When all is despair, and hope is near lost, what is the one event that perks up man’s spirits so that he may carry in on the face of adversity? Appare...moreWhen all is despair, and hope is near lost, what is the one event that perks up man’s spirits so that he may carry in on the face of adversity? Apparently, a party.
At least, that’s what the two protagonists in Bill Gaston’s extraordinary new novel The Order of Good Cheer would have us believe. And as one of the two is legendary explorer Samuel de Champlain, allowing Gaston the benefit of a doubt would seem appropriate.
The Order of Good Cheer, aside from being co-opted by Gaston for his title, was a series of feast nights begun by Champlain in the settlement of Annapolis Royal in 1607. After a harsh experience with the perils of the Canadian wilderness, Champlain’s idea was to hold a meal to celebrate “our new home, and our own good company, and the good cheer that God provides.”
Such feasts became legendary, and may also have helped abate the scurvy that plagued the solders throughout their tenure in the north. Champlain’s Order was seen as a celebration of fellowship and, to Gaston’s mind, a vital component in keeping the men of the settlement, “eager to break from winter’s damning confines,” in high spirits and healthy mind.
Flash-forward 400 years, and Andy Winslow suffers from a similar dilemma. Where Champlain was confronted with “the blooming restlessness” of an untamed Canadian winter, Andy faces a challenging environment of man’s own design: “the seas were rising and throwing dead fish on the beach, the third world was kindling, everyone’s weather was wrong.”
As Andy undergoes the rigours of life in the economically strained township of Prince Rupert, he, too, faces loneliness and uncertainty, exacerbated by the impending arrival of his childhood sweetheart after twenty years apart. Inspired by his reading of Champlain, he decides to follow the example and host a party of unusual foods and circumstances, “[a] time to gather and toast each other with candle-light glinting in all eyes and off smiling teeth.”
By now, it is an accepted fact that Gaston is one of the most talented writers currently on the Canadian literary scene. His novels and short story collections have all been critically acclaimed, with his last effort Gargolyes a multiple award-winner as well as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that The Order of Good Cheer is a fine novel. But Gaston surpasses himself, intermingling two narratives with such aplomb and dissimilar cadence that one might suspect they were the product of two separate individuals.
Gaston also proves himself a maestro of physical atmosphere, conjuring up two distinct worlds that threaten collapse and possible apocalypse at any moment. Placed against such backdrops, his characters shine in all their flawed glory, choosing to celebrate the moment because that’s all that may be left to them.
The Order of Good Cheer is a feast of nuanced writing, blessed with one of those rare endings that are absolutely perfect. Gaston has crafted a bittersweet ode to friendship, loss, and near-hopelessness that lingers in the mind long after the story has come to a close, like the last few minutes of a get-together when the wine has finally settled in the stomach, the anecdotes are all told, and all that remains is comfortable silence.(less)
Kelli relaxed. She'd seen the inside of a lot of Beamers and Mercs and, hell, even Land Rovers since coming to Toronto a month back. She looked at the...moreKelli relaxed. She'd seen the inside of a lot of Beamers and Mercs and, hell, even Land Rovers since coming to Toronto a month back. She looked at the guy, cheapskate biz boy in his thirties, and thought he wasn't so bad, really, just acting tough. It was always good to get the first one of the night out of the way. She looked up and saw a man's face, floating, hanging in the sky. He looked her right in the eye. Then he smashed into the windshield. The cheapskate screamed like a girl. And Kelli just stared at the face on the spiderweb of broken glass. The blood and bits of brain and bone. He must have fallen the full twenty-five floors. From Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
After the publication of his debut novel Dirty Sweet, the parallels between John McFetridge and that master of crime fiction Elmore Leonard were readily apparent. Both novelists concern themselves with criminals slightly less smart than they put on, and police slightly smarter than they let on. Both imbue their primary settings (Leonard has Detroit, McFetridge, Toronto) with a heady grit and coarseness that elevates the status of the cities above that of narrative backdrops to that of major characters. Both write deliciously crunchy dialogue which sting the reader with their own unique urban patois.
