering with one hand. “Here it is. See, the list of requirements actually put in ‘grandeur’ a couple of times, so that’s what I looked for. Grandeur, Christ! And found, kinda sorta, you’ll see.” He detached the copy of the email and thrust the sheet toward Jake. “Anyway, the other option was way the hell over there in the sticks”—he thumbed southward—“and that would of pissed off everybody. All the talent pussy footing around and complaining would of been a sight, though. But the cost...killer. K-i-l-l-e-r. Not to mention the fact that we’d have to hire helicopters or a fleet of Humvees to access it. In no time we’d be hitting James Cameron territory with budget overruns. Hell to pay and all that, your head on a silver platter, the whole nine yards.”
    “Right,” Jake said, sending a second message: “The tide is rising.” Jake thought he’d let Nicos spew it all out. Like a baby, Nicos would tire eventually and maybe hit some kind of equilibrium after a painful few minutes of squalling. That strategy also worked when Hurricane Lora approached.
    Lora’s text opened with a smile emoticon: “With great power comes great responsibility. Reward him with a gold star and Good Luck!!! Rearranging YOUR schedule now so can’t talk. ttyl bitch!!” Jake smiled. Schadenfreude: he would have typed the same.
    Jake stared out the window while Nicos spoke, unconcerned about the failure to contribute. Nicos didn’t expect an exchange of sentence for sentence reciprocity; a second body created the necessary illusion of conversation.
    As the truck passed a barely there trailer park on a low sandy rise, Jake followed the abrupt change to greenery, a hand-planted oasis promising reassurance in an otherwise unaccommodating—though harshly striking—environment. In place of imposing barren rock outcrops and the invariable parched grass plains between them grew countless trees—vibrant, groomed, and healthy, a domesticated wilderness planted in fertile, easy-access grids. The layout appeared ingenious in its efficiency, but unlike the cold brutality of an auto plant, the orchards and their fluttering summer grace invited attention. Jake foresaw entranced drivers slowing and pulling over, eventually giving in to the desire to stroll around the luminous unthreatening forest, blithely setting aside the important lessons about the malevolence that awaits in stands of trees learned by Hansel and Gretel or those doomed kids in The Blair Witch Project. And that duo from the bible too.
   Jake made a mental note to wander through a few rows before the shoot wrapped, ideally during the weak light at sunrise or sunset. A roadside sign—“U-pik fruit”—offered a handy solution to the trespassing problem.

 [Part 3 of 6 of this chapter.]

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Tamas Dobozy's 'Siege 13'

   Personal bias and plain ol' prejudice always come into play when picking out what to read. Given a choice—a novel set on a cold, wet, and bloody battlefield during WWII and one involving dragons and magical amulets and a wicked king, for instance—I'd probably opt for reruns of The Simpsons or American Dad, since neither of those literary genres ordinarily gets my heart racing.
   I felt a bit apprehensive, then, at the prospect of not just one but thirteen linked short stories centred on the Siege of Budapest in 1944. This dread, despite the fact that I'd read, reviewed, taught (and both enjoyed and respected) Dobozy's last short story collection (2005's Last Notes). Maybe August was telling me to take in the remaining fine weather and enjoy my bumper crop of nasturtiums (now either aphid-coated or withered), but angst and starvation and brutality and rape and death, death, death had about as much appeal to me as a meal of haggis. 
   One story in, my reluctance vanished. First, that opening story is set in roughly contemporary New York City. Secondly, it features plenty of the deadpan humour I've noticed American book reviewers use to describe Dobozy's work. While Hungary and WWII are hardly absent in the story (they're central to it in many ways), they're utilized subtly, since part of the story's interest is the relationship between the past and present (and our inability to wholly understand that past, a theme hit upon in "Tales of Hungarian Resistance," a terrific piece from Last Notes). Of the remaining stories a few are set in Budapest in 1944, and the rest feature war survivors who fled to North America (with mounds of baggage, naturally), or else their descendents.
   There is rape and brutality and death, death, death in Siege 13. And many characters seem quite awful, even decades past the Siege. There's also a great deal of lingering resentment (basing your understanding of the Hungarian temperament on Dobozy's stories, you'd be inclined to believe you'd find intractable molecules of it—along with grief, trauma, anger, and despair—in each of their cells). The collection by no means offers an ebullient, life's-a-banquet philosophy. The complexity of the stories (even when they're seemingly direct slice-of-life episodes) requires a puzzle-solving state of mind and the perspective in them seems tinged with sadness (or hopelessness) about humanity's colossal follies and affinity for foolish, selfish choices.
   Alongside that tour through corridors of misery, Dobozy throws in welcome bits of humour, of outright magical weirdness, and fable-like storytelling that's inspired and inspiring. And in refusing to tie together each story neatly, he leaves you with intriguing images, connections, and mysteries that encourage you to turn back fifteen pages and begin again.

