Scarly folded her arms. Leaned away from Tallow. Everything about her, in fact, seemed to Tallow to be closing up. “This ain’t getting solved, Detecti...moreScarly folded her arms. Leaned away from Tallow. Everything about her, in fact, seemed to Tallow to be closing up. “This ain’t getting solved, Detective.”
“If this guy was gonna be caught,” Scarly said, “he would have been caught already. You know what you did when you put a hole in that wall? You interrupted the career of a genuine fucking bogeyman, some crazy-ass ghost-dog serial killer who filled a room with his fucking trophies to jerk off over. He’s never going to go back there. And you know what else? He’s going to start killing again, probably more and more quickly than before, so he can generate another trophy room slash jerking pit. Not only is this not getting solved but more people are gonna get killed because of it, and we won’t catch him after those either because this guy is just too damned good. All you did, Detective, is find the home address of the Devil in New York City, and now he’s moved someplace else.”
Detective John Tallow is having a shitty week. Upon answering what should have been a pretty routine call, a screaming naked man with a shotgun managed to paint his partner’s brains all over the wall of an apartment building stairwell. In taking the assailant down, Tallow accidentally uncovers a locked apartment filled floor-to-ceiling with guns, carefully, deliberately arranged. Further inspection reveals the disturbing truth: each of the approximately two hundred weapons has been used in an unsolved murder within the city. These weapons, their true purpose unknown, have been ritualistically collected and stored—to what end is the question Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine attempts to answer.
Gun Machine is a fast-paced mix of noir and police procedural thriller. Tallow feels like a man a bit torn between the two ends of the spectrum. At first he’s your classic rough-around-the-edges cop, but with a soft, nougat-like centre (see: “the hooker with a heart of gold”). When he loses his partner, he’s thrown headlong into what’s deemed at first an unsolvable catastrophuk of a case, which quickly becomes the one and only thing in his life worth caring about. Why? Because it’s entirely possible he’s stumbled upon the weapon’s cache of the greatest unknown serial killer in history—who may or may not be responsible for the stratospheric rise to power of several New York City power players and captains of industry.
The killer himself is only ever referred to as “the Hunter” (a wise decision which retains his bogeyman-like status, even when stripped of his more surrealistic elements). He’s a possessive creature who embeds his work with a degree of false symbolism, comparing what he’s doing to the construction of a living memory, not unlike a Native American wampum belt—crafting a modern footprint of capitalism-cum-colonialism. The Hunter’s mission, as he sees it, places him within a society he’s forever removed from—something alien, unnatural, created in a lab. To this effect, his fascination with Native American history, and the history of New York, informs his very being.
The hunt for the owner of the gunroom is only a small portion of Gun Machine’s appeal. What really sells the book is the banter between Scarly and Bat—the two crime scene investigators assigned (condemned) to aid Tallow in his search for answers. These two fiercely intelligent individuals—a self-proclaimed autistic lesbian with possible fidelity issues and a technologically inclined shut-in with questionable people skills—are laugh-out-loud hilarious without ever feeling forced or put in position for the sole purpose of adding a little levity to the proceedings. Case in point:
“No,” spat Scarly. “It got handed off to us. Which makes perfect sense, because what you really want on a job like this is as much confusion in the evidence chain as possible. And I guess me and Bat hadn’t eaten our ration of crap for the year. So here I am, with a career-ending job and a working partner with the magical talent of making guns shit themselves in his face.”
Without question, Ellis’ greatest strength as a writer is his ability to write genuinely funny/sarcastic/quick-witted dialogue that never feels out of place alongside the story and world that have been pieced together. The chapters are, for the most part, short and very visual, and a strange collection of New York City history and rumours litter the book with a colour all its own—as blood soaked as any respectable noir, but seen through a light historical lens not often used for such a tale. Police scanner chatter is used to backdrop the openings and conclusions of several chapters, in essence white-noising the terrible nature of the Hunter by depicting a city so cruel, so vile that the Hunter’s more direct killings, which lack the considerable collateral damage of so many of the other crimes we see rattled off, seem positively clean by comparison. And when one of the Hunter’s crimes does find its way into the scanner chatter, it doesn’t stand out as particularly cruel or gruesome—just another act of violence within the borders of an already red-drenched city.
If I had any complaint about Gun Machine, it would be that we’re told over and over again what an asshole, what an unmitigated pain in the rectum Tallow is, and how much his lieutenant would love to string an unsolvable case around his neck just for the excuse to put him out to pasture, yet we never see it—we never get more than a glimpse at the supposed dick Tallow is or has been in the past. We get little bits here and there referencing how and why he was paired with his specific partner, but Tallow honestly feels more sympathetic than practically any other character in the novel, save for Bat. It’s a bit of narrative dissonance that only slightly mars what is otherwise one of the better thrillers I’ve read over the past year or two. The overarching mystery itself won’t turn any heads for its originality, but the language, interaction, and pacing make Gun Machine a fun and worthwhile way to lose track of a few hours.(less)
“Just about every actor in this city who’s worth a shit has something on their résumé that I don’t have. And I’m not stopping until I get it.” “What’s...more“Just about every actor in this city who’s worth a shit has something on their résumé that I don’t have. And I’m not stopping until I get it.” “What’s that?” “A part on a show that I can one hundred percent say I’m right for.” She takes a deep breath and narrows her eyes and says, slowly and deliberately, “I won’t quit until I get something on my favorite show: Law and Order.” “You’ve never been on Law and Order?” I say, surprised. “But you’re perfect for it…” “I know. I’m even Irish and Italian. Who knows cops and criminals better?” “So, why? You haven’t auditioned for them, or…?” “People known for being on the most ridiculed talking animal show of the last decade sometimes have a hard time being taken seriously.” “But that was eight years ago!” I say, indignant. “Funny thing about this business,” she says a little sadly. “It’s hard to tell ahead of time what they’ll forget and what they’ll remember.”
January 1995: with six months left on a self-set three-year deadline, Frances “Franny” Banks needs to get her life in order. Franny’s an aspiring actress desperate to kick her bad habits to the curb and do something with her career beyond basic commercial work and waitressing a day a week at a club where she’s neither valued or respected. Following a semi-successful showcase performance, Franny is approached by two very different opportunities for representation: the shiny, illustrious Absolute Artists (and their difficult-to-read associate Joe Melville), and the past-his-prime Barney Sparks—a relic of a showman from a different time, when an agent’s boisterous delivery could be swapped with a used car salesman’s.
Of course, one already knows Franny’s decision long before she even makes it. She has some early success with Absolute Artists, but as is often the case with artistic endeavours (and coming-of-age tales), early success gives way to a startling, depressing lull in which one begins to question whether or not they’re a fluke (perfectly exemplified by the amusing calendar inserts between certain chapters that go from being nearly empty, to quickly overfilling with meetings and possibilities, to being near empty again, filled instead with nervous scribblings of horses and balloons and Franny’s own name and signature written any number of ways). And like the most successful artists out there, it’s only once the shine of early excitement has worn off and the dull, dead eyes of reality are again staring down at Franny, her self-imposed deadline inching ever closer as love and career pitfalls become increasingly apparent, that she is able to eschew expectations and see clearly what she needs to do if she’s to find success.
Someday, Someday, Maybe hits all the notes of your standard romantic comedy—love triangles (and quadrangles), misplaced affections, learning that special someone is right under your nose the whole time but you just don’t want to admit it!—but its strong lead character and often-comical self-awareness separate it from the competition in what is an admittedly crowded playing field.
Author Lauren Graham (best known for her seven-year stint as Lorelei Gilmore on Gilmore Girls) does a great job peppering the landscape of 1995 New York with enough timely identifiers—such as Reebok Hi-Tops, Dep hair gel (holy crap I used a lot of that gunk in high school), fax machines, and cassette-based answering machines—without overwhelming readers with a litany of “remember when” moments. Her biggest stumbling block as a writer comes from an overuse of adjectives to tell us what’s happening instead of allowing the language and events to say what needs to be said. The result is a book of split-confidences: high confidence in her knowledge of the world on display, but not enough confidence in the characters and their actions.
Speaking of the world on display, this is where Someday, Someday, Maybe really comes into its own. From the very beginning it’s clear Graham is having a fantastic time sending-up your basic film- and television-industry stereotypes: from neurotic casting directors and over-the-top agents, to peacocking classmates desperate to seem so completely and utterly perfect for every part in order to build a résumé that will get them noticed by the public, the media, and decision makers alike. The most enjoyable of these personalities are the aforementioned Barney Sparks, who stops just short of shouting “I’m gonna make you a STAR!”, and one of Franny’s classmates, Charlie, who exudes a little too much Tobias Fünke for his own good (though, thankfully, without the unsettling sexual double entendres).
As one might expect from a former Gilmore Girls actress—and indeed from almost anything Graham’s done—the banter is often the star of each scene. For the most part it is hit and miss: Franny’s back-and-forth with her father is always spot-on, but her conversations with her best friend Jane felt, even in the very beginning, to be a bit stilted and overly manicured for cleverness, as if a wall had been erected between the two friends but neither one was willing to acknowledge its existence. The awkwardness between Franny and Jane never came across as competitiveness, but more as if their friendship was something that had naturally run its course.
My primary complaint with Someday, Someday, Maybe, beside the previously mentioned overuse of certain language, is that many of the beats felt telegraphed from a mile away: which agency Franny chooses in the beginning, knowing full well that she’ll find her way to the “right” one in the end; how Dan feels about her and where that relationship is likely to head; James and his effed-up priorities. However, in spite of these quibbles, Franny’s push for stardom won me over. Part of that, I’m sure, is that I felt a certain kinship with her. For a year now I’ve been pushing to survive entirely as a freelance writer and editor. Giving up a regular, reliable paycheque to follow a dream is a terrifying, frequently nauseating, but also exciting thing that I’m still getting a feel for. And when the money coming in isn’t on a specific day, when you’ve got to push and push for any job that might give you a paying opportunity while balancing all that with the work you need to be doing both for your soul and the career you truly desire, it becomes easy to ignore the sheer amount you’re getting done and to look instead only to what isn’t happening. And like with Franny, it’s the people surrounding you in those times who can help point at all you’ve accomplished and get you to take a breath and appreciate how far uphill you’ve managed to climb that make all the difference in the world. In that sense, it was difficult for me to feel anything but affection for this overly neurotic hopeful.
