But there is something very wrong when you’re telling women (and only women) to keep their hair short, only dress in ways that no one could consider “But there is something very wrong when you’re telling women (and only women) to keep their hair short, only dress in ways that no one could consider “provocative,” only dress in clothing that is difficult to cut off with scissors (so, Kevlar jeans, I guess?), and never use their phones or search through their purses in public.
There’s something wrong with expecting women to remember that they should always go for the groin, or the eyes, or the armpit, or the upper thigh, or the first two fingers (I am not making any of these up), and that it only takes five pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear, and if you hit someone’s nose with the palm of your hand and push up just right, you can drive the bone into their brain and kill them.
There’s something wrong with acting as though it’s perfectly reasonable to tell women never to drink to excess—and, when drinking to non-excess, never to let their drinks out of their sight—and not to walk alone at night and definitely not to travel alone, and not to job with earphones, and not to approach a stoplight without locking the car doors, and not to respond to the sound of a crying baby, and not to get into their cars without checking both the backseat and underneath the car first, and not to get in on the driver’s side if there’s a van parked next to it, and not to pull over for unmarked police cars until they’re in well-lit areas, and, and, and.
The short, to-the-point review: Author, columnist, and all-around awesome person Kate Harding has written a book about rape culture and you should all read it. Especially if you think it doesn’t exist; or if you hear the words “Gamer Gate” or “victim blaming” and roll your eyes like you think it’s all just some joke; or if you use “SJW” or “Social Justice Warrior” as a pejorative to describe people you think are taking all the fun out of life. Because these are all very real issues threatening women, men, LGBTQIA individuals, and their allies, and they need to be addressed.
It’s fitting that I should read this book the same week that professional douche-nozzle and all-around misogynistic, women-hating fuckwit Roosh V. and his trolling, doxxing, “legal rape”-promoting misappropriations of sperm are planning an international meet-up to learn how to be even wider enflamed assholes. (Their mothers must all be so proud.) Because, point of fact, these idiots are either criminals or promoting criminal acts that endorse the taking away of basic rights, liberties, and freedoms of half the world’s population by violent, aggressive, life-endangering means, and all so they can get their rocks off and feel like manly men, subscribing to the most toxic aspects of the stereotype of masculinity that so needs to die in a fire.
This book is a giant reality check for those with the privilege of having their heads in the sand, pretending that such issues don’t exist so long as they remain someone else’s problems. But what Harding does, in a wonderfully detailed-yet-glib manner, is drop hard facts, and lots of them. Each chapter tackles another facet of the culture, of our culture, and its blind spots regarding rape, assault, and the treatment of victims.
She addresses the tone-deafness of certain individuals (mostly white males) in saying “Why don’t women carry weapons to protect themselves? They’d be safer.” Tell that to Marissa Alexander, an African American woman who fired a warning shot into a wall to fend off her attacking husband, and was subsequently sentenced to twenty years in prison. Her conviction was overturned; however, in a new trial, she faced the possibility of an utterly absurd sixty years behind bars, and thus entered a guilty plea in a bargain for just three years. For a fucking warning shot against an attacker. And this is just one awful instance detailed in the book of the ways that race and class play into the public’s and the law’s willingness to believe a victim’s claims.
Harding goes on to tackle obvious necessities like safety tips, and calls for men and allies to be more direct in their support and willingness to confront those who would abuse, ignore, or merely shrug their shoulders at their own aggressive tendencies, or the illegal and violent actions of others. She goes on to suggest the creation of programs for youths to better explore issues of boundaries and consent, and even broaches the topic of what is and isn’t censorship when it comes to using rape in a joke (hint: it’s never censorship to criticize someone’s joke—freedom of speech does not mean freedom from reaction or rebuttal, it just means you’re not going to go to jail for being horrible and insensitive).
