The way you play Trace Italian seems almost unbearably quaint from a modern perspective, and people usually don’t believe me when I tell them it’s how...moreThe way you play Trace Italian seems almost unbearably quaint from a modern perspective, and people usually don’t believe me when I tell them it’s how I supplement my monthly insurance checks, but people underestimate just how starved everybody is for some magic pathway back into childhood. Trace Italian is a mail-based game. A person sees a small ad for it in the back pages of Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—maybe he sees the ad month after month for ages—and then one day he gets bored and sends a self-addressed stamped envelope to Focus Games, and I send him back an explanatory brochure. The brochure gives a brief but vivid sketch of the game’s imagined environment—no pictures, just words—and explains the basic mechanics of play: a trial subscription buys you four moves through the first dungeons, and five dollars a month plus four first-class postage stamps keep a subscription current. I boil down handwritten, sometimes lengthy paragraphs that players send me to simple choices—does this mean go through the door, or continue down the road?—and then I select the corresponding three-page scenario from a file, scribble a few personalized lines at the bottom, and stuff it into an envelope. They respond with more paragraphs, sometimes pages, describing how they move in reaction to where they’ve landed. Eventually they recognize the turns they’ve taken as segments of a path that can belong only to them.
Like the game its story pivots around, Wolf in White Van, the first novel from The Mountain Goats frontman (singer, songwriter, guitarist) John Darnielle, is a labyrinthine construct of allusions and psychological states of being, detailing to some extent the tragic, isolated life of its narrator.
When Sean Phillips was seventeen, living with his family in Montclair, CA, he shot himself in the face with a Marlin 39A rifle. In the years since, following much disquiet within his family, and alongside agonizing physical rehabilitation, Sean has (to some degree) turned his life around. He created Focus Games—a company specializing in the role-playing games of old, where moves are done through the mail via subscription. It’s an archaic style of gaming, but one that engenders a more personal touch and feel, as devoted players become, for the game’s designer, a sort of extended family. The first game Sean developed, the one that serves as the backdrop for Wolf in White Van’s narrative, is called Trace Italian.
Sean first learned of the trace italienne in history class: “the trace italienne involved defensive barricades branching out around all sides of a fort: stars within stars within stars, visible from space, one layer of protection in front of another for miles.” Transposed to the post-apocalyptic landscape of Sean’s own design, the Trace Italian is humanity’s last bastion—a safe place for those clever and determined enough to not only discover it amongst the charred remains of the world that was, but to also successfully navigate its hundreds of sub-dungeons. Technically, the narrator states, it’s possible to get to the near-mythical safe haven at the centre of the Trace Italian and win the game, though he designed it in such a way that no one would ever live long enough to accomplish such a task.
While Sean has managed to eke out an independent living through Focus Games, his players are few; however, they are a dedicated bunch—some dangerously so. And this is where much of the external conflict arises in Wolf in White Van: a pre-trial hearing in which Sean is being accused of endangering minors. He faces charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in the case of two of his players, Lance and Carrie, who took Trace Italian a little too seriously, becoming trapped in the Kansas wilderness. Carrie died in the harsh environment, while Lance lost a foot and remains in critical condition from frostbite.
Sean’s internal conflict, however, threads every individual facet of the narrative. Darnielle’s novel is like a hedgemaze with its climax ensconced somewhere in the middle, revealed only in the novel’s final pages. The narrative circles Sean’s suicide attempt from both sides, his life before and after the event, never fully laying bare his reasons or even detailing the incident itself. In this way, the novel is somewhat reminiscent of the Christopher Nolan film Memento, which ends in the literal middle of its narrative, but which also serves as the moment that glues the two seemingly disparate halves into a cohesive whole.
At its core, Wolf in White Van is a story of vicarious living—escapism, and creating/fuelling escapist entertainment for others. Its themes are largely of consequence—of accepting it, avoiding it, and learning to deal with the ramifications. Through consequence, Darnielle addresses Sean’s demons: the titular wolf in white van, the characterization of the villainous voices one might hear. But through his disfigurement, he is also externally demonized by those closest to Carrie and Lance, not to mention his own family who’ve struggled for years to understand the whys and wherefores of Sean’s actions. In this sense, Sean is largely sympathetic, though clearly psychologically compromised; he admires iconic characters such as Conan the Barbarian for their outward strength yet feels he exhibits none such resilience, despite his very post-rifle blast existence proving otherwise as he is forced, every day, to bear the scars of his actions to those few friends and family still in his life.
Not surprisingly, there are parallels to some of Darnielle’s music within Wolf in White Van’s DNA—specifically in Sean’s teenage relationship with Kimmy, with whom Sean’s parents suspect he had a suicide pact. While reading, I couldn’t help but see shreds of Cathy and the nameless protagonist from the song “This Year”—Darnielle’s twin high maintenance machines—in the back-and-forth that once existed between Kimmy and Sean, in their youth.
By keeping from the reader the gory details of the aftermath of Sean putting the rifle to his chin, not to mention whatever concrete reasons existed behind this act in the first place, Darnielle has created in his narrator—mirrored by the Trace Italian—a puzzle that can never be solved, only vaguely understood. By the novel’s end, I felt as if I’d come within several inches of the truth, but never fully arrived at a conclusion. In this way Wolf in White Van exhibits a wonderful sense of restraint, placing its priorities with ideas instead of direct answers that only would’ve robbed the narrative of its subtlety. This is one of the best, most engaging books I’ve read all year, and a very self-assured debut.(less)
1. The Crew: They made things happen. They took over the honour roll, sports teams, extracurricular activit...moreEveryone fell into one of three categories:
1. The Crew: They made things happen. They took over the honour roll, sports teams, extracurricular activities, and clubs. They had the most volunteer credits and were first to raise their hands whenever the teacher asked a question. They weren’t necessarily the smartest, most talented, or prettiest, but they were involved. Without the crew, nothing would ever get done, and we’d all be wandering down the hallways in search of our marks.
2. The Extras: All the misfits, outcasts, and social rejects. If you were as chipped as my nail polish and didn’t belong, you were an extra—kind of the opposite of the Crew. They were there, but you didn’t really know it; they were just bodies in desks filling space, anonymous smiles in faded school photos on a boulevard of broken dreams
3. The Movie Stars: No one thinks they’re more special than they do, but everyone wants to be tagged in a Facebook picture with the stars and get their autographs in the yearbook. They’re selfish, spoiled, and overly sexed. There isn’t much beyond the surface of their flawlessly airbrushed skin, and everyone talks about them behind their backs. Their eyes light up when you can do something for them, and everything that comes out of their mouths is totally fake.
I didn’t fit into any category. I definitely wasn’t a part of the Crew; I wasn’t about to be involved in anything unless it was court-appointed. I wasn’t an Extra because the last thing I could ever be was anonymous. But I wasn’t a Movie Star either because, even though everyone knew my name, I wasn’t invited to the cool parties.
So there was me, the flamer that lit the set on fire.
Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a little like American Beauty: The Teenage Years in that it telegraphs the downfall of its doomed protagonist Jude Rothesay from very early on. However, this awareness does not hurt or in any way lessen the impact of what is in the end a tightly constructed life-as-a-stage allegory, complete with filmic idolatry and requisite amounts of love, lust, and all associated melodrama.
The novel begins post-Christmas break. Jude (nicknamed Judy by the more homophobic of his classmates) and his BFF Angela are a pair of almost-outcasts navigating their school on the periphery of the popular crowd. Jude is desperate to escape his small, unnamed town in the middle of nowhere, where he fears he is likely to become “the next Matthew Shepard!” In his eyes, he’s destined for stardom—for the success, for the admiration, for the scandal, for everything that term entails. But first, he’s got to get the hell out of dodge with his skin intact. Easier said than done when your mom’s a stripper and your allowance is doled out in singles; when your stepfather’s a drug user with a mean streak who disappears occasionally and without warning; and when the bullies at school are hashtagging your demise as if Twitter were the new The National Enquirer. But Jude is determined. He won’t let the bastards win, even at the cost of his own life.
What’s clear from very early on is that both Jude and Angela are seeking love. It’s the driving force for much of their young lives, at least for the duration of this story. In Angela’s case, the love she seeks is akin to acceptance—she’s filling the holes in her life by sleeping her way to the top of the food chain. She wishes Jude were not gay because in him she sees her other half, more than just a partner in crime. But since he is gay and therefore unavailable to her in the ways she needs most—physical—she’ll climb higher and higher, even if it means wounding Jude in the process. Jude, similarly, desires a love he can never have—Luke, one of the bullies who torments him with some regularity (or, at the very least, associates with the worst of the bullies, Matt, who early on attempts to cave Jude’s head in with a skateboard). But where Angela seeks acceptance, Jude seeks adoration—he isn’t content skimming the perimeter of the world’s stage; he wants to be front and centre, the focal point of whatever audience he can acquire.
To this end, the novel is told via the language of film. Each chapter is another stage or element inherent to the film industry: “Preproduction”; “Flash Back”; “Fight Sequence”; “Director’s Cut”; and my favourite, “9021-Opiate.” But the novel isn’t just an allegory for stardom—Jude presents himself to the world as a star on the rise, as someone about to explode into the public consciousness if only he can get himself in front of the right people.
Despite the abuse Jude suffers from some of his more Neanderthal-like classmates and his stepfather Ray, there exist positive influences in his life: there’s Keefer, Ray’s son, who looks up to Jude, who loves him, completely, for who he is; there’s Mr. Dawson, the teacher who offers Jude such sage advice as it’s better to be hated for being oneself than loved for being a construct or a phony; there’s even Jude’s biological father, who shows up with a gift—several missed birthdays all in one—that has the potential to change Jude’s life for the better.
But that potential is moot, because we know going in that this is a tragedy, that it won’t have a happy ending. That the father who shows up in the twist that closes out the second act can’t really save Jude’s life; that the best friend who had his back throughout all the shit not fit to print won’t really be there when it matters most; that sometimes it’s not enough to have only dreams. And that the strange love pentagon that has formed around them will only lead to crushing disappointment and betrayal.
Reid’s writing is sharp, and quite visual. The novel has a kinetic pace to everything in this book; it’s easy to imagine this story as a screenplay. His visual acuity is most on-point, however, in one of the novel’s most violent scenes, when Jude is horribly abused in a bathroom stall at school, after things get out of hand with Luke: “I tried to speak, but it was like the bathroom mirror had broken in my throat.” Perfect. Horrifyingly perfect.
There wasn’t much that didn’t work for me in Reid’s novel. About the only thing I struggled with was the speed and suddenness of Angela’s about-face in the final chapter. It was so quick, so harsh, and seemingly without any remorse that it felt like character assassination—it was like the author had flipped a switch inside Angela and turned off her former self. Granted she was on the defensive because of ways she feels that Jude had jilted her or pushed her aside, but the transformation was so complete that it felt like a brand new character introduced in the final act just to drive that last tragic nail in Jude’s coffin.
As stated at the beginning of this review, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is very American Beauty-esque in its ending, which is unjust yet strangely cathartic. Because even as Jude is turning the last page of his script, he remains strong, remains in the only spotlight that ever mattered: his own.(less)
I am trying to relate to you a tragedy. I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved, those people who were survivo...moreI am trying to relate to you a tragedy. I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved, those people who were survivors of the tragedy, but also the agents of it.
Oda Sotatsu signed a confession. He did not clearly understand what he was doing, perhaps. Or perhaps he did. Nonetheless, he signed it. The next day, Saturday the fifteenth, he was dragged off to jail. Because of the comprehensive nature of the document, the confession, his guilt was never in any doubt. The trial, when it happened, was a rapid affair in which Oda Sotatsu did little, certainly nothing on his own behalf. The police attempted, over the course of the time he was in jail awaiting trial, and the time when he was on death row thereafter, to get him to speak about the crimes he had confessed. He would not. He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come.
Oda was visited many times during the next months by Joo. He never saw Kakuzo again.
Our story continues with information related to me by officers, guards, priests, journalists (present at the time), and by the Oda family. This is how Oda Sotatsu’s story is told.
Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is a book of mixed identities: it is at once an artfully written narrative, pieced together from interview transcriptions and testimonies; a journalistic endeavour from a husband attempting to understand his wife’s sudden silence, which descended upon her like an illness; and a mystery focusing on one man in particular, Oda Sotatsu, and why in 1977 he signed a confession to crimes he did not commit.
The “crimes” for which Sotatsu was imprisoned, and eventually executed, were “the Narito Disappearances”: beginning in June 1977, eight people, two per month, disappeared from the villages surrounding Sakai. The disappeared were both men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy. All lived alone. There were no witnesses, no signs of forced entry or violence. Only a playing card stuck to the door of each victim’s home indicated some type of foul play.
As previously stated, Ball’s book is stylistically divided. In the first part, “The Situation of Oda Sotatsu,” the author sets out not to solve the mystery of the disappeared, but to understand why Sotatsu, an otherwise ordinary individual, would, following a lost wager with a man named Sato Kakuzo, sign a confession to crimes for which he was innocent. Even more confusing, why Sotatsu, when questioned by police, chose to remain silent instead of fighting for his freedom. Indeed he said little to anyone, even family, during his incarceration—and certainly nothing that would’ve mitigated the charges against him. No, Sotatsu maintained his false guilt all the way to the gallows.
Ball traces Sotatsu’s final days via interviews with his family: his brother Jiro, who was Sotatsu’s most ardent supporter; his mother, who warns that Jiro is not to be trusted; his sister Minako, a professor at a university in Korea who returned to Japan for the purposes of Ball’s interview; and eventually Sotatsu’s father, who decided some time ago that Sotatsu did not exist, and the family was not to speak of him—both Sotatsu’s father and sister assumed his confession to be the truth, as did the rest of their village, many of them turning against the family in response.
The author also presents transcriptions from recorded interviews between the investigating officers and Sotatsu himself. They attempted to bribe Sotatsu into giving them further details on the disappeared, offering him better accommodations and the possibility of avoiding the death penalty. But still Sotatsu said nothing.