Someday, Someday, Maybe doesn’t do anything to reinvent to rom-com wheel. It relies on a formula that is never offensive and often predictable, but redeems any lacking structural originality through a realistic, sweet, and very relatable protagonist—one you desperately want to succeed. And of course you know she will, somehow, in some way. That knowledge, that assuredness, is why I appreciate Graham’s ending most of all—because it stops just short of finishing that journey and giving Franny her stardom with unbridled success and love and everything you’d expect this sort of story to truck out in the end. Graham instead exhibits a wonderful bit of restraint, leaving the end on a slightly ambiguous note—like a singer taking in a deep breath just before her solo is about to begin. (less)
Heading down the hall a man asks if you are working and you point to the mop and bug your eyes at the question and he hands you a cellular phone he ha...moreHeading down the hall a man asks if you are working and you point to the mop and bug your eyes at the question and he hands you a cellular phone he has found. This gives you an idea and you do not clean up the vomit but lock yourself into the storage room and call 911 to report your suspicion that there is a bomb set to explode on the premises of the bar. You give a detailed account of an overheard conversation between two swarthy, bearded men and before you are even off the phone you can hear the shrieks of the customers and the breaking of glasses as firemen rush through the bar to clear the room. You reach up for a bottle of Jameson and break the seal, taking a long drink and inhaling deeply from a cigarette. When the evacuation is completed you let yourself out of the storage room and the bar is empty, and you walk from one side to the other drinking the whiskey and smoking, and crying softly—you cannot tell if the reason is relief or sadness. You look for Curtis’s body but it has been moved. On the bar where Raymond was sitting you find a half-crumpled drawing of an adolescent boy, shirtless and in cutoffs, with a penis like a lasso. He is whipping it over his head and looks very happy to be living. You stuff this into your pocket and walk to the men’s room where you find the child actor in a ball beneath the sink. There is drool draining from the corner of his mouth and his eyes are open to slits but you cannot see his pupils, and the reddened whites, and his breath is indefinable and you stand and kick him hard in the stomach and he vomits a cupful of gin and bile. Wiping the tears from your face you set your whiskey bottle and cigarette on the sink countertop and stand back against the far bathroom wall and rush forward to kick him in the center of his moaning face.
A nameless barman in a Hollywood bar populated by only the lowest of the low, sinking ever deeper into a whiskey-soaked state of self-satisfied annihilation via inebriation. Such is the scene Patrick deWitt invites readers into for his first novel, Ablutions.
Originally subtitled Notes for a Novel, Ablutions is a narrative in the seldom-used second person perspective: “you” do this, “you” do that—no I, no he, she, it, or they. I’ve often found this perspective troublesome, except when used in epistolary tales, but deWitt employs it to great effect. The Jameson Irish whiskey-loving, money-skimming protagonist—an anti-hero for the modern day, if ever one existed—is a fascinating, despicable split between total narcissism and self-hatred. Through the second person point of view, he stands just outside of himself at all times, looking down upon himself and being disgusted by what he sees, but somehow being arrogant about it—as if the gradual obliteration of his life and connections to all he at once held dear (his wife, his friends, what little he could call a career) is a point of pride, of strength. He can at once criticize himself without completely hating himself.
This arrogance is bolstered by the seemingly grand amounts of pleasure he takes in destroying the lives of others, be it financially (stealing stacks of cash from the bar), physically (abusing patrons, as in the segment above), or ethically (selling Simon and his out-of-control cocaine addition out to the bar owner’s widow, redirecting her suspicions that the narrator has in fact been the one stealing their money… which, of course, he was). As great a force of self-destruction as the narrator is, he’s even more in love with how clever he is, and how easily he is able to manipulate those around him just long enough to make his escape from the bar, and ostensibly from California.
Whether or not he escapes is irrelevant in the end, because he’s learned no lessons, experienced no true moral conundrums. The manner in which he’s distanced himself from who he is and how he operates implies a total lack of evolution; the scenery might change, but the cad remains the same. This is further exemplified by the use of the word “Discuss” at the opening to so many paragraphs. He’s a documentarian of sorts, noting behaviours and idiosyncrasies of others for, one suspects, the great work of literature he will one day piece together, if and when he manages to crawl himself out of his whiskey obsession long enough to ever put pen to page. However, his approach serves only to distance himself further—not just from who he is, but form everyone around him and why their lives matter, if not to him than to someone.
In this unnamed alcoholic wannabe writer, deWitt has crafted a compelling yet totally deplorable protagonist—one you simultaneously want to succeed and get his shit together, and fail, completely and utterly, getting his just desserts from one of the many co-workers or bar regulars he’s taken such pleasure in placing beneath his heels. With vivid, florid language, deWitt has painted both a shithead and a shithole none should ever hope to emulate, but will be glad to have experienced nonetheless. (less)
I smacked the flashlight head, wishing I’d bothered to change the batteries before I left home today. It flickered, but wouldn’t light. I struggled to...moreI smacked the flashlight head, wishing I’d bothered to change the batteries before I left home today. It flickered, but wouldn’t light. I struggled to my feet, knees quaking from the cold, until I stumbled out into the open, wheeling forwards and expecting to land flat on my face again. Instead, my hands met something square, ribbed, and wooden. My fingertips danced and touched and tried to read what I felt in the darkness, but sudden lightning served my need, instead. There they were: shelves, bindings… books.
I fumbled with the flashlight, smacking it so hard the pain sang in my hand. I was desperate. Like a spooked horse, it sprang into action, and my small halo of yellow light revealed the unbelievable truth. In front of me were books, mountains of them, of every size and shape I could imagine, caked in dust. The shelves went on for dark miles, and emboldened by how all of this had to be a dream, I wandered into the centre of the massive room I’d wriggled in to, finding myself face to face with the huge rose window—the window that, in a dream flash, had been a giant, winking eye. Rain pelted it from the other side, where the real world ended and this one began. I stepped reverently into the dim, rose-shaped light the window cast onto the floor, and I realized what this place was. After sixteen years of dreaming, after a decade of enduring Treade and its deprivation of my soul… I had fallen down the rabbit hole and landed in a library.
It’s a book lover’s dream come true: a library where every book opened, every spine cracked flat is a doorway to another world, another realm so very different from our own. Great works of fiction, the ones we remember most, that live with us, strike a balance between escapism on one hand and holding a mirror up to our world and our selves with the other. When the final page is turned and reality seeps back into the equation, the illusion is broken. To be able to literally step inside any book and have it be a world, full and tangible—to be able to fashion actual wings from the pages of stacks of books and travel to new heights—is a fantasy most die-hard readers likely have more often than they’d care to admit.
S.M. Beiko’s young adult novel The Lake and the Library teases this idea, but never fully embraces it. The novel centres on a young woman named Ashleigh—Ash. Ash and her mother have been stuck for a decade in a dull armpit of a town: Treade, Manitoba. Not so tiny you’d miss it on a map, but certainly smaller and less lively than Winnipeg, Treade feels a little like a fly-over prairie town where the grain elevators are as much an attraction as they are a sign of the town’s simple (and often boring) way of life.
Ash’s mother, a chain-smoker with unchecked medical problems and a penchant for wanderlust (or getting into trouble and having to up and move with little to no preamble), has informed her daughter that they will be moving by the summer’s end. This of course causes heartache for Ash and her two best friends of ten years, Paul and Tabitha. At first, Paul and Tabitha pull back, preemptively shielding themselves from the hurt that will come in only a couple of month’s time.
Ash is torn, because she herself is a dreamer. She reads and paints and fantasizes of a life away from Treade’s confined way of life, but at the same time she fears losing her two closest friends—and through losing them, letting go of her childhood. There’s a strong growing-up-is-hard-to-do vibe running through all their interactions—something any kid who school-hopped their way through life will likely find kinship with.
Determined to have one last adventure before leaving Treade, possibly forever, Ash decides to break into a decrepit, abandoned building the three of them discovered in the middle of Wilson’s Woods. This of course is the library from the book’s title. Once inside the library, and once her awe has run its course, Ash meets the mysterious and enigmatic Li—a young man, mute but more than capable communicating via gestures and sign language, who may or may not live in the library.
Ash and Li strike up a friendship that quickly crosses the line into love—or something supernatural meant to feel like love. As Li opens an infinite number of doors for Ash, taking her into the worlds of the books surrounding them in the library, Ash becomes overwhelmingly infatuated with Li. At first she’s fearful of their connection—fearful that because of how she feels about him she might want to stay in Treade, a town she knows, deep down, she doesn’t belong. But Li’s magic, his love for her, is strong, and Ash rapidly loses her grip on reality. She pushes her friends away first, diminishing their already limited time left together, then she starts ignoring and lashing out at her mother. She resents the lot of them for the little time they pull her away from Li, away from her perfect romance. Her actions are akin to a drug addict’s, and the influence of the fantasy on her mind and her way of thinking, her desperate desire to not grow up and admit to the changes happening in her life, causes her to hurt those who care for her most of all in both emotional and physical ways.
Interspersed with many of the chapters is a supplemental story—small chapters showing a son and his mother as he prepares, against his wishes, to take control of his deceased father’s business.
The Lake and the Library is a bit of a dichotomous experience: its core concept is engaging and the novel is difficult to put down, but it is also infuriating and at times painfully purple. Beiko’s character work is strong—Ash, Paul, and Tabitha are believable for their age, and their friendship feels genuine—and the mystery behind the library is fun. However the novel suffers from an overabundance of adjectives, which grinds the pacing of some of the more climactic scenes to a melodramatic limp (the most obvious example being during the novel’s first scene of conflict, in Chapter 4, where the action is knocked from active to passive because of the descriptive language employed). Throughout the novel, there’s simply too much literary hand holding and not enough confidence in the actions and events themselves to impart the tone of a given scene. This is as much a problem with the editing as it is the writing, but it is still something that I wish had been addressed in the production of this title, as it did, on several occasions, pull me out of what was otherwise an enjoyable read.
There are a few other cracks in the plaster—a variety of references from decades past that make it difficult to pin down the when of the book (something I clued into only once text messages made an appearance in the storyline) and the incredibly quick recovery of Ash’s mother in the novel’s later chapters, not to mention the lack of hurt exhibited by Paul and Tabitha when they finally confront Ash near the end—but none so damning that they further harmed the overall experience.
The Lake and the Library is a taste of Wonderland and Neverland without ever diving so deep into any one fictional world that we lose touch with reality. Beiko’s story has a soft undertone of tragedy, revealing two loves from two different worlds, both tasked with accepting the impending end of their childhood innocence and wanting to do whatever possible to put off the inevitable. The allure of the fantastic is strong, but the story is unfortunately hampered by overly colourful writing that could have used a bit more reigning in during the stylistic phase of the editing process.(less)
Maman Zinat did not respond. She seemed too upset to speak. Aghajaan too fell silent, drinking his tea in one angry gulp. Leila turned her gaze away f...moreMaman Zinat did not respond. She seemed too upset to speak. Aghajaan too fell silent, drinking his tea in one angry gulp. Leila turned her gaze away from her mother and father and let it glide on the large chunky wardrobe that no longer contained any clothes, only blankets and covers for the three children. She had never understood why her sisters had kept on fighting even though the revolution was over, a war had taken its place, and everyone was first struggling to make a new beginning and later to ward off death. But Simin and Parisa fought on, along with their husbands. They threw leaflets over walls, held secret meetings at home, read outlawed books, watched the news and jotted down how many times the name of the Supreme Leader was mentioned and how his name was taking over everything, growing louder, omnipresent, and how their own political presence—along with all the others not part of the regime—was being scratched out, their existence denied, stifled, washed clean, like a stain on a tablecloth. They sat there in front of the television screen, pens in hand, putting into numbers how they were slowly vanishing, purged from the collective memory of the country, buried alive. They were now the enemy, the anti-revolutionaries. That was shortly before their arrest, when the process of being undone came to its last strike.