[My review of Siege 13 appears in the National Post.]

Friday, 14 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Candace Savage's 'A Geography of Blood'

   After a stint of teaching Honda execs, affluent housewives, and USA-bound university students in Tokyo, and then travelling eastward (from Koh Chang in southeastern Thailand by fishing boat to Jaisalmer in northwestern India by train), I arrived home in Victoria, where an unfinished university degree and Profound Questions About My Future awaited me.
   My then boyfriend, who'd taught in the same school with me in the ritzy Aoyama district of Tokyo but could not ultimately bear living in such a crowded and consumeristic metropolis, had returned much earlier to Canada and decided to settle halfway between the city he'd left (Victoria) and the one he'd grown up in (Windsor). He chose Saskatoon. 
   Probably quite happy to continue avoiding Profound Questions About My Future, I spent the summer with him. Until that point the furthest east I'd been inside Canada was Calgary. My prejudiced expectations about Saskatchewan were founded on tried-and-true images familiar to all Canadians: immense fields, long straight roads that eventually merged with the horizon, infinitely boring flatness. (Though "flyover states" is a dismissive American concept invented to distinguish east coast and west coast cultural meccas from the supposedly inferior middle, I'll bet that there's an analogous idea that applies to Canadian attitudes toward prairie provinces.)

   That July and August we drove around the province in a finicky, backfiring emerald green VW pickup (from the Flower Power era) that ran fairly well on highways but tended to stall at intersections (at which point I—the non-driver—would have to get out, run to the rear, and heave the beast forward until the engine finally turned). To this day I harbour no love for that vehicle. 
   Besides the heat, what struck me most about the prairie countryside was the vast emptiness. Between huge parcels of cultivated land we'd pass by an occasional truck or tractor. We saw few people and even less wildlife.

   When I returned later that year, the situation had changed: compared to Victoria, December weather in Saskatoon had demands: "Brace yourself," it seemed to say, "and prepare to submit." We drove away from the city one night and at a point where the city lights were no longer visible we pulled over and walked into a field of grain stubble and snow drifts. If that moment of being so little, so absolutely insignificant didn't exactly precipitate an existential crisis, it did manage to violently shake my sense of confidence about my pivotal centrality. (Okay, okay, that I'm writing a blog and have established a career of teaching in classrooms might indicate to that once this moment passed, I rebounded quickly and returned to my usual sense of self-worth!)

   Where is Candace Savage's book in all this paean to self-absorption, you may be asking. Well, it's here. During my prairie summer, we visited the southern edges of the province. My sense then was not much different than the expectations I'd arrived with months earlier: I, a bit bored of wheat fields, and fond of sea and mountains and coniferous forests, saw emptiness, flatness, vastness. Such was my sad creativity then that I didn't bother to envision this place in another epoch. It looked as though the landscape was eternal, so I assumed that was the case.
   One of the terrific aspects of Savage's book (and the sentence construction is meant to imply that there are several terrific aspects to the book) is that through her accounts of wandering near her second home in Eastend, she makes the reader who holds that commonplace view of the prairies (re: emptiness, flatness, vastness) understand the falseness of the impression. 
   Digging around, and visiting seemingly unremarkable lakes or piles of rock and then talking of their history, she manages to repopulate the area with the thriving cultures and dynamic ecosystems that existed there for millennia; she draws attention to the immeasurable loss that resulted from the arrival of European settlers and, well, capitalist enterprise. 
   Savage's book provides the best kind of education: you fully enjoy the experience and walk away not only with an alternate view of your reality but an openness to ponder the significance of your newly acquired insight.

[My review appears in the Globe and Mail.]

