Archive for June, 2010

Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster — a Guest Post from Kathleen Winter

June 27, 2010

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

KfC note: When House of Anansi Press offered me a copy of Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, they asked if I would be interested in doing a blog interview. I’ll admit that in my previous life in journalism, I did enough face-to-face interviews that I am left wanting no part of doing e-mail ones. So I declined, but said that I would welcome a guest post from Kathleen Winter — and I am delighted with the result that follows below. She not only gives visitors here an insight into writing her novel, she does an even better job of introducing a number of books that influence her writing. (My review of Annabel is right below this post.)

House of Anansi has kindly offered a copy of Annabel for a KfC giveaway. So if you are interested please indicate so in a comment on this post — after you have offered your observations on Kathleen’s thoughts, of course. Deadline for entries is midnight GMT, July 4. Unfortunately, the giveway contest is restricted to residents of Canada.

My personal thanks to Kathleen for this valuable contribution to KevinfromCanada.

Penguin Classics 2005 edition


Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

A lesser-known detail about E.M.Forster is the fact that he liked to crochet, and one item on my to-do list has been to find out if some museum has any samples of his crochet work. I imagine it different from the regular doilies and other decorative dentelle of his era: maybe he made a case for his glasses, or veils for his summer hats, or for the hats of his associates. Whatever he made I have long hoped someone has saved some of it. I’d like to see, preserved in its frayed stitches, some three-dimensional echo of his themes: the barricades of class and gender, and the longing of the heart to get back to its native land where there are mysteries yet unlabeled. I hoped his hand-made fabric might tell me secrets about how he wrote.

One day in Afterwords, a second-hand bookshop on Water Street in St. John’s, I saw something of Forster’s that I had not known about: small, tatty and the colour of a scrap of old crochet, his 1927 booklet Aspects of the Novel sat between a biography of James Joyce and some tome about Wordsworth eating pies in The Lake District. I don’t know who Joyce Jefford is, but her name was written in blue ink inside and I am glad that she either died or found some other reason to part with the book, because it has helped save my writing life.

Aspects of the Novel is not the only book that has saved me: others have helped me work my way through writing problems as well. I’m thinking of Brenda Ueland’s If you Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, which my brother Michael gave me one birthday and which I have worn out several times so that I am now on my third or fourth copy. Ueland nails the difference between writing that is alive and writing that is dead, and she’s funny too. Then there is Donald J. Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms, which I found in the biology section of Memorial University’s bookstore, and which presents the Greek, Latin and other origins of biological terms and scientific names in a way that blows up language to show a fiction writer worlds within our world. Then there are my technical darlings like my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a classic since 1918 and reinvigorated in the glorious 2005 version illustrated by The New Yorker’s Maria Kalman. These are books that make me happy and grateful, and I often silently thank C.T.Onions, editor of the etymology dictionary. “How aptly you were named, Doctor Onions,” I call through time, “dissecting language into its coded layers piquant enough to make a girl cry.”

But Forster’s Aspects of the Novel goes deeper than these. It is a book about which I feel emotional, because it comes from Forster whom I love, and because, in it, he addresses certain aspects of technique in a way that transcends the technical. A writer can know about life, about meaning and clarity, but these can suffocate unless the writer also knows about story and structure. Here is an example of the depths to which I sank as I wrestled with the difficult last third of Annabel. Imagine how desperately I must have needed a lifeline from Forster when I found myself writing the likes of this:

” There were some corridors and he got lost until he saw a man
coming out of the men’s washroom. The man told him to go
up three stairs and down the corridor to the practice room. There
were felt banners on the walls. It was a Presbyterian church and
children had entered drawings in a contest and all the drawings
were on the walls. Each drawing was an illustration of the verse,
“Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The thing that
interested Wayne about the drawings was all the forms that were
anything but children. The children had wanted to draw striped
snakes with zigzags, and ice cream cones, and an orange cat
wearing green horn-rimmed glasses, and had inserted these things
and more among the pastoral scenes of children listening to
Jesus. In one of the drawings was a spaceship with some aliens
who had also come to hear what Jesus had to say.”

Of course I threw this in my wastebasket, but later got out of bed and retrieved it, thinking I could whip it out now and then and read it if I ever wanted to feel a frisson of incredulous hysteria.