Sahar Delijani’s debut novel Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a deeply personal web of connected narratives detailing the lives of three generations of men and women—husbands, wives, grandparents, parents, and children—irrevocably affected by the Iranian revolution. The events of the book earn their narrative weight from the summer of 1988: nine years after the revolution, which installed the Islamic republic to the head of Iran, the country’s prisons were purged. Many were killed, including the author’s uncle, and the author herself was born behind bars.
The novel opens in 1983, in Evin Prison, Tehran. Azar is incarcerated as an anti-revolutionary. She’s interrogated harshly, and as the Iraq war enters its third year, she has neither seen nor experienced life in the city of Tehran for months. She is also pregnant, giving birth to a young daughter, Neda, in a prison hospital, away from her husband Ismael, who has also been imprisoned for anti-revolutionary crimes. They fear the Sisters and the Brothers—their guards, uninterested in the safety or wellbeing of their charges. Together with several other prisoners, Azar takes care of little Neda, fearing the inevitable moment her daughter will be taken away from her.
The novel’s second section, taking place in Tehran in 1987, is from the perspective of family members of jailed anti-revolutionaries. We see through the eyes of a young woman named Leila how one person’s fight for freedom is another’s selfish act—because “Anti-revolutionary sisters meant an anti-revolution family.” The novel is quick to humanize those interned and those still free by showing both equally capable of error and selfishness, depending on another’s unshared perspective.
In the third section, taking place from 1983 to 1988 in the Komiteh Mochtarak Detention Center, introduces Amir, a twenty-something detainee sentenced to six years for a litany of crimes: “Founding a Marxist group, participating in a Marxist group, planning a coup, planning the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran, atheism…” Amir’s wife and new-to-the-world daughter are safe outside of the prison, though their interaction is minimal. Amir passes his days in hope, fashioning a bracelet for his daughter, Sheida, from a small nail pulled from a wooden box in what passes for a prison washroom, thread pulled from socks, and collected date stones.
From this point forward, the novel marches on in years, jumping back in time occasionally to detail the relationship between Sheida’s mother Maryam and Amir, but for the most part progressing through to 2011 as it tracks the movements of the children and family members of anti-revolutionaries lost or forever changed by their time in prison.
In many ways, Children of the Jacaranda Tree echoes the structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The novel is a pyramid, beginning with one set of individuals, then branching off into another, and another still, until it begins resolving the other halves of the lives previously introduced, the narrative gradually winding its way around again to the story of Azar and Neda in the final section. What differs from the beginning of the pyramid to the end is the perspective: nearly thirty years have passed, and Neda, the child born in Evin Prison, is living now in Turin, Italy, and is in control of how her story will end.
The titular jacaranda tree is symbolic in many ways, both subtle and overt. While it is referenced several times throughout as a focal point of happier memories—days gone by, what once was and never will be again—it is also representative of the many paths the individual stories take as they divert, sometimes unexpectedly, down one branch of family history or another.
I appreciated the slight non-linearity to Children of the Jacaranda Tree and its altogether well managed structure. The manner in which Delijani resolves the novel’s many disparate plots to tell a singular family’s wide reaching and often-tragic tale is more than satisfying. There is in the final section a six-degrees-of-separation-moment with Reza’s father and Neda’s mother that mars the otherwise quite believable nature of the story being told. However, because so much of the novel’s detail has been culled from true events in the author’s life and the lives of several members of her family, I’m not going to say it is impossible that things happened the way they are written, merely that given the likelihood of such an event, acceptance requires a small leap of faith.
Delijani’s writing is confident, though I felt it occasionally wanting in the area of physical detail; a greater visual sense of place and environment would have helped with the sometimes fragmented structure of the novel as it shifts quickly from one life to another.
On the subject of lives, it is Sheida and her relationship with her mother Maryam that provides the novel’s strongest narrative and emotional hooks. The ramifications of the 1988 purge are especially strong when seen through the eyes of a young woman grasping at a thinly veiled truth—one that will change for the rest of her life how she sees her father.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree is disturbing and heart wrenching, yet at times unexpectedly beautiful. The resilience on display in the face of startling inhumanity is moving and effective—all the more knowing that many elements within the narrative are pulled from true events. Recommended.(less)
Oh, in case you’re wondering: I’m not a cocaine addict.
I prefer to drink.
You found me in the middle of my story and I happened to have just found a ba...moreOh, in case you’re wondering: I’m not a cocaine addict.
I prefer to drink.
You found me in the middle of my story and I happened to have just found a baggie of cocaine in that bathroom.
But honestly, I prefer drinking.
I prefer drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep. My child, my lover, anything.
I love to drink. Sometimes I think: No, I am drink.
It’s like my blood. Even before I get it, I can feel it in my veins. I’m not being poetic—I can actually feel it in my veins.
It’s gold. It like little zaps of gold going through me, charging me, starting me up.
When I drink, I fill with real gold and become god-like.
So I’m not a cocaine addict. I’m a drunk.
I had been a drunk for a long time. I stopped drinking for a time, and then I started again.
In case it wasn’t clear from the above segment, Jowita Bydlowska is an alcoholic. That’s not a dismissive statement, but a descriptive one: Drunk Mom, a memoir spanning an unclear number of months in 2009 and 2010, is her open wound to the world—a mostly-accurate account of her relapse into alcoholism following the birth of her son and after three years of sobriety.
The book is structured as a series of episodes detailing the seemingly innocuous first glass of champagne to celebrate the birth of her son, “Frankie” (names changed to protect as much innocence as possible), spiralling quickly out of control as she reverts, in terrifying fashion, to old, destructive, dishonest habits. The catch, however, is that her behaviour this time around threatens not only herself but her son as well. She recounts the times Frankie was left unchanged, covered in his own filth, because she was unconscious elsewhere; the times she’d fall asleep drunk somewhere public while out with him; the many opportunities she took while out with her son to duck into liquor stores—her time spent with child a mere mask for her actual wants and needs.
While there is a narrative through-line to the events recounted in Drunk Mom, it often feels broken and a little disjointed—which makes sense given the somewhat ungrounded nature of the author’s memories during this period of time. She is, for lack of a better phrase, the villain of her own tale, a semi-unreliable narrator who wants desperately to get it right. Her descriptive work is blunt, a collection of straight-razor cuts bleeding all over the page with little care to how messy or horrible it might look to the casual observer. She can’t be worried about something like that; her concern is getting it out in any way possible, documentary-style—harsh, often without emotion.
Reading Drunk Mom was an unexpectedly emotional journey. While I understand alcoholism to be a true addiction, a disease in some ways (though the term is sometimes rejected as it implies there is a “cure” to a facet of an individual’s personality), it was hard, given the risk to her son, not to feel at times angered or disgusted by Bydlowska’s actions and the logic workarounds and lies upon lies she managed to concoct. This is due in part to her personality, which is minimized throughout. She claims several times that she is numb, locked inside of her self. Intentional or not, this is accentuated by her writing style, which itself is sparse and staccato and without a sense of self behind the words. More often than not the book felt as if narrated by a disembodied spirit—that the only way for her to put it all on the page was to distance her self from it. Granted that’s an assumption, and in many ways the drink itself IS her personality, but there is a certain obvious amount of distance, of handling the past with rubber gloves on so as not to be re-infected by it. The result of this is a memoir that reads less like a confessional and more a begrudging recitation, unfortunately limiting the amount of sympathy I felt for her and everyone involved.
Despite all that, when the author reflects on a possible sexual assault in Montreal, or attempts to understand how it is she broke her toe, and is unable to remember such things due to the severity of her blackouts, it’s hard not to feel frightened for her safety, and for the longevity of any future sobriety achieved.
There’s a rather multi-faceted dichotomous relationship between the author, herself, and everyone in her life: she loves her family and hates them, says they’re good people and they’re not; she accepts she needs help and wants it, yet is hostile to the idea of it (even after AA has proven itself and saved her life and her relationship with her boyfriend and son, she still looks to it with a bit of open disdain, citing the pledge at the end of each meeting as “a silly ritual but it gives the illusion that we’re in this together, before we go out into the world again, outside of the twelve-step walls.” She spends half her time viewing the system that has saved her life and will continue to do so, as well as those dearest to her, as a leash tied around her neck and not the solid ground beneath her feet. Which, again, is part of the addiction and/or disease. So, as I said: dichotomous.
Drunk Mom is a case study in hitting absolute rock bottom and anteing up again, repeating the process until that moment of clarity hits and the body and mind finally decide to wash out every pent up emotion and poison trapped inside, chorusing “it’s time, get your shit together and let’s make things right again.” It’s not an easy book to want to read, and in spite of knowing things would turn out okay (because, after all, she’s around to write the tale), it was often difficult to want to follow through or show sympathy towards a character who, for much of the book, seems like she might spit on you were you to express care or concern for her wellbeing. And though I struggled throughout to know whether the author was ever trying to elicit a sympathetic response, and continue to do so even after finishing the book, I can’t deny that Bydlowska’s account of alcoholism, addiction, and borderline self-annihilation is an eye opening and in some ways necessary experience.
She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future sp...moreShe knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.
She staggered to her feet but didn’t dare to look round. Ignoring the awful pain, she ran on and on. She was in Belgravia before she finally flagged completely. Here too, she thought. She had been here before. She had never been here before. I give in, she thought. Whatever it is, it can have me. She sank to her knees on the hard pavement and curled up in a ball. A fox without a hole.
Ursula Todd was born on a cold and snowy February 11 in 1910. She died before she could take a single breath, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She was born again. On February 11, 1910. This time, she was saved. She will die again, somehow, at some point, and the cycle will continue with details—both critical and inconsequential—shifting, facilitating different outcomes and different interactions between family, friends, loved ones, and the young love interest of a particularly anti-Semitic dictator.
The semi-mythical protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life has lived and died an entire country’s worth of lives. Born in Britain in a home dubbed Fox Corner, Ursula’s life is mysteriously and inexplicably touched by the hand of fate. Each time she is (re)born the deck is shuffled anew. Certain events play out in almost identical fashion in each successive stream (or universe, or timeline, or however one chooses to rationalize or not rationalize the narrative conceit), and the presence of specific individuals or details in one life might spell her end, while in another she might be saved from drowning, or from leaping from a window to her death—again, depending on which factors are present or not.