In the second section, “To Find Jito Joo,” Ball tracks down the woman who, along with Kakuzo, was with Sotatsu the night he signed his life away. He discovers that she visited him frequently over the duration of his imprisonment. In Joo’s own words, she and Sotatsu were in love—a love that is seldom matched in this world.
However, the novel’s third and final part, “Lastly, Kakuzo,” turns Joo’s testimony on its head. The aging anarchist Kakuzo reveals all—his role in the Narito Disappearances, his rationale behind convincing Sotatsu to throw his life away, and how he pushed Joo, his on-again-off-again lover, into Sotatsu’s arms, to convince him to stay silent all the way to his end. And why did he do all this? To upend governmental control—to send an innocent man to his death, and only then reveal that there was no mystery, no disappearances or even malicious intent, in order to illustrate the system’s inherent fallibility. In Kakuzo’s own words, he gained and abused both Sotatsu and Joo’s obedience in order to “cause a dislocation in the life of my society.”
Ball’s novel, filled as it is with unreliable narrators, is presented as a fiction based in fact. Its thesis: anarchy is as much the device of the selfish as it is the revolutionary—the trick is in being aware of what lines are being crossed and to what end. In Kakuzo’s case, his ill thought-out anti-government plan only succeeded in losing him the love of Jito Joo, turning an entire village against one family, one family against their son, and costing an innocent man his life.
Not knowing how little of this book is fact and how much of it is fiction does not hinder it in the least. Silence Once Begun is a haunting, minimalist endeavour, and though Sotatsu’s reasons never felt fully clear to me, the impact his short life and incarceration had on those closest to him is readily apparent. And while Sato Kakuzo’s plan did not have the reach he’d hoped, the result was nonetheless catastrophic.(less)
To pick up where we left off: Her body bent awkwardly over the desk, the soft gurgle escaping her lips.
I want to tell her, It wasn’t supposed to happe...moreTo pick up where we left off: Her body bent awkwardly over the desk, the soft gurgle escaping her lips.
I want to tell her, It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, you know.
I want to take her head in my lap. I want to smell her hair, smell her wrists. I want to kiss her neck.
I want to say to her soft, lovely things, whisper unyielding truths in her ear. I want to run my finger along the length of her nose, from the bridge to the tip, and then over and onto her lips.
I want to feel the warmth of her as her living body warms my thighs and my feet and the lower part of my stomach, makes my skin, which is cold and rubbery to touch, feel pliant and lifelike again.
These are the things that I want. These are the things I have wanted for some very long time now. I imagine that these are the things I have wanted since even before I became the kind of thing that could not have them.
But the zombie in me wants something else. The zombie in me wants to eat. The zombie wants to eat and he wants his horde, and as much as I try to deny it, there is no zombie in me, there is only me, and all of me is zombie.
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, the debut short fiction collection from author Manuel Gonzales, is a surreal, sometimes absurd collection of mostly slipstream stories that hit far more than they miss. Across the eighteen stories collected in this book, Gonzales touches on such subjects as spousal neglect and abuse, substance abuse, misogyny, jealousy, and the often-heavy price of creativity.
In “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” a plane is hijacked and flown in a circle over Dallas for twenty years (thanks to the advent of perpetual oil), forcing its passengers to reflect on the endless, unsatisfying loops they’ve all seemingly become trapped in in their lives before getting on the plane. “The Artist’s Voice” introduces us to Karl Abbasonov, a musician whose body should not still be functioning, and does so primarily through artificial means. Karl suffers rather vicious seizures directly tied to his creativity—the more he composes, or the longer a composition takes, the more extreme his seizures. Because of this, his body has brutally contorted over time, to the point where he needs help merely to breathe, yet he is able to communicate, even speak quite beautifully—from his ears. “The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe” offers an account of one woman’s uncovering of a fraudulent anthropological discovery regarding a tribe (the titular Sebalis) created by two con artist professors. In what I can only imagine is a nod to Jurassic Park, the con artists’ names are Hammond and Grant. One of the darker pieces, “Wolf!” follows the lone survivor of a family destroyed by their father, who has turned into a werewolf. The father’s ability to dismember his family one person at a time seems a strong analogue for alcoholism and its ability to both destroy and infect those around it either by sharing the disease or merely spreading its malignancy.
Of the eighteen stories in this collection, five stood above the rest. In “The Miniature Wife,” a man working in miniaturization accidentally shrinks his wife to three inches tall. As is to be expected, she’s a bit upset by this and begins attacking him, dulling his razors and ascending him as if he were a mountain. He tries to make her more comfortable not by rectifying her condition but building her a dollhouse, which she detests though he is certain she will grow to love it. As with several of the stories in this book, there are multiple ways this entry could be read: as a tale of a woman forced into an unhappy, unhealthy relationship with an overly controlling man; or as a wife whose penchant for control lowers her in the eyes of her partner, based on a shifting perception of worth. The last line is especially sinister.
“The Sounds of Early Morning” presents a haunting abstraction of a stillbirth, or of a young child’s death, via cracks in the house and the protagonists’ aversion to noise—especially that of children. Theirs is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with no details as to the cause of the apocalypse—one suspects the world outside has warped to match their personal torment.
Staying on the subject of parental torment, “The Animal House” can also be read in one of two ways: as a young couple forced to deal with a dead child (in this case, it’s the result of an abortion); or as the tale of a father-to-be growing preternaturally protective of his family, whose future is uncertain. This was one of the more lyrical stories in the collection.
Masquerading as a zombie narrative, “All of Me” focusses on the why-not-me-I’m-a-good-guy misogynist so unfortunately prevalent these days. The protagonist’s entitled attitude toward the woman of his desires, for whom he is that perfect friend, that shoulder to cry on when everything goes wrong—when her husband cheats on her—allows him to be picked apart piece by piece as a rotting shell of a man who has confused what he wants with what he believes he deserves. In the end, however, he reveals himself as much a slave to stereotypical carnal desires as the cheating husband, only, you know, instead of fucking another woman he just wants to eat her flesh. Wicked, disgusting imagery.
Lastly, “One-Horned & Wild-Eyed” is an amusing piece about the dissolving of a friendship by way of an honest to goodness unicorn. Because if anything’s going to pit friend against friend, it’s going to be a goat with a spire on its forehead that lives off a diet of crushed up fairies and beer. On a slightly more subtextual level, the story is about the jealousy that develops between two adults who’ve been friends since high school when one brings home a unicorn that he starts spending all his time with, thereby neglecting his wife and kids. Meanwhile, the other friend, who wishes he had a unicorn of his very own, begins to resent the first friend’s ability to shrug off his adult responsibilities and do something so utterly ridiculous as spend all his time drinking beer in a lawn chair outside a shed, watching his new not-so-mythological pet. A surprisingly poignant tale, given its subject matter.