The most intense aspects of the book deal with the baffling and destructive culture of victim blaming and/or shaming that exists—that in the wake of a sexual assault, many women won’t report or fear reporting the crime, because by and large belief falls not in the victim’s court but in the perpetrator’s, leading to police and other law enforcement individuals often finding ways of turning said crime on the victim, spinning it as their fault, as something they were in some way asking for. Or simply disregarding the claims of rape or assault altogether. And in a world with Daniel Holtzclaw—the ex-Oklahoma police officer recently, rightfully, sentenced to 263 years in prison on eighteen counts of rape and assault—it’s not hard to see why so many have such apprehension or mistrust of the law, an issue compounded if the victim in question happens to be of a class or race other than wealthy and white.
And if you’re still not totally convinced as to the ramifications and fucking horribleness of victim blaming, look up the story of Seemona Sumasar, which Harding details quite well. The author uses the phrase “miscarriage of justice” to in part describe what happened to Sumasar upon reporting her assault, but really it’s an understatement akin to saying Tea Partiers aren’t terribly fond of Obama.
When all is said and done, though, the simple take-away from society’s tendency to victim-blame is this: treat the victim like a goddamn human being. It doesn’t seem like much to ask, until you learn that we have a system where two-thirds of all rape and assault cases are dismissed, with more than 80% of said dismissals happening against the victim’s continuing desire to prosecute.
Harding wraps up her crash course in rape culture by turning the spotlight to the media and pop culture—continual presences throughout, but needing their own, more detailed analysis. On the media side of things, she discusses how, as has been previously mentioned, the press is only truly interested in such a story if the victim and perpetrator match what is deemed ratings friendly (i.e., if the victim happens to be wealthy and white, and the attacker poor and of a visible minority). Similarly, film and television often do a disservice to victims and rapists by painting them with broad strokes—as perfect angels and vicious monsters respectively, when the reality for so many, especially when the attacker is known to the victim, is much harder to quantify in such simplistic terms. This is of course compounded when having to report an individual’s actions when others—possibly friends and family—also know and love, and trust, the suspect in question.
Lastly, we come to online trolls, gamergaters, and other similar Internet shit stains like those mentioned at the start of this review. These are “the new misogynists”—Men’s Rights Activists (MRA’s) and Pick Up Artists (PUA’s) who see the dismantling of the world in the increasing platforms for women and LGBTQIA individuals. They have embraced the worst elements of masculinity as their guiding ethos, treating women who have the temerity to exist online and speak without a man’s permission and, god forbid, demand equality and equal rights and the ability to walk down a street or exist in their own homes without fear of being forcibly taken, as if they are poor role models for other women, and evidence of the upsetting of the natural order of things. Harding sheds a stomach-turning light on the corner of the world, online and off, occupied by these individuals, and the very real threat their existence entails.
Don’t believe me? Take a moment and search for the Return of Kings website—also knows as the Internet’s unwashed scrotal sack. I apologize in advance for the horrible, hate-filled excrement you’re about to read: page after page, article after article written by sad, angry men who’ve convinced themselves that all their misfortune is the fault of the world’s women—especially those they find unattractive.
It’s absolutely worth noting that this book is not remotely anti-men. In fact, Harding is a champion of men, and though the numbers of incidents are quite a bit lower than with women, she does touch on sexual assault and abuse faced by men in North America. She merely expects, and not in any way unfairly, for men to be better than our worst stereotypes and cultural expectations often allow—that of the oversexed aggressor only giving in to his natural impulses. It’s like in that episode of The Simpsons when Homer starts biting the air, and if the pie on the stove happens to get in the way of his mouth then so be it—it was asking to be eaten. We’re better than that, though. Harding knows it, and we know it too:
Our daughters deserve better, and our sons are better than that. For as much as feminists are painted as “man-haters,” we’re not the ones suggesting that boys and men lack the ability to think rationally, control their own behavior, or act kindly toward other human beings—even with a boner. We’re the ones who want all of our children to know about meaningful consent, healthy sexuality, and honoring each other’s bodies and boundaries, instead of teaching them that one gender is responsible for managing the other’s helpless animal lust.
That’s what I mean when I say, “We should teach boys not to rape.” We should teach them they’re worth more and capable of more than this narrowly defined caricature of sexuality that favors dominance and aggression over genuine human connection.
*Some useful resources mentioned throughout—share and share widely.