The next morning I turned to Forster, and was able to breathe properly again on reading this: “In the novel, all human happiness and misery does not take the form of action, it seeks means of expression other than through the plot, it must not be rigidly canalized. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels bored?”

This was my own lament. I didn’t need Forster to solve it for me. Just hearing him voice it as a lament of his own saved me from despair. “After all,” Forster went on, “why has a novel to be planned? Cannot it grow? Why need it close, as a play closes? Cannot it open out? Instead of standing above his work and controlling it, cannot the novelist throw himself into it and be carried along to some goal that he does not foresee? The plot is exciting and may be beautiful, yet is it not a fetich, borrowed from the drama, from the spatial limitations of the stage? Cannot fiction devise a framework that is not so logical yet more suitable to its genius?”

Reading Forster’s Aspects of the Novel felt like having a fairy godfather comfort me after falling off the neighbour’s garden wall. I was still sniveling and still had skinned knees, but someone understood.

One of my hopes is that a person’s greatest weakness can turn into a strength if that person works on it carefully enough. My leanings are toward character and atmosphere. Story and structure have tyrannized me but I have tried so hard to pay attention to them that I think we have come to some sort of coexistence. Forster’s lovely little manual on the novel has helped me do this, not by answering questions but by sitting in company with me until their torment turns into something else. I’m not sure how this happens.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

June 26, 2010

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi -- click cover for more info

For this reader, Kathleen Winter’s first novel is dependent on three key characters, none of whom are the “Annabel” of of the title. That character, who is born in the opening pages of the novel, has one little testicle, labia and a vagina. Those three adult characters are all present at the birth:

Treadway, the baby’s father. The opening pages of the novel are set in Labrador in a community that is dependent on seasonal hunting. Treadway is not just a hunter, he is a good one, completely comfortable in a wilderness existence. The birth and survival of his son/daughter/whatever is not a normal part of the Labrador frontier experience — Treadway will have to learn to cope.

Jacinta Blake, Annabel’s mother:

Wayne was born, in bathwater, in the house of his parents, Treadway and Jacinta Blake. Treadway belonged to Labrador but Jacinta did not. Treadway had kept the traplines of his father and he was magnetized to the rocks, whereas Jacinta had come from St. John’s when she was eighteen to teach in the little school in Croydon Harbor, because she thought, before she met Treadway, that it would be an adventure, and that it would enable her to teach in a St. John’s school once she had three or four years experience behind her.

And finally, Thomasina, probably Jacinta’s best friend and soon to be a widow when her blind husband and daughter (also named Annabel) drown in a near spiritual experience. (That is not a spoiler — the incident is related in the novel’s prologue.) Thomasina passes the name Annabel on to the newborn. Thomasina will depart Labrador later in the book for a global tour but she will always maintain contact with Annabel.

For Treadway, the baby will always be a son and his name will be Wayne. Jacinta, while confused, is comfortable with most aspects of the physical dual sexuality. For Thomasina, the child will always be a female named Annabel.

Author Winter not only does a good job throughout this book at exploring the conflicting attitudes these three have towards the child, she also is rigorous about illustrating how they each attempt to influence him/her in their own image. Treadway is determined that his child will know and love the wilderness in the same way that he does. Jacinta is equally determined that she/he be equipped to survive in the “urban” world of St. John’s. And Thomasina is just as devoted to acquainting Annabel with the world beyond the isolated provincialism of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Those three adults and their attempts to influence the child are, to this reader, the driving forces of this novel. At the midway point of the book, Wayne/Annabel is in grade eight and has just discovered her female side — while she will become a more central character for the last half, her confused life will be dependent on those adult influences:

Jacinta was thinking of Wayne’s safety. Part of him knew this, but the new-found part, Annabel, wanted to tell someone. Wayne closed his eyes in bed and saw the hidden part of himself in the schoolyard, in a dress with a green sash and shoes of red leather with a little heel like Gwen Matchem’s. There were lots of things that changed if you were a girl: not just your heels or the way you put your hair, but things you talked about and the way you looked at the world. Wayne felt this in waves.

