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
Finally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about NevFinally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about Neverland, about us bois. He told her that we had our own warehouse, a paradise we were always working on, patching the shot-out windows, hanging swings and slings, and about the day we added hammocks for each of us to sleep in amongst the rafters with our pigeons. Pan told Wendi he had a pack of bois who jumped at his command, who had sworn themselves to him and wore his cuff. He told her we too loved stories.
I don’t know exactly what Pan promised Wendi in that little pink bed. Probably nothing more than adventure, with his crooked grin and the way his eyes twinkled when he talked about the things they could do together, but he locked a leather cuff around her wrist that night. It had been enough for me; there was no reason to think it wouldn’t have been enough for her. Later, Wendi said that he told her about grrrls, how there weren’t any of them in Neverland ,and how lonely that made him, us. How there was something special about a grrrl like her, something she could give him, us. Pan talked of how we would cherish and worship her, how she would always care for and feed her bois. “I love the way you talk about grrrls,” Wendi whispered through glossed lips, placing her hand on Pan’s denim thigh. She tried for a kiss, but Pan was already distracted, looking out the window to check on Erebos. Pan didn’t want a grrrlfriend, he wanted a Mommy to tuck him in and put him in his place, but he would never had said that last part.
With leather daddies substituting for pirates and loyal carrier pigeons in place fairies, Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi is a trans/genderqueer punk interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that, while at times interesting and quite well written, is more a transposition than a subversion of the text.
The book, narrated by Pan’s “best boi” Tootles, follows the introduction of Wendi and John Michael, who Pan convinces to abandon their security at the Darling’s halfway house for girls in order to follow him to his industrial warehouse paradise of Neverland. Once there, John Michael, an acknowledged tomboy, is inducted into the “Lost Bois,” Pan’s loyal, battle-hardened followers. Wendi, meanwhile, becomes a Mommy not just to the bois but to Pan as well—an ideal of a grrrl elevated to a position of authority amongst the bois, to fill a void they deny needs filling by the absence of their “true” mothers, and their pasts represented therein.
Pan himself is described in the pages of Wendi’s journal as being genderless, with baggy sweatshirts, work pants, and red hair. He’s the “street” to her coifed, educated demeanour; when she enters Neverland, she immediately helps clean up the Lost Bois’ act, so to speak, encouraging tidiness and responsibility as she attempts to disperse her love to the entire group, and to Tootles in particular.
But Pan isn’t interested in a Mommy who wants to upend the status quo. Originally, he appears to envision Wendi slipping into the established narrative as an addition to their cast, not a director unto herself, which is exactly what she reveals herself to be—someone who lusts after Pan and the freedom Neverland represents, but is also unable to divest herself from the outside world and the presence of time always ticking by, aging the lot of them whether or not they are willing to admit to its effects.
For Pan, though, Neverland’s stability hinges on two things: loyalty, and the power of make-believe: “When you became Pan’s, you swore an oath that you would never doubt or question him. That’s what kept the magic alive.” As such, when a boi decides for one reason or another to grow up, Pan acts as if he forgets their very existence. It’s as if they’re pawns knocked off a chessboard, never to be played or battled with again.
There’s much to like in Lowrey’s interpretation of Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology: Hook’s obsession with good form even as his leather daddy pirates do “battle” with the Lost Bois; the crocodile reimagined as heroin, fairy dust as cocaine; the mermaids as a group of fucking tough femmes living on a boat they’ve named the Lagoon. However, it’s the reimagining of the Pan character himself that I found most intriguing.
The original story is a children’s fantasy, with Pan representing a child’s fear of aging, of growing up and being foisted into the adult world of responsibilities, careers, finances, and mortgages. The Pan in Lowrey’s novel, however, is no fantasy; this Pan is a sad, almost tragic figure that hasn’t managed to avoid growing up so much as he’s managed to separate himself entirely from the world outside Neverland’s walls. When Pan appears near the novel’s end, long after Wendi, Tootles, and the other Lost Bois had departed Neverland to grow up and re-enter the world they’d run from or been abandoned by in the first place, his hair is wisped with grey—he has clearly aged, even as he propositions another young woman to come away with him and join him in Neverland. There’s a distance to Lowrey’s Pan—a lack of willingness to accept the world for what it is. This is at once beautiful and unsettling. His life is his and his alone; it exists in a bubble limiting exposure, and more critically, growth.
While occasionally lacking in subtlety (every now and then Lowrey takes an extra, unnecessary step to explain the process of transposing original facets of the Peter Pan story with hir own—“Fairy? Pigeon? There is magic everywhere around you, but most people are too busy being grownup to notice it.”), Lost Boi is an oftentimes intelligent, well-crafted inversion of a classic tale. But perhaps its greatest achievement is also one of its simplest and most straightforward—the repurposing of Neverland, from a fantasyland apart from the world to an abandoned warehouse very much within it. In doing so, Lowrey strips Pan and the Lost Bois of some of their power—their agency remains intact, but the glamour they’ve placed upon the world, the illusion that helps them to see the safe confines of the world Pan has helped construct for them, is forever threatened by the mere fact that it exists within the greater, gentrifying world that can at any point encroach upon their safe haven. Theirs is a fantasy in the sense that it’s a bandage curling up at the edges—it hasn’t yet lost its stickiness, but it might one day, and when that day comes all their wounds, Pan’s especially, will be displayed for the rest of the world to see....more