Normally I try to remain as objective as possible when writing reviews of any length—objective in how I approach a book that is, not so much in my resNormally I try to remain as objective as possible when writing reviews of any length—objective in how I approach a book that is, not so much in my response (which, of course, can only be subjective). Which is why it's worth noting up front that while I truly, genuinely loved this book, I also count the author, the designer, the co-publishers of the book, and the agent who sold the book to be very close friends. I've never given a biased review before and I'm not about to start now, but for those concerned, there are your grains of salt.
With that said, yes, I absolutely loved my time with this book. It's a light read in the sense that its narrative flows effortlessly from point to point, and its relatively small cast is quite well developed. It also has a terrific sense of place and sensation—a pivotal thing for any book dabbling in future spec/light science fiction, as this one does. If I was asked to be all glib and reductionist about it, I'd say it's a little like a romantic, self-reflective, time-travel adaptation of David Fincher's The Game, only (thankfully) with far less Sean Penn, and a desire to not show its cards too quickly.
That last point is probably my favourite aspect of the book—that it keeps its hand close to its chest throughout, only showing what's needed in order to provide the possible threads of future ideas without steering directly into the hard SF headlights. (I know, I'm mixing my metaphors—sue me.) To this end, it remains character-focused throughout, and is stronger for it. The book's final notes, as its two leads—one from the present, and one from the future—are especially poignant, as they employ the narrative's overall conceit to terrific effect, to say that while you might expect the love of your life to be that open book you read cover to cover, sometimes that isn't going to be the case. Sometimes there are things you can't know about one another, or don't want to know, and the shared knowledge of such secrets and how they craft the "you" of the moment without defining who you are, or might someday become, is sometimes enough.
And speaking of cover to cover, this was one of those unexpected and all-too-rare instances where I sat down thinking I'd read the first twenty or thirty pages, and then looked up two hours later to find I'd finished without wanting to stop. I suppose that's about the best endorsement I can give any book....more
I desperately wanted to love all three of these books, but following an intriguing first entry I found the series to be one of diminishing returns. ThI desperately wanted to love all three of these books, but following an intriguing first entry I found the series to be one of diminishing returns. This is due, chiefly, to the fact that beneath the staggering intellect on display and an absolute glut of ideas—all fascinating—Rajaniemi forgot to include characters with some, or for that matter any degree of depth (and the only character I did find interesting, the ship Perhonen, is killed off in the second book). Additionally, so much of the narrative takes place in the abstract, so as to remove all sense of weight and scope to the proceedings. I mean, Jupiter and Mars are destroyed, earth is overrun by wildcode, yet none of it hits—none of it has any impact beyond the conceptual. The same goes for character deaths, which again feel like ideas sketched out on paper and not like events that have actually taken place within the confines of the narrative.
By the end of the third book, I felt as if I'd read an academic dissertation on a science fiction trilogy, and not the books themselves. This is cold, clinical work, and I was thoroughly disappointed by it....more
They had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not tThey had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not to do it. The pact. Cody kept saying over and over how he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He was done. The guilt about Joseph, his heartbreak over Astrid, the shame he woke up with every day. Hardly a breeze on the lake. The boat was barely moving, only a slight rocking on the water. He tied Cody’s hands and feet together like a calf’s at a rodeo. He should have gone to Canadian Tire and got new twine. The rope was bristly against his hands as he wove figure eights in and out of Cody’s legs, each end secured with a sailor’s knot.
“You’re a good—”
In one motion, Brent stuffed a sport sock deep into Cody’s mouth and straddled him. Cody’s eyes widened. Brent placed his thumbs together just below Cody’s Adam’s apple. Cody’s eyes closed. His lashes were long, like a girl’s, against his tanned face. His black hair was windswept and messy from driving with the windows down. Brent gripped his best friend’s neck like it was any other thing: a basketball, a can of paint, a plastic patio chair. He positioned his hands as if he was about to pop a cork and pressed his fingers against Cody’s throat. Not even a groan from behind the sock. The boat floated in the current’s natural flow. The sunlight glinted on the surface of the water and looked like a bag of new screws scattered over concrete. It was like some kind of backwards ritual. The opposite of baptism. Brent applied pressure, and Cody wriggled his feet at the bottom of the boat. He pressed harder. A breeze wafted through the birches as if to say, watching, watching.
