Alexander MacLeod's debut collection of short fiction, drawn from 15 years of writing for literary magazines in Canada, tempts you to indulge in the kAlexander MacLeod's debut collection of short fiction, drawn from 15 years of writing for literary magazines in Canada, tempts you to indulge in the kind of superlatives that might be counterproductive in the age of hype; just how brilliant can it really be? Well, pretty damn brilliant, actually. Among the seven longish stories that make up this collection, there is not a single misstep. This book is that good.
These stories lead in one direction, dart down a side alley, and then return to themselves, without any bad welds or weak seams to give away their construction. "Number Three" erects the Chrysler minivan as a mythic object, while exploring the consequences of a devastating accident; "Adult Beginner I" finds teenaged lifeguards diving into the Detroit River from the roof of the Holiday Inn, as a swimmer goes out of her depth; and "Wonder About Parents" encapsulates, in staccato prose, the strange intimacies of parenthood. "Good Boys," an apparently simple story about four brothers and the kid across the street, manages to be both funny and moving while avoiding any form of predictability.
How Insensitive, as it follows the travails of a young man in the big city, wandering drunkenly from one party to the next, meeting models, and so on,How Insensitive, as it follows the travails of a young man in the big city, wandering drunkenly from one party to the next, meeting models, and so on, all in the early 1990s, reminded me strongly of Jay McInerney. Except that, I hasten to add, it reminded me of Jay McInerney when Jay McInerney was good. That is, the McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City, not the disappointing McInerney of Brightness Falls and then The Good Life.
I hasten to that particular clarification because, unlike the later McInerney, whose pages are clogged with exposition and whose prose is often simply mundane, Russell Smith’s sentences crackle along. His dialogue is good and he never succumbs to the urge to go back and explain things for the sake of the dopey reader. How Insensitive is sharp and funny, and its nomination for the GG was well deserved.
So I find myself wondering why McInerney became a big success, while Smith remains, in the class photo of Canadian novelists, in the second row, behind Atwood and Ondaatje and all the other popular kids, but in front of Whatshername and Whothehellisthat. It’s certainly not for lack of a good book....more
Century successfully navigates that tricky territory between the conventional and the inaccessible, demanding the reader’s full attention, and rewardiCentury successfully navigates that tricky territory between the conventional and the inaccessible, demanding the reader’s full attention, and rewarding it, while retaining enough mystery to sustain, I expect, many readings. You continually detect movement in your peripheral vision, things you can’t quite spot, no matter how quickly you turn your head. When, halfway through a novel, you find yourself thinking that, man, you just gotta re-read this thing at least once, well, that’s a damn good book.
How to approach it? Century, in essence, explores familiar territory in an unfamiliar way. Yes, this is a Canadian novel: a multigenerational saga that follows the repeated tragedies of a single family, whose women keep kicking the bucket against the sweeping backdrop of history. Of a century, in fact. Oh, it’s not quite canonical Canlit; it lacks a prairie landscape, wendigoes, and snow – but these are mere quibbles. The story, if you like, is conventional.
The storytelling is anything but. The timeline moves back, rather than forward, so the story is necessarily discontinuous, more so because Smith obscures the relationships between the characters. Names are not often mentioned; it is easy to miss who is whose parent, who is whose doomed daughter. Smith follows the family tree back through the generations without leaving a map. Each chapter is a jump cut; one does not lead back to the next, and consequently, one feels that they are separate stories.
But they aren’t. Patterns of behaviour and the concerns of the characters repeat themselves back through the generations. The sins of the parents are visited on their children; the same personal failures play themselves out again and again, to the point that you want to re-read the book just to see how the last chapter may play out in the first, in ways that perhaps you initially failed to recognize. This is, then, a single, unified narrative, not a collection of stories; it simply refuses to play itself out in the way we expect.
Henry James said that the only obligation of a novel was to be interesting. This one is fascinating.
Eleven tirelessly inventive stories and a novella; each has a certain flourish, a sense that the author is saying, "watch what I bust loose on ya thisEleven tirelessly inventive stories and a novella; each has a certain flourish, a sense that the author is saying, "watch what I bust loose on ya this time," and it never grows old or seems contrived.
Magic realism in the short story, unless executed at a high level, often seems to be nothing but a gimmick adopted to relieve a writer of the chore of creating interest in a straightforward, realist narrative. It declares the story's originality with a blast of trumpets, shouts, "look at me, I am new." This is, no doubt, why it has become a staple of our little magazines. But there is no such cheap trickery here.
Rooke's stories are above all vocal performances; they're about voice. This is most obvious in the dialect-soaked novella, "Gator Wrestling"; at first, getting past the dialect is challenging, but then you adapt. And it offers up gems like this: In Prissy's estimation Ganger was a boy of weirdly morbid and demented disposition. He was gravely barbecued in the belfry. Not only barbecued, but gravely so, and in the belfry no less. Rooke, in this novella, invents his own idiom.