The stories “Cash to a Killing,” “Life on Capra II,” “Farewell, Africa,” and “Escape from the Mall” were interesting enough, though they didn’t leave the same lasting impression as the stories mentioned at the start of this review, or the five outlined in the previous paragraphs. Two of them in particular, “Life on Capra II” and “Escape from the Mall,” hew a little too close to certain pop culture touchstones (All You Need is Kill/Groundhog Day and Dawn of the Dead respectively) without really crafting an essential narrative of their own. Additionally the shorter narratives, the various “A Meritorious Life” entries, while amusing, did not manage to strike a chord with me.
Although the tales mentioned directly above didn’t leave as strong a mark as the ones more thoroughly outlined in this review, the overall quality of the book is stellar, with no one story feeling unnecessary or wholly out of place—some were merely less exceptional than others. Start to finish, this is a fantastic collection of slipstream fiction, which is something I feel I don’t see enough of. Highly recommended.(less)
When she did leave, and a second head appeared on his shoulder, he tried to conjure her love. She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, he said to...moreWhen she did leave, and a second head appeared on his shoulder, he tried to conjure her love. She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, he said to the head. It refused to disappear.
Why isn’t this working? She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, his original head kept telling the other, his voice increasing in volume, thinking perhaps the new head’s ears could not hear very well.
You’re wasting your breath, the new head replied. And it was right. Her love did seem to have limitations. Its effects were temporary, and he desired a more permanent solution.
But she loves you, he cried. She loves you, she loves you… I love you, he accidentally blurted.
No you don’t, the other head responded. It was right again.
She of the Mountains tells two stories partially in concert with one another: The first is a retelling/reimagining of the Hindu myth of creation, focusing on the relationship between the mother of the universe Parvati, the Lord of Destruction Shiv (Shiva), and Parvati’s son Ganesh, who is beheaded by Shiv before having his head replaced with that of an elephant demon’s; the second narrative details the sexual evolution of a young boy and the girl he loves, despite the voices in his head and those surrounding him from all sides and shouting at him, telling him in no uncertain terms just how gay (and in denial) he really is. Tying these two narratives together, beyond slight repeating themes and ideas, are occasional sparse illustrations used to blur the line between the two realities.
At its core, Vivek Shraya’s unique twin narrative appears to be about embodiment and dysmorphia—and not just dysmorphia in the physical sense so commonly attributed to those suffering eating disorders (although there is an element of that within the text), but dysmorphia tied to the perception of others who see the main character’s expected black-or-white sexuality as a badge or label that quite literally transforms his appearance—or should.
The novella is similar in detached tone to that of a fable. The non-mythological characters are only “he” and “she,” a collection of experiences and physical attributes woven together but never quite achieving genuine depth or dimension. The story follows the pair from Edmonton to Toronto, offering small pieces of information here and there regarding who they are and the worlds they’ve come from without ever really giving them concrete identities the reader can latch onto.
What is made clear from the beginning is that “he” is representative of both the “other” and the opposition to what the “other” represents—the hard lines dividing one lifestyle from another. “He” is:
“… in a brown category that was generally frowned upon by other brown people, especially other brown parents: Alternative brown. This meant he wore vintage clothing, had his ears pierced, had blond streaks, and hung out with non-browns.”
Additionally, his sexuality is questioned by others before he can begin to address it himself—the words “you’re gay” are flung at him first as something to be ashamed of, and later as something to define his passions (which when tied to the phrase’s initial intentions—shame—cloak his desire beneath a veil of unease).
Taking this detachment from self a step further is the character of The Only Other Gay, whom the main character meets while still living in Edmonton, just as he is beginning to accept himself as both being gay but also loving and finding himself attracted to his dearest friend, the “she” of the tale. Through The Only Other Gay, the protagonist sees with greater clarity the hard line that exists for many between gay and straight, and how little it differs from the hard lines so frequently drawn between people of different races and socioeconomic classes: He wonders if in fact he is bisexual due to the conflict between his nature and his heart’s own desires. Even among those expected to want to include him, the protagonist is still the “other” in his refusal (or inability) to fit comfortably beneath just one banner.
I found the novella strongest near the end, in the third part, as the protagonist, deep in the throes of self-doubt and/or self-hatred, begins to psychologically unravel. He imagines himself with extra limbs, extra fingers, a tail—all manifestations of his struggles with accepting himself as someone hovering between several worlds without something to keep him grounded. That something, in this case, being first her pronouncement of love for him, and second, his reciprocation (given unexpectedly). This felt like the payoff for the slight anxiety-based dysmorphia that had been alluded to throughout the novella.
Overall I enjoyed She of the Mountains, but I wasn’t as moved by it as I’d hoped to be, based on its enticing premise. Additionally the images, while lovely, did not feel particularly essential to the narrative, or even to its presentation. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy looking at them—they’re lovingly executed—only that had they been removed, I don’t feel as if my reading of the text would have suffered in any way. However, Shraya’s novella is still an interesting, wholly unique read, one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. I just wish I were feeling a little more “full” from the experience.(less)
Tsukuru Tazaki was the only one in the group without anything special about him. His grades were slightly above average. He wasn’t especially interest...moreTsukuru Tazaki was the only one in the group without anything special about him. His grades were slightly above average. He wasn’t especially interested in academics, though he did pay close attention during class and always made sure to do the minimum amount of practice and review needed to get by. From the time he was little, that was his habit, no different from washing your hands before you eat and brushing your teeth after a meal. So although his grades were never stellar, he always passed his classes with ease. As long as he kept his grades up, his parents were never inclined to pester him to attend cram school or study with a tutor.
He didn’t mind sports but never was interested enough to join a team. He’d play the occasional game of tennis with his family or friends, and go skiing or swimming every once in a while. That was about it. He was pretty good-looking, and sometimes people even told him so, but what they really meant was that he had no particular defects to speak of. Sometimes, when he looked at his face in the mirror, he detected an incurable boredom. He had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill. He was, if anything, a bit taciturn; he blushed easily, wasn’t especially outgoing, and could never relax around people he’d just met.
If pressed to identify something special about him, one might notice that his family was the most affluent of the five friends, or that an aunt on his mother’s side was an actress—not a star by any means, but still fairly well known. But when it came to Tsukuru himself, there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.
Tsukuru Tazaki sees himself as a bit of a blank slate—an uninteresting person without anything truly special separating him from the rest of the rank and file populace. It wasn’t always this way, though. He was once a part of something greater, an integral piece of a group of five colourful friends. Aka and Ao—red and blue—were the other men in the group, Shiro and Kuro—white and black—the women.
And then there was Tsukuru, who unlike his vibrant friends, had no colour, shade, or hue attached to his surname. He was, as a boy and later as a man, a creator of sorts, obsessed with train stations—with designing and building them, being a part of their creation (and thus being an integral cog in the social makeup of things). One day, during the summer of Tsukuru’s sophomore year at college in Tokyo, he received a call from Ao, telling him the group, all who’d remained at home in Nagoya, had decided to cut him free as if he were a tumour. Ao requested Tsukuru never contact any one of them again. When Tsukuru asked why, he was met with the ever frustrating and high school-like “if you don’t know we can’t tell you.”