Comprised of nine stories, Lana Pesch’s first collection of short fiction is a character-centric exploration of individuals at or near crossroads of one sort or another. For the most part these forks are emotionally driven, as people embark on new relationships or jettison old ones for the promise, or even the mere possibility, of something better. In a few of the stories, paths diverge in less obvious ways: a person re-examines what they thought they knew about themselves via the criminal actions of a childhood friend; a nephew is forced to accept the inevitable passing of a loved one as he navigates the schism between his mother and a medical specialist; and one young man has to figure out for himself what “brotherhood” truly means, and to decide whether or not to cross certain ethical boundaries as a result.
The opening story, “Moving Parts,” introduces us to Edie and Ditch, who catch sight of one another in the cashier’s line at a No Frills. Ditch proceeds to follow Edie to her car in order to ask her out. And while he’s the sort of person whose train of thought travels down the darker side of things, Edie’s narrative spirals into future possibilities of what their lives together might entail, should they hit it off. It’s a sweet if simple opener about expectations, fears, and the reality in taking a chance.
In “Deffer’s Last Dance,” a young financial mind’s uncle suffers a stroke. The narrative follows the main character through the crucial first forty-eight hours, which will determine whether or not his uncle lives, and what type of existence might follow. To help navigate this difficult time, the uncouth corpse of a homeless man befriends the distraught nephew and attempts to impart upon him a certain degree of afterlife wisdom.
“Brotherhood,” the strongest story in the collection, is a dark tale of childhood friends and the lengths one considers in order to honour a pact made years prior. The narrative follows Brent and Cody, two young men whose lives have remained somewhat intertwined all the way into adulthood. But Cody harbours many dark secrets, including an extraordinarily diminished sense of self and years of stockpiled guilt for the unintentional death of his younger brother. When Cody calls on Brent to obey the letter of their pact, if not the law, the resulting actions threaten to destroy whatever equilibrium exists in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones. It’s intimate and effective storytelling.
An interesting pairing with “Brotherhood,” “Natural Life” explores to striking effect the divergences in childhood friendships as one young woman working for a Fifth Estate-style documentary series travels south to visit a former friend whom she’d not seen in years, imprisoned now for her participation in the murder of an elderly woman during the attempted theft of a mobile home. While “Brotherhood” explored this sort of break in understanding from an immediately personal point of view, in “Natural Life” there already exists such a divide, and it’s the main character’s goal to understand its development, and to marry the memory of the child she knew with the criminal now sitting in front of her. While I prefer the narrative in “Brotherhood,” the writing in “Natural Life” is among the strongest in the collection, as Pesch delicately constructs the language of a woman experiencing an apparent lack of “self” and consequence, straddling the line of psychopathy.
One of my favourite moments in the entire collection, however, comes from a good but not especially great story. “Chewing Slower is a Sign of Mindfulness” follows a middle-aged woman on a bus trip from Kingston to Toronto as she reflects on her third failed marriage. Near the story’s end, she is out walking a dog to whom she is able to say everything she only wishes she could say to her destructive soon-to-be-ex-husband. And of course, the dog reacts adorably, as a dog would when addressed enthusiastically. It’s a small moment, but a very human one… despite one half of the conversation being canine. The emotional disarmament works exceedingly well.
But not every story in the collection is as strong as the entries already mentioned. “Habits of Creatures,” a series of vignettes coalescing around a Thanksgiving dinner during which a husband announces he’s leaving his wife for another man, is entertaining but light on character depth. Similarly, “The Rogues and Scoundrels Among Us,” a story masquerading as a letter of complaint about a company’s shoddy, brutally painful waxing strips, has a lot of fun with its premise but in the end offers little in the way of an emotional core.
It’s only the final two stories, though—“Faster Miles an Hour” and “Landing Area”—where I found myself rather disinterested in and detached from the narratives being told. The latter follows two women, an artist and a pilot, brought together after the pilot crashes her plane in the woods. The former… well I couldn’t tell you about that story if I had to as, truthfully, it simply didn’t resonate with me on any level.
