Why do they come after me? he thought. Why does the world insist? he thought. He lived in a slaughterhouse universe under a doleful sign of dream from...moreWhy do they come after me? he thought. Why does the world insist? he thought. He lived in a slaughterhouse universe under a doleful sign of dream from which he did not wish to awaken, for that seemed like death to him. You stop and you die, he thought. He met the girl coming back to find him, which was a surprise as he expected betrayal at every turn. He followed her glance and noticed for the first time the hematitic stains on his hands, his arms and spattered on his shirt, as though he had bathed in blood. She dismounted and shuffled to him without her sticks, taking his hands in turn, inspecting them with her fingers, palpating for wounds, then suddenly grazing his wrist with her hungry tongue, a gesture he could not interpret, though he felt it directly in his balls as if his body had rendered up a meaning he could not himself name. He found her muteness eloquent in ways he could not explain; she did not deceive him, veiling herself in words as people generally did until he just wanted to shoot them to make them shut up and be.
Short story collections can sometimes be difficult to review. Oftentimes I find myself resisting the urge to pick them apart and grade the individual components as if I were marking a student’s paper—noting which stories work and which don’t and coming up with a cumulative score of some kind denoting the package’s overall worth. This method is sometimes useful, though more often with mosaic collections, wherein each story exists both on its own and as part of a larger theme. However in situations like I find myself in at the moment, to do so would be detrimental to the book as a whole.
Douglas Glover’s Savage Love is a collection of twenty-two stories divided across four sections: Prelude, Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. The stories themselves, varying greatly in form and length, are an uneven assortment. The ones that work are surprising, shattering, wickedly absurd tales rife with parenthetical, fourth-wall-breaking asides and understated cynicism; those that don’t work as well flit by harmlessly without managing to detract from the high quality of storytelling that surrounds them.
In “Tristiana,” a beleaguered and weather-beaten farmer in 1869 becomes a self-styled angel of death and finds in his mute, stump-footed Indian companion a wife and accomplice. “Crown of Thorns” introduces Tobin, a not-all-there boy in love with the babysitter who disrupts the clean surface of his parents’ marriage. “Light Trending to Dark,” the strongest of the Fugues, offers up a front row seat to watch as an unfaithful husband’s life quickly unravels with several explosions of sociopathic ambivalence; he self-destructs his family with such effortlessness one might think it was his mission in life.
The Intermezzo Microstories are flash fiction of often no more than a few paragraphs. While some of the stories in this section did leap out at me—“The Ice Age,” “The Poet Fishbein,” and “Twins”—most I found to be uninteresting and a bit too esoteric for my tastes. In musical terms, an intermezzo is a composition slotted between the movements or acts of a larger performance. In the case of Savage Love, these microstories feel for the most part like a collection of experiments designed to bridge the tonal divide between Fugues and The Comedies without significantly adding to or detracting from the collection’s more visible themes. To this end they succeed.
The collection’s final section, The Comedies, is also its strongest. While I enjoyed Glover’s writing throughout, it’s in the absurdism of the book’s final six stories that he really comes alive. “The Lost Language of Ng” tells the life story of a man—possibly a fraud—from an ancient civilization about which little can be taught due to the world-ending ramifications of hearing his traditional language out loud. “Shameless” touches upon the ways children diverge from expected paths in life, and the different ways love and lust can and will shape one’s experience. (The story also includes an incredible six-page paragraph positively sick with the imagery of lust unfettered, unsatisfied, having taken over and been taken over by the mistakes in one’s past.) It’s the final story, however, that proved to be my favourite in the book. “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night” is perfunctory in its absurdity, like a mid-life crisis bottled and vigorously shaken with an unhealthy dose of spunk (yes, that). By the end of this story, reflecting on The Comedies in its entirety, it feels as if Glover has addressed the ridiculousness of love and connection from all possible angles, thus clearing the table for something new.
By numbers alone, I truly enjoyed only eleven out of the twenty-two stories in this collection. At first glance you’d be forgiven in thinking that means I disliked the book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Those eleven stories were so sharply written, so delightfully acerbic as to justify the whole. And of the larger stories it was only a few that didn’t stick with me after the fact; it was primarily the microstories that failed to capture my undivided attention. All that being said, Savage Love remains one of the strongest, most refreshing short fiction collections of 2013.(less)
We drove down Parkside and pulled up beside a 5.0 Mustang. A farmer-tanned arm hung casually out the open window. There was a tattoo of a wolf howling...moreWe drove down Parkside and pulled up beside a 5.0 Mustang. A farmer-tanned arm hung casually out the open window. There was a tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon on that arm, except the skin drooped so that the moon looked more like a teardrop—which would be poetic, I guess, if it had been on purpose.
Mahoney pulled up closer. I caught a flash of the driver: in his mid-thirties, his face deeply seamed and his skin a queer off-yellow like a watery cat’s eye. He looked sick but probably wasn’t. It’s just how men grew up around here. My dad said Cataract City was a pressure chamber: living was hard, so boys were forced to become men much faster. That pressure ingrained itself in bodies and faces. You’d see twenty-year-old men whose hands were stained permanently black with the granular grease from lubing the rollers at the Bisk. Men just past thirty walking with a stoop. Forty-year-olds with forehead wrinkles deep as the bark on a redwood. You didn’t age gracefully around here. You just got old.
Capital-M Masculinity is beaten halfway to death in Craig Davidson’s fourth book, Cataract City. This surprisingly intimate novel follows the lives of two childhood friends, Duncan Diggs and Owen Stuckey. Beginning with Duncan’s release from prison following an eight-year stint for murder, the novel travels back and forth between the present day and the highlights—and lowlights—of their lives together, charting a friendship forged as much through love as it was through fear: fear of being alone, and more than that, of accepting the city’s limits as one’s own.
After the short prologue in which Owen picks Duncan up upon his release from the Kingston Pen, the narrative jumps back in time to detail the origins of their friendship. As ten-year-olds in Niagara Falls—dubbed “Cataract City” for the Latin word for “waterfall,” it was a place where you got stuck, where you started a bank account as a child and it saw you through to the day you died—Owen and Duncan naturally gravitated towards one another: both were born into blue collar families (though Duncan’s was just that little bit lower—with no-name-brand corn flakes and powdered milk on the table), both fathers were working their lives away in a factory, and both idolized Cataract City’s very own not-ready-for-prime-time wrestling sensation, Bruiser Mahoney—AKA Dade Rathburn.
One fateful, childhood-defining night, Owen and Duncan find themselves pseudo-kidnapped by Bruiser Mahoney, who drives them out into the woods to impart unto his biggest fans in the whole wide world the things that every man worth his salt needed to learn. Things like living off the wilderness, the taste of charred raccoon, and how to spot a fraud through a pair of rose-coloured glasses. When in the middle of the night Bruiser passes away, the two boys are put in a life-threatening situation: they needed to somehow find their way back to civilization, and to their families, before being done in by nature or by starvation—whichever came first. What follows is a harrowing, tragic adventure that’s practically a complete novel in and of itself, yet is only Cataract City‘s first part; as Owen and Duncan clumsily navigate the woods, for several days and sometimes travelling in circles, they are both stripped down to their innermost selves before being built up again, having naturally been changed by the experience.
Right away Cataract City overflows with colour, detail, and strong sometimes unsettling imagery—like night falling in the woods as “a guillotine blade: quick and sharp, cutting you off from everything.” As great as the prose is, it’s in the effortless kid-to-kid dialogue in which Davidson’s writing truly excels. The longer Owen and Duncan remain lost in the woods, the more their conversations turn inward and introspective, moving from survival techniques and quick back-and-forths about Popeye’s dietary needs to inventive campfire-style stories about dogs being sent into space. The tone of their interaction is damn near perfect and does a fine job setting up a verbal shorthand that will carry them through their adult lives and the remainder of the novel.
Beyond the language and the imagery, however, it’s through Bruiser Mahoney that Davidson sets the template for the book: the thematic deconstruction and subsequent dismissal of what makes a man “a man” in the traditional sense. Because Bruiser’s not just Duncan and Owen’s idol; he’s also a figurehead for a type of rugged masculinity popularized everywhere from old John Wayne films to the sort of culture that surrounded the world of professional wrestling that really kicked into high gear in the 1980s with the rise of the WWF. And to the flip side of that coin, Bruiser is a showman living the lie to its fullest extent—a pathetic creature reliving his greatest stories over and over again, further embellishing the details with each retelling.
This theme—payment for masculinity’s sins—is returned to throughout the novel’s remaining parts as Owen and Duncan drift in and out of each others’ lives, invariably tethered to one another seemingly regardless of paths taken. In some cases the payment takes on expected forms—like Clyde and Adam, two local fuck-ups, taking out their jealousy and aggression on Owen by running him down with a truck, putting an unceremonious cap on what was a potential pro basketball career—while others are decidedly more “underground” such as: off-the-books dog racing, dog fighting, bare-knuckle boxing, and the culture that surrounds these rather heinous pursuits. When Owen’s athletic future is snuffed out, he turns to the law and becomes a police officer; when Duncan is let go from the Bisk cookie factory due to sweeping cutbacks, he looks to the other direction, and to a man no one should have the misfortune of knowing—Lemmie Drinkwater, one of Cataract City’s most malignant parasites.
Though with each new part the novel switches back and forth between Owen and Duncan’s perspectives, Cataract City really feels first and foremost like Duncan’s story; even when being told from Owen’s point of view, it feels as if he’s telling us more about Duncan than he is about himself. This is largely due in part to Duncan being the more sympathetic of the two characters (a fact driven home by the incident with the baby bird near the close of Part One). At the novel’s outset, we know a few things for certain: Duncan is in jail for murder, though the details remain impressively vague for a long time; Owen is at least partially responsible for Duncan’s incarceration and is carrying a fair amount of guilt as a result; and we know from how everyone reacts to him that Duncan is still, in spite of being in prison for nearly eight years, a stand-up kind of a guy—a good egg who made some mistakes but never really wanted to do anyone any harm. Neither of the two boys was ever especially intelligent or career-minded; it’s entirely in Duncan’s soft side—the side of him that falls head over heels for Edwina, the city’s “Jezebel” (and the tonal opposite of the manic-pixie-dream girl); the side that rescues two abandoned greyhound pups from a dumpster; the side that would do nearly anything to settle his debts—that the novel finds its footing, and the underlying criticisms of capital-M Masculinity are laid bare.
Davidson presents the sort of masculinity defined by Bruiser Mahoney and wannabe gangster Lemmie Drinkwater as being wholly destructive—archaic mindsets working at odds with the world, never in concert with it. The only places that sort of lifestyle is able to find any sort of traction is in the underground in which Duncan is inevitably drawn, but never quite acclimates to. His reasons for going into that world in the first place are not because he is so sock-stuffingly tough but because, either due to upbringing or environment, he sees no other option for himself.
Furthermore, Duncan is safest when swimming in familiar pools. For him, leaving Cataract City is a pipe dream—a fantasy lived by others like Owen who had opportunities he himself lacked. In this sense, it’s easy to see why Duncan, though too empathetic for it, would turn not to a life of crime but to opportunities he saw as comfortably blurring the line between right and wrong. Every chance taken is something he can swallow if it brings him that little bit closer to getting away. To this same end, there’s security in Duncan’s world when those nearest and dearest to him fall back down to earth—like in how Owen’s abruptly over and done pro basketball career mirrors Dolly the greyhound’s racing accident which made her “… more touchable. Afterwards, I could hold her—just for a few minutes, but that was something.” His love for those around him is at odds with his fear at being left behind.