Winter’s choice to make her central character intersex certainly creates one story line but it is a tribute to the book that is not the only one, as the author moves into even more confusing territory. Wayne will eventually take himself to St. John’s and that other conflict — the wilderness of Labrador, urban Newfoundland as represented by St. John’s and the broader world that Thomasina is travelling — will become every bit as important. The conflict between wilderness and urbanity is a frequent theme in Canadian literature — the introduction of dual sexuality adds a whole new dimension which makes Annabel a unique addition to the genre:

The city grew oppressive. If it was not formal wear in the Model Shop that disturbed Wayne, with its bridesmaid gowns and tuxedos that reminded him of the travesty of his own prom, it was the homeless people. He felt quizzical gazes from them, as if they recognized something in him. He had expected to have more time than he had to get used to the changes in his body. But his body jumped at the chance to become less like a man and more like a woman. When he had been reducing his pills for just one week, he felt tenderness in his breasts and he felt them start to swell, as if they had been constrained but were now able to expand.

As Wayne/Annabel grows into adulthood, none of the three adult influences on his life is willing to abandon their aspect of the “project”. Now, however, it is no longer a child whom they are attempting to influence but a young adult who is trying to discover his own confused way in the world.

Annabel will not be to everyone’s tastes, but to anyone who appreciated Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex or the far less well-known Two Strand River by Keith Maillard the novel will have much appeal. Like those two novels, this volume uses confused sexuality as a highly effective device to explore in detail some far more conventional issues, faced by far more people. It is not always successful, but the effort alone makes the novel worth the read.

New Face of Fiction Winners

June 25, 2010

Thanks to the wonders of Random.org, we have two winners:

1. The Canadian contest winner is Katie, who chose Ghosted.
2. The International contest winner is David Dean, who chose Doing Dangerously Well (and who said he is currently reading Deloume Road).

I will be in touch with both winners via email to set up delivery. Thanks to everyone (especially Lisa Hill and her wonderful, abject plea) for entering.

KfC’s NFoF giveaway

June 19, 2010

The headline on this post alone should befuggle google. Befoogle guggle? Whatever.

Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of reviewing the four first novels that are this year’s selections in Random House Canda’s New Face of Fiction program. As far as I can tell, it started in 1996 and one of the first “first novels” it introduced to the world was Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees, one of my most favorite novels of all time and an international success. The record has been consistent ever since (ncluding Self, the first novel from Yann Martel, who won the Booker Prize for Life of Pi) — you can check out a list of the previous selections here.

So here are the two contests:

1. For Canadian residents: your choice of the 2010 New Face of Fiction books, courtesy Random House Canada. All you have to do is comment saying you are Canadian and which book you want. 
2. For international visitors: Since one of the objectives of the KfC blog is to introduce Canadian work to the world, we have a second contest for non-Canadian residents, underwritten by KfC — I’ll ship the book to you from Chapters. Just indicate that you are international and your choice of the four. And I know that if you want two, you will get both, but your plea does have to be abject.

Deadline for entries in both contests is midnight GMT, June 24. I’ll post the winners on June 25.

Here are thumbnail reviews of the four books, with links to my reviews:

Deloume Road, by Matthew Hooton. A modern addition to the literature of Vancouver Island — a contemplation of conflicted lives from families living along an isolated road in mid-island. Those who remember Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook may well find some echoes in this accomplished first novel. Check out the review here.

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, by Drew Hayden Taylor. A very accessible. often playful, entry into the world of First Nations spiritualism. And an equally good introduction into the modern world challenges of the conflict between traditional and current values. Plus, it features a 1953 Indian Chief motorcyle as a central character. Review here.

Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. My favorite of the four, but don’t let that sway you. A moving, very dark portrayal of Toronto’s underside, with a fascinating cast of depraved characters. The humor is significant, but very black. For me, a major achievement. Review here.

Doing Dangerously Well, by Carole Enahoro. The review is right below this post so I won’t go into a lot of detail — an interesting exploration of what Nigerian politics does — or might — look like.

All you have to do is indicate whether you are entering the Canadian or international contest and what is your choice(s). Come back June 25 for the results.

Doing Dangerously Well, by Carole Enahoro

June 18, 2010

This review marks my completion of the four novels that comprise this year’s The New Face of Fiction and, for this reader, it has been a wonderful experience. And, for those who have followed the reviews, stay tuned. One of the objectives of this blog is to provide a forum for Canadian fiction writers to the rest of the world (and I know the world is interested) so this chance to introduce new Canadian voices is much appreciated. Thanks to the generosity of Random House Canada, and with a bump from KfC, the blog will be announcing tomorrow two giveaway contests that will give you the chance to win your pick of the four.