Standout stories in this volume include the hilarious "How to Write a Successful Short Story," in which a novice writer sits down to do just that, "Lamplighter Bridegroom 360," which proceeds not from character-with-problem but from the reader's curiosity as to what the heck is going on, and "The Last Shot," which won the CBC Literary Award.
This is simply one of the best recent short story collections I've run across; Pasha Malla's voice is so assured, his technique so polished, that youThis is simply one of the best recent short story collections I've run across; Pasha Malla's voice is so assured, his technique so polished, that you have to expect he'll become a major figure of the next wave of Canadian writers.
Some of these stories, particularly "Being Like Bulls," in which Niagara Falls has dried up, rely on the magical. Some , like "Long Short Short Long," are entirely realist. Most are character-driven; some ("A Film We Made About Dads") are not. All are strong.
Employees of a big-box bookstore band together to combat bad taste in books, and its avatar, one Monroe Purvis, a talk show host who uses his book cluEmployees of a big-box bookstore band together to combat bad taste in books, and its avatar, one Monroe Purvis, a talk show host who uses his book club (and publishing company) to promote utterly vacuous books; hilarity ensues.
Shelf Monkey is both fun and funny. The fun is in Redekop's continual allusions and borrowings -- you will have to be fearsomely well read to spot them all, and I'm sure I missed many. and the funny, of course, is in his razor-sharp satire of an age where art is "content," to be sold as so much sausage filling.
It's tempting to see Monroe Purvis as a stab at Oprah Winfrey, but he's more than that. Oprah, as even Monroe Purvis points out, actually reads some good books; she's used her position to encourage people to read Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Carson McCullers, among others. Purvis is something else again. His publishing company churns out what you might call literary anti-matter, unredeemably vile books dripping with contempt not only for their readers, but for reading itself.
Shelf Monkey is a quick, light read, but not one that you'll easily forget....more
A must read if you're interested in literary fiction in Canada.
John Metcalf is unknown to the wide reading public, but he is arguably one of the mostA must read if you're interested in literary fiction in Canada.
John Metcalf is unknown to the wide reading public, but he is arguably one of the most important figures in Canadian writing post-1960. In short, he has tirelessly promoted the short story in Canada through anthologies, launching series (such as Best Canadian Stories and Coming Attractions) which continue to this day, and he has helped to launch the careers of innumerable writers. If Canada is deemed to excel at the short story (as some say we do), then Metcalf deserves a large slice of the credit.
At the same time, he's made himself unpopular by adopting controversial positions, and then arguing them in terms that are at times more colourful than accurate. He'll adopt positions so extreme at times that he can't help contradicting himself: having asserted that Canadian literature sucks absolutely, he'll then praise the work of dozens of writers. Metcalf loves rhetoric; some people, I think, fail to see this.
An Aesthetic Underground is a must-read; you don't have to agree with Metcalf, but he'll make you think seriously about important questions....more
This book carries an ambitious title, but it's something of a mish-mash, much of it reprinted from other sources. At its best, it's brilliant, but inThis book carries an ambitious title, but it's something of a mish-mash, much of it reprinted from other sources. At its best, it's brilliant, but in places, it's a little dated.
Consider Ray Smith, complaining about realist stories in "Dinosaur": "it was useful thirty, forty years ago." Smith criticizes writers adhering to a convention forty years out of date, and points to some newer writers:
"Some big dogs in speculative fiction: Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov. Coming big dog: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Prominent younger dogs: Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan."
Say, who is this Pynchon guy, anyway? It's now that you check and discover that this essay dates from 1972; within a few years, Brautigan would be written off (unfairly) as an anachronism. The irony is, of course, that a reader adopting Smith's stance today, in 2009, would be adhering to a convention thirty-seven years out of date. And thirty-seven is perilously close to forty. This is a history lesson.
But there are also some real gems here. "The Same Ticking Clock" by Carol Shields lucidly addresses the ever-popular controversy of gender. "What is Style?" by Mavis Gallant gets right to the point. Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings" is, of course, well known. And "Soaping a Meditative Foot," "Punctuation as Score" and "That Damn Clock Again" by John Metcalf are indispensable -- Metcalf is one of the collection's most lucid voices....more
Rawi Hage has said that he writes without a plan. He's not one for detailed outlines; instead, he writes himself into a situation and then turns arounRawi Hage has said that he writes without a plan. He's not one for detailed outlines; instead, he writes himself into a situation and then turns around and writes his way back out of it. And this approach is evident in his novels.
De Niro's Game was a two-part novel in three parts: Hage seemed not to notice that he had already reached a plausible conclusion, and tacked on a contrived plot to bring things to a close. And it felt contrived, improbable, implausible, as we went from being just some kid getting by in the violent streets of civil-war Beirut to dealing with Mossad agents in Paris.
Hage has the same problem here. Having evoked a wonderful character who is simply struggling to get from one day to the next as an unemployed (or barely employed) immigrant in the dead of a Montreal winter, he runs out of ideas and moves us into a revenge plot with diplomats and bodyguards and former torturers. It's all rather improbable; if this were the immigrant experience in Canada, we'd all be stepping over bodies in the streets.