There’s a sense of impending tragedy throughout the novel’s second and third parts, as the boys become men and we are driven closer and closer to the moment Duncan’s life changes for the worse. As previously mentioned, the details surrounding the murder are clouded throughout most of the novel, and when finally revealed the accidental nature of the moment lends it an even greater degree of sadness. All this threat and misery is backdropped with visceral, stomach-churning scenes of dog fighting and bare-knuckle boxing. It is in these sections that Davidson’s passion for imagery strikes iron-fucking-hot:
The man brought one world-eating fist down into my face and everything exploded in starlight riots, hollowness threading down my jaw as if nothing anchored it anymore: my face was only a mask, the contents of my skull obliterated.
In the novel’s final part, together again in the place they were first lost as kids, Owen and Duncan are forced to endure incredible, seemingly ungodly amounts of pain and physical strain, yet they survive. What they’re capable of enduring in the novel’s closing pages is incredible, but it’s an agony they themselves selected as if a form of self-punishment—for accepting their miserable lot in life and the city’s role in keeping them in place, and for paying so fully into the myth of masculinity-that-was. Because however strong they are, whatever pain they survive, neither is strong enough to accept full responsibility for their actions—Cataract City itself must always shoulder at least a part of the blame.
Cataract City is one of those grab-you-by-the-throat books. I’ve come across precious few of them this year, however this novel and its deconstruction of masculinity would play well paired with my favourite book from this year, Lauren Beuke’s The Shining Girls, which offered a different sort of take-down of old-school masculinity presented as being antithetical and antagonistic towards contemporary feminist ideals… by way of a time travelling psychopath.
Whether or not Cataract City takes home the Giller Prize for which it has been shortlisted this coming Tuesday, it remains one of the most lyrical, satisfying books I’ve read all year. Highly recommended in all its skull-shattering glory.
… And all that armchair analysis without ever mentioning the book’s title mirroring Owen and Duncan’s terrible lack of vision in their own lives. Lack of vision, cataracts…(less)
He hadn’t looked down on her, though she was trying with all her might to smash him to bits. She was looking for the button that would blow him sky hi...moreHe hadn’t looked down on her, though she was trying with all her might to smash him to bits. She was looking for the button that would blow him sky high, but she couldn’t get at it.
He once told her he would do it again if he got the chance.
I’m shocked, she’d said.
I see the whole picture, he said. But what he meant was they had not broken him. They could forget about breaking him. He didn’t judge people. That was what he had that they didn’t have.
There’s something I’d like to ask, she said. What makes you believe you wouldn’t get caught again?
Her earnestness nearly broke him. She was so sincere it almost made him doubt. He would have told her he believed and that was all there was to it.
Believing is believing is believing is believing.
There’s no reason to it. It just is, he would have told her that. But they had run out of time.
June 14, 1978: a young man from Newfoundland named David Slaney escapes from prison in Nova Scotia. Slaney’s young, about to turn twenty-five, and has just served four years and two days of a prison term as a direct result of the biggest pot bust in Canadian history—two tons and over a million dollars in Colombian weed. He and his accomplice Brian Hearn were busted coming into port. While Slaney went to prison, Hearn jumped bail, changed his name, and began a new life on the west coast.
With the help of a plan concocted by Hearn, Slaney’s sister, and a few assorted ne’er-do-wells, Slaney is making his way across the country, back to Hearn, then back to Colombia for another shot at glory. Because easy money is easy if you don’t cock it up. Along the way he’ll come into contact with more than a couple lost souls willing to give him a lift or show him some sympathy—because criminal or no, Slaney’s got a good heart, that much is clear—and take a short detour to visit his ex, Jennifer, whose life has gone on without him. Meanwhile, dogging Slaney every step of the way is Patterson, a staff sergeant with the Toronto Drug Section who’s hoping Slaney will lead them to Hearn.
Split into five parts, Lisa Moore’s Caught is a bit of an odd beast. It’s at once harrowing and mundane, trapped halfway between popcorn thriller and “literary” novel without ever confidently setting foot in either pool. The setup is great: we’ve got a prison break, investors in Montreal burned by the bust-gone-wrong from four years earlier, and the opportunity to make amends—to take, by force, the life Slaney feels he is owed. However, it’s in the execution of these ideas that Caught is found lacking, suffering a crisis of identity.
The novel works best in short bursts—vignettes—like with Slaney and the bride-to-be, or when he ducks down to Ottawa to visit Jennifer and the new life she’s won for herself. With Jennifer, we’re given a brief but effective glimpse into their shorthand connection developed in childhood. In fact, the quick detour Moore takes into Slaney and Jennifer’s time together as kids, when she busts him for cheating during a softball game, provides us with all we need to understand how and why they worked so well together in the past. It is the most in-depth and effective character work in the entire novel.
Which brings us to the novel’s downfall: that there really isn’t much of interest to the lives of Moore’s characters. We’re given some details here and there as to who they are and why and how they’re involved—like how Hearn’s actions impacted his father, for example—but for the most part the characters are detailed in unemotional strokes designed to differentiate them from one another by their backgrounds and not by how they are portrayed or what they say. The most troublesome for me was actually Patterson, who, according to his character’s past, has a lot to gain if he succeeds in bringing Slaney and the others to justice, yet seems entirely uninterested in the hunt. There’s no apparent drive or emotional core to any of these people—just actions and reactions to situations like they’re walking from point to point on a narrative line that’s already been sketched out for them. For however much Slaney and Jennifer’s connection worked, it’s such a small part of the overall book that it feels like an overburdened fulcrum on which too much emotional weight has been hung.
Beyond the lack of character, Moore’s writing simply never popped for me. It’s propulsive in terms of driving the plot, but it’s just… well, it’s not interesting—it gets the job done without ever really painting the scene. As a study in streamlining narrative construction, it has its merits—the initial reveal of Patterson’s duplicitous role would not have been so effective were it not for the matter-of-fact presentation of the scene—but as a result the novel lacked sensory and emotional appeal. Yes, like my last review, How to Get Along with Women, the decision to remove quotation marks for dialogue plays personally into this reaction; while it was easier to discern what was and what wasn’t dialogue here than in de Mariaffi’s title, I still felt as if I was being dictated to in a stark, monotone voice. This stylistic decision pushed me away from the story instead of drawing me in.
While the novel picks up emotionally in the final part, becoming somewhat stronger as a character piece as it deals with new themes of forgiveness and finding one’s place in the world, it was too little too late to make me feel what I’d hoped to feel for Slaney in the end; the starkness of everything that had come before robbed Caught’s conclusion of any sort of catharsis.
*While the star score reads three, I'd have preferred to give this 2.5 — split right down the middle. I appreciated it for the moments it worked and for the rhythm and flow of the narrative, but feel too much was compromised on the character front, so a 50/50 split.(less)
I aligned myself with another researcher. We held meetings after hours and made lists and lists of questions. In partnership, we created a new study t...moreI aligned myself with another researcher. We held meetings after hours and made lists and lists of questions. In partnership, we created a new study that would follow the men from their formative, pre-man years. This was to be our life’s work. My partner took charge of the Centre for Specimen Generation. It was her job to sweep the men’s holes for tissue, sample the tissue for DNA, fill our test tubes with nutritive agar. We built glass enclosures, fifteen per lab, and incubated the bodies as if they were our own babies. Sturdy volunteers pushed the tiny pre-men out from between their legs.
Predictably, we divided into factions. My research team argued for an increasingly close relationship with the men. Authenticity, we said, depends on empathy. We held a naming ceremony, carried their photos in our wallets.
Some believed the intimacy of this process compromised the study as a whole. These dissenters were removed from the project.
Are we field researchers? the outgoing Chair screamed, and she watched as the Maid Brigade cleaned out her desk—their blue uniforms, their embroidered name tags. I straightened my white coat and stood firm. The lab, I told my loyal colleagues, can be whatever you want it to be. The lab can be the field.
A sinister naivety drives much of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s first published collection of short fiction, How to Get Along with Women. The twelve stories contained within offer a mostly monochromatic spectrum of broken families and tepid, fucked up relationships punctuated by Mariaffi’s sparse, economical prose.
Many of the stories focus on desired relationships that, for one reason or another, can’t or shouldn’t be. “Dancing on the Tether” introduces us to Zelda, her mother Mary, and Tim, Mary’s ex who Zelda wants to fuck, because he’s a stand-up guy who doesn’t beat dogs or command more respect than he deserves. The two young friends in “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth”—a girl and a boy—engage in a game of war that affords their lesser demons opportunity to rise to the surface. “He Ate His French Fries in a Light-Hearted Way” details the unconventional friendship between Del, a thirty-plus-year-old gay man dying of AIDS, and a teenage girl half his age, who, when she departs for university to find herself, abandons the one person to ever mean a damn thing to her.
“Field Work” is far and away the most playful entry in the collection—arguably the only playful entry. The story revolves around scientists—all women—observing the men of the future, who are all quite tiny and, well, useless, having shrunken over time because they were simply no longer needed. Interestingly enough, as much as the story works to knock men down a peg or two, it also serves as a brief indictment of the ways in which women are just as susceptible as men in painting the opposite gender’s worth in broad, stereotypical strokes.
Similar to “Field Work,” “Everything Under Your Feet” showcases a more imaginative, image-focused side of Mariaffi’s writing. The story introduces us to Lydia, who upon finishing school sets out to make her mark on the world, only to settle in the very same place she runs out of gas. She begins running up the side of a nearby mountain every day, determined to do something more worthwhile with her life than becoming just another factory drone (preferring, as she repeats the same actions day in and day out, to be a drone of a different colour). Lydia is certainly the most developed and intriguing character in the collection.
Contrary to the inventiveness and intrigue of these two entries in the collection, however, the stories “Super Carnicería,” “Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim,” and the titular “How to Get Along with Women” feel academic and isolated. The latter in particular is a bird’s eye view of a relationship over an extended period of time, told in short vignettes. Reading the story I felt like a voyeuristic neighbour peering in the living room or bedroom window of a couple, and each time I looked in it was another day, or another season, but my connection to the people inside was fleeting and without emotional resonance.
By the end of the collection I felt unexpectedly worn out by Mariaffi’s writing. As much as “Field Work” and “Everything Under Your Feet” are the stand-out stories within this collection, the remaining entries all fell into that unfortunate grey category of “just not all that interesting.” And unfortunately, like at least three other short fiction collections I’ve read this year, How to Get Along with Women saves its weakest for last with “You Know How I Feel.” It’s difficult not to feel at least a little let down when that happens.
Unfortunately, Mariaffi’s disaffected tone overwhelmed the content of her stories for me. So many of the characters within the stories were maudlin and without purpose that it was at times frustratingly dull; it seemed to me while reading the book as if the author were disinterested in her own characters, who mostly lacked distinctive voices of their own. Part of this can be boiled down to the sparseness of Mariaffi’s language, which was often punctuated to its detriment. Another element of this, going part and parcel with the aforementioned, is the stylistic decision of not using quotation marks to denote dialogue. This is a personal thing but worth mentioning as I find when confronted with this decision I often feel as if I’m being held at an emotional distance by the author through their employment of a stylistic device that hampers comprehension and increases the prevailing monotone voice.