Monday, 10 September 2012

Fiction Installment #31: (Part II, Ch 4, Jake) "Grunt Work"

    Jake re-read an old delivery from Exconfessio he’d been scanning during the call.
   Ex A.W. (Vancouver, BC)—
   1. I pissed on my ex-boyfriend’s new female roommate’s bed before I moved out.
   2. I put dog shit under some asshole’s car door handle (he he he).
   3. I threw dog shit at my neighbour’s house.
   4. I rubbed my ex’s mom’s hand mirror all over my snatch and asshole before returning it.
   5. I hate women who either marry into money or inherit money and have a nanny to take
    care of their kids five days a week so they can go to the gym (cunts).
   6. I hate men that comment on how great of shape these bitches are in.
   7. I’m a bitch and an asshole driver.

   Jake figured that the final admission counted as two, technically. He deleted the staggeringly vindictive message—he believed in an absolute line between titillating misbehaviour and non-stop ugliness—and emptied the computer’s trash. Today’s confessor sounded dire; the poisonous admitted bitch looked like a juggernaut of trouble from the Fatal Attraction school and gave nothing to savour, only depressing, mouth-puckering bitterness.
   Jake saved the lively confessions and revisited them in the same way as he imagined other people turned to a newspaper’s Daily Smile quotation with its tacky retro humour—“What is practical nursing? Falling in love with a rich patient!”—and kept each of the miniature episodes archived and ordered (and, when restless, reordered too: “I would be happy to handicap any able bodied person who imagines they have a right to park in the handicapped parking spot” recently losing priority status to “When I worked in an unsupervised position at my current job, I would do things like take off to the casino for hours and smoke a joint on the way”). Intoxicating snippets from the lives of strangers, they never lost their caustic zing. Stitched together, the scenes would make for an awesome, unsettling movie.
    The envy-consumed turd handler, though, merely stood out as an unpleasant reminder of how awful and twisted people could grow. The woman—or a guy text-transvestite: Exconfessio made no claims to verify the legitimacy of the confessor, and Jake had read many supposed admissions that triggered suspicion about the writer’s true motivation and real identity since guilt or braggadocio seemed beside the point—reminded him of the coffee mug of Mick, his second boss in the industry: “Yeah, I’m an Asshole. Just Try Me.” Though forthright the mug’s honesty didn’t compensate for hours spent under the unbearable man’s hairy thumb. At least, Jake hoped, he’d never meet this scheming malevolent creature face to face. He felt leery of anyone who acted like an asshole and patted himself on the back for possessing brutal directness. Such wastes of space made his sac contract tight. Cruelty dressed up as courage: another performance the world could get by without.
    Jeremy had sent just one bit of trivia. A slow week, Jake guessed.
    The subject line: “FW: ‘Roid rage?”
   “Muscled Pumped and Raging - 38
   I’m a ripped, very well muscled guy looking for other muscular guys only! If you’re fat, fuck off! If you’re soft and flabby, fuck off! If you’re thin and don’t work out, fuck off! I’m only interested in other guys with the mojo to dedicate themselves to work out and invest in what they have. If you have the cojones to not be offended by this ad, then I’d like to hear from you.”