(Equally improbable is the sexual prowess of Hage's characters; no matter how old and crusty their socks, no matter how unwashed they may be, Hage's protagonists never find difficulty in seducing women. But I digress.)
But ... Hage is nonetheless an impressive writer, an original voice with a sharp, observant eye. In Cockroach, he reigns in the worst excesses of his style -- a tendency to unleash torrents of cascading images that overwhelm the page -- and writes in a more restrained, mature way. It's as if, with the first novel out of the way, he no longer feels the need to pull out all the stops, and Cockroach is a consistently better-written book than De Niro's Game. Whatever the flaws of Hage's plotting, anything he writes remains worth reading....more
Aaron Rosclatt, alternately drunk and hung over, attempts to navigate his final year of university, while on the home front his family drifts from oneAaron Rosclatt, alternately drunk and hung over, attempts to navigate his final year of university, while on the home front his family drifts from one crisis to the next. Said crises provide the reader some sorely needed relief from Aaron's solipsism.
The Entropy of Aaron Rosclatt is, quoth the jacket copy, “a novel about the confrontation of youth's crisp idealism with reality.” True, that, although perhaps not in the intended sense; it's not Aaron Rosclatt's collision with reality that's recorded here, but the author's. James Sandham runs full tilt into the gap between idea and execution, and the collision isn't pretty.
Sandham does have a story here. Characters develop and grow. Aaron confronts the gap between his hopes and his fate, a gap exemplified in his name: Aaron, meaning “exalted,” paired with Rosclatt, apparently derived from “ras clot,” a swear word in Jamaican patois meaning a used menstrual pad. There is intelligence at work here. But ambition alone isn't enough; you need to execute.
The novel is laid low by the weakness of Sandham's characterization, and the filler that chokes the story. It begins slowly, and Aaron's geographical distance from the action – he's away at school, and the crisis is at home – hobbles it from the starting blocks.
Characters here are mostly lumpen objects that omit occasional spurts of dialogue. For depth, Sandham substitutes outlandishness; his grandmother, for example, is a drunk surrounded by cats and geriatric Lotharios, but possesses no real humanity.
Throughout, Sandham shows little appreciation for dialogue as a tool of characterization. Instead, it is either empty, or worse, expository. Too often, Aaron's conversations seem to be recorded only to tell us what has happened offstage, where most of the early action takes place.
It's not just the characters that develop slowly; nothing much happens until Aaron's first visit home, in chapter five. Too many pages are devoted to Aaron's drinking and drug use, and his ensuing hangovers, which continue long after the reader gets the point.
The novel's most critical fault, though, is the thoroughly muddled development of its protagonist. It's difficult to get at “the confrontation of youth's crisp idealism with reality” when the youth in question decries idealism on the second page of chapter one, saying, “I'd been at school long enough at this point to understand ideals are nothing outside our own minds.”
Aaron possesses no crisp ideals, only an unearned cynicism, through the lens of which everything sucks. He shows little ambition; his occasional references to career plans are lost in the continual hangovers. Aaron doesn't fall into entropy here; he muddles through it for some 200 pages, and a reader is unlikely to follow....more
About halfway through this collection I scribbled in my notebook, "maybe Canadian writers excel at the short story simply b/c the gloom of Canlit is mAbout halfway through this collection I scribbled in my notebook, "maybe Canadian writers excel at the short story simply b/c the gloom of Canlit is most easily digested in small lumps."
That's not entirely fair to Canlit or to Norman Levine, but it does illustrate one problem with this collection, the unrelieved gloom that hangs over many of the stories. It isn't the stories themselves that begin to bury you, it's the fact that they're served up one after another, piled up like so much late February snow.
The arrangement of the stories doesn't help. They're grouped more or less chronologically as an overview of Levine's career. Levine's continual use of first-person narrators, the autobiographical basis of his writing, and the surface simplicity of his prose combine poorly with this arrangement; you stop reading the stories as independent, self-contained stories, and they begin to blur together like chapters of a novel that actually doesn't exist. (Note that the Amazon.com description illustrates this very problem, ascribing all the stories to a single narrator.) The collection robs the stories of their individual impact.
Levine's stories need to be approached slowly and singly. This is an excellent collection, but it is one to dip into occasionally, not to read en masse....more
Minor-league hockey goon Bobby Bonaduce discovers he has MS and returns to Fredericton, hoping for one last chance to play hockey with the son he abanMinor-league hockey goon Bobby Bonaduce discovers he has MS and returns to Fredericton, hoping for one last chance to play hockey with the son he abandoned. His son plays for UNB; to get on the team, Bonaduce (now a more dignified "Robert") cheats his way into the creative writing MFA program. Complications ensue.
Bonaduce is a likable goofball surrounded by good, clearly drawn characters, and The Good Body is funny and engaging throughout. But the ending is unsatisfying.
This novel could easily slide into sentimentality, and one of its great strengths is that it does not. But, probably because Gaston refuses sentiment, the conclusion seems to leave everything unresolved....more