It’s an interesting premise, but one I feel was not entirely capitalized on. The very idea of multiple or repeating lives is science fiction and/or fantasy in nature, yet the tone of the book is decidedly grounded, indeed almost to a fault. As in life, many of Ursula’s deaths are not dramatic, and some causes are not even entirely clear, but it is in the small shreds of déjà vu she experiences where one hopes the story would take a quicker, more abrupt turn to embrace the elements of the fantastic it occasionally flirts with. Perhaps this is unfair and not at all what the author intended, but it is in this selection from the novel’s jacket copy where the divide between what’s teased and what’s given is most egregious:
For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its destiny? And if she can—will she?
Of course, one shouldn’t believe everything they read in advertising copy, but the relatively small amount of what’s written on the book’s jacket highlights Ursula’s potential, her dramatic, possibly history-altering purpose in a way that is not adequately paid-off in the book—at least, not until too close to the conclusion to have a strong impact. Instead Life After Life is mostly a rather provincial tale of do-overs, examining the many ways one life can change—or fail to change—the world.
It’s in this provincial British reality and its various mundane excursions and day-to-day operations that the novel’s premise unravelled for me. The details and artifice suffocate both characters and narrative flow, often grinding the story to a crawl in the middle of the book, and not picking up steam again until the section “A Long Hard War.” Some characters do stand out—Izzie, Crighton, and Teddy are the most memorable—but most are difficult to penetrate thanks to the many ways aspects of their personalities are either repeated or washed over as a new stream of life begins.
That’s not to say it’s troublesome all the way through. The inevitable death-march of war crushes all equally; it’s fascinating to see the many possibilities of one life splintered by this war that changed the face of the world. It’s also frustrating, at first, to see Ursula as less a part of history and more steamrolled by it—that is, until the last fifty to one hundred pages, when the modicum of awareness she has of her previous lives influences her to take charge and attempt to change the future of the world for the better. Only when the psychological impact of her circuitous, ouroboros-like life becomes relevant does the story feel at last as if it is coming into its own.
The novel’s unspoken thesis is not how Ursula dies, but how damaging it is to have her removed from the lives of others. When in later chapters we see the positive impact she has on those around her, it’s unsettling to go back and imagine the dark turns her family’s lives might have taken in the streams where she died young, whether from illness or spousal abuse (a particularly harrowing segment) and how her deaths might have shattered their remaining days. Life After Life is in some ways a theatre of their imaginations, as if her nearest and dearest were gathered together, speculating on the myriad ways she might have changed the world had she not died from the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck at birth, or from any one of the other ways Atkinson thought of to bring about Ursula’s untimely end.
I wanted to like Life After Life so much more than I did. The conceit is wonderful, and the novel’s structure and how it tackles multiple lives via repetition and transposition—repeating bars of the same song but in different octaves, or different keys altogether, to changing, but always deadly results—is undoubtedly unique. However, its ambition, the sheer scope of its narrative, feels lacklustre and muted. To put it in reductive terms, it was more intriguing than it was enjoyable. In the end, I must concede that I don’t feel I am this novel’s audience. I was attracted to it through the premise advertised on the book’s jacket, but feel there to be a stark divide in the tone promised and what was ultimately delivered—in short, my expectations trumped reality. Take from that what you will. This is not a bad or poorly written book by any stretch—its tone and flavour were simply not to my liking.(less)
The actress’s A-note sighs turned to dog-like whimpers. Her brow furrowed. I suspected that if she was going to get off, the moment had already passed...moreThe actress’s A-note sighs turned to dog-like whimpers. Her brow furrowed. I suspected that if she was going to get off, the moment had already passed, but still I kept fucking her. Roxanne eyed the time on her watch, and still I kept fucking. I heard the tiny bones in my wrist creaking. I kept fucking. A turn-out would have given up and handed the client a vibrator, but I kept on fucking.
The white robe trembled on the clacking headboard like an old ghost, still haunting me. I understood very clearly then that there would be no cumload of cash or fame. No Ricki Lake Show. No free condos. No Viva Las Vegas. I could fuck and fuck and still never satisfy the makeover dream. The bubblegum had already been removed, and I knew that this is what I am: a queer femme who often has misguided crushes, dances low-rent burlesque in sticky-floored dyke bars, and writes goddamn poetry.
And what, I asked myself as I pulled out of the famous actress’s pussy, is wrong with that?
Amber Dawn’s debut novel Sub Rosa stands neck and neck with Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros and Robert Wiersema’s Before I Wake as one of my favourite examples of contemporary Can Lit. As an exploration of memory and identity, Sub Rosa was a magical realism tale of “Glories”—prostitutes gifted with otherworldly abilities—and the “live ones”, those who would visit the Glories in Sub Rosa to find reprieve from the dark of their everyday city. The novel was richly drawn, playing on—and often subverting—the stereotypes of sex trade workers by positioning them as saviours of sorts, offering escape, salvation, and satiation.
How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is Dawn’s follow-up to Sub Rosa—a no-stone-unturned combination of poetry and prose that is less of a biography and more of a conversation Dawn is having with the reader. The book is divided into three parts: “Outside”, “Inside”, and “Inward”.
The first section, “Outside”, is more poetry than prose. These are survival-based works, dealing with fear, drug use, depression, and isolation, with brief interludes related to Dawn’s introduction into the sex trade. The poems in this section are barbed and vitriolic—not as manicured as later works in the book, but punctuated, given a degree of immediacy and importance. Dawn shows us the origins of her voice, of embracing “ghetto feminism”; she makes clear the mental divide between the two sides of the river via clients like Paul, who gifts and provides for and shelters the still-fresh-to-the-trade Dawn, likely to make himself feel less like he’s conducting a transaction for sex and more as if he is entering into an exclusive relationship, minus any emotional requirements. She writes: “Is it easier for him, I wonder, to fuck a whore with a big-screen TV and 400-thread-count sheets than to fuck a whore in an apartment sparsely furnished with chairs found in an alley.”
“Inside” offers a more balanced split between poetry and prose. In this section, Dawn details what it was like to move off the streets and away from the greater threat of violence and rape while simultaneously getting her post-secondary education. In this section the setting changes, and in fact she changes a great deal, but the work by and large remains the same—and the same threats are still present, if not as readily apparent. The more she learns in school, however, the greater her pull to the poetry of others, the more the cracks in her complacency begin to show. Disenfranchisement—not consistent, but in fits and starts—is visible as street survival is replaced, to some extent, by numbing self-critique. Dawn’s identity is more acutely defined in this section, and the book transitions from an education to a conversation: the author asks readers to address what it is that defines or is defined by the identities we construct for our selves and in our private lives, the identities we reveal openly to the world, and our acceptance of identities that might challenge what hard and fast perceptions we might have of the world beyond our safe social and familial microcosms—to become a part of a larger conversation and to not be so prone to strive for the high ground from which to look down and find reason to criticize.
The final section, “Inward”, offers fewer poems and more prose. This section is more a series of direct addresses: to past selves and lovers, to accomplishments and movements taken part in, and to finding love—and through love, a sense of satisfaction and contentment in the moment, and embracing happiness in not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If “Outside” represents first wounds, “Inward” is about healing—about finding closure and accepting the mistakes and successes of one’s past in equal measure.
Artistically, “Outside” was, for me, the strongest section in the book. As Dawn writes in the book’s introduction, “Crisis and creativity can be a potent combination.” The poetry in this first section is sharpened to a point; the confusion and instability on display is densely constructed, tangible, and highly visual. The transition in Dawn’s writing from the beginning to the end of this book is more about refinement than voice; there is a clear through-line to her personality and the changes she experiences, and it is her writing that becomes, simply, more elegant and precise.
How Poetry Saved My Life has an essential quality to it—not just for the realities of the sex trade it presents, but for the personal struggles regarding self and sexuality addressed, both separate from and affected by her career in the sex trade and her development as a writer and public figure. If Sub Rosa is the statement, How Poetry Saved My Life is its definition—together the two works feel as if they embody a greater sense of being removed from one’s past while respectfully acknowledging the impact, importance, and in a sense, the magic of what was experienced and the worlds, eyes, and minds opened as a result of it all.(less)
“All of you got one, you know. All five of you got one.”
“You gave Kent the power to be an asshole?”
“Yes. In a way I did. Kent is slightly stronger tha...more“All of you got one, you know. All five of you got one.”
“You gave Kent the power to be an asshole?”
“Yes. In a way I did. Kent is slightly stronger than anyone he fights. Physical fights, I mean. He came out so small and I knew he’d need to defend himself, somehow. That he’s emotionally stunted is not my fault.”
“He’s not stunted. He’s just angry all the time.”
“Lucy is never lost. Abba never loses hope. Richard keeps himself safe. I never thought they’d all become curses. They were supposed to be blessings. I didn’t know that they’d end up ruining your lives.”
“Our lives are ruined?”
“And it’s not just you kids. It’s the family. The family name! I will not go to the grave responsible for taking down the good name of the Weirds.”
“Oh yes. Well, then, that makes more sense.”
“That’s why you’re here, Angie. You must go and find them. Round all of them up and bring them here. All five of you must be in this room at 7:39 p.m. on April 20 precisely. At the moment of my death I will lift the curses.”
The Weird siblings, from oldest to youngest: Richard, Lucy, Abba, Angie, and Kent. Each of them has been gifted a “blursing”—a blessing and a curse rolled into one: Richard has an almost psychic capacity for self-preservation, which keeps his heart at an arm’s length of genuine love; Lucy is gifted with an unnaturally well-tuned sense of direction that makes it impossible for her to ever fully abandon the life she has (which spawns a tragic need for her to spread her legs at far too many opportunities); Abba never loses hope, no matter how misguided it may be; Angie has a heart too big for its own good, which allows her to forgive her siblings’ many (and varied) transgressions; and Kent, the runt of the litter, is blursed with a fucking short fucking fuse that gets him into more than a few tight situations along the way.
Life for the Weird siblings is, to put it mildly, a little less than straightforward. Their father Besnard died eight and a half years prior to the start of the tale. Their mother Nicola, following their father’s death, checked out from reality and is confined now to a nursing home where she operates a makeshift hair salon for the visiting children she no longer recognizes. And last but not least is the Shark—Grandma Weird, who mistakenly blursed the five siblings early in life, and now, on her deathbed, seeks to undo the very real (or convincingly imagined) damage she’s done.
Each blursing has, over time, become a prison of sorts for the affected sibling. Following Besnard’s death, the Weird siblings went along their separate paths, each one struggling to make sense of life in their own special, messed up sort of way. Our story begins as Grandma Weird summons the very pregnant Angie to her side with a mission: to reunite the wayward Weirds in time for Grandma to break their blursings upon her untimely (though very much expected) death. What follows is a quick gathering of bickering souls in time for a chaotic road trip from one end of Canada to the other.