If I had one additional complaint to lodge against this collection, it would be with the interior voice of the nephew at the centre of “Deffer’s Last Dance.” To be frank, much as I enjoyed the story for it’s slight supernatural twist, its tone was entirely off-putting. I’m speaking specifically about the nephew’s thoughts as he, while hearing about his uncle’s condition from a medical specialist, is also thinking rather extensively about his inappropriately timed hard-ons, not to mention what he’d like to do to the medical specialist currently discussing his uncle’s lack of options. Maybe it’s just me, but this all felt very out of place and inauthentic—it read as if written by someone imagining how a man must think based on the loosest and most stereotypical of ideas, and as a result almost destroyed my interest in said narrative. It was by the strength of its larger plot and character work that the story did not buckle beneath this unfortunate misstep in tone.
Despite the aforementioned issues and misgivings, I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection—enough that I read it in a single sitting. Pesch’s work isn’t especially flavourful or image heavy, but her command of character and voice is (mostly) quite strong. This is an enjoyable if not exceptional collection of work and I’d be curious to see what she does next....more
An atrocious, infuriating read filled with self-defeating arguments and a view for society that lacks all empathy and concern for individuals in favouAn atrocious, infuriating read filled with self-defeating arguments and a view for society that lacks all empathy and concern for individuals in favour of non-secular umbrella ethics. An author who claims to be an incurable optimist yet can look to any possibility for social advancement and see only the dystopian downward slide that ends with our society embracing eugenics and aggressive population control, not to mention doctors who revel in infanticide, pushing abortion and euthenasia at the drop of a hat—and to the preference of all other care options. This is fear of progress and individual rights at its worst. It's conservative pandering and fear mongering and I lost track of how many times she used "so-called progressives" as a pejorative the way idiot gamergaters use "SJW"—as something to stamp out for fear of social self-destruction. Cannot recommend under any circumstance....more
Strange that I don't want to write a review for this, because a review won't do it justice. If you're a dog lover, this book will wreck you, and I meaStrange that I don't want to write a review for this, because a review won't do it justice. If you're a dog lover, this book will wreck you, and I mean that in the best way possible. Astounding, heart breaking, and easily among the best books I've read this year....more
And that evening, when she informed me that she was going to be doing a signing in a prestigious Parisian bookstore, and I congratulated her, I saw heAnd that evening, when she informed me that she was going to be doing a signing in a prestigious Parisian bookstore, and I congratulated her, I saw her begin to fume with anger. I tried to get to the bottom of it. Out it came:
“Those bourgeois booksellers ought to be paying the writers who come and waste two hours of their life signing books for them!”
“Now now, Pétronille, what are you on about? Booksellers already have a hard enough time as it is making ends meet. As far as a bookseller is concerned, they’re taking a risk, inviting an author to sign at their store, but for the author, it’s a gift!”
“You really buy all that, don’t you? You’re so naïve! I maintain that all work deserves a salary. To do a book signing without being paid puts you in a precarious situation.”
I was speechless.
“Hey, the tide’s gone out,” she complained, handing me her empty champagne flute.
“We’ve drunk the entire bottle.”
“So let’s kill another one.”
“No, I think we’ll leave it there.”
I had noticed that the more she drank the more she ventured into the far left of the left.
“What, only one bottle? You, Amélie Nothomb, with your apartment bubbling over with champagne? It’s obscene! It’s disgusting. It’s…”
“Making things precarious?” I suggested.
In late 1997, thirty-year-old rising literary star Amélie Nothomb moves to Paris. While there, she embarks on a search for a drinking companion—not just any old lover of liquor, however; Nothomb is in search of a partner whose adoration for champagne, specifically, matches her own. Hers is a love unbridled by proper etiquette or thoughts of what goes best with what—an obsession for the drink itself, no matter its source or vintage. To this end, she meets at one of her book signings a young woman named Pétronille Fanto. The two had been corresponding for some time—Pétronille is an academic and literary hopeful who has admired Nothomb’s career from afar. Upon meeting for the first time, Nothomb is immediately taken by the young, somewhat androgynous fan and invites her to join her in imbibing. Thus, a friendship is born.