So it was that Tsukuru found himself abandoned by those he’d grown closest to, without apparent reason or cause for their actions. For sixteen years the question of why he’d been so unceremoniously cut off from the group dogged him; for a time he was so preoccupied with death and feeling lost and unwanted in the world that his physical appearance changed. At thirty-six he starts dating a woman named Sara, two years his senior, who has definite feelings for Tsukuru but can also sense the weight of his past, unresolved and gnawing at him. If they’re to move forward, Sara says to him one night, then he must confront his past and learn why it was that the four people in the world for whom he had the most love so suddenly and viciously removed him from their lives. Sara decides to help Tsukuru in this endeavour, offering to locate his former friends so that Tsukuru can journey to them and finally come to understand a rather dark chapter of his past, one that has had long-lasting ramifications on who he is and how he sees himself.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is, in some ways, a return for Murakami to a style not seen in some time. Absent from this book are magical cats, alternate realities, and a predominance of both jazz and spaghetti—elements common to his more magical works like 1Q84 and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Instead, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is more familiar in style and vibe to Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the latter being my favourite of his works). It’s a grounded narrative, with its more whimsical elements isolated inside Tsukuru, confined to his dreams and self-doubt. However, that does not make it any less of a Murakami book.
Tsukuru is an interesting character, strangely enough, in that he feels intentionally dry and dispassionate. He views others as constantly flitting through him, leaving him with gaping holes he cannot close while maintaining their own physical and emotional integrity. His journey is one of completion—he is half the man he needs to be, and Sara knows it.
It isn’t long before Sara returns with the knowledge Tsukuru needs to embark on his quest—the locations of Aka, Ao, and Kuro, and the sad revelation that Shiro died six years earlier. The fate of his friends and the surprising directions their lives have taken—surprising to Tsukuru—become the catalyst Tsukuru needs to finally discover why it was they deleted him from their group sixteen years previously.
What I think I appreciated most about this book is that once the reason for Tsukuru’s banishment from the group is revealed—Shiro’s rape and how she told the others, falsely, that it was Tsukuru who was responsible—the novel doesn’t suddenly shift gears and become about debunking Shiro’s claims, or getting to the truth of what really happened that night or on the night she was murdered. Those mysteries are for another story—this is Tsukuru’s narrative, not Shiro’s. Though her actions led to his dismissal from the group, the narrative is about the at times crippling wounds Tsukuru received as a result, and not about solving the rape and murder of a friend they all eventually drifted away from as they in turn drifted from one another.
I hesitate to touch upon the meetings he has with Ao, Aka, and Kuro as they are the best parts of this narrative—the unexpected and wonderfully not tense and melodramatic encounters that ran quite contrary to what I expected. While they serve a critical role in filling in the gaps in Tsukuru’s knowledge of past events, what the encounters with his three friends really accomplish is in the colouring of Tsukuru’s persona: while he saw in a mirror a bland, uninteresting fellow, his friends reveal how they viewed in him a strength of character that none of them could match. This is why, even though not one of them believed Tsukuru was capable of committing a crime as heinous as rape, they chose to favour the claims of what they perceived as the weakest and most fragile among them by allowing themselves to sacrifice the strongest, knowing that he would in fact survive on his own, without the others to prop him up. As Kuro put it:
“Because I had to protect her…. And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other entirely.”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not among Murakami’s best or most imaginative works, but it is enjoyable for what it is: an exercise in detailing one person’s quest toward self-confidence and self-awareness. It has its slow, plodding moments, many of which could easily have been excised from the whole in favour of a quicker, more finely crafted read (more or less anything with “Mister Gray”—Fumiaki Haida—who exists primarily to further the thesis that everyone eventually flits out of Tsukuru’s life with an unfortunate ease). Those moments aside, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a fairly effortless read—it moves along smoothly, and I never lost interest in Tsukuru’s pursuit of the truth. By the end, regardless of the outcome of his relationship with Sara, he is a much different person than when he began this personal pilgrimage. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a book predicated on catharsis and its ability to make whole that which had been broken.(less)
“We though the new filmmaking was about blurring the line between what’s scripted and real. And there’s nothing more real than sex.”
“Death is more rea...more“We though the new filmmaking was about blurring the line between what’s scripted and real. And there’s nothing more real than sex.”
“Death is more real.” It just slipped out. It was absolutely the last thing she meant or wanted to say. She was nervous, uncomfortable, it was unlike her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that anyone should die.” It was unlike her to apologize.
“But that’s what’s so powerful about the new filmmaking,” Steve was really trying to persuade her. “When you fuck you really fuck, when you die you really die.”
“I suppose.” She was being evasive. She didn’t like this line of reasoning. This wasn’t what she had meant. She had only been searching for ways to make her life more vibrant, more alive, and to make this very vibrancy her art. Fucking and dying didn’t feel alive, at least not in the way she had meant.
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“I don’t know.” There was always some way out. “When you’re an artist, if you’re a real artist, in some sense you always have to kill the father. That’s our legacy: the modernist break.”
The last paragraph of the segment quoted above is both fantastic and maddening. The idea of there being a definition or defining set of characteristics for who is or isn’t a “real” artist has been a perpetual thorn in my side. In my younger days it was something I lusted after—to do or create something that would somehow instantly elevate me into the pantheon of “real” artists. When I was in the thick of it during my twenties, producing and exhibiting with some regularity, I did my best to shove the idea of the “real artist” out of my brain—it wasn’t something to strive for, after all, it was something to be (or so I tried to convince myself, but being someone with a great deal of anxiety and self-doubt… well, let’s just say I didn’t always succeed along that line of thinking).
Now, several years and at least one major career shift away from all that—specifically the visual and performing art world—I can step back and, with some clarity, see the modern art world for all its insecurity and inability to think for itself. It’s a reactionary world, one that at least on an academic level takes a look at its immediate surroundings and says “nope, not me, I don’t like this,” and then purposefully diverges—sometimes to great social commentary, sometimes in ridiculous, even immature ways.
I realize I’m being a bit unfair in this assessment, but it’s an unfortunately true stereotype of the avant-garde mindset: that in order for art to matter, it must divest itself from anything approaching social norms or acceptance. Because art needs to constantly challenge and be challenging. But while I agree that art is essential in forcing audiences to stop and second guess their established social order instead of simply taking things at face value, the placement of the avant-garde at the top of the elitist hierarchy, with all others creators of art subservient to this ideal, is horseshit. Art is art—whatever your reasons, political or personal, commentary or beauty, if you make art, you are an artist.
This is why I so thoroughly enjoyed Jacob Wren’s Polyamorous Love Song—it simultaneously analyses, exalts, and condemns the strange reactionary madness of the art world. And it does so by constantly questioning and satirizing the notion that once an artist’s season has passed, so too has their purpose.