Like Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, Born Weird is magical realism-lite: a story that treads the line between literary and genre work, with a healthy smattering of surrealism for flavour, for oomph.
The Theory of Snakes and Sharks at the spine of Born Weird is a sort of CliffsNotes for family fuck-uppery: “The sharks are the people who are naturally evil. They just cruise around the world doing evil things. But that’s what they do. It’s in their nature. Snakes are different. They don’t actually commit evil themselves, they convince other people to do it.” Between Besnard’s spectacular lack of parenting and Grandma’s unwanted life lessons-style magical intervention, the Weird siblings’ very natures have been, against their better desires, dictated by what was lost and never truly known, and what was given—and possibly needed—but never wanted in the first place.
Kaufman’s strengths are his abilities to play with rhythm and dialogue. Each of the five Weird siblings feels authentic and accessible—and so incredibly flawed. More than that, when they come together their voices sync up in very natural ways. The casual back biting and sibling rivalry-style language paints an effective scene with plenty of implied history between them. While the dialogue is never laugh-out-loud funny, it has a sarcastic charm to it, a playfulness that gnaws at the bone without ever breaking skin. Like All My Friends Are Superheroes, which employed a similar tone and playfulness of voice, the metaphors surrounding each siblings’ blurse are never rich enough to mine for extended depths, and neither are they shallow enough to merely coat the surface.
The qualities of Kaufman’s writing do most of Born Weird’s heavy lifting. The family values-style narrative offers little more than your typical redemption-and-forgiveness tale wherein a neglectful parent is taught the error of their ways and the siblings all learn what matters most. And as the narrative stumbles in its final few steps across the finish line with a pat (but mostly earned) conclusion, a little of its bite—bite that gave the novel its life and strongest sense of identity—is lost.
In spite of that, Born Weird is a delightful, highly engaging read, and a successful marriage of magical realism with more conventional literary tendencies. Kaufman has a quick wit; the sharpness of his dialogue and how well it informs each of his characters gives Born Weird its unique comic timing and sensibility. This book is a lot of fun.(less)
Then all at once I was frightened. How quickly I could come to hate her—she who was moments ago my icon of self-creation. I must be careful, I thought...moreThen all at once I was frightened. How quickly I could come to hate her—she who was moments ago my icon of self-creation. I must be careful, I thought. I have traveled this path before. I must not go there. I therefore forced down my anger; sat still as my annoyance ebbed. It took all my self-control, but I succeeded, congratulating myself that I had changed, that I could be otherwise than I’d been. I turned my ear to the lovely pitch of the patient’s voice, her beautiful whiskey alto, and once again let it play above me as music, staccato now, legato then, piano and forte. My dear patient, I thought, forgive me! And how my heart contracted when she suddenly sobbed and cried out:
I don’t understand! How could they get me from a place they hate? How could they? I know it sounds crazy, but I feel I’m tainted. That Father looks at me and sees this mark: Catholic.
But you are not changed, said the therapist. Your being, your self, is the same, whether you came from a reed basket, a Protestant church, or a Catholic agency.
This has nothing to do with who I am! shouted the patient. It’s a mark on me before I was anyone. No matter what I am!
She was breathing forcefully, and I thought she would finally cry. But she contained herself and fell silent.
By Blood, Ellen Ullman’s second novel and third book, is a strange, often unsettling bit of literary voyeurism. The protagonist of this sordid tale is an unnamed fifty-year-old disgraced university professor awaiting the judgement of the Professional Ethics Committee. It’s never directly spelled out what his disgrace was, only that it was sexual in nature and involved a young male student—the details of their encounter are, to the novel’s benefit, kept decidedly vague. In an effort to keep his career from falling apart entirely, and to better occupy his mind, he leases an office space in a building shared by a therapist in San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 to prepare a series of lectures on The Eumenides.
However, in place of his work the narrator instead finds himself captivated, almost immediately, by the therapy sessions of a young lesbian attempting to unravel her past and track down her birth parents. The young unnamed woman’s sessions travel with almost perfect audio clarity between the walls separating her therapist’s walls from the Spartan office of our unbalanced and progressively more disturbing narrator. As the professor becomes more interested—and more involved in the patient’s story, he gradually inserts himself into the tale. At first his interest is merely a curiosity, but curiosity quickly leads to almost telegraphed obsession, then to an unnatural sort of fatherly protection and mistrust of Dr. Dora Schussler, the therapist, as he turns the patient’s search for self-identification into an academic project, in the end assuming only he knows what is best for the young wayward.
Set amidst the Zodiac killings of the mid-seventies, By Blood is a highly crafted literary mystery. The professor narrating the novel’s events is at first presented as an arrogant, entitled man. Through practiced attentiveness and an overeager imagination, he is able to construct a fully three-dimensional image of the patient’s therapy sessions—using details such as the smell of a particular brand of cigarette smoked by Dr. Schussler, or the sound she makes when she rubs her nylons together as the paint he applies to the setting built in his mind. The professor’s incredible ability to take individual details and run with them affords him a distraction from his own life and problems; periodic memories and half-crystalized thoughts reveal only what’s needed from a man whose family life was marked by “long bloodlines of mad people stretching back in time, suicides running in our veins the way blue eyes were passed down in saner clans.” It isn’t long before his many-layered neurosis overwhelms his manicured, erudite self, and the personality the reader is forced to hold hands with for the novel’s duration is one unhinged and ignorant to such ideas as “privacy” and “professional conduct.”
Opposite to the professor is the object of his fascination: the patient. Her life, as we learn through the professor’s aural voyeurism, is uncertain; she does not know entirely what she wants in a lover, how best to navigate the waters of her lesbianism with less than supportive parents, or the truth of her origins. Her adoptive mother is an emotional black hole, speaks often in the future imperative (a fantastically passive aggressive approach to parenting), and refuses to accept her daughter’s sexuality; her adoptive father is a man disowned by his own cult leader of a father and harbours a deep and at first glance irrational hatred of Catholics. We learn that, through the professor’s unknown-to-others intervention, the patient was abandoned during World War II by a Jewish mother who had married an Aryan man. She did so to attempt to protect herself from Hitler’s concentration camps. The patient was at first adopted by her adoptive father’s father, Grandfather Avery, who in turn rejected her (he’d been under the impression, vicious as despicable as he was, that he’d adopted a pure-blooded Aryan child and not some Jewish girl who’d simply been baptized Catholic). The patient’s story is so attractive to the professor as he sees, forced or not, fragments of his own self in her: “How like me she was, I thought: never properly loved, not trusting therefore, believing only in the picture of the world constructed by her analyzing mind.”
Set firmly (and unknowingly) between the professor and the patient is the therapist: Dr. Dora Schussler. Dr. Schussler is the only named character of the three main; she is the story’s fulcrum and, eventually, its final curtain. Dr. Schussler, without knowing it, is the professor’s primary antagonist—a therapist he assumes at times to be less than competent, unworthy of the patient’s attention and respect. He listens carefully to supposedly private conversations shared between Dr. Schussler and an always outside-of-the-scene therapist named Dr. Gurevitch, a contemporary of Dr. Schussler’s who assists the good doctor with feelings of her own unearthed during her sessions with the patient—feelings of guilt regarding her own German heritage and her Nazi father.
By Blood is divided into four sections, each with its own identifiable focus: Part One is backstory and setting, wherein the professor’s educated façade is quickly stripped to its psychologically disturbed underwire; Part Two is the scheme, the research that will unearth the patient’s previously unknown life story; Part Three is the history lesson, detailing in tremendous detail the patient’s search for truth as she tracks down her birth mother Michal and pulls from her the sordid details of her birth and subsequent abandonment; and Part Four is a trim collection of pages set aside for final revelations and unfortunately timed reveals. For the first two parts, the professor is most certainly the novel’s focus—much to his own dismay. In Part Three, the story shifts and the professor becomes a full-time observer to the patient’s long and difficult history. While this is in large part due to leg work accomplished in secret by the professor, he mostly recedes into the background in this part, content to sit back and munch his metaphorical popcorn while the patient pours out so much of her life as to entirely shield us from inquiring about his. In this sense, the narrative—and how it is written—conforms to his ever-present need to hide from reality and the ramifications and full acknowledgement of his unfortunate past actions.
Masks are the theme of the day. The patient’s story is the professor’s mask, so that he may hide from the world (and live somewhat happily in another’s as an imagined silent partner). By a similar token, Jewishness and lesbianism are the masks of mothers. Michal did not want religion to be a burden for her daughter as it was for her, claiming it is not blood but choice that defines someone as Jewish. This is comparable, in a sense, to the patient’s adoptive mother and her views on lesbianism—as something her daughter has chosen to inflict upon their totally happy, well balanced, and not at all cultish or borderline alcoholic family. Stories and choices—or what are perceived as choices—are preferred over blood by those most fearful of what is represented by what’s in their DNA. The book’s title, in the end, holds to what the professor, Dr. Schussler, and Michal most desperately want to ignore, and what the patient seeks so ardently to confirm: that the failures and successes of their minds and hearts are tethered to who they are, who they were, and they always would be, and the choices made along the way are worth only so much.
All that being said, the ending of By Blood is frustratingly abrupt—not so much because the patient’s history and happiness remain unresolved, but because the professor, whose life has as previously mentioned taken a back seat in the novel’s second half, has been shut out of the life he’d been obsessing over, but with little in the way of ramifications to his own already damaged psyche. This is at odds with how troubled he seemed previously over the mere possibility of losing that connection when the landlord threatened to move his office to another floor. Additionally, the professor’s own story is left unceremoniously unresolved, with his academic and professional future still up in the air at the end of the novel. It feels a little as if the author lost interest in both halves of the story at once, and the professor is left at the end with having to once more live with and examine his own life. However, the fear we’d been led to expect from him in such a situation is not present in the novel’s final pages, leading the reader to suspect that by accomplishing what he had with the patient—whatever the end result to his ethics or moral grounding—he’d found some sort of self-satisfaction that would in turn carry him through to the better, more emotionally well developed self that is shown in the novel’s opening pages, as he addresses the reader from a point after the narrative’s end.
And like life, nothing is ever truly over, and no one’s life is ever so honest and clear. Despite a few minor and not-so-minor unresolved thoughts regarding the novel’s final few pages, Ullman’s By Blood remains captivating ’til the very last.(less)
A smile crept over his face. Yeah, time to get back at every one of them who put him in shadow, who rejected his brilliance. Who refused him admission...moreA smile crept over his face. Yeah, time to get back at every one of them who put him in shadow, who rejected his brilliance. Who refused him admission to their damned club. Well, I’ll grant you all admission—admission to hell.