How to Get Along with Women has received a tremendous amount of praise since its release, even landing a coveted spot on this year’s Giller Prize longlist. Unfortunately, like Lynn Coady’s recent collection Hellgoing (which was also nominated and subsequently made the shortlist), I simply didn’t feel enough of an emotional connection to any of the characters or stories within this collection.(less)
The triumph of ketamine had coincided with the triumph of another dark horse, to use an unfortunate phrase—a certain pretty girl called Adele Hitler,...moreThe triumph of ketamine had coincided with the triumph of another dark horse, to use an unfortunate phrase—a certain pretty girl called Adele Hitler, who was now among the first rank of those all-too-influential foals and fillies. At that first party in Puppenberg, she’d been a novelty item, but by the end of 1931 she was getting more invitations than Brecht, and it wasn’t hard to see why: she could be relied upon to look stunning, she could be relied upon to get entertainingly drunk, and above all she could be relied upon to fuck someone worth gossiping about. Rackenham was just the beginning. When you heard about who Adele Hitler had gone to bed with after a particular party, it was like reading the solution to a really elegant murder mystery: you’d never for a moment suspected that it might be x, but now that you’d found out it really was x, you realised that it could never have been anybody other than x. She fucked Brecht because everybody did, she fucked Brogmann because nobody did; she fucked Littau because he was queer, she fucked Hannah Czenowitz because she was straight; she fucked Hecht because he had a girlfriend, she fucked Klein because he was known to be impotent; she fucked clarinet-playing Negroes and one-legged war veterans, drug dealers and ambassadors’ sons. And this was Adele Hitler’s legend: that in two years of astonishing promiscuity, she hadn’t ever fucked anyone more than once, and she hadn’t ever fucked anyone who could not, in one way or another, be considered a little bit of a coup.
In what’s more than likely a bit of deliberate wordplay, Egon Loeser is, in fact, one helluva loser. How much of a loser is he you might ask? Enough to become so hung up on his lust—not love, let me be perfectly clear on that matter—for one woman and one woman only that over the course of several years he chases her from Berlin to Paris, and eventually Los Angeles.
And just who is this loser of a Loeser? At the novel’s opening, in Berlin, 1931, Egon is a set designer for the theatre, actively pursuing his dream production—a recreation of Lavicini’s Teleportation Accident from three hundred years earlier. Along with his best friend Anton Achleitner, Egon spends his time outside of the theatre being dismissive of Berlin society and the local arts scene, lusting after Adele Hitler (no relation), avoiding his ex-lover Marlene Schibelsky, and buying cocaine from Rackenham, a hack writer Egon comes to despise.
When Adele ignores Loeser’s advances, opting instead to sleep with half of German society, both high and low, before departing for Paris, it sets Loeser on a mission to get what he believes to be his. He refuses to accept there might be another woman out there that could satisfy his desires, so he follows Adele to Paris. Once there, our emotionally imbalanced set designer/protagonist becomes the unwitting acquaintance of a man named Scramsfield—an American with a cowardly, humiliating past. Scramsfield is a wannabe confidence man lacking the quality of conviction needed to properly sell his many lies and half-truths. He manages to string poor Loeser along by claiming he knows Adele—along with half of history’s literary greats—and can take him to her… but instead leads Egon around town, bleeding him dry with drinks at every bar and café that will serve them while he continues to peddle his bullshit like he’s selling water from a stand in the middle of the Sahara.
From Paris, Loeser makes his way to Los Angeles, completely oblivious to the situation brewing in the Germany he left behind (that whole messy rise of Hitler and the Nazi party thing). Once there, he meets and falls in with a small crowd of artists, writers, and intellectuals—incredibly made up of some the people he assumed he’d left behind, turning up again as bad pennies always do—while resuming both his search for Adele and his secondary obsession of unearthing new knowledge and information related to Lavicini’s Teleportation Accident. All this while getting himself unexpectedly wrapped up in a plot involving a possible real-life teleportation device and a scientist of decidedly murderous intent.
On its face, Ned Beauman’s second novel has a lot going for it—a deft hand for the deliberate mangling of historical events, excellent wordplay and imagery, and a gift for sarcasm and absurdity. However, despite its many attributes, The Teleportation Accident was a mostly disappointing read. For all Loeser’s idiosyncrasies and hang-ups (such as the return rate of sex for writers—about one good fuck per published book—his petulant behaviour upon meeting Stent Mutton for the first time, and his strange inability to ride in any stranger’s car unless he sits in the back and pretends it’s a taxi), he’s just not that interesting a person to follow around for 350-plus pages. Point of fact, his eccentricities are often more infuriating than they are amusing.
Going a step further, by the beginning of the novel’s third part I found myself struggling to want to finish it. Not only is the narrative devoid of even one genuinely likable character—which would be fine were they at least interesting or compelling in some way—but by this point in the story, more than halfway through, it still felt as if nothing of consequence had happened. When experimental physics finally enter the scene the narrative does pick up a bit, but it comes too little too late to save the book from its own overwhelming cleverness.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Teleportation Accident at all. The interplay between Colonel Gorge, who suffers from severe visual agnosia, and his manservant Woodkin is the best and most assuredly comical writing in the entire novel, and offers a great deal of levity to the narrative’s final chapters. Unfortunately, though, that also more or less exemplifies what bothered me most about this title: while the moment-to-moment dialogue is sometimes entertaining, it feels as if it exists in a bubble. It never really offers enough depth or personality—apart from Colonel Gorge, who is at best a side character—to make me care about the characters on the page, all of whom are about as selfish and inwardly turned as one could imagine.
By the novel’s end, I felt more as if I’d read a series of skits or vignettes tied loosely together than having experienced a story. However unintentionally, it’s the author himself who, on page 154, managed to best capture my emotions towards the novel:
He’d wanted to read for a while, but the only novel he’d brought with him to America was Berlin Alexanderplatz, and although after three hundred and nine pages it really felt like it might be about to get going, he though he might need something more potent…(less)
Here is what he’s doing. He’s inhaling, and then letting the smoke pour out as he sings. It cascades from his face and swirls heavenward, enveloping t...moreHere is what he’s doing. He’s inhaling, and then letting the smoke pour out as he sings. It cascades from his face and swirls heavenward, enveloping them both as he extends the cigarette to his wife. A more honest gesture, now, a gesture like the nurses when they feed her, only loving.
And then of course he takes a look around, a guilty boy. As he has probably been doing intermittently throughout this performance.
And if they think I am going to stand here denouncing this and that, they are not smart. If they think I’m going to slap my palm against the light switch and start hollering for doctors and nurses and the pope, they don’t have to concern themselves. If they suppose I could possibly bother with any such nonsense, let them turn around and get on with what they’re doing. Let them do as they please, the whole bunch of them. Eat and smoke and starve and stand on your head as far as I’m concerned. Live and die and do what you want all over the place. I won’t be the one to say a word.
Lynn Coady’s sixth book, coming only two years after her impressive, Giller-shortlisted novel The Antagonist, is a collection of nine caustic short stories detailing an assortment of broken, isolated characters—mostly women—undone by obsessions, miscommunications, and bottled-up resentment.
In “Wireless,” a self-styled alcohol aficionado works to find ways to justify her obsession to a maybe-more-than-a-one-night-stand who shares her addiction, but is seemingly less comfortable admitting to his weaknesses. The emotionally exhausted assistant of a writer on a media blitz in “Dogs in Clothes” is further worn down by frequent notifications from her brother regarding their father’s seemingly unsuccessful open-heart surgery. A pushover of a landlord in “The Natural Elements” dotes in a fatherly way over a tenant—a woman abandoned in an unfamiliar environment by her professor husband.
Intense psychological unrest is prevalent in most of the stories in this collection. In “Take This and Eat it,” a nun attempts to get through to an anorexic girl who is starving herself for God, treading a fine high wire between respecting the girl’s rights to religious freedom and watching, waiting to be convinced her religion is merely a mask for deeper emotional issues. The bride-to-be at the heart of “An Otherworld” has a lust for bondage and an obvious desire to self-punish as if undeserving of happiness or stability. A young woman travels with her boyfriend in “Body Condom” to visit with his father, who, in his drug-addled past, abused and abandoned his family; while the boyfriend’s personality is very much head-in-the-clouds—more likely as a survival mechanism than naivety—his girlfriend’s bitterness bubbles to the surface—bitterness not only about being in love, but about being in love with him. And in “Mr. Hope,” a peculiar friendship blooms over several years between a student and her principal as he tests her to be better than she is, better than the subpar selection of students he’s tired of seeing in school day in and day out.
The two strongest stories in this collection are the titular “Hellgoing” and “Clear Skies.” In the former, a brother and sister come to understand one another as adults, united against emotional parental abuse while also being forced to acknowledge that elements of their parents will always be with them, inside. In the latter, meanwhile, a writer goes to a retreat to discuss her work with her peers… who really aren’t her peers because of how she sees them, as inauthentic approximations of various writers’ stereotypes.
There’s an overarching frustrated, atheistic tone to the stories in Hellgoing—a rejection of the existence of a plan or purpose for any one of us beyond that which we make for ourselves. Collectively, these are lost protagonists who, despite their surface connections and careers, seem more often to skirt the edges of introversion and isolationism. While this harder edge is welcome, the abrasiveness is like flotsam floating to the surface; Coady’s stories are conceptually cutting, as are her characters, but it’s all show—there’s little to any of them beyond anger and discontentment outwardly cast.
Though there are no quote-unquote bad stories in Hellgoing, neither is there any one in particular that stands out in my memory. Coady’s moment-to-moment writing is as good as ever, but unlike the pained and instantly captivating diamond in the rough at the heart of her previous novel, the characters in Hellgoing feel like basic ideas and emotions tied loosely together, and not realized people.(less)
The art is hideous (I've never before seen so many brutish, manly faces for female characters - literally every female character) and the story moves...moreThe art is hideous (I've never before seen so many brutish, manly faces for female characters - literally every female character) and the story moves at such a pace that there is no room for anything approaching character growth or even quirks or details denoting some degree of individuality. The narrative prefers to beat readers over the head with a glut of loosely threaded together plot details that offer little in way of world building or intrigue. All in all the book feels about as fleshed out as a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon — very behind the times in terms of how storytelling within the medium has advanced over the past two decades. Avoid.(less)
“It’s like waking up, you know? At school, each year, I take out this coffee-table book about the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and...more“It’s like waking up, you know? At school, each year, I take out this coffee-table book about the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and it’s full of the most incredible photographs—of Ayers Rock, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Petra, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids—”
“I get it.”
“And the point is that whenever I lose faith in my life, I look at those pictures and I think, ‘You haven’t been here’ and ‘You haven’t seen that,’ and I’m suddenly filled with wonder, like the sky opening, you know, to think that all this exists, and hope, because I might someday experience some of it—the smells, the sounds, what the light is like.”
“So this fall, them, it’s been a bit like that: the sky opening; hope. A feeling of possibility. Yes, hope. Like maybe it isn’t all over yet.”