Now, upon reading McFetridge's second, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, it is apparent McFetridge is no mere clone of Leonard. Dirty Sweet was entertaining, but McFetridge could have settled at that point into a nice career as a second-rater with flashes of brilliance (read: Tim Dorsey). Everybody Knows showcases a writer coming into his own. Granted, the parallels with the master (what else could you call Leonard at this point in his career?) are still present, but McFetridge had broadened the distance between the two, creating a Toronto as dangerous-cool as Leonard's Detroit, yet somehow sharper, more angular. Leonard's Detroit is a grungy yet somehow loveable creation; you could see yourself living there, enjoying the dingyness. McFetridge's Toronto is permeated with grime and murk, both physically and morally. While his overall style may be closer to Leonard's, McFetridge's Toronto is far more malevolent in tone, closer to the bleakness of Ed McBain's fabled city of Isola in his 87th Precinct series [sidenote: Please read McBain, everyone. No better American writer of the police procedural has ever been produced.]. This Toronto is not a family-friendly city, but a metropolis of cynicism and spite; "[No] one noticed. Or no one cared. After all,it wasn't keeping people away from downtown shopping or bringing down real estate values. Toronto built its ghetto way out in the burbs, never thinking it was a growth industry."
McFetridge crafts a labyrinth and distinctly cinematic crime drama with Everybody Knows, flipping back and forth between drug dealers and police officers as they go about their daily routines. There's the detectives Armstrong and Bergeron, staking out a possible grow-op while embroiled in a missing child case; Bobbi, a woman with a faulty electronic tracking device on her ankle and a chance on making serious cash with her grow-op; Nugs, a thug with more smarts than you could guess; and more characters than can be easily accounted for. When you add in the mob, mcguffins, backstabbings and reversals, and dizzing subplots, you get one hell of a delicious read.
Plot-wise, Everybody Knows is a bit of a shaggy dog, with loose ends dangling everywhere, but that's part of its allure; these are a few days in the lives of its characters, where there is not so much a mystery as there is a confluence of circumstances that draws everyone together at different times. Where McFetridge really shines, much like as Leonard, is in his atmosphere, created by a narrative style so condensed and stark and frosted over by winter's chill it threatens to recast Leonard's already pared-down prose as overtly purple.
McFetridge is fast becoming the noir writer of the Canadian urban landscape (yes, there is too a Canadian urban landscape). Dirty Sweet hinted at the talent; Everybody Knows This is Nowhere stops hinting, and smacks you in the jaw.(less)
Some novelists pander to their audience. Others challenge them. Neal Stephenson might be determined to make his audience feel stupid, in the nicest po...moreSome novelists pander to their audience. Others challenge them. Neal Stephenson might be determined to make his audience feel stupid, in the nicest possible way.
The American novelist has long been considered one of the great madmen of science fiction, a towering intellect who synthesizes technical mumbo-jumbo and a Monty-Pythonesque capacity for silliness into daunting tomes as entertaining as they are impenetrable. Stephenson mashes up genres with the flair of Thomas Pynchon and the intellect of William Gibson, and the release of each new Stephenson epic is an event in sci-fi circles.
Now, after flirting with historical fiction in his Baroque Trilogy, Stephenson has returned to his roots with a vengeance. Not only is Anathem a sprawling exercise in world-building and philosophical ramblings, it is his fifth novel in a row to weigh in at nearly 1000 pages.
Set on the fictional yet oddly recognizable planet of Arbre, Anathem concerns itself with the goings-on of a ‘math’, a sort of monastery where, instead of concerning themselves with all things theological, the monks (or the ‘avout’) are more akin to scientists, clad in robes and seeking deep scientific and philosophical truths. The narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is a Decenarian, an avout who establishes contact with the world outside the math’s walls only once every ten years.
Once outside, events are set in motion through the observance of strange lights in the sky. Erasmus is sent beyond the walls (or “extramuros”) to find Fraa Orolo, a fellow avout who may hold a key to the purpose of the lights, but who had been subject to an anathem, an excommunication whereby the avout has been “ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered.”
Like Frank Herbert’s seminal work Dune, a large part of mastering Anathem’s dense narrative is coming to grips with its new set of words and definitions, aided through a handy glossary. Past that, the great challenge (and arguably the fun) of Anathem is wading through literally hundreds of pages of quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and enough philosophy to pummel the reader’s brain into tapioca.
One’s reaction to Anathem is likely going to correspond to one’s tolerance for sentences such as “Following the Reconstitution, he was made patron Saunt of the Syntactic Faculty of the Concent of Saunt Muncoster.” Many will find it gibberish; many others will appreciate Stephenson’s refusal to make things easy.
As intriguing and entertaining as Anathem can be, however, it may serve better as a primer for Philosophy 101 than it does a novel. Unlike his previous works such as the magnificently complex Cryptonomicon, Anathem never fully establishes a successful balance between the science and the narrative.
Too often, the plot becomes bogged down in Stephenson’s exploration of philosophical ideas at the expense of clarity. While the attempt to co-mingle theorems with popular entertainment is admirable, Anathem never manages to connect with the reader on an emotional level.