    Jake thought he might have seen this hulking tool at the gym, fatuous and infantile in his unending self-absorption. He imagined the swaggering testosterone worshipper trapped in an elevator with the hateful could-be hag from Exconfessio. It’d be a caged death match for sure, bloody, despicable, and no-holds-barred—Japanese fighting fish in a puny tank but substantially less graceful.
    “Hey, Jake your chariot awaits,” Lora yelled from the kitchen. “Jake?” His phone gonged seconds later: “Hey, did you hear me?”
    “I’m on it, panic button,” Jake said. “What’s up with you, anyway? Did you forget to take your meds this morning?”
    “You know I take them religiously,” Lora said. “‘A centred worker is a productive worker.’”
    “Man oh man, I wished you’d never taken that seminar. Motivational speakers are just cult leaders minus the polyester suits. It’s best to avoid contact with them. Besides, the whole deal was probably underwritten by PharmaGen BioLabs as a cheap human trial experiment. You sound like you’re about ready for the grape Kool Aid. Hello?” Jake spoke to a dead line.
    “We’ve been over this, Jake.” Lora stood glowering at the doorframe. “We all have our crutches, mister one night stand.”
    Jake related anecdotes from time to time during morning lulls at the office. He selected bits cautiously, an educated guess being that if Lora—for whom going braless would be a tour-though-the-wild-side act of sexual bravado and who grew pursed and distant whenever he used the word monagony and visibly unsettled the one time he had in the spirit of earnest but jokey disclosure categorized himself as trysexual—discovered that she had been exposed to the iceberg’s mere tip, she’d be appalled (low probability), astonished (high probability), or merciless as Ming with jibbing (100% certainty).
    Lora embraced the rare poetry of birds that mate for life. Her visionary’s third eye wide open, she’d call for the looming conclusion of Jake’s galavanting; the stars predicted it plain as day. And he’d be wise to prepare for the moment true adulthood began. “Your horoscopes have been making that claim for years, woman,” Jake always replied, “time to find a better system. Tea leaves maybe. Tarot cards.”
    “Okay, okay, touché, Madame.” He stood. “I should get out there or Nicos won’t shut up about it. I’ll call from the second site and we’ll get a game plan in order for the afternoon.”
    He disconnected the laptop and pulled open a drawer. The tussle with Lora reminded him about his own daily regimen. He grabbed two chubby capsules from the messenger bag and washed them down. He’d been assured by the natural pharmacist that the arginine, tongkat ali, and catuaba bark combo added up to a “surefire male enhancement.” On a whim, he’d also bought a year’s supply of Enzyte after catching ads on TV promising suburban guys that they’d be walking hard-ons, the envy of all the other Joes on Pine Crescent and secret wish for the unfulfilled Janes.
    While the vision of a pill-popping middle age drew his breath short, the strong throb of a lower centre of gravity possessed supreme appeal. As with in-your-face D-cup cleavage, Jake found a too visible big package to be crass but unnerving provocation: people typically stared and turned away nervously, primly judging the display to be crude while helplessly responding to the voluptuous contour over and again, animal instincts triggering a gush of saliva and compelling them to bend over and take a sniff, or else cop a feel.
    Jake had used up half the pill supply. Each day he swallowed the doses half-heartedly: he hadn’t noticed the constant hum of enhanced vigor or suffered terrible side effects; he figured there must be something to them. Even placebos yielded positive results, everyone understood that.
    Knees, heart, hair, career, looks, sex appeal, good fortune: anything is a feeble house of cards that can collapse into a heap at any moment. Years ago Jake had shared philosophy over beers with Randall, the accountant Warner Brothers had sent to supervise the weekly budgets of a superhero series, the studio’s globally syndicated moneymaker. Jake’s senior by a half a decade, the man spoke as a war-weary veteran: “You know what, man, one day you wake up and you notice your skin. It’s different, looser, like the elastic waist of old underwear. Sagging steadily and then, I guess, just gone. Bibs and diapers at Sunset Manor creeping nearer every day.” When Jake attempted to counter the accountant’s fatalism, Randall had brushed the logic aside as smoke and mirrors, the fruit of inexperience: “Come talk to me when you reach my age.” You can keep your resignation, Jake had thought, viewing such passivity as a fatal character flaw.
   He tugged at the legs of his jeans and passed by Lora. Spillage: going full commando with low-hangers could be painful. “Oh, where’s good coffee?” he asked.
“Working, Jake,” she said, “working.”
    Outside, Nicos sounded the horn at the impatient regular intervals of a New York City cabbie sent over from Central Casting. “You’d better run,” Lora said. “Christ, any minute now a representative of Oliver’s finest might show up here waving a badge. Say hi to Nicos for me. And Jake?”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying my Christmas present, really, and I know you like to smell pretty, but we could all live happier here with you applying one less splash of Terre in the morning.”
“Okay, ma’am.” Although firm, Lora’s mothering was well intended.
    “Talk to you soon.”

[Part 2 of 6, "Grunt Work"]

Friday, 7 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Zadie Smith's 'NW'

   I finished reading NW a week before the London 2012 opening ceremony, and now I'm left with impressions (as Walter Pater called them back in the day) rather than a strong sense of plot or clear emotional response to the story Zadie Smith unfolds. While the seeming failure of detailed memory in this case might be related to this (aging) or that (recreational after-class activities during university), I'm inclined to believe that this circumstance closely relates to Smith's storytelling. And that leads me to my first impression.