And as he watched the third act he thought of how simple it was to make an explosive device—kid’s stuff really. But where to put it? That was the question: where to put it?
Then he saw the mob gathering onstage to hear Anthony’s speech over Caesar’s dead body—and he knew. A mob gathered to listen. Oh, yes. Universities have such gatherings once a year. We surely do.
He ran the three necessities for a crime in his head:
Motive: in spades.
Means: you bet.
Opportunity: he’d have to work on that. Bombs need to be planted. And what would a professor be doing digging in the ground or lifting platforms. No, he’d need an assist with that.
Then he remembers the janitor who’d given “unwarranted attention” to bouncy Marcia and smiled… and to his surprise he felt comfortable in his theatre seat. He had lots of room; it fit just fine.
Decker Roberts, acting instructor, truth-sensing synaesthete, and valued NSA asset is back in A Murder of Crows, the second of David Rotenberg’s Junction Chronicles trilogy. Fourteen months have passed since the incident with Yolles Pharmaceuticals in The Placebo Effect. Decker continues to seek information about his estranged son, Seth, who is suffering from a rather aggressive cancer of the bladder. This time Decker is called upon by the NSA to help solve the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11—the bombing of an Ancaster College graduating class (and by association, the decimation of America’s scientific elite).
A Murder of Crows wastes no time tossing readers back into the mix, immediately re-introducing Decker, his sometimes duplicitous best friend Crazy Eddie, and NSA hard-ass Yslan Hicks as the book’s protagonists. The story begins with Decker on a job in Las Vegas. Crazy Eddie is still trying to win back his daughter, Marina, and to do so he’s got to make a play against a particular bastard of a lawyer named Ira Charendoff. Charendoff and Decker have a history, so in order to clear the playing field and keep the NSA off Decker’s back at the same time, Crazy Eddie sends Decker off to South Africa. Following the attack at Ancaster, the NSA tracks down Decker in South Africa and “encourages” him to return to the United States, using his son’s whereabouts as a fantastically manipulative bargaining chip. The novel also introduces a number of new characters via quick, sometimes half-page chapters—characters such as: Ancaster student and scientist Grover Cleveland Rabinowitz, who is preternaturally obsessed with the mysterious lumps of microwaved faecal matter that appear on campus from time to time; Walter Jones, Esq., an Ancaster janitor whose rather simple behaviour becomes creepy and stalkerish with little pushing; and Viola Tripping, a psychic medium who is presented, troublingly so, as simultaneously a woman and a little girl in both appearance and mannerisms.
Like the first book in the series, A Murder of Crows plays fast and loose with the concept of synaesthesia. In some cases, it flat-out makes up its own definitions. The synaesthesia presented in this book is less the phenomenon we know it as (a crossing of the senses wherein some people can smell words or see colours and shapes with music or taste certain letters and syllables, etc.) and something far more… supernatural. In fact, it’s entirely supernatural—the character of Viola Tripping is in fact a medium for speaking to the dead, which has absolutely nothing to do with synaesthesia, or for that matter, reality. When Harrison says at one point, “We really don’t know sweet fuck all, do we?” he’s right—the rules of what is and what isn’t synaesthesia in Rotenberg’s world are still not clear.
As problematic as The Placebo Effect was, A Murder of Crows has an even greater number of issues. Most of them are continuations of problems that existed in the previous title: the film- and pop culture-based asides are just as prevalent and still add little if anything to the characters, only now they are matched by political asides (commentating on the position of “the whites” in South Africa, Julian Assange’s guilt or innocence, and the timely idiocy of Sarah Palin’s “death panels”) that feel less tied to the characters and more as if they are a product of the author breaking the fourth wall to tell us how he feels about the world. Many of the side plots introduced in the first book are finally resolved here, such as why Garreth Senior has such a hate-on for Decker, and why Seth wants nothing to do with his father—though in the case of the latter, it’s an answer that comes too little too late, as what could have been used in the first book to better frame their troubled relationship lands with more of a “it’s about bloody time” than an “oh, I get it now.”
Building further on the problems from the first book is the strange and out of place racial insensitivity on display when describing the almost magical connection most Africans seem to have to the planet, or the very free-flowing anti-Muslim language used in sections describing suspects in the attack. None of it meshes with the otherwise popcorn vibe of the book. Rather it feels at odds with what’s been provided, as if deliberately used to exoticize the “other” (further exemplified through Decker’s relationship with Inshakha, who appears to know a great deal more about the world than she lets on).
There is also insensitivity displayed towards women and size and sexual attraction. For example, the one character openly referred to as a bitch is also repeatedly referenced for her ample size, as if that is condemnation of her personality. To go even further, the novel makes special note to point out that the twisted, borderline insane killer has a thing for bigger women, as if that were another point of perversion on a character who has already been revealed as a murderous stalker with a scatological obsession.
And what is it with this book’s preoccupation with piss and shit? Every time it managed to pull me out of the narrative—especially when it is used in moments to exclusively de-age or dehumanize characters, such as when Viola is introduced via the immortal words, “I’ve made a poopoo.” It rang entirely false.
From the unrealistic and all-too-simple decision (made with Dr. Claw-like aplomb) to murder dozens of innocent professors and young adults made by two childish villains who feel short-shafted by life, to side narratives that are never given enough room to breathe or feel essential to the story or characters, and an overwhelmingly childish tone that can be at time politically patronizing and frustratingly obtuse as it vacillates between fear of the other and “fuck the rich and entitled, they all deserve to die,” the second book in Rotenberg’s trilogy is more coherent from point A to point B than the first, but shares all the same problems and then some.
Perhaps, though, the single greatest problem so far is that after two books in this series, I still don’t feel I know who Decker is—what he feels, what he thinks, or for that matter what any of the characters are feeling or thinking. The closest we as readers come to gaining a greater understanding of Decker is through his all-too brief relationship with Tinnery in South Africa. She is able to cut beneath the surface of Decker, if only for a moment. That brief encounter aside, Rotenberg’s characters are still frustratingly thin—a problem that stems in large part from the breakneck pace of each very short chapter. The basic structure of A Murder of Crows is restrictive—offering brevity of time, place, and thought that does not allow for any one personality to grow or shine in an organic way.(less)
Two hundred pounds is already a huge person. I’m richer by one whole huge person now. Since she came and joined me here, I’ve been calling her Scheher...moreTwo hundred pounds is already a huge person. I’m richer by one whole huge person now. Since she came and joined me here, I’ve been calling her Scheherazade. It’s not very kind to the real Scheherazade, who must have been a slender creature. But I’d rather identify her with one person and not two, and with a woman rather than a man, probably because I’m heterosexual. Besides, I like the idea of Scheherazade. She speaks to me all night long. She knows I can’t make love anymore, so instead of doing it with me she charms me with her beautiful stories. I’ll let you in on my secret: it’s thanks to Scheherazade’s storytelling that I can live with my obesity. I don’t need to make you a drawing to show you what would happen to me if the guys found out I gave the name of a woman to my fat. But I know that you won’t judge me. You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity. And in your books they make up strange legends, like Scheherazade, to be able to go on living.
It’s as if she were the one writing this letter. I can’t get her to stop. I’ve never written such a long message in my life, which proves it’s not me. I hate my obesity, but I love Scheherazade. At night when my weight presses down my chest, I imagine it’s not me but a beautiful young woman lying on my body. I immerse myself in the story and I can hear her sweet feminine voice murmuring indescribable things in my ear. Then my fat arms squeeze her flesh and it’s so convincing that instead of feeling my own flab, I am touching a lover’s smooth skin. At times like that, believe me, I am happy. Better still: we are happy, she and I, the way only lovers can be.
Since discovering an English translation of Amélie Nothomb’s first novella Hygiene and the Assassin a couple of years ago, I’ve devoured, in very short order, what little of her work I’ve been able to find. This is fitting, given the themes of consumption—both of the artist and their art—at the heart of Life Form.
Employing a predominantly epistolary format, Life Form tells the story of the world famous writer Amélie Nothomb and her was-it-real-or-wasn’t-it correspondence with a man named Melvin Mapple, a dangerously obese and downtrodden American soldier stationed in Iraq in 2008. Mapple is a fan of Nothomb’s writing. He reaches out to her first for understanding, then for inspiration as he pours his woes out to an intrigued if not entirely confident ear. Mapple’s body is at once his worst enemy and closest confidante; he is a compulsive eater, using food to deal with the horrors he’s experienced as a soldier in Iraq. Over time, he has developed an attachment to the extra weight he carries around, seeing it as a lover, a family, an act of sabotage, and in the end, a work of art.
Through their correspondence, Nothomb addresses not only her own misgivings about Mapple’s attitude towards his self, but her reluctance to emotionally involve herself with a fan—someone she’s never met who, like so many who write to her every week, is in some way devouring a part of her as he slowly devours his own will to exist.
I won’t say much more about the plot because, like all of Nothomb’s books, Life Form is a trim, fast read that is best experienced in only one or two sittings. This novella, while embracing its uniquely epistolary format, does tread on some familiar ground for the author; weight, size, obesity, and the control or lack thereof such things symbolize are a continuing source of antagonism in her work—never a thing for belittling or condemning, but something to be at first acknowledged, then confronted, pulled into the here and now in order to be better understood.
From the beginning of her career, via the embittered, misogynistic Prétextat Tach of Hygiene and the Assassin, obesity and size have been prominent components of Nothomb’s literature. In Life Form, she’s able to muster an appreciation for Mapple as long as he remains on the other end of their correspondence, invisible and out of sight; she can dispense sympathy and support with greater ease than if her were in front of her, confronting her with his size. This point is made clear when two thirds of the way through the novella she receives a photograph of Mapple in all his corpulence. In that instant, the pondering over his girth and what it means for his health and mental state is replaced by an overwhelming parade of visual notes:
It hit me right in the face: a naked, hairless thing, so enormous that it spilled over the edge. A blister in full expansion: you could sense the flesh constantly searching for new opportunities to spread and swell, to conquer new terrain. The fresh flab must have to cross continents of fatty tissue to blossom on the surface, before crusting over like bacon draped over a roast to become the support for even newer fat. Thus is the void conquered by obesity: to add weight, the body annexes the empty space.
Not terribly warm-hearted of her, but striking and sense-igniting all the same. This passage, for all its negativity, is the author once more stripping her skin for the reader, revealing her… not her hatred of fat, but her fear of it, her struggle for control projected outward. Before seeing Mapple, his fat is simply an idea, not yet a reality—a mirror into which she sees something still worth raising one’s hackles over.