While hardly a disappointment, Anathem ultimately reveals itself as Stephenson’s weakest effort in some time. There is far too much exemplary work on display to consider Anathem a failure, but coming from Stephenson, the fact that it’s not a resounding success is a surprise indeed.(less)
Ah, the life of the lowly author who realizes that his output is not one that reaches the subjective level of high art, but rather belongs quite snugl...moreAh, the life of the lowly author who realizes that his output is not one that reaches the subjective level of high art, but rather belongs quite snugly under that dreaded (and equally subjective) label of popular fiction. What a crushing blow to the psyche it must be to aspire to join the esteemed ranks of Bellow, Roth, and Findley, and instead find oneself lumped in with the likes of Grisham, Koontz, and Patterson.
Canadian author Andrew Pyper has been battling with this conundrum for quite some time now. A writer with a poet’s eye for atmosphere and an entertainer’s skill at building crackerjack entertainments, Pyper has found himself more often than not consigned to the shelves of popular fiction. But a) why should that be considered a bad thing, and b) who ever said an author couldn’t be both? It’s a hoary old chestnut (but true nonetheless) that Charles Dickens wrote his stories to entertain the masses, and his artistry was only truly understood and appreciated through the passage of time.
Take Pyper’s debut novel Lost Girls, a story initially marketed as a John Grishamesque legal thriller. Using the well-worn plot device of a lawyer, Pyper wove a story far more thrilling than anything Grisham ever produced, layering on the themes of death, loss, grief, and memory with an artist’s touch. Lost Girls was an ‘entertainment’ in the sense that it followed a linear plot, had exciting characters and plot twists, and was in every sense a ‘page-turner’. But it was ‘literary’ in its complexity of character, its crafting of mood, its evocation of dread. Lost Girls was to a John Grisham construction as a microbrewed lager is to a can of Busch Lite; the ingredients are more or less the same, but only one shows care, craft, and character. Only one, in other words, is really any good.
Pyper belongs to the rarified sphere of thriller authors who bring far more to the table than a performer’s understanding of how to draw an audience in. Like Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, Pyper writes novels that exhilarate first and foremost, yet explore themes that would cripple lesser writers. No one of any sense would write that Mosley’s Easy Rawling novels were simply mysteries that, once solved, were to be tossed aside. They aren’t confections filled with empty calories. They stick with you; big juicy three-course meals.
But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Or maybe I’m overcome with gratitude that finally, someone has written a novel with a book reviewer as the main protagonist. Either way, The Killing Circle, Pyper’s fourth novel, is his best to date.
The hero is Patrick Rush, a former National Star book reviewer who has slowly descended the hierarchy of the newspaper to become what is surely the nadir of journalistic identity, the television reviewer. Stuck watching taped programs with titles such as Falling from Buildings! and Animals that Kill!, Patrick longs for what every book reviewer secretly wants; “I longed to be an embossed name on a spine, to belong to the knighthood of those selected to stand alongside their alphabetical neighbours on bookshop and library shelves. The great and nearly so, the famous and wrongly overlooked. The living and the dead.” Patrick suffers from a malady common to the frustrated author; “I could no longer open the Book Review of the Sunday Times without causing physical pain to myself. The publishers. The authors’ names. The titles. All belonging to books that weren’t mine.” No self-respecting book reviewer (or wanna-be author) will be able to resist Pyper’s accurate and caustically funny depictions of the deep-seated cravings for fame common to every person who has attempted to pen a story of their own.
The problem for Patrick is not the drive to write, but rather the fact that he has nothing to say − although if you consider that he is now writing his story (or is he?), you must then assume that something interesting must have happened. Patrick joins a writing circle to help jumpstart his writing, but instead of finding an avenue into his own stories, he finds himself entranced by the disturbed writings of Angela, a member who tells stories of a childhood tragedy and a “terrible man who does terrible things.” While Patrick worries that assuming that Angela’s tales were based on fact would reveal himself as “that most lowly drooler of the true-crime racks, the literal-minded rube who demands the promise of Based on a True Story! from his paperbacks and popcorn flicks,” there are eerie parallels in the story to certain news items making headlines.
It spoils nothing to reveal that the terrible man does show up and begin committing terrible things, as Pyper expertly turns the screws on the suspense, and takes a few unexpected turns along the way. The Killing Circle offers some sick and twisted fun, especially when Patrick realizes that he is living “[not] the life of one who writes or even writes about books, but a malingering lowbrow who wrongly thinks he deserves better. No wonder, when his life decides to assume the shape of literature, it isn’t a novel of ideas, but a chronicle of murder and suspicion… A bloody page-turner.”