   Like one of the Fringe performances in which the actor takes on The Ten Commandments or King Lear in twenty minutes and by himself, NW is, um, memorable for Smith's literary exertions: each of the novel's five sections is structured and narrated quite differently; the longest segment contains 184 chapters, some of which are as short as a single sentence. Representing the thoughts, actions, and memories of one character, these brief chapterettes (I suppose) attempt to capture on paper the way we go through life: a phone call followed by a brief conversation with a colleague, followed by a memory, followed by a random thought, followed by an errand during which we notice a beggar on the street and run into an acquaintance and remember to send an email and then text a friend to remind her we're meeting for lunch... 
   As true to life as that may be, as narrative (or narrative bits, I guess) that much trivial detail spread out  over so many pages is exceptional difficult to hold as a coherent unit. Smith may be intending exactly that, but just as watching 184 YouTube clips in which cats play musical instruments, at a certain point the mind slows, unable to distinguish one from the next and unable to comprehend what it all means

   My second impression branches from my first: to me, Smith's visible-on-every-page technique overshadows her story, its characters, and their plights. As with the Fringe performer analogy, the supposed virtuosity of the guy's rapid costume switches and instantaneous vocal shifts (now God, now Moses, now Rameses, now Nefretiri) is what ultimately attracts most of the attention. 
   As one of NW's readers I ended up thinking about her writing strategies, puzzling about the success or efficacy of those choices, and wondering about questions of textually representing contemporary reality. While those ideas are interesting in themselves, they seem to belong to an essay: "Writing the Metropolis Circa 2012: Speculations on Contemporary Narration." In foregrounding her technique and her writing talent, though, Smith seems to me to do a disservice to the core aspect of her writing project: her characters and the crises of existence they must face.

   The novel's reviews have been strangely divisive (from "clunky" and "predictable to the extreme" to "falls so far short of being a successful novel" to "a joyous, optimistic, angry masterpiece, and no better English novel will be published this year, or, probably, next"), and if nothing else that tells me other reviewers are struggling to make sense of its qualities—which might also mean it's a dazzling experimental performances whose brilliance can confound lesser readers, or an impressive experiment that didn't really work out as expected.

[My review, the proper one, appears in the Vancouver Sun.]

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—John Vigna's 'Bull Head'

   ...and while on the topic of Lives of Girls and Women, that book's epilogue features Del Jordan's recollection of her unlovable home town, and as far as the story is concerned it's the final glimpse and Del's closing thoughts. Amongst other things, the epilogue draws a distinction between Del as a young artist and the narrating Del who is, Munro implies, maturer and somehow a truer artist. She's looking back at the town where she was born and also at her younger, less knowing self.
   In limbo between finishing high school and beginning the rest of her life, Del plans to write a novel that's vengeful in the sense that she imagines converting Jubilee and its citizens into a gallery of grotesques. Her parting gift, then, will be to satirically pillory the very place whose values restricted and oppressed her.
   She doesn't write that book, of course. Munro suggests that young Del's motivations are suspect and petty, and that the book (had it been written) would have been deeply flawed because it sought to judge and condemn rather than explore and understand. 
    In a roundabout way, Munro seems to be presenting a moral/aesthetic preference in this epilogue, hinting that in her view (circa 1970) a better kind of art is produced when the artist lays aside hurts feelings or a desire to mock or ridicule those they feel frightened or hurt by.
   The model of realism Munro promotes here is of course merely one model for fiction. And while Del appears to champion it as the vision of artistic maturity and fullness (satire, comedy, and absurdism, then, become inferior literary modes since their principal goal is not a questing and all-encompassing representation of actuality), she's one character in one work of fiction, and so her philosophy of aesthetics and the tie to artistic integrity sit there on the page, intriguing ideas to consider.

   Munro's model returned to mind last year when I read D.W. Wilson's Once You Break a Knuckle, in part because London-based Wilson's depiction of Invermere, his hometown, reminded me of the book the younger Del choose against writing. (Also, part of my personal distaste for the stories came from not appreciating the macho heterosexual white guys and what I perceived as the author's romantic valorising of their guns/trucks/fists/booze worldview; I grew up in small towns and saw enough of that brutality to understand the wisdom of fearing it.) More importantly, I felt like Wilson gave Invermere (its cultures, its people) short shrift: as a reader I wanted to learn about the breadth of the place being depicted, and with Knuckle it seemed that the author had narrowed his focus to a single kind of character at the expense of all others.