As the narrative progresses and, following certain revelations, plans to meet are made, the correspondence as a hunger in and of its self is made clear. Nothomb discusses the trouble with correspondence—the public feeding off the artist, always begging, always asking for more of her mind, her time, and her ideas. What become more obvious over time are the direct parallels between Mapple’s at times bi-polar reaction to his own physique and Nothomb’s semi-transparent social anxiety, each of which has roots in the other. Both, when all is said and done, tread a delicate balance between acknowledging their own fears and psychological limitations and self-victimizing in order to better avoid life and the world outside their tiny, protective-yet-destructive bubbles. Life Form is a missive about devouring and being devoured in every sense of the word, and where control rests in such situations.
There’s a certain amount of curiosity and innocence to Nothomb’s writing and how she sees and interacts with the world—in a perfunctory and highly visual manner, but not at all outwardly combative or dismissive. By often placing herself—or, at the very least, a heightened, possibly slightly fictionalized version of herself—at the forefront of the stories she tells, Nothomb crafts an unusually strong relationship with the reader in which she largely avoids social criticism and points her knives instead at her own chest. Life Form, like all her novellas, is a clean glass of ice water embracing an absolute brevity of language to maximum effect. Whether the correspondence between the author and Mapple actually happened is irrelevant, and surprisingly enough I have no desire to look further into the matter. What is important in the case of this narrative is the author’s willingness and ability to, without reservation, sheer away any and all pretension she might have had in favour of an honest appraisal of both Mapple and herself. What is revealed by the narrative’s end is equal parts sad, unsettling, and touching. (less)
I didn’t want to go. But with Frank’s eyes drilling into me, I couldn’t have moved anyway. I had turned to stone, from the tip of each hair on my head...moreI didn’t want to go. But with Frank’s eyes drilling into me, I couldn’t have moved anyway. I had turned to stone, from the tip of each hair on my head all the way down to my toenails. Frank grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me inside. At the door I lost my balance and nearly fell, but he caught me and easily supported my entire weight with his right arm. He carried me inside as if I were a piece of luggage and dropped me carelessly on the floor. I heard him walk back to the door and pull down the steel security shutter outside it. When I opened my eyes I saw two pairs of legs, a man’s and a woman’s. I knew the woman was Maki by her red high heels and white lace stockings. A wet, shin, scarlet line slithered down the shin of one stocking. Like a living creature, some sort of parasite maybe, it was crawling along the delicate threads at a slow but steady pace. At a table facing her, Lady #5 along with Mr. Children and Lady #3 sat goggling slack-jawed at Maki. The moment I looked up and saw what they were staring at, everything in my stomach began the journey back up my esophagus. It looked as though Maki had another mouth below her jaw. Oozing from this second, smiling mouth was a thick, dark liquid, like coal tar. Her throat had been slit literally from ear to ear and more than halfway through, so that it looked as if her head might fall right off. And yet, incredibly, Maki was still on her feet and still alive, her eyeballs swiveling wildly and her lips quivering as she wheezed foam-flecked blood from the wound in her throat. She seemed to be trying to say something. The man beside her was the manager. He and Maki were leaning against each other, as if they’d been positioned to hold each other up. His neck was twisted in an unnatural way, his head turned as though to look over his shoulder, but drooping limply, chin resting on his shoulder blade. Just beyond Maki’s high heels, Yuko and the waiter lay in a heap on the floor. A thin blade, like a sashimi knife, was buried deep in Yuko’s lower back, and the waiter’s neck was twisted like the manager’s.
Kenji is a twenty-year-old “night life” guide for Americans looking to get their fuck on in Tokyo’s many exotic clubs and love hotels. His girlfriend Jun is a sixteen-year-old high school student who tacitly endorses Kenji’s at-the-moment career and his dream of saving up enough money to go to America. Just prior to New Year’s Kenji meets Frank, an American businessman in need of Kenji’s particular expertise. Together Kenji and Frank embark on a multi-night sex tour of the Tokyo ward Shinjuku that ends in murder, mayhem, and a peculiar, almost impossible to understand bond that develops between two very different men.
Frank discovers Kenji through an advertisement in the Tokyo Pink Guide—a guide to some of Tokyo’s many sexploits and sexcursions. He offers him a grand sum of money for three nights work—three nights to show Frank the ropes of the seedier side of town. Right away Kenji is suspicious of Frank; we learn in the beginning of a young woman found mutilated and discarded in a neighbouring area. Kenji suspects Frank—an out-of-towner with strangely artificial skin, an oddly shaped penis, and suicide scars up and down his wrists—might have had something to do with the killing. Almost immediately gaps begin to appear in the stories Frank tells Kenji; either his mind and memory are firing at random intervals, or he is not being entirely honest with Kenji. He is unpredictable, his emotions tripping between extremes at regular intervals. It isn’t long before Kenji’s questions are answered and Frank crosses over from odd duck to full-blown psycho killer territory.
The cover of my copy of In the Miso Soup has a blurb from the Guardian: “Reads like the script notes for American Psycho.” This is accurate, but only to a point. While there are definite psychopathic similarities between Psycho’s 1980s poster boy for all things effed Patrick Bateman and In the Miso Soup’s businessman-on-a-sexual-bender Frank, the styles of the two novels are drastically different; where American Psycho is a send-up of the culture of the moment and aesthetic conventions and obsessions, In the Miso Soup is borderline surreal in its marriage of Japanese culture and one American’s spur-of-the-moment killing spree.
Following Frank’s mid-novel rampage, Kenji pretzels himself into accepting what’s happened—at first out of fear for his own life, then out of some misguided concern for how going to the police might negatively affect his not-totally-legal career, and finally because of the distorted friendship that blossoms between them as more of Frank’s twisted and idiosyncratic past is revealed.
The three acts of In the Miso Soup are all quite distinctive: set-up and suspicion; a glorious, blood-soaked killing spree; and a point-for-point (and very detailed) excursion into one’s disturbed past. Kenji’s gradual acceptance of Frank—despite still fearing him—is steeped in a mix of curiosity and concern for Frank’s well being. There are strong mental illness undertones to Frank’s actions; however, they are, to a degree, undone by the novel’s brief but totally unrealistic side trips into is-it-or-isn’t-it black magic, such as Frank’s inexplicable ability to hypnotize innocent bystanders.
To the novel’s benefit, the connection between Kenji and Frank, while strange, is intriguing. By associating with Frank, Kenji is given an inverted view of the world that until now he’s only seen from safe places. Conversely, Frank spares Kenji because he sees in him an agreeable sort—a guide not entirely unsympathetic to actions he feels emotionally removed from.
Despite the mid-novel bloodbath, In the Miso Soup is decidedly tame by Murakami’s standards. Kenji’s progression from suspicion to fear and eventually tacit understanding is believable, as is his sympathy for Frank in the aftermath of the second night’s events. While Frank’s almost supernatural abilities take the reader out of the novel in brief moments, the journey overall is interesting, though not entirely thrilling.
In the Miso Soup is if nothing else a curious exploration of psychotic behaviour. (less)
Stephen looks at his brother over their mother’s shoulder while she leans down to attach the bandage to his ear. Michael’s looking at him and he’s thi...moreStephen looks at his brother over their mother’s shoulder while she leans down to attach the bandage to his ear. Michael’s looking at him and he’s thinking—and this is one of the clearest thoughts he’s ever had—he’s thinking: What’s wrong with me? Why would I do that to you? Once she’s attached the bandage to Stephen’s ear and given him a good, strong hug, she turns around, swivels her head, and her eyes find Michael in the corner.
She sees something in his eyes. The look she gives him says: There’s something rotten inside you. I can see it. There is something wrong with you. You’re a terrible, terrible boy, and I don’t love you anymore.
The boys’ father walks in the back door, folding and tossing his newspaper on the kitchen table. He looks at no one.
Growing up, Michael remembers sometimes wondering what it was that their father stuffed into him and his brother, what things he crammed into those holes that he dug in them both. Standing in that kitchen—the smell of his mother, the sad, confused eyes of his brother across the room, and his father walking through the wreckage as if none of it touched him—Michael realizes that those things his father dug and stuffed into his children were pieces of himself.
Pieces of himself that he didn’t like.
A little bit of The Good Son, mixed with a healthy dose of Memento and a pseudo-personality-swapping structure that in some ways echoes Lynch’s Lost Highway, Brett Alexander Savory’s In and Down is a narrative matryoshka painted with a twisted, grime-drenched carnival aesthetic. It’s about learned hatred, assumed blame, the misconceptions and cruelties of childhood, and the many, often dangerous, ways siblings target and wound one another.
Stephen and Michael are brothers—Stephen being the eldest, and Michael the story’s focus. Michael is in many ways a delicate boy. He is frequently picked on by Stephen, sees his father as a rough, guttural example of a man (who’s personality is a toxic mess of racism and neglect), and is investigating the whys and wherefores of his mother’s disappearance.
In searching for his mother, and by result his sense of self and place among things, Michael discovers a letter written by her, detailing her reasons for leaving—because of the unease she felt living with one of the two boys. Michael’s search for answers quickly intensifies, leading him into a lucid dream state where he encounters Hob, a guide or ringmaster of sorts for the carnival of Michael’s mind. Dressed in a green suit and purple top hat, Hob opens the door for Michael, starting him on a journey to the very centre of his being. As Michael travels deeper into his dream and with greater frequency, he meets an assortment of characters like Marla, Smithy, and Crimley, each representative of another aspect of the journey (such as the construct of the ideal woman/mother carved from a block of wood and personalized, or the permanent mask worn to shield one from the hideousness of self).
In and Down is not a book you read once. Savory has gone to great trouble to give each and every character a sense of physicality, and of purpose—even if that purpose is at first obscured. From the dead dogs buried in Michael and Stephen’s backyard, to their father’s obvious racism, and the slow, steady descent into the dream carnival’s freak show—and by proxy the rotten core of Michael (and possibly Stephen)—In and Down is about a slow peeling back of the layers, like a hangnail that when tugged tears a long strip of skin up the side of one’s finger.
Michael is, in many ways, an unreliable narrator. We can’t trust him because he doesn’t truly know himself. The sense of discovery in In and Down is richly apparent in the bleeding of realities via Michael’s dream descent. And as the elevator gets closer and closer to the bottom, and the carnival is inundated more and more with freak show attractions, clowns, and single-serving acquaintances, Michael comes closer to learning the truths about his mother’s disappearance and his difficult relationship with his father and brother. Nowhere is this unsettling sense of discovery more obvious than when a clown drapes a blanket over Michael and “he closes his eyes, sucks the heat into himself. Buries his face in the fabric of the blanket and inhales.
“It smells like makeup and dirt.”
Without spoiling certain late-novel events, I began to ponder part-way through the narrative if ever there were two brothers, or if there had only ever been one, and the trip through the carnivalesque nightmare world was in fact a slow-motion psychological break—one child feeling responsible for the disappearance of a parent and needing something to blame, and crafting that something into the body and mind of a brother that never existed in the first place.
I wish I could say I felt with total confidence that this was the case, but as previously mentioned and more than any book I’ve read in recent months, I think I need to start back at the beginning and give In and Down a second read.