Carole Enahoro’s Doing Dangerously Well joins a relatively short, but impressive, list of fiction that links the experience of Nigeria and its people with First World economics. Ben Okri’s The Famished Road was, for me at least, first into the lists, a compelling, but difficult, exploration that never left Nigeria — but spoke enough to Western tastes that it won the 1991 Booker Prize. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie followed with Half of a Yellow Sun, the 2007 Orange Prize winner, and her 2009 short story collection — The Thing Around Your Neck — which has attracted a positive critical response. Carole Enahoro, who was born in London of a Nigerian father and is now a resident of Nigeria, Britain and Canada, adds her contribution to the list with this novel.

Doing Dangerously Well verges on being polemical (not a favorite trait for me, I’ll admit, but this novel overcomes that objection) and it is worth knowing that before picking it up. The story begins with the collapse of Kainji Dam. The dam is real, built in the 1960s and one of the longest in the world, but it has not collapsed (although that may be imminent) — Enahoro uses that speculation to frame her story of conflict. As it moves on, the novel contemplates what manipulative forces would be put into play — historical, economic, political and, perhaps most important, opportunistic — when such a disaster might occur. Those who are following the Gulf of Mexico-BP story may well find some metaphorical messages in this book.

The first character the author introduces — Amos — will survive only a few pages. He is a charismatic figure (“striding like a panther”), who has made good (“from his snakeskin boots to his sheepskin jacket, all was as it should be”), and he has returned to his native village of Ndadu to acknowledge both his family heritage and his ancestral history. In the midst of the celebration of his return, the dam bursts and Amos, not to mention Ndadu, is swept away. So are hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who live downstream from the dam.

Enahoro has framed her story at this point. The elements that will come into play for the rest of the book need to be introduced and it does require some patience from the reader for her to put them in place.

Most important is another whose brother has drowned, this time in a childhood “incident”:

Two days after the disaster, a white Mercedes-Benz pulled up outside the house of General Abucha, the head of Nigerian armed forces. Out stepped the short, plump form of Ogbo Kolo, enfolded in a gold agbada. He immediately opened his Chinese parasol for the twenty-yard trip to the front door. There, he waited for his driver to press the bell. After this formality, he handed his driver the parasol and exchanged it for his briefcase. They both stood at attention and looked straight ahead at the door.

The disaster will promote Kolo into the presidency — if it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else. He has been riding a lucrative wave of corruption as a cabinet minister; that wave can only get more tsunami-like now that he controls the government.

And the key to that is his relationship with TransAqua, an American firm that is more than willing to rebuild the dam, providing that it also receives the ownership rights to all of Nigeria’s water supplies, down to the puddles from which stray dogs take their sustenance. Enahoro uses the TransAqua angle to introduce one of her better sub-plots, the conflict between two daughters of an international dam-builder. The sisters come to represent the contrasting intrusive effects of American politics on the Nigerian experience (think Halliburton versus the Gates Foundation — which is the greater threat?). Mary is her father’s daughter, committed to corporate development, a true-believer in the free market and American domination of the world and a mid-level player at TransAqua, eager to move up by proving herself on significant projects, such as this Nigerian opportunity. Her sister, Barbara, has headed in the other direction — counter-culture, pro-environment, anti-capitalist:

She spotted panic in Mary’s bat-like eyes — as the elder sister, perfection was Mary’s watchword, and anything less could destroy her. A wash of empathy swept trough Barbara: her sister was only adopting the role the family demanded of her. Even she expected this unwittingly female creature, placed at a precarious height, to represent the family’s ideals. If Mary fell, Barbara would feel the bruise just as keenly.

The conflict between Mary and Barbara will become one of the more interesting themes of the book, but there is more of the set-up yet to come — because, of course, there must be internal Nigerian resistance to the plans of Kolo ripping off the country for the benefit of TransAqua and selling out his people. This character is Femi Jegede, Amos’ brother:

Here was one of the great orators in Nigeria, who could make the ears and eyes of even his most radical opponents prick up like an antelope’s. Femi possessed wit and style, backed by strong legal training, and so could make pounded yam out of the most logical argument. Added to this, his exchanges had an air of theatricality about them, his greatest prop being his ever-present agbada — a voluminous tunic that expanded his physical presence and gave weight to his authority — though certainly no item was too minor to employ.