   There are striking similarities between Knuckle and John Vigna's Bull Head, a collection of stories set in a remote British Columbia town not far from Invermere. Vigna also focusses on hard drinking heterosexual guys who are prone to fighting and struggling in their relationships with women (when they have them at all). Gun and trucks appear regularly too.
   And like Wilson, Vigna's view of his small town prefers to observe hard-luck men who hang out at a stripper bar or in taverns, shoot guns, quarrel, and so on.
   And after two or three such stories my personal response was, "Okay, enough with these guys. They're pathetic and uninteresting. What's happening in the rest of the town? Surely not everyone is an alcoholic, a stripper, or a prostitute? Isn't anyone happy? Where's the diversity of human experience and endeavour?"
   Although I understand and to a degree appreciate Vigna's aesthetic choice (just as I understand and appreciate—kinda, sorta—the numerous scions of the Vancouver School of photography who take picture after picture of ugly suburban tear downs, gaping pits from which condos will soon sprout, and concrete overpasses), as an urban reader with an interest in rural living I would have appreciated knowing/seeing more about the layers of the place and the kinds of people who live there (and their stories) rather than witnessing a single stratum of a masculine type whose limited options all seem to involve the same few choices.

 [The above is blog musing. The proper review appears in the Globe and Mail.
Pre-editor, the version I wrote began like this—

    Slightly over a 200km drive southeast from Invermere—an isolated settlement in which, according to the cautionary stories of D.W. Wilson’s Once You Break a Knuckle, the natural condition of mankind is still solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish (though not necessarily short)—stands Fernie (pop. 5,200), a coal mining town in BC’s Elk Valley that has lately gained favour for proximity to a ski resort.
    The eight stories of Bull Head, John Vigna’s debut collection, are set in a place roughly equivalent to Fernie. Like London-based Wilson, Vancouver resident Vigna’s country-noir vision of rural existence emphasizes dire violent bleakness. Here, apparently, opportunities are few and far between, happiness rarer than platinum (and quickly lost), and anesthetizing alcohol the widely swallowed poison of choice. Though there’s less manly rifle-firing and macho posturing in Vigna’s fictionalized Fernie, the town’s misery level suggests a twin separated at birth from Wilson’s Invermere. ]

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Cordelia Strube's 'Milosz'

   Besides being as perfect as possible for a collection of linked short stories to be, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women has proven terrific for lit classes because students relate well to Del Jordan's experiences and perspectives and because Munro's handles coming of age themes—identity, death, spirituality, sexuality, individuation—with such impressive, complex depth.
   Still, for some students the book reads as historical fiction since it (published in 1971) speaks of small town life fifty years before they were born.
   From their POV the period is so remote they may as well be reading Jane Austen. A contemporary coming of age novel (that works well in the classroom) has resulted in a number of one-offs for me: novels I thought incisive and engrossing (and criminally underappreciated: such as Lynn Crosbie's Dorothy L'Amour and R.M. Vaughan's Spells) overwhelmed students (too much violence, too much literariness, ao much negativity). While others, like Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, Andre Alexis' Childhood, George Elliott Clarke's George and Rue, and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony fit well in CanLit classes, the quest for a suitable contemporary pairing for Munro continued.

   Lemon was Cordelia Strube's eighth novel, and I'd managed to altogether miss it and the previous seven (re: lots of books, not lots of time). The story of an articulate and bright high school student in contemporary Ontario, Strube's novel caught my eye one day while coming up with the course texts for a second-year CanLit class. Just past midpoint I put the novel down, halfheartedly promising to return to its depressing setting (I mean notably depressing for Canadian literature, and that's saying something). I could say I got busy with other projects, but the truth is I didn't really like it and felt that spending more time on its relentlessly grim outlook was less desirable than, say, going on a bike ride or caring for the aphid-plagued plants on my balcony.

  For her latest novel, Strube takes apparent pleasure in flirting with comedy of the absurd as well as with romantic comedy. Its protagonist is a colossally failed everyman actor (it may be possible to read the novel without thinking of Dustin Hoffman early in Tootsie or Kevin Klein performing Death of a Salesman in Soapdish, but I found it a challenge) whose life generates mess on nearly every level. Strube never completely abandons her pessimistic views of humanity and historical progress, but the levity throughout infuses the story with a welcome lightness of touch and a sense that even though humanity and the earth are constantly sliding toward ruin, the movement isn't inevitable, not necessarily.

[My better composed review appears online in The Winnipeg Review.]