Wren’s novella is a post-postmodern book. It is a continuous thematic story told in nine short vignettes that jump between time, place, and style, revisiting a specific set of characters from a variety of perspectives. The characters themselves are thinly drawn, in many ways existing more as ciphers for the discussion of ideas. There’s Filmmaker A, who seeks to expand the definition of filmmaking by removing the cameras and having day-to-day existence become the film, where everyone is simultaneously acting in and viewing the works of others at all times; there’s the artist seeking to gain the trust of the Mascot Front—a group of militant furries who exist in many ways as a counter to the new filmmaking, hiding beneath plush characters and products anathema to the authenticity the new filmmaking seeks to promote—in order to do a piece about them; and Paul and Silvia, authors, the former writing about Hitler fucking a dog—because no postmodernist story would be complete without talk of a generously lubed Aryan erection. Naturally.
That the characters feel thin, however, is not a criticism; this isn’t a narrative in the traditional sense, but, as previously stated, a collection of ideas meant to rile expectations. That there’s even a loose narrative to it at all feels like a bonus. In many ways, Wren’s book is a natural extension of Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art, which presents art and artists as being wholly reliant on externalities to provide them with meaning and/or relevance. In Wren’s world, the art, artists, and audience are one, an Ouroboros both devouring and providing constantly: the Mascot Front forms to provide resistance to the new filmmaking, which exists to catalogue the “real lives” of its subjects—in other words, all of us, because the only way to subvert a style of filmmaking that both exists at all times and in all places by virtue of its actual non-existence is to live an “unreal” life, masked, hidden in some way.
The success of Wren’s book is that it manages to straddle the thin line between satire and possibility: the new filmmaking is, conceptually, aggressively postmodern. It is hilarious in its total absurdity, yet also totally believable, and more than likely an idea at least one avant-garde filmmaker has already had at one time or another. Similarly, there’s the cocktail, “the drug to remember phone numbers, the drug to supress jealousy, the drug to keep you hot and bothered and a little something extra to keep you going all night.” Like the new filmmaking, the cocktail is an artificial X factor introduced into this all-artist world to transform every interaction into a form of performance art.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Polyamorous Love Song, it will more than likely frustrate many readers. It’s not a difficult book to read, but it does require a willingness to dig deep and pull apart the layers of what is and isn’t satire. Between the novella’s many absurdities is rather deft commentary on the art world’s own demand for newness, for the avant-garde, and for the conflicts that spring forth naturally when society is pushed beyond established norms and boundaries.(less)
I thought again about Julia’s hands clutching at her bikini bottoms. No! she’d shouted. No! And after that I thought about the raptor look with which...moreI thought again about Julia’s hands clutching at her bikini bottoms. No! she’d shouted. No! And after that I thought about the raptor look with which Ralph had undressed my wife that time in the lobby of the old municipal theater. How he had worked his jaws. How he had ground his teeth, as though he could already taste her on his tongue. Men look at women. Women look at men. But Ralph looked at women as though he were flipping through a copy of Playboy. He squeezed his dick as he looked. In his thoughts, or for real. He pulled down the pants of thirteen-year-old girls. Or did he? After all, I hadn’t seen him do that with my own eyes. It was always possible, of course, that my daughter only thought he was going to do that. Maybe the four of them, Julia along with Lisa and the boys, had been yanking on one another’s bathing suits in the pool earlier. As part of a game. An innocent game. Innocent among children between the ages of nine and fifteen, culpable for men in their late forties.
Herman Koch doesn’t know you, but he probably doesn’t like you very much. It’s totally okay, though—if the two books of his that I’ve read are anything to go by, there’s likely little in this world he deems worthy of his time.
I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but it’s difficult to read Koch’s latest work and not feel the voice of the author bleeding through the novel’s wholly unsympathetic protagonist. In his previous book, The Dinner, the distastefulness was spread democratically among the four main characters; in Summer House With Swimming Pool, however, as disgusting as several of the peripheral characters appear to be, it’s Marc, the main character, who is far and away the most despicable. In this self-described “charming” general practitioner, Koch has crafted a man who even in the wake of his teenage daughter’s potential sexual assault is still largely concerned with making sure she didn’t happen to see anything of his burgeoning infidelity.
Pardon me—I’m getting ahead of myself. Summer House With Swimming Pool tells the story of Marc, a general practitioner with a cozy private practice in the Netherlands, and a man’s death he may or may not be responsible for. Many of Marc’s clients are creative sorts to varying degrees of fame and success. One day, a famous actor named Ralph Meier shows up in his office and the two embark on an unlikely acquaintanceship—well, Ralph attempts to befriend the doctor, but Marc is more or less uninterested. You see Marc, despite many of his regular clientele being in similar lines of work, has an extreme dislike of the creative world and its denizens. He invites them into his office, gives them the time to tell him what their problems are, and accepts their invitations to whatever launches or openings or premieres are coming up, all while gritting his teeth at their very nature. It’s good, reliable work, though, and it affords Marc, his wife Caroline, and their two daughters Lisa and Julia a life of some comfort.
From their first meeting, Ralph shows an insatiable interest in Caroline. Marc, not to be outdone, finds himself growing more and more interested in Ralph’s wife Judith. As you can imagine, this isn’t going anywhere pleasant. Eventually the doctor and his family wind up as guests of the Meiers at the titular summer home with a swimming pool. Once there, a host of insidious events occur, culminating eventually with Marc choosing to misdiagnose a fatal illness in Ralph as reciprocity for an especially vulgar crime Marc suspects the actor to be guilty of having committed.
The novel opens the day before Mark is set to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners, where a jury of peers is preparing to weigh his guilt or innocence in the matter of Ralph Meier’s death. Much of the narrative occurs in the past, covering the eighteen months from Ralph and Marc’s first meeting up to the point of Ralph’s death, and is merely bookended by the present as Marc reflects upon what led to the uncomfortable position he now finds himself in.
From the very beginning, it’s clear that for Marc, humanity is an obstacle that’s been inflicted upon him. Though a physician, he is disgusted by the human body; his ego has elevated him above all that step inside his office. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author takes several paragraphs to discuss, in florid detail, all the ways that fat people disgust and annoy Marc. Women are also harshly objectified, as the doctor appears to judge all male/female interactions on a level of fuckability (even women he finds ugly he still seeks to dominate in this regard). This callousness and aversion to people beyond simple physical transactions sets Marc up as an interesting though altogether unlikable marriage of an intellectual who also happens to represent the very worst of male stereotypes. I won’t even touch upon the interaction he has at the end with a gay patient who comes to Marc because he knows Marc is uncomfortable, even unforgiving toward his way of life, and prefers that to a doctor who acts like being gay is normal when the patient feels it’s not—it’s as if the author is commenting on the idea of the self-hating homosexual being preferable to one wholly confident in their own skin. It’s unsettling to say the least.
This distaste for humanity is the grounding for much of the narrative conflict that follows, as Marc not so subtly pursues a physical relationship with Judith while staying at the Meiers’ summer home. It doesn’t matter that there’s little chemistry between them (despite what Marc openly claims about his own irresistible charms); what matters is that Marc has set his sights on another woman and he intends to go for it with everything he’s got. The two don’t get very far as their initial steps toward infidelity are potentially glimpsed by another—more than likely Julia. And when Julia is later found assaulted and possibly raped, the greater narrative turns to who could have done such a thing, though Marc is also wondering whether or not her assault has possibly wiped whatever she’d witnessed between him and Judith from her memory.