Nothomb and Fanto’s relationship, however, is unconventional and segmented by large gaps of time and stark ideological differences—some rooted in politics (Nothomb is the daughter of a diplomat; Fanto the child of a proletarian upbringing), others in the ways in which authors function both within and outside of the traditional literary scene and with varying degrees of success. These differences in viewpoint form the crux of the narrative’s conflict, much of which has to do with Fanto’s suspicious nature. From the beginning she views Nothomb’s invitation to go drinking as a person belonging to the literati deciding to “slum it” for a night with a member of the working class:
“Are you going to start up with the class struggle and dialectical materialism?” I asked. “When I invited you, I didn’t know the first thing about your background.”
“Your caste senses these things.”
The narrator does eventually succeed in winning Fanto’s trust, to some extent, as the two rotate in and out of each other’s lives—as Nothomb continues to publish to expected levels of success, while Fanto’s tumultuous literary career begins in earnest. Gradually, as the two reconnect over and over again, Nothomb begins to see in Fanto a dissatisfaction and arrogance at odds with her own success, as Fanto’s views inch ever closer to the far left, to the point where nothing about being a creative satisfies her anger and frustration at the realization that she is indeed a part of a system she so despises, and has not managed to dismantle it from within or succeed in spite of it.
This dissatisfaction hits its apex when Fanto, having had enough of the literary world and all associated with it, embarks on a trip to the Sahara, which she travels on foot over the course of thirteen months. When she returns from said trip, her distaste for Parisian and literary culture is even greater than it was before she left. She sees, in her inability to survive solely off her creative output, the flaws inherent to the very industry she’s a part of: that it is not output or talent or even who one knows, but personality—that a personality as strange and untethered as Nothomb’s is that percentage of a percentage needed to truly stand out amongst all other creatives in an otherwise unforgiving field. It’s then that Fanto is forced to supplement her income, first as a pharmaceutical test subject, and then as a performance artist of sorts staging actual games of Russian roulette for a potentially unsuspecting audience.
Much of Nothomb’s output veers into the semi-autobiographical. Several of her books, including Fear and Trembling and Tokyo Fiancée, are fictions based in reality, with locations, characters, and cues pulled straight from the author’s life. Pétronille is different—while it is autobiographical in that it stars an author named Amélie Nothomb who has written and published books identical to what’s detailed within the text, the novel feels more deliberately existential than some of the others of this ilk, with its titular character, potentially, an entirely fictitious construction meant to externalize a facet of the author’s personality. For the most part, this existentialism is kept to a minimum, with the author occasionally remarking on difficulties faced in her career, such as the time she was accused of plagiarism or the hostile response received by her novel Sulphuric Acid. It’s in this novel’s close, which I will refrain from spoiling, where the existential subtext is made text and an act of performative aggression becomes the author’s undoing as Fanto, whom Nothomb was fascinated by for so many years, is revealed as the stark underside of the frivolity to which they’d celebrated in so many instances—a gloriously disgruntled down note criticizing artistic identities inherent, constructed, and stolen.
It’s of some curiosity as to whether Pétronille Fanto, or some version of her, ever existed in the first place. From her introduction, Fanto’s appearance seldom changes—she almost always resembles that of a fifteen-year-old boy, even after more than a decade has passed. As the story progresses, more and more she appears the voice of Nothomb’s doubts as to her own writing and success. This is driven home in sequences such as when Nothomb goes to London to interview dame Vivienne Westwood and is met with an obstinate, disinterested subject who would sooner have Nothomb walk her dog for her than entertain any one of the author’s questions. In the aftermath of this unfortunate meeting, Nothomb calls Fanto and offers to pay her way to London—seeking Fanto as if she were a switch the author flips to silence whatever questions she might have regarding her worth.