“Why would it all be over?”
“Because I’m thirty-seven and single and I teach elementary school and wear clogs every day.”
Nora Marie Eldridge: forty-two and furious that she hasn’t yet set the world ablaze. Nora is an artist trapped in the body of a former third-grade teacher at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the beginning of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Nora is reflecting upon her life—what she’s accomplished, and more importantly, what she knows in her heart she still needs to do—and about the family that turned her life upside down a few years previously.
For the most part, Nora’s life has been one of tacit acceptance. Following the prologue set a few years in the future we’re introduced to the Nora we come to know through nine tenths of Messud’s novel—the single teacher approaching middle-age, who suppressed her artistic leanings at her mother’s urging, citing the importance, above all else, of being self-sufficient, and of not being under the thumb of a husband’s financial allowance. Nora’s mother Bella, we soon learn, led a life filled with regret. At sixty-one she was diagnosed with ALS and died having lived more for her family than for herself—a “mistake” Nora would not allow herself to make.
At the start of a new school year, Nora meets Reza Shahid, a new student from overseas who has enrolled in her class—very clearly a caring, compassionate child to whom she takes an immediate liking. Soon Nora meets Reza’s mom, Sirena, an artist with contacts in New York and Paris. It isn’t long before Nora and Sirena recognize in one another similar artistic passions, and together they decide to rent a studio space they can share.
Right away, Nora begins to fall for Sirena—not necessary in love with, but in awe of her; she is enthralled by everything about Sirena, from her worldliness and experience to how she carries herself and the not-so-mild way Nora exoticizes her appearance. This fascination, and the new studio space they share, helps to reinvigorate Nora’s artistic desires; she continues her work crafting small but very detailed dioramas (tiny, elaborate tragedies) while Sirena sets to work on creating larger scale installations designed for public intervention.
Things progress smoothly in this regard until Reza is attacked at school—a rock imbedded in a snowball strikes him near the eye, requiring stitches. The incident causes Sirena’s doubts about living in America to rise to the surface. The family disappears back to Paris over the Christmas holidays, leaving Nora partially despondent until their return. When Sirena again joins Nora in the studio, things are never quite the same, and sudden success and interest in Sirena’s work only hastens the distance slowly growing between them like an ever-widening expanse.
The Woman Upstairs is a frustrating, at times disappointing read. Messud’s novel has a crisis of tone throughout. While bookended with an enticing, anthemic Fight Club-esque “middle children of history” invective—the author expressing her rage at the world passing her by—the majority of the book, told from the first person perspective, feels divided over what it wants to be and what it needs to say. While the narration is often long-winded and erudite, Nora’s speech is sharp, abrasive, and overly defensive, leaving the book with three distinct voices (including the opening and closing segments) that just don’t mesh together. Unfortunately, this leaves Nora a disparate collection of ideas without much in the way of cohesion, which in turn kept me from feeling as if I understood her, or why I should want to.
Similarly, there is unevenness in Nora’s self-styled independence and the speed and voracity in which she gloms on to the Shahid family and their amazing, mysterious ways. She says at one point, “My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them, too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would.” While it’s certainly believable that an interesting or inspiring person entering one’s life at the right time might upend a great many things, the speed at which this happens to Nora—the quickness at which the independence seemingly ingrained in her by her mother is given up to three not terribly three-dimensional characters—is surprising and saps our protagonist of much of her strength. More surprising, again given her tough outer shell (which, if intended to be a mask so easily cracked, did not effectively come across as such) is how she finds ways to justify her dependence on the Shahids and Sirena specifically, citing their need of her.
Messud’s novel is predicated on the idea of “the Woman Upstairs”. Throughout the novel, this concept, capitalized throughout as if a thesis statement, is forced too often on the reader, as if the author feared we’d forget the title of the novel or its meaning, laid out very clearly in the opening chapter:
I’m not an Underground Woman, harboring resentment for my miseries against the whole world…. No Ralph Ellison basement full of lightbulbs for us; no Dostoyevskian metaphorical subterra. We’re always upstairs. We’re not the mad-women in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.
Unfortunately, the repetition of this thesis statement actually causes it to lose its impact over time; the novel becomes less about how Nora embodies the idea of the Woman Upstairs, and more about how she justifies her own existence by telling herself, over and over again, that this is the label she belongs under—that this is her club, and like all others sharing her lot in life, she’s pissed off that this is all she gets. It almost feels after a time as if she’s a hypochondriac who’s just finished reading up on a horrifying illness, then decides because she shares the same symptoms that she must be suffering the same fate—and she’s going to make damn sure everyone knows about it.
The most glaring tragedy of The Woman Upstairs is in what it sets up and doesn’t deliver upon, and not in what it actually spends so much time trying to say. When Sirena finds success, which invariably removes her from Nora’s very small bubble, Nora is hurt and feels abandoned—entirely because she’s crafted a fantasy of purpose under Sirena’s umbrella, a fantasy that’s based on some imagined love Sirena might have for her, that she’d be able to reconcile if only she actually voiced how she felt instead of keeping everything bottled up, tying her insides into knots of uncertainty (because she’d rather be hurt than risk popping that fantastic bubble and seeing how out of line many of her thoughts about Sirena and her family actually were). In this sense, Nora, fiercely independent Nora, would rather play the part of the victim than admit she might have been mistaken—which is symptomatic of having lived a life primarily consisting of regret, of living in service to her parents’ wishes for her career instead of doing what it was she truly wanted. As a result, Nora is less a character I felt any sort of attachment to and more of a cipher whose worth nearly disappears when Sirena is swallowed up by the larger art community.
So much of The Woman Upstairs is telling us about Nora’s frustration and anger at being the titular Woman Upstairs—but we’re not shown it, not really. Throughout, her actions are reactionary and not incendiary, as she’d want them to be. In the end, her anger at Sirena and the “twist” of the novel’s final pages is justified (as I imagine anyone would be furious by what transpires—by the violation of self and of privacy), but it comes too little too late to make us cheer for Nora’s next step. Without giving too much away, the ending not only betrays any kindness that the Shahids had shown to Nora throughout the novel (especially Sirena’s apparent friendship), but it is also predicated on capturing and stealing a moment so out-of-character for Nora that, when it first happened in the middle of the book, it almost broke me from the narrative.
The characters in The Woman Upstairs—the protagonist and everyone orbiting her—unfortunately never came together for me, nor did the thesis of the Woman Upstairs, which in this case is based upon an individual who did not seem to know who she was, even by the novel’s end. The entire book feels less like a complete, fleshed-out narrative and more of a prologue building to the more interesting story of what Nora does next with her life and how she sets the art world—and her past—on fire.(less)
Kayos shooting that U.P. guy somehow brought it all back, everythin I thought I forgot—everythin I been trying so hard and long to block out—flashed i...moreKayos shooting that U.P. guy somehow brought it all back, everythin I thought I forgot—everythin I been trying so hard and long to block out—flashed in front of my eyes like I was seein it all again on a movie screen.
I seen a lotta crazy shit on the rez. I seen my cousin Bo get shot in the belly and bleed to death in my kitchen. I seen my brother Lenny get shot in the shoulder, the red flesh all ripped up like the inside of a fish. I seen Lenny stab a guy by the basketball courts, stab him in the neck with a broken beer bottle. I seen my brother, Eugene, get shot in the back, get paralyzed for life over a fifty-dollar debt. I seen one of my mom’s boyfriends smack her across the face with his gun because she smoked his last cigarette. I seen my brother Neil push his girlfriend down the stairs so she wouldn’t have her baby. I seen the cops bash my brother’s hands with clubs until all his fingers were broken and hanging from his hands like bloody sausages. I seen my mom threaten to kill my uncle with an axe. I seen my cousin shoot a dog in the head with a .22. I remember my uncle Leo stickin his gun up my asshole, makin me tell him I liked it. Then stickin it in my mouth. Askin me if I wanted him to pull the trigger. Yes, I’d nod, gaggin on the gun. Yes. Do it. Just do it. Please. And I meant it.
Then he would.
Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang is like an after-school special gone horribly awry—and that’s a good thing.
The novel follows the short, eventful, often frightening existence of a Downtown East Side (DTES) Vancouver gang called the Black Roses. The Roses are five teenage girls: Mac, originator of the gang and the eldest among them; Mercy, the admitted “Punjabi Princess” with an aptitude for theft; Kayos, a teenage mom whose life of privilege is darker than she lets on; Sly Girl, a struggling-to-stay-clean crack addict fleeing the violence and poverty of her First Nations reserve; and Z, a diminutive anti-establishment graffiti artist who speaks and thinks only in tags.
The story begins with Mac and Mercy wanting to distance themselves from another gang, the Vipers—gangsters who want to act like pimps, treating the girls like shit—deciding they’d had enough of living beneath the thumbs of others. They set up shop in a DTES flat and start selling drugs to make ends meet, to build their nest egg for that dream condo in the sky that will take them out of the DTES once and for all. But two girls aren’t a gang; they need extra muscle on the streets, they need someone with a finger on the erratic pulse of the substance underground, and they need their name spread far and wide. Enter Kayos, Sly Girl, and Z.
What unfolds is a tragic family drama (structurally inspired to some degree, according to the author, by Romeo & Juliet) as we learn both what each girl is escaping from—abuse, neglect, violence, or just good old-fashioned oppressive parenting—and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to carve their gang’s name out of blood and concrete.
The girls begin the Black Roses with the best of intentions: to honour and respect one another, to not get into it with other gangs in the area, to stay clean from drugs, keep out of trouble, and always act in the best interests of the group. In spite of its gangland aesthetic, the story is made relatable through Little’s strong-yet-streamlined characters and their clear motivations—at its core the novel is about finding a niche, a sense of belonging, and building a family. But best intentions only go so far when the surrounding environment all too often resorts to a kill-or-be-killed frame of mind. Gradually, cracks appear in their group dynamic—Mac falling in love with Z and Mercy feeling hurt that she didn’t know; Kayos killing a rival gang member and Sly Girl struggling to process it without falling back to using—and the strain of five disparate, quick-to-boil girls forced far too quickly into adulthood is too much the gang to survive. And when shit does go wrong, it goes wrong spectacularly fucking fast—so fast you’ll feel like you’ve been slapped in the face. And I promise you’ll never look at a curling iron the same way again.
The novel is written as a series of testimonials. Each chapter is from the point-of-view of another member of the gang, written in their own voice: Mac’s chapters have an authoritarian vibe to them, desperate as she is to get that wealth and influence she knows she deserves; Mercy is intelligent and self-aware; Kayos is at odds with her privileged yet abusive past, and sometimes finds herself questioning where she went off the rails; Sly Girl’s chapters are filled with blunt acknowledgement of the hardships she’s endured and a sometimes self-hating desire to rise above it all; and Z’s chapters are written in the broken language of tagging—“i go out @ nyte, do my aRt, den go home & sleep & eat in da daytime when evrybudeez @ werk & skewl. itz aiight. 4 now. i don’t wanna B a product of my environment. i want my environment 2 B a product of me.”