So yeah, he’s pretty terrible. Irredeemable, actually. And because of this, he’s never once trustworthy. That’s not to say he’s an unreliable narrator so much as it is to say that when he does eventually start showing more emotion, especially toward Julia, it’s not believable in the least.
All the backstory between Marc and Ralph and whether or not Ralph is responsible for what happened to Julia serves a specific moment in the narrative: when Ralph goes to see Marc and expresses concern for his health, enough suspicion has built up in Marc’s mind as to “justify” his not sending a tissue sample taken from Ralph in to be analysed, thus knowingly condemning the actor to an early demise. It’s effective, and if not sympathy one does feel some degree of understanding for Marc’s actions. His actions are still not justified, nor could they ever be (especially for someone who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath), but one is able to see how he justified it.
But whatever justification the author is able to create is undone by a weak ending in which no consequences are experienced, and no remorse is shown despite the growing slope of evidence that, as much of a degenerate asshole as he was, it’s possible—if not likely—that Ralph had nothing to do with Julia’s assault. Knowing this and still finding comfort in his actions, Koch cements Marc as a sociopath, void of decency or regret. I wanted to shower after being subjected to such a vinegary stain of a human.
Koch’s writing is simple and straightforward, with the bulk of its artistry and imagery reserved for that which he finds most abhorrent. Additionally, the book’s mystery is revealed effectively and deliberately—the narrative never slumps, never becomes boring. In the end, Summer House With Swimming Pool is an odd mix—I was compelled to push through because of its narrative, but I desperately wanted to walk away from its characters. For fans of The Dinner I’d suggest giving this a look, though this title is decidedly less rooted in some form of morality (in the aforementioned title, the four main characters acted horribly out of a desire to protect their children; in this book, Marc acts primarily out of self-interest, even after his child has been harmed). Not a poor read by any stretch, but neither am I comfortable recommending it. After both this and Gone Girl, I feel like I’ve had my fill this year of books with terrible people in every corner.(less)
For however much longer, this was a brutal, beautiful, and brand-new fact for Juliette. She had spent three days climbing long stairs si...moreShe was alive.
For however much longer, this was a brutal, beautiful, and brand-new fact for Juliette. She had spent three days climbing long stairs similar to these as she came to grips with her fate. Another day and night had been spent in a cell made for the future corpses who dotted the landscape. And then—this. An impossible trek through the wilderness of the forbidden, breaking into the impenetrable and the unknown. Surviving.
Whatever happened next, for this moment, Juliette flew down foreign steps in bare feet, the steel cool against her tingling skin, the air burning her throat less and less with each gulp of new air, the raw stench and memory of death receding further and further above her. Soon, it was just the patter of her joyous descent ringing out and drifting down a lonely and empty darkness like a muffled bell that rang not for the dead, but for the living.
Originally released in separate installments, and later collected as an omnibus and published by Simon and Schuster, Hugh Howey’s Wool is a rare beast: a self-published story that I didn’t completely hate. That may sounds like faint praise, but given that before this I’d sworn off self-published books—too many atrocious experiences and combative authors—it’s an accomplishment worth mentioning.
Most know the story by now, how Howey found success self-publishing through the Kindle Direct program before a publisher snatched up the print book rights for the collected five-part omnibus. The success of this tale, however, isn’t just a case of an author knowing how to sell himself far and wide; there’s genuine narrative merit to Wool.
The novel is a dystopian mystery. Society—or what’s left of it—lives in a silo descending more than one hundred storeys into the earth. Life in the silo, much like its vertical nature, is a hierarchy: the grunts who keep the gears spinning and the lights on live far below, near the bottom, while the lawmakers and authority figures reside at the top (having just watched Snowpiercer, the parallels are obvious). The world outside is a barren wasteland, the air a deadly combination of toxins. When someone breaks the law, they are sent outside to clean the lens that affords those in the silo a slim glimpse of the world up above. But no matter the crime, the cleaning is a death sentence, for no one who goes outside lasts more than a few minutes in the unforgiving environment.
Beyond this basic premise, the story of Wool—very much Juliette’s tale, though she doesn’t take centre stage until the third part—is political in nature. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that whatever happened to the world outside happened not in spite of humans but because of them. In response to this, the people who created the silos that house what remains of humanity have taken that most dystopian of approaches: treating ideas as a contagion needing to be controlled. But ideas are not a virus, and human nature—one divided between questioning authority and falling comfortably into step—cannot be so easily subjugated.
I’m reluctant to say anything more about the story, because above all else Wool’s strength is in its plot. That’s not to say its characters are uninteresting, but apart from Juliette, Solo, and Mayor Jahns, most are lacking in any real development. In particular, the novel’s villain, Bernard, whose actions Howey goes to great lengths to justify, in the end came across as a little too moustache-twirly for my tastes.
Wool doesn’t break new ground for the genre, nor is the writing especially unique—it’s not “bad,” per se, but there’s much that could be cut and tightened, and very little in the way of colour or artistry—but it gets the job done and I got a good enough picture of the world these characters inhabited. Howey’s a clear graduate of the Dan Brown school of ending every bloody chapter with a cliffhanger, which for better or worse adds a certain propulsive feel to the book, even in moments where quiet reflection might have been preferable. Additionally the ending is disappointingly abrupt.
I’ve learned since finishing the book earlier today that there are prequel and sequel chapters in existence, though I can’t say I feel compelled to check out either. My experience with Wool was satisfying but not transformative; I feel like I’ve just finished a decent burger and fries but don’t really have any room left for dessert.(less)
As we stepped into the living room, Jenna Kim—a girlfriend of an American named Chad or Chuck or Chandler who specialized in Joseon dynasty history an...moreAs we stepped into the living room, Jenna Kim—a girlfriend of an American named Chad or Chuck or Chandler who specialized in Joseon dynasty history and who directed all his conversation at my breasts whenever I had the bad luck of speaking with him—was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. Her skirt was hiked up to her waist, and she wasn’t wearing panties. She had a cigarette in one hand, and was blowing smoke out of her vagina. Jenna was famous for this at parties. She called it her “Singapore hooker trick.”
“Oh, fuck, not again,” I said loudly. “I need another drink.” I went into the kitchen. Kenichi followed.
“Is this type of behaviour common at parties in North America?” he asked, amused.
“She’s such a fucking moron,” I said. “Singapore is the least likely Asian setting for this kind of desperate sex work. I mean, if she had said Thai hooker trick, I’d still be annoyed with her, but at least she wouldn’t come across as so utterly stupid. She has no sense of political and socio-economic realities in different Asian countries. You’d think all of Asia was poor and backwards from her estimation of Singapore.”
Kenichi laughed. “She’s got a cigarette in her pussy and you’re thinking about socio-economic factors and its influence on prostitution?”
The twelve stories in Doretta Lau’s How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? focus primarily on the experience of being lost and dissociated, be it from one’s culture, family, career, or by love.