Those are the elements of Doing Dangerously Well. Does it work? I would have to say “a definite maybe”, but that may be a reflection of both my age and my experience. It is definitely a “story” novel, where the plot and people are much more important than the style. I do think that it is an entirely worthwhile first effort and will be very interested in whatever direction the author chooses to go in her next work.

2010 IMPAC contest winner

June 17, 2010

The 2010 IMPAC award has been won by Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin.   Translated from the Dutch, it was Bakker’s debut book.  While I am not surprised that a translated work won (given the IMPAC tradition), I’ll admit that I would have predicted the German contender, Christoph Hein’s Settlement, would have been the choice.

There were three correct predictions in KfC’s contest, Crake from Buenos Aires, Kerry from Baltimore and Ceri Kay from I don’t know where. (EDIT: Ceri lives in North Wales — I am quite chuffed that the three winners come from three different continents.) Given the international nature of the IMPAC winner — and the international nature of the three correct predictions, I am going to arbitrarily change the rules and award each of the three $75.  If that is okay with you three, I think I have email addresses for each of you and will be in touch to figure out how to set up your prize.

Thanks to all 35 people who entered — predictions were spread across all eight finalists (in fact, Bakker was second from the bottom in terms of number of picks).  The book is certainly a worthwhile read.  I’ll leave links to all eight of the shortlist up in the side bar for a while.

Going To See The Elephant, by Rodes Fishburne

June 13, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I doubt that many potential book buyers check out the author’s acknowledgements when considering a purchase, so I would like to take the liberty of quoting the last sentence from Rodes Fishburne’s at the close of Going To See The Elephant:

And special thanks to the San Francisco Police Department for recovering this manuscript when it was stolen from the author’s car.

The inferences that I would have drawn from that sentence had I read it before reading the book would have turned out to be correct. The author tends to flow with the world, not try to swim against it, which does sometimes create problems. Sardonic humour is for him an excellent coping strategy. He probably has a playful streak that occasionally might get excessive. He has more than a deep affection for San Francisco.

Going To See The Elephant is an engaging, entertaining romp of a first novel that captures all those traits. It is also a “journalism” novel, set around a reporter and another hapless newspaper; a book that came to my attention in a comment from “Former J Prof” in the discussion section of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Like Rachman’s book, which I loved, it is a very worthy addition to the “journalism canon”. And more: a tribute to a wonderful city.

One more bit of tease before getting into the actual review, this time from “A Note on the Title” which precedes the novel proper:

In 1858, if the reader had lived in New York City, or Abingdon, Virginia, or Hayes, South Dakota, or any other large or small town in the United States, and a friend had stopped by one afternoon to inquire into your whereabouts, your mother might have said: “He’s going to see the elephant.”

This meant you’d headed west to participate in the gold rush. The elephant was fame, fortune and, with a little luck, luck itself.

The gold rush is long over, but San Francisco has always had an “elephant” to attract the adventurous. For my generation, it was Haight Ashbury, the Diggers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a lot of recreational drugs. Fishburne’s novel, published in 2009 and with some definitely other-worldly plot developments, is ample proof that the current era has its own version.

Slater Brown, 25, has arrived from somewhere in America, notebook in hand and, following an $87 ride in a bicycle taxi to the centre of the city (he has “a 250-pound trunk full of first-edition nineteenth-century novels” which makes the pedalling a bit tough), is determined to make his mark as a writer:

For San Francisco’s most recent arrival, there was so much to capture: the city’s bright streets, the shimmer of water just beyond the tallest buildings, the clangor of the cosmopolis. He wanted to see it all — everything — first. Fast and messy. Like running through a museum of great paintings. There would be time to circle back later, to double-check, to consider thoughtfully. But just now he wanted to eat the city.

Preferably with both hands.

….

I want to write something that will last forever. Something future generations will read with great delight. As if putting their fingers on the pulse of a ghost.

He exhaled.

He’d been in San Francisco for exactly forty-seven minutes.