Every now and again, Little will also insert a chapter from Vancouver’s perspective, pulling the action out to a bird’s eye view of the city, looking down on the streets and the girls and the brutal life they’re leading through a loving, protective, and somewhat ambiguous lens. These chapters are at first a bit difficult to parse when placed alongside the very down-to-earth realism and in-the-moment threat experienced in the chapters belonging to each member of the gang. However, as the novel progresses and the tragedies begin to stack up, the Vancouver chapters—in how they anthropomorphize the streets and the glass and chrome of Vancouver’s skyscrapers, describing the city as if it were a cocoon failing to protect its most vulnerable contents—take on a sorrowful tone, as if the city itself were a parent filled with regret for its citizens and their lost potential.
Despite the horrible shit the girls do to one another and those unfortunate enough to be pulled into their maelstrom, they remain sympathetic throughout. They’re fighting to showcase their strength and agency, which in each of their cases is something that life and circumstances outside of the gang have taken from them. But they aren’t needless aggressors—they react, they don’t act out. Would any of the Black Roses have killed without provocation? It’s possible, sure, but given the guttural reaction they have to every life taken, accidentally or otherwise, and how quickly the stress resulting from their actions causes them to splinter and move further away from one another, it’s clear they don’t ever lose whatever tenuous grip they have on their humanity. The Black Roses aren’t sociopaths. They’re kids who don’t know how to process the amazing amount of shit they’ve lived through, and they know—or think they know—that their only two options are that they fight and they fight real fucking hard, or they simply curl up into a ball and wait for death.
As the novel nears its end, the sense that they are all of them walking a high wire stretched too tight across a crevasse is almost overwhelming; as a reader I found myself thinking I was watching someone pull a load-bearing piece from the base of a card tower each and every chapter, just waiting for that one, that innocuous Ace of Spades that when pulled would knock everything over. And damn it, the second they mentioned celebrating Mac’s eighteenth birthday, all I could think to myself was “tried as an adult.”
Even knowing to some degree how bad things were inevitably going to get, the emotional impact of the novel’s final chapters wasn’t diminished at all. While I was grateful for even the smallest shred of hope offered by the story’s end, Anatomy of a Girl Gang is a heartbreaking read, a must for high schools across the continent, and just too goddamn real for comfort.
Step one at this point comprised putting his forefinger and index finger together in a mock blessing. Fingers just so, Adam began outlining the entire...moreStep one at this point comprised putting his forefinger and index finger together in a mock blessing. Fingers just so, Adam began outlining the entire door precisely two feet away from it. He had to do this five times to the right and seven times to the left. He heard it on the third time to the left. The crying.
His heart sped up. But he couldn’t break through. What was it? Christmas? Another letter? Some fresh new hell? Adam muffed the last trace and had to start again. Now he was sweating despite the cold. First, trace out the door starting on the right side. Focus, Adam! Concentrate! The first round completed, he backed up for fifteen perfect steps and forward in the exact same steps as if they were marked. If he missed one, he had to start again. Not just to the backing up but all the way to the initial tracing. At his second full confrontation of the threshold, he had to extend his right arm as high as it could go and tap out the evil one hundred and eleven times. Again, if the position was incorrect or he got distracted in any way, shape or form, he had to begin all over. The final steps were palming the door handle thirty-three times in one direction and eleven times in the other, then turning it and pushing with both palms flat on the door with precisely equal pressure. The equal-pressure thing was tricky.
Adam Spencer Ross’s world is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Still just a teenager, he suffers the twin problems of nearly unmanageable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—with a heavy focus on counting and thresholds—and needing to be the white knight for everyone around him. His family is splintered; he lives primarily with his mother, Carmella, but spends a significant chunk of time with his father, his stepmother, and his young stepbrother Wendell, also known as Sweetie, each with their own litany of mental and emotional irregularities. When the mysterious and beautiful Robyn Plummer joins Adam’s young adult OCD support group, he immediately falls head over heels in love—and inadvertently adds to his growing list of concerns yet another soul to save.
Teresa Toten’s ninth book, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is an unconventional love story that manages to strike a fine balance between a believable and thankfully not melodramatic relationship between two somewhat-scarred teenagers, several small but not inconsequential mysteries, and a deliberately manic tone. The novel is written from the third person perspective, but warps itself stylistically according to Adam’s state of mind, which as the book progresses becomes increasingly scattered between emotional peaks and valleys. As Adam’s stress level increases, so too his counting, his issues with entering doorways/crossing thresholds (even entering his own home becomes a source of incredibly strain and unease), and the manner in which he jumps to conclusions, in his head playing out interactions with others to their greatest possible extremes. With the help of Chuck—Dr. Charles Mutinda—and the support of Robyn, he spends the majority of the novel coming to terms with the realization that the single greatest threat to his health and ability to improve is also the largest unchecked source of self-destructive behaviour in his family. Worse still, he lives with her.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B sidesteps nothing, preferring instead to address OCD and related compulsions, such as purging and cutting, head-on, without dressing them up unnecessarily as demons to be overcome or plagues of the self. The novel treats the disorder with respect, touching on some of the more troubling aspects of it without pretending as if there are any easy answers or dehumanizing the individual at the heart of the suffering.
In spite of his afflictions, Adam is still, at his core, a nerdy, role-playing teenager who wants desperately to be cool in front of the older, provocative new girl in class. The broken family aspect of the novel, while adding some drama to the proceedings, never overwhelms the tender story bubbling up between Adam and Robyn and what they over time reveal to one another. They remain relatable throughout the novel—one of the narrative’s biggest strengths.
The B storyline to Adam and Robyn’s burgeoning love revolves around Adam’s mother, Carmella, and the mystery surrounding the abusive and threatening letters she’s been receiving for some time in the mail. These letters tell her what a horrible person she is, that she’s ruining her son’s life, and that she should just do away with herself and be done with it. While the resolution to this storyline was somewhat obvious, it was no less heartbreaking; Carmella is fear personified—fear of losing her child, her partner in crime, when she’s already lost her marriage—and this fear leads, among other things, to dangerous hoarding.
As Robyn begins to show signs of improvement—a great deal of which occurs as a result of her being honest with herself and Adam about her reasons for being in the group in the first place—Adam gets worse, pulled further and further into the abyss of his mother’s out of control tendencies. The conflict at the centre of everything is Adam’s ability to maintain balance between his needs and the contrasting needs of those around him, which plays heavily into the white knight syndrome—while not name-checked in the story, this is more than apparent via his selfless actions. It’s easy to see how, as a result of this conflict, Adam’s ending is more or less inevitable; however, it’s his awareness of what must happen, and the acceptance of what he must do to arrive at the point that healing can commence (no matter how much of a punch to the gut it happens to be), that gives this story its tragic weight.
Toten’s writing is light and simple, which lends itself well to manic manipulation as Adam gradually loses his grip on the various situations surrounding him. To this end, some of the additional graphic flourishes within the text—particularly the comic book-style shout-outs—seem a bit excessive and didn’t really add anything to the story. On the opposite end of things, the greatest accomplishment of Toten’s writing is in how she helps the reader to better sympathize with and relate to Adam as he uses his compulsive counting to help calm his stepbrother Sweetie after a nightmare:
“Got it,” said Adam. None of them could ever figure out what the triggers were. What was it that set Sweetie off? “Right, so let’s think about something awesome, okay?” More nodding, less tentative now. “Let’s bring out the big guns!” He put his arm around his brother. Again, he felt the little heart thumping much too fast. “Only the prime numbers will do in a situation like this. Seventeen is cool, as is thirty-nine, and neither of us much likes going near the two hundreds, right?” Sweetie shook his head. He couldn’t count to the two hundreds, didn’t much know what they were, but if his brother said that they didn’t like them, then they didn’t like them. “Okay, so let’s both of us think about the real beauty in the bunch, one of our favourite truly superior prime numbers. Let’s think about the number eleven! Got it? The one and the one? You love eleven. See it?”
I also appreciated that while there was a definite religious component to the story, it was identifiable as a bandage and not in any way as a cure—something to help Robyn and the others in the OCD support group to experience a new form of support, one that might assist them with overcoming at least some of what troubled them without imparting any specific views or doctrine.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is a lovely little gem of a book that embraces imbalance and all the horror and wonder that it can spawn. The ending, while painful, carries with it a great deal of hope for Adam’s future. It promises a long road to improvement instead of wrapping everything up in a nice pretty bow, and that degree of restraint affords Toten’s novel a certain amount of quiet authenticity.(less)
“Please do not go to Kmart and buy twenty pairs of jeans because each costs five dollars. The jeans are not running away. They will be there tomorrow...more“Please do not go to Kmart and buy twenty pairs of jeans because each costs five dollars. The jeans are not running away. They will be there tomorrow at an even more reduced price. You are now in America: do not expect to have hot food for lunch. That African taste must be abolished. When you visit the home of an American with some money, they will offer to show you their house. Forget that in your house back home, your father would throw a fit if anyone came close to his bedroom. We all know that the living room was where it stopped and, if absolutely necessary, then the toilet. But please smile and follow the American and see the house and make sure you say you like everything. And do not be shocked by the indiscriminate touching of American couples. Standing in line at the cafeteria, the girl will touch the boy’s arm and the boy will put his arm around her shoulder and they will rub shoulders and back and rub rub rub, but please do not imitate this behavior.”
They were all laughing. Wambui shouted something in Swahili.
“Very soon you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you ‘What? What?’ You will start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents, like our brother here, Kofi. Kofi’s parents came from Ghana when he was two years old, but do not be fooled by the way he sounds. If you go to their house, they eat kenkey everyday. His father slapped him when he got a C in a class. There’s no American nonsense in that house. He goes back to Ghana every year. We call people like Kofi American-African, not African-American, which is what we call our brothers and sisters whose ancestors were slaves.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a deeply talented writer. She manages in each of her books to strike a delicate balance between believably flawed and accessible characters and dense cultural commentary. Her approach is sociologically minded, seemingly crafting both character and narrative out of a specific overarching realm of study. In her latest book, Americanah, the splintered long-distance love between Ifemelu and Obinze addresses and dissects in contrasting ways the absorption and possible subjugation of one culture by another, and the rush to adopt a new culture’s ways in order to fill in the holes of the old.
Americanah primarily follows Ifemelu as she travels from Nigeria to America to finish her university education, which had been prolonged at home by continuous educational strikes. As the book opens, Ifemelu is in Princeton on a fellowship. We learn she’s been living in America for thirteen years and currently resides with her boyfriend, a very political though somewhat socially and emotionally immature man named Blaine. For some time now Ifemelu has made her living writing a lifestyle blog of sorts entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. However, just prior to the book’s opening, Ifemelu wrote her final post and closed down her blog; dissatisfied in many ways by life in America, fearing she has lost touch with a part of herself in the time she’s spent away from Nigeria, she has decided to return home to see what kind of life she can lead there after so many years of being half a world away.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love with whom she for a time maintained a long-distance relationship. At the novel’s start Obinze is at home in Lagos with his wife, Kosi, who has “an intemperate dislike of single women and an intemperate love of God,” and their two-year-old daughter, Buchi. Though Obinze did not follow Ifemelu to America, as he would have liked, his journey to find himself and make a living in the UK and at home in Nigeria is the working-class parallel to hers.