Savory’s story is not difficult, nor is it convoluted, but it’s easy to slide down the mountain of vivid imagery (with too many fucking clowns for comfort) without giving it too much thought at first, only to look behind after the fact and realize what it was that had just been revealed. Michael and Stephen are believable as children—their voices feel authentic without being “written down to.” And the sporadic use of images and illustrations, such as dirty, handwritten notes, add emphasis and an air of the macabre without disrupting the narrative flow.
I was pleasantly surprised by In and Down and how it not only subverted expectations as I was reading it, but has continued to change in my mind as I’ve taken the time to really think about it in the days since finishing. It’s an unsettling look at the lives of children and siblings, and of memory and assumption, and it is not to be breezed through lightly. Take your time with this one. Pick it apart—you’ll be glad you did. (less)
“I told him, ‘It doesn’t work on people I care about or family.’”
Decker had thought at the time about telling his father about the lines in his head—h...more“I told him, ‘It doesn’t work on people I care about or family.’”
Decker had thought at the time about telling his father about the lines in his head—how they aligned when he heard a truth—then decided against it, as he decided against telling the southern girl across the table from him.
“My father’s eyes widened then he said, ‘I want you downstairs next Thursday night.’
“I protested, ‘But you and your friends are way better pool players than—’
“‘I know,’ he said.
“‘But I’m not good enough to play with—’
“‘No you aren’t, but come down and play that lying trick of yours.’
“I really didn’t want to do it, but I did. After their game ended and the men left, my father asked me what statements made by his friends were truthful. I identified the very few truths spoken that night, then added, ‘And Mr. Walsh pocketed a twenty that belonged to you.’
“‘You saw that too?”
“My father nodded slowly. ‘This is pretty interesting, don’t you think?’ he said.
“But I really didn’t find it interesting. I found it scary and isolating. And I didn’t like the way my father looked at me—like I had confirmed in his mind that I really was a freak. So I stopped using it.”
Decker Roberts is a synaesthete. Not one of those “silly” synaesthetes who can smell words or see colours and shapes in music (of which I am actually the latter), but an actual benefit to society and the protection of life and liberty. Through some crossed wiring in his brain he is able to tell, with incredible precision, when someone is telling the truth. Sometimes, that is. When there are no possible outstanding factors that might give someone reason to fib. Oh, and that’s another thing: he can’t tell when someone’s lying, only when they’re not being entirely truthful. Which is a round about way of saying that though Decker is in possession of a unique ability, it comes a pre-packaged laundry list of ways it can be circumvented. It’s a little like getting a mobile phone that only works when you’re standing in one specific spot at a certain time of day.
In the years since his wife’s death from ALS, Decker has forged a side-business to take advantage of his particular set of skills. On paper he teaches acting courses and has a past in the Broadway theatre scene. Off the record, however, he is available on a case-by-case basis for jobs requiring him to tell whether or not someone—usually an employee of a business with too much money to burn—is being truthful. When not jetting around North America on one-night-only jobs, Decker makes his home in Toronto, in an area of the city known as the Junction, where he pines for slivers of knowledge as to the wellbeing and whereabouts of his estranged son, Seth, who abandoned Decker years earlier for reasons not explained in this book.
The plot of The Placebo Effect, the first in a trilogy of books, revolves around two primary elements: the NSA’s tracking of known synaesthetes (not unlike the mutant Registration program from X-Men, minus the towering, thirty-foot-tall sentinels); and Henry-Clay Yolles of Yolles pharmaceuticals orchestrating a scam to sell his company’s medication for maximum profit using a carefully calculated ratio of placebos to actual medicine. The ratio itself was calculated beyond a shadow of a doubt by another synaesthete—the tragically simple Mike Shedloski (aka the Ratio Man). Henry-Clay is aware of Decker Roberts and his special skill and puts him to the test—supposedly to see whether or not he can be used as an asset. But when Mike the Ratio Man threatens to reveal Yolles Pharmaceuticals’ underhanded behaviour, Henry-Clay deems both him and Decker as threats to be quickly discarded.
There are a great many more characters and plot elements to the story—too many, in fact, given how little time is spent developing each character. I had several problems with The Placebo Effect, chief among them that it’s simply not very well written, plotted, or paced. The characters themselves are two-dimensional cut-outs. They have back-stories, sure—like Crazy Eddie attempting to regain custody of his daughter, or the mostly-untold history between Seth and Decker—but there is so much jumping around scene to scene, and often with only single paragraphs dedicated to one time or place before moving onto the next, that it is almost impossible to get any sort of emotional or psychological feel for any of the characters. The structure is spastic in how quickly it moves between people and places, and as such there is no room for the narrative or the characters to breathe, to be anything to one another but basic screenplay devices. And when Rotenberg does attempt to give a little depth via comparisons or interests, it is still handed in a frustratingly surface-level manner (eg: using albums, films, and TV shows to illustrate character traits, but not explaining how or what the relation is—such as referencing one’s dislike of The Fountainhead without giving context as to why). And when all is said and done, no actual depth has been added through these plentiful asides, and the reader is left perpetually wanting more—and not at all in a constructive I-can’t-wait-for-the-sequel manner.
Beyond these issues, I found the manner in which topics related to race were handled to be insensitive and heavy-handed, the amount of information which is teased but deliberately held back for future installments to be overwhelmingly distracting (and by holding so much of it back, especially with respect to Seth and Decker’s relationship, it actually harms are ability to take an interest in either one of their lives), and the level of detail—especially with respect to the language and imagery used to explain Decker’s particular synaesthesia—to be startlingly sparse and illustrating a surprising deficit of imagination.
Most egregious though is discerning Yolles’ motivation, especially with respect to his targeting of Decker. At the end of the book I’m left seeing this as a shot-first scenario, where it is Yolles’ fear and lack of understanding about Decker that causes him to go after him in the first place. Had he just left it alone and not done a thing, or waited to see if someone like Decker would actually ever be a threat in the first place, then it might have made sense to go after him. As it stands, the plot of The Placebo Effect feels as if it hinges entirely on Yolles making an incredibly stupid error in judgement, drawing Decker into a plot that would have otherwise passed him by. And all this without touching on NSA Special Agent Yslan Hicks, who vacillates so jarringly between intrigue and being a force of unnecessary oppression and antagonism that by the end I’d lost interest in discovering who she was beneath the surface.
I have a lot more I’d like to say (like how ridiculously simple it is for Yolles to gain Mike’s passwords to the online synaesthete community) but the long and short of it is that The Placebo Effect did not work for me on any level. I like the basic idea of employing synaesthetes in unconventional ways, but at no point does Decker’s skill—or any of the synaesthetic skills presented—feel necessary to the goings on in this book. In the end, too many characters and questions are left hanging for the second book in the series, while not enough has been given for me to know why I should want to read on.(less)
I was wearing my silver party boots, though I now considered them simply boots. The last party I’d attended I’d been felled by such a gutting attack o...moreI was wearing my silver party boots, though I now considered them simply boots. The last party I’d attended I’d been felled by such a gutting attack of vertigo that I’d been forced to spend the night in the stairwell of the hostess’s apartment building, the flights of steps throbbing above me like a stressed vascular system. The last date I’d been on I’d bled from the mouth when kissed. My last visit to a restaurant I’d spent voiding my intestines in the unisex bathroom. Whereas I’d once been able to infiltrate other people’s lives and heads while I remained unknown to them, now the opposite was true. Everyone was an impenetrable stranger to me, while I proved a livid advertisement for myself. My symptoms were an ugly secret I couldn’t help but share. Save to go to my job or the occasional doctor appointment or yoga class taught by the soothing adherents of a Canadian named John, I’d become a hermit. If I could not prevent the nausea, the insomnia-provoking pricks of light on the insides of my eyelids, the canker sores, the explosive bowel, the numb extremities, the swollen joints, the eczema-covered hands, I could at least limit the unattractive way that people came to know me when I was anything but alone.
Julia Severn is a student at New Hampshire’s prestigious Institute of Integrated Parapsychology—colloquially known as the Workshop. The Workshop is a school for psychics, and Julia was, upon entry, considered one of their more talented recruits. Early in her academic career, Julia is assigned the role of stenographer to her mentor—the much-despised Madame Ackerman, who sees in Julia’s talent a threat to her own standing within the school and the larger psychic community. While documenting Madame Ackerman’s regressions, through which she is able to psychically transpose herself into different times and places, Julia’s gifts are revealed to the jealous matriarch.
Fearful of her protégé’s power, Madame Ackerman inflicts upon Julia a vicious, debilitating psychic attack, which leaves the student a washed-up, self-medicating mess living a pointless New York existence working as an exhibition model for a flooring company. In the months following the attack and her dropping out of the Workshop, Julia is propositioned by a mysteriously aggravating young woman named Alwyn and an academic named Colophon to help track down a missing avant-garde artist, Dominique Varga, who may or may not have known Julia’s mother—who killed herself when Julia was only a month old—for a brief period of time. Along the way, Julia encounters vanishing films—a sort of recorded suicide note, videotaped farewells for those wishing to remove themselves from reality—psychic rehab centres, and unexpected academic success at the hands (and mind) of her toxic self.
There are a great many more details and detours along the way, few of which hold any sense of urgency or self-reflection. The Vanishers succeeds entirely on the strength of Julavits’s sly, sardonic tone—which also, ironically enough, plays a significant part in its undoing. Make no mistake: the language is fork-tongued and often amusing (far too few authors make use of the always-delicious “mendacious”), but what begins as an exciting, altered perspective on the paranormal-made-real becomes, during the book’s third of six parts, decidedly mundane and seemingly disinterested in its own characters.
“The past is not the past if it always present. Memory is an act of murder.”
The Vanishers is in many ways about the many faces of memory—how it is at once illuminating, deceptive, destructive, and manipulative. Psychics, in Julavits world, are (forgive me) the mediums for this exploration. Their abilities are sorely underused as a means for merely dissecting the tricks of memory and how it is so frequently distorted by the frustrations of family. It is also about mothers and daughters, specifically—mothers pushing away their daughters, daughters becoming their mothers; mothers killing themselves, daughters killing their memories of.
It was honestly difficult for me to pull more from this title than what I’ve written above because, interestingly enough for a book about emotional and psychic penetration, I found it to be rather emotionally distant—so much so that I felt distracted by its chilly exterior. No single character felt accessible on any level. The book’s writing, while obviously lovingly crafted, trades depth, momentum, and vulnerability for humour and a plot overburdened, in the end, by detail and quick transitions of location and circumstance.
The Vanishers is a portrait of an intriguing idea painted with simple, clean strokes, when what I really wanted, what I felt this novel sorely needed, was a little mess and imprecision—an emotional core revealed, unhidden behind such delicate craftwork. (less)