Reality, in the form of totally running out of money, takes less than two weeks to arrive. He is searching half-heartedly and hopelessly for a job that involves writing, when he stumbles across the premises of The Morning Trumpet, once a thriving daily newspaper, now “a gold rush holdover (some called it a hangover)”, reduced to publishing as a weekly: “Currently the newspaper was printed on paper so thin that it was not uncommon to see people trying to read it in the shadow of a building or the corner of a bus shelter — anywhere to keep the sunlight from bleeding through and running the stories all together.”

Slater manages to get a recruitment interview and, much to his pleasant surprise gets hired. The editor-in-chief, Maynard Reed, doesn’t even look at the plagarized clips that Slater has labourously transcribed — rather he is transfixed at the notion that the young man across the desk from him will be the “star” that returns The Trumpet to its former prominence. From Slater’s point of view, the job is an acceptable start to immortality — after all, Hemingway, Orwell, Dickens and Balzac all started out as journalists.

Alas, it doesn’t work out that way. The two functioning editors of The Trumpet, as opposed to the visionary editor-in-chief and his dream of stars, have seen a never-ending troupe of new hires walk in through one door of the office and quickly and permanently exit through another. They are “lifers” in the business, resigned to failure with no other options. They don’t even bother to give Slater an assignment, sending him out onto the streets with the guidance of “go find us a story and you might be our lokul-item man”. If you don’t know the business, that is the shorthand for the junior reporter who wanders around doing “streeters”, interviews with ordinary citizens which supposedly add the human touch to the newspaper’s coverage. Anyone who has ever actually done a “streeter” (yes, it was my first assignment as a summer reporter) knows what hell it is. Ordinary people are, well, ordinary, which is hardly news.

Slater wanders around hopelessly (much like the tryout Cairo stringer in The Imperfectionists if you have read that novel) until he comes across a hand-written sign at San Jose’s Taqueria Espectacular, a Mexican restaurant now being run by Chinese immigrants:

Answer Man
Specializing in questions few understand
Open daily for 50 minutes during lunch

A.M., as he was sometimes known, actually is an accountant for a Spanish insurance company, but he moonlights on his lunch hour offering, for a small fee, to answer any question posed, as long as “yes” or “no” is an acceptable answer. Slater waits in line and asks his question (“Should my story for the The Trumpet be about San Francisco?”) and gets a “Si” in response. More important, on the way out, A.M. gives him a small pocket radio.

And with that, Going To See The Elephant is truly underway. Fishburne has skated close to the edge of reality up to this point — from here on in the novel soars into the surreal and absurd. I don’t want to spoil, but here are a few bullets on what is in store for the reader:

– the radio leads Slater to his Highly Reliable Source (Nirvana for any aspiring reporter) and he will achieve the momentary fame that is possible for a journalist and become a significant force in San Francisco. Alas, journalism does not produce immortality which, of course, is his long-term goal.
The Trumpet will prosper. Not only will the newsprint be of higher, less see-through quality, there will be more pages and an opportunity for expansion and a return to daily publication. All three of the editors would be very much at home at Rachman’s Rome newspaper, if I can be allowed another reference to The Imperfectionists.
— a world-respected (mad) scientist and inventor, Milo Magnet, in demand at forums ranging from Davos to Washington, not to mention corporate boardrooms and strategic planning retreats, will become a major factor in the book. Milo’s current project is creating computer-generated, but real-life, climate effects ranging from fog banks to hail storms to tornados. It is very much a work-in-progress, but headway is being made.
— Callio, a 23-year-old, beautiful chess prodigy — undefeated and on her way to becoming the world champion — will enter the novel as a potentially disruptive love interest.

That’s a fair number of “elephants” and the reader is required to grant the author a lot of licence to allow the story to go on — trust me, it is worth it. Fishburne keeps the narrative going at a breakneck pace (I’ve only highlighted a few of the characters) and the book never lacks for immediate action, but that is not really what the novel is about.

While the absurd story is fun and the characters more than engaging, in the final analysis this book is a tribute to San Francisco and its history of attracting those in search of “elephants”. You only have to visit the city once to understand that attraction — and each succeeding visit only serves to broaden the understanding. And if you have never been there, don’t worry. Fishburne uses his absurdity and surrealism to underline his love for the city and the version that he creates is rewarding in itself.