In many ways, the novel’s thesis is isolated in a motto ascribed to both Christopher Marlowe and the titular Pétronille: Quod me nutrit, me destruit (That which nourishes me destroys me). Nothomb writes about her career and the literary scene into which she has inserted herself as a nervous child might discuss a popular group into which they’ve been drawn yet still feel isolated from. In Fanto, she’s given her doubts and loneliness a name and a career all its own, one that directly questions and confronts her own concerns toward the Paris literary scene and its aggressively bourgeois leanings. In Pétronille, the author finds new ways in which to strip her skin for the audience, revealing increasingly personal depths—something that she continues to do seemingly effortlessly, and with exceptional skill....more
Our conversations are magical. Stutterer and deaf person, we have such interesting ways of communicating. We meet somewhere in the middle of the otherOur conversations are magical. Stutterer and deaf person, we have such interesting ways of communicating. We meet somewhere in the middle of the other’s irregular speech. He lipreads my thoughts through a stutter, and I read his through his slur. When we speak to each other, Eric stares at my mouth, and I stare at his hands. I don’t understand sign language so he doesn’t sign to me, but his fingers still try to decode what he’s saying. He can’t help it.
He places his hands on my neck to feel the vibrations. Sometimes I think he knows what I’m going to say a few seconds before it comes out. And sometimes, maybe even before I know what I’m going to say. I place my hands on his sternum, not to feel the vibration, but to feel the pain in his sighs and what happens between words. He’s a breathy one. Having a conversation with him engages so much of our bodies. It’s so sexual. I think the real reason we talk is to have an excuse to fondle each other. We’re real pervs that way. I wonder if I’d love Eric as much if he were a hearing person. And I wonder if he wonders the same about my speech.
Mouthquake, Daniel Allen Cox’s fourth novel, is very much about memory and those locked away; and is itself, in both writing and structure, a bit like a memory—fractured and disseminated in uneven shards like a breadcrumb ouroboros.
Taking place in Montréal in the 80s and 90s, the novel follows our protagonist, belaboured by a stutter, as he, imagining himself a German Shepherd a la The Littlest Hobo, befriends a mysterious local figure—the Grand Antonio, a large, woolly mammoth of a man who pulls buses with his hair and sells postcards of himself alongside such luminaries as Dean Martin, Carly Simon, Johnny Carson, and even, mysteriously, Marilyn Monroe to unsuspecting passers-by.
Immediately, Cox’s novel blurs the line between realities with surreal, often poetic descriptors—in sharp contrast to its stuttering protagonist. For example, when referencing the Grand Antonio:
“He laid a hand on my head, which made me still. When he patted my toque, it felt like I was being bashed by a warm, raw steak. When he laughed, it sounded like the engine of a bus in trouble.”
The extensive, colourful language used throughout syncs with the narrator’s experiences as a stuttering child, one who learns to see the world more cohesively through sound and music. In the novel’s second and strongest section, taking place in the 1990s, he is introduced to his other half—a deaf young man named Eric. Together they discover different modes of communication as the narrator further explores the correlation between his experiences, his sexual appetite, and different forms of physical punishment and how it all relates to the construction of his identity.
I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I’ve enjoyed Cox’s work in the past, especially the incendiary and awesome Krakow Melt; however, as I read, I discovered that the narrative of this book simply wasn’t sticking with me. I found myself wanting more from Mouthquake’s young narrator than the book seemed willing to provide.
As beautiful as much of Cox’s language is, it comes in this instance at the expense of its characters—ultimately, I thought the narrator somewhat impenetrable, and as a result the novel had a difficult time maintaining my interest. I’ll readily admit that part of this, I think, has to do the perhaps unfair expectation that the concept introduced near the novel’s close, that people are songs in and of themselves, would resonate more deeply than it does. Instead it feels like a rather brilliant idea not successfully executed throughout. In other words, given the premise, I think I expected more of a synaesthetic approach to theme and identity.
It’s a strange thing to be reviewing a book, knowing that there is quality to its writing and to the story being told, but having been unable to connect to it—and, if I’m honest, feeling as if there was more attention paid to its construction of a sense of time and place than to developing its characters or what links them to one another. In the end, while I appreciate that each of Cox’s novels (of which I’ve read three) feel radically different from one another, Mouthquake washed over me with unfortunately little impact. I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t find anything in which to sink my teeth....more