In “Two-Part Invention,” the protagonist, tired of seeking—and failing to find—love amongst the living turns to dating dead people, specifically the pianist Glenn Gould. “Days of Being Wild” looks in on a young Canadian screenwriter living and attending school in New York City as she grapples with grief over the death of her grandmother, crippling self-doubt, guilt rooted in familiar career expectations, and a nasty case of writer’s block. The story feels a bit all over the place in the beginning, as life appears to be happening around the protagonist, but finally achieving an emotional release by the story’s end helps reconnect her to the world.
“O, Woe is Me” and “The Boy Next Door” offer twin tales of down-on-their-luck men in unforgiving relationships with women who simply are not right for them. The first is centred on a shootee (professional victim) at a local sideshow and his life of lost opportunities, be they university athletics or competitive eating, and his girlfriend who appears to loathe his very being. The second follows a recently unemployed photographer, whose girlfriend does not approve of his vocation, as he flirts with the idea of entering the porn industry in order to make ends meet.
“God Damn, How Real is This?,” “Rerun,” “Left and Leaving,” and “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” are the standout stories in this collection. In the first, society is grappling with the sudden reality of Communicative Time Travel as people’s future selves attempt to steer their pasts in new directions by sending text messages back through time, warning of illnesses, avoidable crises, and poor decisions. “Rerun” follows a twenty-four-year-old former actress attempting to get her life back on track after ditching her seventy-year-old meal ticket at the altar, simultaneously working through the revelation that the majority of her life has been some form of pretend with little reality to ground her to any one identity. “Left and Leaving” uses two events far too familiar to anyone from the Lower Mainland, BC—the Reena Virk murder case and the growing number of missing women from the DTES who would later be revealed as Robert Pickton’s victims—to tell the story of two young girls whose mother is among the missing, and their difficulties flitting from one school and one foster care situation to another. And in the collection’s title track, Lau employs an almost A Clockwork Orange style of diction as a group of Chinese youths—dragoons, not droogies—get on with a bit of recklessness (not quite ultraviolence, but the vibe is similar) as they “reclaim” racist and racially stereotyped terms and insults for use as their personalized nomenclature.
I didn’t find there to be any weak stories in this collection, though when stacked against the four tales listed above, a few of the remaining pieces—“Writing in Light” and “Sad Ghosts” in particular—don’t hit with the same force of impact. Lau’s writing is consistently enjoyable, and her tone strikes a fine balance between sarcastic levity and sincerity. If I were to lobby any complaint against the collected work it would be that several of the protagonists feel cut from too similar a cloth, with only their experiences lending independence to their voices.
There are several recurring themes throughout How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?—drinking and alcoholism, adoption/foster homes, and the film and television industry offer strong aesthetic and thematic grounding to much of Lau’s work. Additionally, she is quite enamoured with photography and visual art in general; being as heavily involved as I was with the Vancouver visual art community in the late ’90s and early 2000s helped anchor me emotionally to several of the stories collected within.
Running a scant 120 pages, there’s little to no wasted space in Lau’s work. The stories are universally tight, and any surrealism or abstraction is spread judiciously throughout. This is an easy recommendation—How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is a fantastic one- or two-sitting read.(less)
One of Angel’s fingers is holding the elastic of the bikini bottom away from Nikki’s skin. Nikki clamps her legs shut.
Angel smirks. Angel nods at the...moreOne of Angel’s fingers is holding the elastic of the bikini bottom away from Nikki’s skin. Nikki clamps her legs shut.
Angel smirks. Angel nods at the bed where Coy Hawkins is sleeping. The covers are on the floor. He’s half-wrapped in the fitted sheet.
“He’s just waiting to see who’s gonna pay the most money for you,” Angel says.
“What?” Nikki says.
“It’s called the high bid. Because you’re a virgin.”
“I ain’t a virgin.”
Angel puts on Nikki’s white sunglasses.
“You act like one,” Angel says.
“I don’t gotta work for him. He’s my daddy,” Nikki says.
Angel turns to look at Nikki.
“That don’t matter.”
Nikki Hawkins is a switchblade in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl. In Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God, the teenage protagonist is living in the North Carolina hills with her mama (a barely thirty former teenage mother) and her mama’s junkie boyfriend/fuck puppet Wesley. When her mama slips and falls to her death from atop a cliff near the start of the novel, young Nikki does what few children her age would ever dream of doing and embarks on a mission to maintain her family’s position as top dogs in the local drug trade. In order to accomplish this potentially overwhelming task, she steals Wesley’s car and goes to her father Coy Hawkins, ostensibly to find a buried inheritance she’s owed but also to learn from him the ins and outs of the trade—hopefully without getting killed in the process.
As expected, things do not go smoothly for Nikki. Fuck smoothly—things are never not horrible for her and everyone around her. Beyond simply peddling drugs, Coy is also involved with prostitution and associated turf wars, and he uses his daughter early on to help “send a message” to another pimp in the area. Coy wastes no time incorporating Nikki into his schemes, teaching her the importance of being the first to market with new “product”; though he keeps her awareness at an arm’s length, it isn’t long before she’s learned enough to start acting and making deals on her own.
Told over five parts with short, often less than half-page fractured thoughts masquerading as chapters, Morris carves a pint-sized weapon out of Nikki. Surrounded as she is by deadbeats and unsavouries of all sorts—not to mention a father who vacillates between pimp, rapist, murderer, and paranoid caregiver who tries, too little too late, to push his offspring to get an education (threatening to call the Department of Social Services on her)—Nikki is forced to grow up fast, understanding rather quickly on which side of “kill or be killed” she intends to stand.
The narrative’s unexpected strength is in its inability to linger on anything—life for Nikki appears to be entirely surface gloss and without consequence, nothing ever really impacting beneath her skin. It’s only when heroin is introduced into the story, and into Nikki’s mind, that we as readers start to see some of the more pressing fears and uncertainties she experiences as she and Coy slide further into fogginess and moral emaciation. Late in the tale, when Nikki tells someone she’s actually sixteen and not thirteen, the reader is forced to question whether she is simply lying in order to present a stronger, more experienced self, or if in the haze of drugs and violence in which she’s been living time has glided on by while her perception of reality has slipped quietly away.
Morris’s writing is harsh and broken but not staccato; the short, emotion-deprived chapters are not sharpened but blunt, striking unexpectedly and without concern. The novel itself feels belligerent, as if un-desiring of approval or acceptance. What results from this is a hard, uncomfortable narrative that doesn’t seek to shock but to unsettle by keeping the reader at the same level of detachment as the characters appear to be to one another. To this end, its final page hits like a body mutely thumping the pavement following a ten-storey fall—complete with all of the horror but none of the Hollywood fanfare.
Young God feels numbed, in some ways defeated by the inevitability of Nikki’s increasingly dark path. Morris presents Nikki’s fate without polemics, ethical grandstanding, or melodrama. It’s a novel I appreciate and respect more than I can say I enjoyed. It scalds in the moment, but like the cruelties enacted by its dangerous heroine, the pain does not linger far beyond the page—it’s merely a matter of running some cold water over the wound to see that the flesh has closed over again.(less)