So, those thanks in the acknowledgements to the San Francisco Police Department for recovering the manuscript are well-deserved. Buy this book and tuck it on the shelf. And the next time you are looking for a read that is a) more than enjoyable b) laugh-provoking c) pleasantly absurd d) challenging and e) set in a place that makes you want to be there immediately, take it off the shelf and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

June 9, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask was carrying a fairly heavy load of expectational baggage by the time I finally opened the front cover. I had originally purchased it, intrigued by the knowledge that the central character was a development officer (hence, “the ask”) at a not-very-good (read, third-rank) New York City university. I’ve known more than a few fund-raisers in my time, but had never mentally cast one of them as the central character in a novel — so the idea sparked more than idle curiosity. But it was a piece in the New York Times (link is here) that really upped the stakes.

In that story, A.O. Scott argues that the novel marks the arrival of Generation X at its “mid-life crisis”. For those of us born on the front edge of the Baby Boom, the idea that GenX is now into mid-life crisis (we thought we still owned that turf) is a painful, but instant, aging experience. Another essay in a literary review (sorry, I forget where — it was just an aside), proclaimed the book post-modern (not my favorite style) but spiced that with the idea that Lipsyte was portraying a world of “late capitalism”, while acknowledging that the author did not make it clear whether capitalism was in its mature stages or was already deceased.

Lipsyte wastes no time in putting all those themes/threats on the agenda. The book opens with observations from his central character, Milo Burke:

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father’s garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree.

That episode takes place in the development office of what Milo calls the Mediocre University at New York City. We meet some of his co-workers in the arts division (obviously, the hardest discipline in which to generate “asks” — moneyed people want to offer support to science, health or business not wasteful fields like classics, art and literature). In addition to Horace (Whore-Ass), there is Vargina (a sympathetic nurse inserted the “r” after her mother proclaimed her name at birth), Dean Cooley (not a dean but chief development officer, known as War Crimes because of his background in the Marines) and some others. Some aspects of post-modernism are tedious, I must say, but I’m learning to live with them.

It will turn out to be Milo’s last day of full-time work there. He’s not very good at raising funds anyway (tends to drink too much at crucial lunches) but seals his fate when the student daughter of a signifcant benefactor “forced my hand”:

What I said to McKenzie, there is no point repeating. It’s enough to report my words contained nothing an arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif wants to hear about herself. When I was finished she did not speak. A thickish vein in her pale head fluttered. The blue thing seemed to veer and switch direction. Then she took a few steps back and, still staring at me, phoned her damager. What was done to me was done in hours. My outburst was deemed hate speech, which called for immediate dismissal. I could hardly argue with them. I think it probably was hate speech. I really fucking hated that girl.

Milo is now out on the street, but only for a couple of weeks. He is brought back for a very specific project, at the specific request of the potential donor. As Dean Cooley puts it: “We must fasten our lips to the spigot and suck, so to speak. Which is where you come in, Mr. Burke.” “The ask” is an old school-mate who has sold his high-tech company for hundreds of millions and is now getting into philanthropy. He in fact wants Milo involved to deliver on a far more personal project — covering up a problem from his student past which is inconvenient right now — but is willing to part with a few tens of millions in a donation to Mediocre U to make sure that more pressing personal job gets done. In the course of pursuing that, Milo will run into Don, a legless vet from the war in Iraq (he calls his hi-tech metal protheses “my girls”), who opens up a whole new world for author Lipsyte to train his satire on.

It is not a stretch to see that Lipsyte has now sown the seeds for both his Gen-X mid-life crisis (nothing every came easy for this group) and musing about “late capitalism”:

“We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.”

Note the contrast between the global and locally consumerist absurd in that quote. It is at the centre of Milo’s critique and the technique does supply the novel with some of its better moments.

There is an off-setting, more human story — Milo’s marriage and his intense love for his son, Bernie. The marriage is not going too well as wife Maura is quite a bit more successful at her work than Milo is at his, although the job does consume all her time. Things are also not going that well for four-year-old Bernie in his non-home life. His pre-school, the Happy Salamanders, keeps closing for a couple of days while the ideological staff head off to Vermont for pedagogical retreats — his day minder also frequently leaves her young charges abandoned on a concrete pad where they explore each other’s body parts while she goes about other questionable business. (Her housemate has an idea for a reality tv show that is worth the price of the book in itself — no reveal until someone asks in the comments, however.)