The division between Ifemelu and Obinze’s journeys—as well as the reasons for their falling out and the ramifications therein—is the emotional core of Americanah. Slowly, over the course of seven emotionally distinct parts, the full scope of their relationship is shown, filtered through the prism of contrasting life and socio-cultural experiences.
As described within the text, an “Americanah” is an African who, after a short time in America, readily adopts the accent, affectations, and/or mannerisms of the adoptive country, coming back changed in clearly identifiable ways. This, of course, is something Ifemelu fears—the loss of connection to Obinze, to her home, to a familiar and much loved way of life. But she has no choice if she’s to finish school.
The transition to life in America is not easy, with finances being Ifemelu’s first and largest hurdle. However, after some troubling instances of both her race and her gender eliminating her from job contention (and one truly horrifying experience in which she experiences emotional and physical rock bottom, and the immediate resulting loss of what innocence remained), Ifemelu finds work with a wealthy family as their nanny. From this one connection, a great many opportunities arise, each one a split between greater economic and class benefit, and further arrogance and ignorance on part of the social upper crust:
Laura picked up the menu again. “In graduate school I knew a woman from Africa who was just like this doctor, I think she was from Uganda. She was wonderful, and she didn’t get along with the African-American woman in our class at all. She didn’t have all those issues.”
“Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford,” Ifemelu said.
Americanah does not hesitate in openly discussing American tribalism and hierarchies. Ifemelu’s blog entries, which are peppered throughout the text like capsule-sized social and historical dialogues, illustrate not only her experience, but the gulf she encounters between expectations, reality, and the ways in which all sides of race-related conversations in America seem to contradict both one another. As the novel progresses and Ifemelu finds her way through a number of differing social circles—from the wealthy old-money Curt who exoticizes her at practically every turn to the politically motivated Blaine and his friends and sister who present an air of opposition to the ruling class while simultaneously doing what they can to become a part of it—she begins to feel as if her personality is gradually being compromised and she is in essence disappearing into her blog.
I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative’s progression because Ifemelu is one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across this year, one I think readers should come to know on their own terms. She’s driven and highly intelligent, but also deeply flawed and harbouring a mild penchant for self-sabotage. Her journey is relatable in a way not too many authors manage to convey, regardless of ethnic background or specific social umbrella/backdrop utilized.
As the novel nears its conclusion, the idea of an “Americanah” evolves interestingly from being a type of individual into the cultural and behavioural myopia of so many Americans, regardless of race; on a macro scale it’s about the aggression of social agendas, no matter their benevolent origins. For example, as Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine deepens, he tries to change her from an observer into an activist, and is angered when she opposes his attempt to mould her as such. In this sense Blaine, an African-American and not an American-African, is guilty of assuming, due to his high intellect and very expensive education, he knows and is capable of accurately criticizing the third world, and is more concerned with being right than he is with learning something new. In behaving in this manner he is truly no better than Curt, Ifemelu’s “hot white ex”, who was guilty of exoticizing her but did not try to limit or redirect her individual perspective.
While I highly recommend this title, I do have a few issues with the book—none so damning they overwhelmed the high quality of both the writing and the narrative being told, but worth pointing out nonetheless.
Overall the novel is incredibly unfavourable to both academics and the wealthy. Occasionally this felt like a bit of an unrealistic imbalance, as it sometimes felt as if there were no other people in Ifemelu’s life but political activists, lifelong academics, or white people of ridiculous wealth and privilege. However, given the Ivy League environment in which she spends a great deal of the novel, that is more than likely a fair assumption to make of at least a large swath of the surrounding population.
Additionally, while the resolution of Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is satisfying, I will admit to being frustrated with some of her late-in-the-narrative actions—specifically the harsh and unforgiving manner in which she criticizes him for not being quick enough to leave his wife and declare his love only for Ifemelu—for a woman who, in the past, abruptly cut off all contact with the man she loved and left him floundering on his own, without his strength and confidante, without verbalizing any rhyme or reason to her actions. While this goes a great distance in further humanizing Ifemelu and cementing the ways in which life abroad has changed her, it did, in the novel’s final pages, wound the sympathetic image I’d built for her in my head—because trust is not so easily earned back once it has been lost, and it was understandable that Obinze would feel at least some residual trepidation.
My first impressions of this novel were that it was a fish-out-of-water story, which it is not. Americanah is instead a story of cultural upheaval and transposition—like changing musical keys or a volatile chemical reaction—as new elements are introduced into an established personal ecosystem, upsetting the established balance. Ifemelu embodies this upheaval as she struggles to find peace within herself; any relationship she enters into, apart from her first with Obinze, removes personal agency over how and to what degree she decides to change her life and situation. In many ways, Ifemelu is caught in a love triangle between differing evolutionary paths: maturity through life experience (Obinze), maturity through education and activism (Blaine), and maturity through wealth and privilege (Curt). How these things and the culture of America affect her and help her to grow into a strong, independent character, and her changed and somewhat distant view of Lagos upon her return, provide Americanah with its core ideological ethos: No matter how much you might want to, you can’t always go home again.(less)
Cordova obviously took great care in assembling his players, every one from different backgrounds, some with no acting experience at all. He brought t...moreCordova obviously took great care in assembling his players, every one from different backgrounds, some with no acting experience at all. He brought them here to live in his remote world, locking them inside it, allowing them no contact with the outside. Who would willingly agree to such a thing, signing away their life to one man?
Hopper had asked Marlowe this. Yet did he need to? Millions of people walked through their lives numb, dying to feel something, to feel alive. To be chosen by Cordova for a film was an opportunity for just that, not simply for fame and fortune, but to leave their old selves behind like discarded clothes.
What exactly did Cordova make them endure? Everything his characters did? Then his night films were documentaries, live horrors, not fiction.
He was even more depraved than I’d realized. A madman. The devil himself. Maybe he hadn’t always been, but it was what he’d become living here. But if his films were real, how easy it would be for the man to slip into harming real children, in order to save Ashley.
Ashley Cordova, twenty-four-year-old musical prodigy and troubled daughter of the enigmatic and mysterious Stanislas Cordova, the Academy-Award-winning director of fifteen films—some of which are considered among the most terrifying ever made—has jumped to her death. While the death is quickly ruled a suicide, Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist with a bit of a hard-on for Cordova, is unwilling to ignore the growing trail of bodies that have followed the director’s career. McGrath’s got his reasons: several years earlier he voiced an unsubstantiated claim that Cordova was a Manson-style predator, said he had evidence Cordova had in some way hurt or endangered children. The accusation not only cost McGrath his career, but also his reputation, his marriage, and a quarter of a million dollars.
So yeah, he wants to know the truth behind Cordova and what it was that drove the director’s daughter to break out of the Briarwood Hall mental institution, with the help of a gullible and possibly horny security guard, a week and change before she committed suicide. Because the best revenge is a story that carves right to the bone, and McGrath wants to be the one to serve it to the world. Toss in a couple of plucky research assistants each with their own tales of woe and mysterious pasts (and guarded interests in uncovering Ashley’s unfortunate fate), and an extended family of actors, actresses, devoted assistants, occultists, and a rabid underground fanbase of “Cordovites”—men and women who hold underground screenings of Cordova films, latching on with dear life to every shred of information or sighting reported—and you’ve got yourself a modern day noir. Or a close approximation thereof.
Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film, is at once an unexpected treat and a curious disappointment. I’ll say right off the bat that I did enjoy this book, though it does have its share of problems, both technical and thematic. However, I really don’t think I can carve to the root of my issues with this book without spoiling the ever-loving hell out of it. So there it is, there’s your warning: if you’d like to remain in the dark, know that the book is fairly enjoyable, but it is at its heart a page-turner steeped in the horror film aesthetic—light on deeper literary themes and ideas. Lots of fun to bring to the party, but it likely won’t stick around to help you clean up. If you’ve got a passing interest in film history, especially horror and thrillers, or if you’re looking for a decent end-of-summer mystery, you’ll likely find enough meat on this bone to justify the meal.
Still with me after all those metaphors? Brilliant. Let’s sink our teeth into this.
First, the novel’s strengths: This book is Cordova’s, through and through. Though McGrath is our protagonist, it is the myth and legend of Cordova that gives Night Film its character. From the atypical use of external media sources—newspaper and magazine clippings, web pages and articles reproduced to varying degrees of quality within the text—to the very layered, very detailed manner in which reality slowly warps to Cordova’s aesthetic (complete with talisman’s discretely and effectively pulled from the man’s filmography), Pessl has gone to great lengths to craft a believable life and career arc of a filmmaker seemingly born out of a Petri dish containing the DNA of Hitchcock and Kubrick, with just the smallest possible smattering of Polanski—you know, the whole “potential child endangerment” thing.
Right from the novel’s outset, Cordova is pitched as McGrath’s Great White Whale—a being glimpsed only in passing, by those fortunate enough to be granted an audience; a man talked about in hushed tones by those who knew him best. The mystery surrounding Cordova—his life and his work—is a large onion pulled apart layer by increasingly thin layer, each successive discovery revealing yet another degree of the darkness that populated the director’s existence. Along with his films, some of which had inspired real-life killings—which in turn led to copies of the films being hunted down and destroyed, public screenings banned, and Cordova labelled equally as a genius and a pariah—Cordova’s 300-acre upstate New York estate, The Peak, figures prominently into the filmmaker’s legend as both home for himself and his cast and crew, and a working soundstage.
All this to say Cordova outclasses the remaining members of Night Film’s expansive and colourful cast—he is the fulcrum around which everything revolves. To put it another way, Cordova is the novel’s setting—a statement with a certain degree of truth to it, given the novel’s longest and most climactic chapter—and the setting, in this case, is the only thing I felt truly invested in.
Now for the not so great: Let’s take a few moments and talk characters, tone, and style. First up: McGrath. We quickly learn the details of his situation—from his brash actions and subsequent legal troubles, to his failed marriage to Cynthia and limited visitation rights with their five-year-old daughter Samantha. McGrath’s your typical to-the-truth-of-the-matter journalist-cum-wannabe detective who rushes off into the fray and, frankly, gets in over his head in no time at all. He’s a bit of a live grenade who doesn’t play well with others… until the plot demands that he play well with others. More on that later.
Next up to the plate, Hopper Cole and Nora Halliday—McGrath’s mismatched pair of not-so-intrepid assistants. Both Nora and Hopper were in some way connected to Ashley Cordova: Hopper was very much in love with Ashley and the two shared a prison-like camp sentence, while Nora is a wannabe actress moonlighting as a coat check girl who also happened to be the last person to see Ashley alive. Both have their moments of levity and/or inspiration, but more often than not they seem to be around to keep McGrath in check—and to conveniently have had enough of the investigation when it becomes suitable for McGrath to go the rest of the distance alone. In the case of Hopper, his disinterest with continuing the investigation is more or less believable—he learns what he needs from Ashley’s room upon their break-in at The Peak and finds his closure. Nora’s removal from the case, however, makes much less sense. In essence, after a couple hundred pages of them barely getting along, she decides to reveal to McGrath, in the wake of their time at The Peak, her true feelings for him, a man more than twenty years her senior who seems to only tolerate her existence in his life. When he shoots her down (in one of his few genuinely noble acts in the book), she gathers up the loose threads of her life and moves on. Both associates are removed when, frankly, it seemed like there was nothing more to do with them, narratively speaking.