An author becoming a part of his own personal horror story is not exactly a new literary theme − Stephen King (talk about a thriller writer with talent!) has created an entire cottage industry around the conceit − but Pyper layers his serial killer tale with a meta-layer on the importance of stories themselves to the individual. Are the stories we live important to others? When is a story truly our own? Are we even the main characters in our own lives? As Patrick muses, “Nobody lives their life as though they’ve only been cast in a grisly cameo.” Pyper takes full delight in keeping the reader guessing as to the true identity of the killer, so much so that Patrick himself cannot guarantee that he’s not making the whole thing up. He might not even be telling the story, if it’s his to tell at all.
Pyper does a splendid job of lampooning the literary types who dismiss popular fictions while at the same time straddling both worlds. The Killing Circle is a terrific thriller for those who want it simple, and an intricate exploration into personal myths and stories for those who demand a little more meat on their bones. Scary, original, and unsettling, The Killing Circle is a treat. (less)
If, along the way, something is gained, then something will also be lost. Those words were emblazoned on Min's bedroom wall, burned into the wallpaer...moreIf, along the way, something is gained, then something will also be lost. Those words were emblazoned on Min's bedroom wall, burned into the wallpaer with a charred wine-bottle cork. Our parents dismissed them as psuedo-profound, angsty-adolescent babble, but they haunted me. Why should that be? I wondered. How did she know that? Did she really believe it, or did she just like the way those words looked in burnt cork? - from The Flying Troutmans
Let's make an analogy between books and buildings. Some books, like some buildings, are mammoth in scope, appearance, and construction. You can smell the sweat of the author on the pages. You can see the mortar in the cracks. You stare at it, and are amazed. Infinite Jest. Against the Day. Underworld. Books that demand your attention not only for their overall quality, but for the effort as well.
And there's nothing wrong with this. A well-built edifice can be a thing of beauty. Underworld is a spectacular skyscraper of a novel.
But such monuments may serve to denigrate the 'simpler' buildings. Buildings of equal care and precision, and certainly of equal effort, as their more elaborate counterparts, but buildings that don't show off. Like a house that offers its residents a sense of peace and acceptance, obscuring the work that went into its construction. Or a book that quietly leads its readers along a journey, offering multitudes of pleasures, only upon reflection revealing the immense craft that went into its manufacture. Alice Munro is a grand master of such writing. And Miriam Toews is no slouch.
Enter The Flying Troutmans, Toews' first release since her monstrously successful (and damned good) A Complicated Kindness. Like her previous output, the simplicity of Toews' writing belies the artistry which lies underneath. You enjoy the work, but she makes it appear so effortless that subconsciously you may not appreciate how artful an author Toews really is. It requires monumental skill to write in such a fashion that you don't notice the author's perspiration that undercoats every word.
The linchpin of Toews' tale is Min, a manic-depressive who has undergone complete mental collapse. Picking up the pieces of Min's life is Hattie, Min's sister and Troutmans' narrator. Hattie had always watched over her older sister, but had taken the step of moving to Paris, fleeing "Min's dark planet for the City of Lights." Now, Hattie has had to return to care for Min's children; Thebes, an eleven-year-old daughter prone to speaking in gansta slang, and Logan, a fifiteen-year-old son unwillingly thrust into responsibility too soon. And before you can say "Hollywood road movie," she's loaded up the family and headed south in search of the children's long-absent father.
As I rather dismissively wrote above, the trappings of The Flying Troutmans is a road trip, that classic staple of Hollywood quirk. It goes without saying that the reader will be reminded strongly of films such as Little Miss Sunshine and The Daytrippers, although it is quite unfair to simply lump Troutmans in as yet another 'weird family' road movie. The travelogue may have become co-opted and popularized by the cinema, but it has its roots in literature, and as Troutmans ably proves, there's life in the genre yet (alongside Michael Winter's recent triumph The Architects Are Here). A good road trip narrative understands that - and here comes another old reliable stand-by - it's not the destination that's important, but the journey.
Toews' great strength as an artist is complete empathy for her characters, combined with a subtle wit and a genuine flair for imagery. Her narrative careens from past memories to current events with nary a misstep. Her tour of the American heartland is warm and funny, complete with reliable standbys such as people who confuse Manitoba with California, and the realization that the Grand Canyon is simply an enormous hole.
In the end, it's simply a great story, wonderfully told. Sometimes, as we bounce around the post-modern world, we forget just how important and rare a skill that is.(less)