Detective Sharon Falcone is McGrath’s inside source with the police, a razor’s edge of a person with little patience for anyone but herself. It’s an attitude that sees no real change throughout the novel. To the other side of things—the Cordova side—is Wolfgang Beckman, a film scholar and intense Cordovite, who also happens to help deliver the novel’s most interesting turn of events. Like Falcone, he’s a source for information whose moods appear to shift on a dime with little rhyme or reason, save for his labelling as an eccentric.
Character problems are equally prevalent in the Cordova camp. His son, Ashley’s older brother Theo, is in the story briefly, but exists more as a three-fingered example of his father’s dedication to his craft over his family’s wellbeing. Additionally, Cordova’s second wife Marlowe, her estranged sister Olivia, and his dedicated lifetime assistant Inez Gallo all exist as oft-whispered about associates, who when finally approached seem to have no trouble expounding at great length about Cordova and the goings-on at The Peak. As a matter of fact, it’s almost hard to believe the depth of information about Cordova so wilfully given by the three women when barely pressed at all. In these moments it feels as if Pessl had detailed Cordova’s life to such great depth that she couldn’t decide what needed to be said and what to leave on the cutting room floor—hence the rather large information dumps with each readily successful interrogation. In particular, the detail and clarity of the information provided by Marlowe is especially surprising, given her consistently drugged-out state of mind. For a junkie-recluse living out her last days in isolation, she certainly had a lot to offer.
Possibly the most aggravating character issue, however, is regarding McGrath’s relationship with his ex-wife Cynthia. Following an altercation with Hugo Villarde, a former friend and associate of Cordova’s, McGrath’s daughter Samantha is hurt—not seriously, but enough to cause Cynthia to seek sole custody. Now, it’s been made clear that, for a variety of reasons not limited to just McGrath’s earlier legal troubles, their marriage simply didn’t work. What’s not made clear, however, is if McGrath was or is in any way a danger to his daughter. Following this one incident, Cynthia seems as if she switches characters completely, eschewing the moderately exasperated ex-wife persona she’d embodied up until this point in the narrative and instead embracing an angry, needlessly antagonistic mindset that seeks to unjustly punish a man who again, until this point, seems like not a terrible father, even if he is prone to falling face-first into his work-based obsessions. I could see Cynthia being angry and upset with McGrath for taking Samantha with him while he went to look into details surrounding the case he’s investigating, but he’s a journalist, not a cop willingly and knowingly taking his infant child into violent scenarios. It was a stupid mistake, but not one deserving of the vitriol and punishment levied on him by Cynthia. Her reaction was extreme to an unbelievable degree—a betrayal of the character that had been previously established for the purposes of inserting extra drama into an already tense situation.
Enough about the characters—let’s take a look at Night Film’s tone. Immediately the novel is set up like a modern-day noir. The question I have, however, is if the novel is in fact intended to be a noir, or if it is McGrath, narrating events from the first person, who wishes to see the mystery surrounding Ashley’s suicide in such a light? If it is the former, then only McGrath is apparently in on the look and feel of things, as none of the other characters subscribe to expected genre portrayals. McGrath though, he’s the hard-boiled wishes-he-were-a- hard ass whose ready to risk life and limb to get to the bottom of Ashley Cordova’s death—and more than that, to get to the truth of her father’s possibly satanic, possibly murderous proclivities. And if it the latter, then McGrath’s self-important delusion isn’t taken far enough. There was a real missed opportunity to blur his realities within the aesthetics of the films being described, to take a seemingly normal man and twist his sensibilities beneath the false idea that he’s the right man for this job and not just a man with a bruised ego who doesn’t know when he’s been served his just desserts.
As a character, McGrath’s tone also shifts, sometimes unexpectedly into areas he has little apparent interest in before or after, but are brought out in the moment for a laugh, or to try unsuccessfully to add depth where it doesn’t quite fit. The most obvious example of this for me was the Apple products rant on page 194:
It appeared in the Internet age, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano, anyone can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for you own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.
Instead of being sharp or quick-witted, this reads a little more like the old man standing on his front porch, shouting at the clouds or those damn kids who won’t get off his lawn. McGrath’s in his forties and seemingly computer literate—enough that he owns and knows how to operate a laptop. He’s not quite crotchety enough to make this sort of rant believable or effective, and as a result it sticks out like a sore thumb. In this sense, the rant felt more as if it were coming from the author than the character—a little too “clever for clever’s sake.”
One last point about tone before we move on to style: What begins as a promising exploration of one man’s notoriously dark and explicit films is quickly overshadowed by elements of the occult that, while they do play a part in the novel’s resolution, removed tension from Cordova’s established raison d’être. This is a personal preference, and likely not one shared by many readers as I happen to have a background in and love of film history and theory, but I felt as if the middle of the novel gave too great a focus on the occult aspects of the story, which ultimately proved to be, to varying degrees, misdirection. It’s not until the excursion to The Peak that the narrative felt like it had found its footing again, the surreality of Cordova’s manufactured world once more at the forefront while the occult aspects were thankfully relegated to the background for the novel’s final chapters. In this sense, the reveal of Ashley’s true conflict—biological and not supernatural—is both gratifying and a relief.
Linguistically, Night Film is frustrating. Pessl’s first novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was a delight in every sense. The author exhibited a light, graceful touch for language, affording the novel a feel and personality all its own. Night Film, however, struggles to find its voice. I’ve already touched on the character and tonal aspects of this, but now I’d like to get technical.
Italics. In short, this novel abuses italics in such a manner as to remove all sense of believable emphasis and replace it instead with cartoon-like enthusiasm. It’s as tough to read with any kind of seriousness as if every fifth period had been replaced with an exclamation point. Nora is especially guilty of this, but there is no one within the narrative that doesn’t fall into this trap. This, coupled with the relative two-dimensionality of many of the novel’s characters, creates the problem of sound-alikes—meaning that there didn’t appear to be much in the way of distinct voices throughout the novel. Bare in mind, the writing is not in any way bad, but it is also not exceptional or especially creative; much of the novel feels written to plot, and not written to character.
Following up this note on style is the use of multimedia in the pages of the book—screenshots and images used to impart critical information on Ashley, her medical background, her family’s sometimes brutal history, and of course, Cordova’s checkered and mysterious career. While at first the images included are interesting to look at, they do more often than not hurt the novel, as we lose, in reading them, the sense that McGrath and his dynamic duo are reacting to what we are seeing, and more importantly how they are reacting to the details learned on these pages. On a similar note, the multimedia parts remove some of what is usually left to our imagination, such as Ashley’s physical appearance, which as described within the text feels almost wraith-like, yet upon seeing her… she’s just a young woman and we’re left without the same sense of the possibly impossible and surreal that books afford us when imagining characters without things like boundaries and reality getting in the way. To the point, the images limit the author’s own creative descriptive output. Mind you, I have shown this book to a few people and received more enthusiastic responses to the inclusion of imagery, so it’s possible I’m in the minority on this. That said I stand by my admittedly narrow preference. I think, if I break it down, it’s the images of Ashley, Inez, and Cordova that hurt the experience for me—the transcriptions and articles weren’t a distraction in the same degree as having the characters I’d envisioned appear suddenly as something else. One could argue that this would be no different were the novel to be turned into a film, but in this specific case, with the novel as the be all and end all version of this story, I felt as if I’d been pulled away from the experience.
In terms of the narrative, I have more praise than I do criticism for Night Film. While yes, I do feel that much of the information McGrath accumulates comes in unnaturally heavy doses from characters whom you’d expect to keep a tighter reign on their secrets, the story itself is consistently engaging and exciting, with frequent and effective chapter ending cliffhangers and a tight narrative arc expertly wound around a wealth of detail and minutia. I’d go so far as to say that the manner in which the narrative resolves itself across multiple climaxes—beginning with their trek to The Peak and the blurring of realities between the film world and the real world, continuing through the “pull back the curtain” moment with Beckman discussing the various talismans and idiosyncrasies of Cordova’s filmography, many of which had somehow found their way into McGrath’s life—is indicative of Pessl’s impressive ability to not only wield a rather large checklist of ideas, but to pay them off one by one in an organic and believable manner. This house of cards-like construction pays off as tensions rise dramatically and Cordova’s presence (or lack thereof) in McGrath’s life takes on a truly threatening tone when it matters most. Whatever the novel’s weaknesses throughout its first two acts, it is in the third act that the Cordova gamble—crafting an entire life and career for a character never directly seen or heard from—lifts Night Film out of the pile and turns it into something more than “just another mystery.” In particular, the rush near the end where it seems as if the threads of the investigation are all disappearing beneath McGrath’s feet as contacts disappear one after another is exhilarating and perfectly paced.
(exceeded Goodreads character limit—review continued in the comments below)
Pickford opened the patio door in her nightgown one morning to find a wall of applauding British fans. At a garden party, a seething crowd pulled her...morePickford opened the patio door in her nightgown one morning to find a wall of applauding British fans. At a garden party, a seething crowd pulled her out of her car while Fairbanks and the police fought them off; in photos, Mary is clearly terrified. “I touched her dress!” shouted one fan, and again we see the restless throng convulsively ripping something it loves into a million souvenirs. The couple took to seeing the sights of Europe by moonlight.
What the public was saying as it threatened to adore Mary to death was simple: You belong to us. The gods are owned by those who worship them. The dream is not the property of the figures in the dream but of the person having the dream. Zukor understood that. It was the democracy of the new movie stardom, and it was tyrannical. In the end, Mary and Doug reigned for sixteen years from their Hollywood mansion, Pickfair (what else could they call it?), divorcing sadly but without much fanfare in the sound era. They drifted apart, as kings and queens do when they understand that their subjects need them more than they need each other.
Depending on whom you ask, the word “celebrity” denotes either a movie star who lives a life of envy and privilege (earned or unearned), an actor or actress (or musician, artist, writer, etc.) who spent years busting their ass in pitiless roles waiting for their one-in-a-million big break, or an unsympathetic four-letter word decrying a culture wasted on the unmitigated worship of vapid, false, pretty-looking idols.
As a child of the movies (ie: someone who has spent far more hours than is probably sensible watching and re-watching the films in his collection, pulling them apart and picking at the chewy depths), I’ve always been a little divided on the concept—respecting the art and the artist when warranted, turning my nose up at the imitators and wannabes searching for their fifteen minutes as they hope to stretch it into an entire career of posing on red carpets and making ludicrous amounts of money. Celebrity is a label not unlike most vocations; where it differs, and what Ty Burr points out in his almost-but-not-quite-academic dissection of the culture surrounding the term, is not just in the financial windfall afforded to most celebrities, but in the degree of social awareness and obsession that comes part and parcel. Because being a celebrity isn’t just a career path, it’s a 24/7 mind-body association that for better or worse disrupts the rest of the world.
In Gods Like Us, Burr, a film critic with The Boston Globe, takes on the concept of celebrity—the lives of some of the more well known (and a few of the more obscure but still important) and their status as gods within our society—from an anthropological standpoint, charting the development of celebrity culture from its earliest days alongside the birth of the film industry through to the current generation of self-made YouTube stars.
Beginning with the origins of film and the studio system, Burr looks at the silent era and the first filmed images, and how, in no time at all, the people on screen became, in concert or not with their ambitions, icons of the changing structure of entertainment. The first few chapters of the book detail the beginnings of this iconographic association, and as illustrated in the quote at the start of this review, the unexpected public fervour that quickly developed alongside it. Burr briskly moves through the silent era and the rise of the studios to the talkies, the emergent fantasies revolving around star envy and how they went from being emergent to manicured, before introducing us to Brando and the breakthrough of stars not wishing to conform or bend to the wills of the studios. Personalities emerge unexpectedly, are quickly taken control of and carefully crafted to fit existing studios’ ideals, only to be upset yet again by a generational shift—it’s a continued narrative within the industry, one that sees studios forever losing ground and attempting to regain control over their self-styled deities.
The introduction of television and the rise of rock and roll added another wrinkle to the culture (or cult) of celebrity, by bringing the celebrities out from the theatres and into people’s homes. Couple this with the counterculture movements of the sixties and seventies, the at-long-last rise of the African American movie star, and the emergence of Andy Warhol as an identifiable celebrity in yet another corner of the entertainment world (with so much of his art and persona based on/critiquing/aping the film world in some fashion) and the notion of celebrity, still revolving around the film world as Earth to the Sun, was changed yet again. By the time the new millennium rolled around, celebrity had been redefined for the umpteenth time to include, quite literally, an individual’s fifteen minutes (or seconds) on the Internet where they became world-renowned (or notorious, as the case may be) for doing something amazing, awkward, intelligent, or earth-shatteringly stupid and posting it online for all to see, and often without a hint of embarrassment.
Beyond simply being an origin story for celebrity culture, Burr’s book is a fairly alarming but not at all surprising indictment of our need to constantly invent for ourselves new beings of worship. Without ever expressly doing so, his argument ties neatly into the criticisms many atheists have of religion as being an artifice dedicated to the creation of a non-existent supreme being or beings so that we on this tiny rock in the middle of a vast and seemingly unending universe don’t have to feel so gloriously alone. Celebrities are tastemakers and trendsetters to hitch our cultural wagons to in order to have decided for us what to wear, how to act, how to think about politics and the world around us. As Burr explores via the current explosion of self-made Internet celebrities, the tone and tenor of the conversation has shifted; while the large booming voices from above still linger and offer their opinions on our day-to-day lives (whether intentional or not), smaller, more isolated voices are now being heard with sometimes equal volume, also spreading their influential thoughts and opinions with the world, and in some cases affecting real change.
Conversely, we have a new type of celebrity, the Felicia Days and Joseph Gordon-Levitts of the world, who understand the privilege they have and the social lottery they’ve won through a mix of hard work and perseverance and being in the right place at the right time, and want to use their position to interact positively with their fans—to in some ways break down the previously omnipresent walls that existed between the average individual and their twenty-million-a-picture icons and to show that hey, we may make a lot more money than you and you know our names, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to know yours. Providing, that is, you’re not a stalker or an obsessed fan with thoughts of keeping your favourite star locked in a sex room of your own design.
As Burr points out near the end of the book, our tabloid desire to live vicariously through our icons is what’s spawned this unquenchable desire to throw up every part of our lives on the Internet, to see if anything sticks, to see if we too can win the cultural jackpot and become the next Justin Bieber, rising to stardom from Internet obscurity without all that messy going out into the world and working your ass off in auditions or doing gigs for next to nothing in dive bars across the continent. The tragedy of this is that it’s the notion of celebrity, of each of us becoming individualized gods with wealth and visibility beyond containment, that has pushed so many to be all that they can be, and not necessarily the urge to create, to put forth an artistic stamp on the world.
Gods Like Us is a fascinating look at the industry(ies) that created the very idea of celebrity, how stars have turned that world on its head and claimed their fame for their very own, and the rationality we’ve lost as a species as a result of the lust for power and fame that many are unable or unwilling to quench. The book isn’t a film theory text but a narrative, anthropological glimpse into the culture and social contracts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and how, in the absence of kings and queens and emperors ruling the world, we have created them for ourselves.(less)
Ronnie ended up in a nearby booth with Talia and the two less-pretty accomplices. My discussion with Sandro was put on hold as we watched them. The gi...moreRonnie ended up in a nearby booth with Talia and the two less-pretty accomplices. My discussion with Sandro was put on hold as we watched them. The girls had gotten the idea to slap and hit themselves, with Ronnie’s encouragement. They were laughing, going around the table, each girl slapping herself. The first round of slaps was light, a light pat on the cheek, the heel of a hand on the forehead. Each of the girls slapped herself, and with each slap they all erupted in laughter. When it was Talia Valera’s turn, she punched herself in the face with a closed fist. She had especially large fists, like a puppy with huge paws.
Sandro went over to the booth and tried to reason with her.
“Calm down, Sandro,” she said. “It’s just a game.”
“You’ll end up with a black eye,” Sandro said.
She didn’t care. Ronnie had his camera and took pictures. She gazed at the lens in a frank manner.
I thought again of the girl on Ronnie’s layaway plan. Had she taken a bath and given up, gone to sleep? Or put on more lipstick, gone out looking for Ronnie, but to the wrong places?
Flash. Talia posed again for the camera. Her eye was swollen now, and had the taut appearance of polished fruit. There was a gash above her eyebrow, probably from the silver rings she wore, plain metal bands that shone prettily against her tanned skin. I detected pride in her look, as if she felt that the gash and swollen eye were revealing her inner essence, deep and profound, for Ronnie and his camera.
“This is great,” Ronnie said. Click-click. Flash. “Just great.”
Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner’s second book, The Flamethrowers, like the 1970s art scene the novel at once mocks and shows respect for, is grandiloquent, supremely purposeful in its syntactic construction, and frustratingly shallow.
Reno is a twenty-three-year-old artist interested in both line drawing and land art, influenced by such works as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Interestingly, she also harbours a love of motorcycles, land-speed records, and idolizes a certain style of guerrilla art. To this end, she wants to ride across a stretch of desert drawing a line in the sand as fast as possible, documenting the results after the fact. She moves to New York City in 1975 intent on carving out an artistic niche of her very own. While working at Bowery Film, Reno is seen by another artist—a man fourteen years her senior named Sandro Valera. Sandro, the estranged younger son of an Italian tire and motorcycle magnate, is quickly enamoured by young Reno. Together the two of them coast in and out of artistic happenings in SoHo, crossing paths with creatives from all ends of the spectrum: angry poseur waitresses, strange and aloof men obsessed with film stock, and even a pair who get off by firing a gun loaded with blanks into one’s vag.
It isn’t long before Reno is caught between the divergent extremes of art and sport, following her success driving the Valera team’s The Spirit of Italy. She soon finds herself walking a divisive line between the merits of Italy versus her home state of Nevada, the divide between the haves and have-nots, the hatred Sandro has for his family’s empire and his need to pull away from them, and the very real difference between artistic activism given the illusion of strength via self-appropriated importance, and actual life-threatening riots and social upheaval.
Further than this, she is trapped, seemingly, between the perceived roles an artist can take while still maintaining their chosen label, as well as the expected roles of women in art and women in sport and how, in the 1970s as much as today, they crash together under the auspices of the “calendar girl”—of a woman’s worth being in her ability to fit within a certain mould of femininity, existing un-bruised and unblemished to the world in order to be worthy of the world’s admiration and desire:
“The problem with the bruises is they make you look not anonymous,” Eric chimed in.
“You’re not supposed to evoke real life. Just the hermetic world of a smiling woman holding the color chart.”
“Yeah. Anonymous. Friendly. Comely. Various –ly’s.”
It takes some time before the narrative’s foundations are made clear; it’s only when Sandro and Reno travel to Italy and we are introduced to the rest of Sandro’s family that The Flamethrowers sheds its artistic skin for what amounts to little more than a slightly atypical fish-out-of-water love story, complete with second-act heartache and a resulting period of loss and confusion. To put it another way, the décor changes but the food remains the same. The terribleness and arrogance exhibited by Sandro’s family—especially his mother—is predictable and lacks bite, as neither Sandro nor any member of his family, including his father who is given periodic chapters throughout the novel, are afforded any significant level of depth. They come across as cardboard examples of the rich toying with the peasant girl—oh poor thing, she doesn’t know what she’s in for, and to hell with her for shooting above her station in life. The second to last chapter goes to great lengths to humanize both Sandro and his mother, but these efforts are unfortunately limited in their effectiveness—some humanization is achieved, but not enough to elicit any degree of sympathy for their prior actions.
This shallowness of character is not limited to just Sandro’s family. Everyone in The Flamethrowers is a quotation-mark friend—a necessary interval in Reno’s New York City experience, but thinly sketched and almost never contributing any degree of emotional vulnerability to her evolution. In short, no one in the novel feels like a friend, but rather ideas of friends or what friends should be, awaiting further details to be filled in at some later date. It’s only Ronnie Fontaine, an acquaintance of Sandro’s and one of Reno’s only real connections, who, following a painfully long and overbearing monologue, offers her the painful, unsolicited truth she needs to hear: that so many truths are inherently useless.
There’s been a certain amount of chatter as of late regarding The Flamethrowers and its possible status as the next Great American Novel. Certainly it is ambitious in its scope and its themes of change, transformation, and the repercussions of one’s actions. However, the unevenness of the split back-and-forth narrative, dipping back in time to detail the elder Valera’s rise to rubber supremacy and contrasting it with Reno in present day 1970s New York and Italy, and the lack of emotional depth and growth in most if not all of the novel’s characters cripple much of its early momentum.
There is still joy to be found within the pages of Kushner’s grand artistic/socio-political opus, as her moment-to-moment writing is alive and beautifully renders each environment:
Milan was the same city Valera had experienced as a boy arriving from Egypt, but now the trams and their intricate overhead wires seemed beautiful. Neon was electric jewelry on the lithe body of the city, and he and the little gang were the marauders of this body.
Additionally, the chapter detailing the exploits of The Motherfuckers—anarchists masquerading as revolutionaries—is far and away the most interesting. In this chapter, the author manages to gather the novel’s most salient points within a single destructive bubble of proto-revolutionary counter-culture rage and abject misogyny.
All that to say, clever art world musings are unfitting substitutes for narrative depth and emotional availability—neither of which, I felt, were illustrated in the pages of this novel. We’re told more than once from characters within the narrative that Reno came back from Italy a changed person, but it is not evident in her behaviour—Sandro is still on her brain, and if not Sandro then Ronnie, or Sandro’s brother Roberto. In essence, Reno exists more through the people she crosses than she does within herself; she’s an observer in this world and not, it seems, an active participant.
As eloquent and as gracefully written as The Flamethrowers is, there’s a certain sterility to the novel that strips its characters and the world in which they exist of life—a world in the midst of riots and social upheaval, yet never feels dirty enough to be real, to be a place in a moment in time that mattered. The novel’s high ambitions are visible from the outset, but Kushner’s intelligent, layered writing is unable to brighten its weaker elements.
*Note: I went back and forth on whether to give this novel two stars or three. In the end, I settled on three as there was no option for two-and-a-half, which is what I feel this book deserves—split right down the middle for gorgeous writing, but empty characters... I wouldn't say I liked it, but I would say it was certainly better than okay.(less)