All this is more fodder for Lipsyte’s observational skills and he does not hesitate to exploit them. Like many books that get labelled post-modern, the beauty is in the detail, not the big picture. The Ask is a much better book than any plot summary will make it seem, but it is hard to provide concise examples to prove that point.

So let me offer a couple of comparisons to books that came to mind more than once while I was reading this one. One is Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, a book I abandoned three-quarters of the way through but which did win the 2009 IMPAC award. If you check the comments under my review, you will find some passionate arguments for the book from people who know post-modernism far better than I do. Where I found similarities in the two novels was in the central character since both are mature men who, through a combination of their own failings and the environment in which they live, are playing out a bad hand.

The other comparison would be Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award and a novel that landed with me much more conclusively positive than Thomas’. While McCann’s and Lipsyte’s books are set some decades apart, they both explore what I would call the “class complexity” of Manhattan — drug addicts and the homeless on one end, “philanthropists” worth hundreds of millions at the other. Fans of Martin Amis, might well like to add Money into that mix.

The Ask does have its shortcomings and I am not sure it ranks with those other books — only some distance from reading it will answer that question, although 10 days after finishing it I am thinking that it does. I am not a GenXer so parts of it probably did not resound as well with me as they would with someone a couple of decades younger. Even for this Baby Boomer, however, it was a fast-paced, well-written journey into Milo’s rather strange world.

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

June 6, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

In some ways, the story of how I came to read Nightwood is as interesting as my thoughts on the book itself. One of the bloggers whom I follow regularly, Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf, ran both a contest and daily posts on this year’s Tournament of Books, an NCAA-style fiction competition run by the online Morning News. The tournament starts with 16 books (ranging from Wolf Hall, the eventual winner, through the bookclub favorite The Help, to the graphic novel, Logicomix). There is a “game” every day as the brackets wind down — and there is a commentary that welcomes responses from those who are following the tournament. It was late in the contest that commentator John Warner (a professor at Clemson University) offered this incentive: list the last five books that you have read and he would provide a recommendation for future reading. (The offer provoked more than 300 comments and some excellent recommendations — you can see the full exchange here. It is worth the visit.) After giving me two books that I had read and liked (John Banville’s The Book of Evidence and Tim Parks’ Europa), John finally came up with Nightwood.

First published in 1937, this novel probably qualifies as a “cult” book. Barnes had kicked around almost all of the between-war literary havens — Greenwich Village; Provincetown, Mass. and Paris (where she hung out with Gertrude Stein and James Joyce). Venice, too — the book is dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim and John Ferrar Holms. Even before publication, Nightwood acquired a powerful advocate in T.S. Eliot who not only lobbied Faber to publish it, but also wrote the introduction to the first and subsequent editions.

I will admit upfront that Nightwood is not my preferred kind of novel. I lean towards reportage, context and characterization, rather than language and style. To illustrate my distance from this book, Eliot concludes his introduction by saying:

What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizaberhan tragedy.

That is a perceptive summary: language and style do carry the book, but in its own way it does have both characterization and horror/doom. While it was that latter part that kept me involved in the book, I am going to run against form in this review and focus on examples of language and style — for other readers, I am sure that is where the real strength of this novel lies. In the opening of his introduction, Eliot also says “it would appeal primarily to readers of poetry”. I confess to not being a reader of poetry since I left university.

The two characters that we meet in chapter one are appropriate symbols for what the book will become; they are as unreliable as any character could be. Felix calls himself Baron Volkbein; his father had invented the noble title which has no legitimate basis whatsoever and Felix invented inheriting it:

Felix was heavier than his father and taller. His hair began too far back on his forehead. His face was a long, stout oval, suffering a laborious melancholy. One feature alone spoke of Hedvig [his mother], the mouth, which, though sensuous from lack of desire as hers had been from denial, pressed too intimately close to the bone structure of the teeth. The other features were a little heavy, the chin, the nose, and the lids; into one was set his monocle which shone, a round blind eye in the sun.

Felix hooks up with another character who will become even more important to the book: Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. He isn’t really a doctor, although he acts as one. He is a declining never-was (as opposed to has-been) and, if I can be permitted to borrow from North American First Nations spiritualism, he will perform the role of The Trickster throughout the novel. O’Connor’s monologues occupy much of the novel, as all of the characters “bounce” off him (his role is like that of a Father Confessor, shrink, talkative barhound, all rolled into one), so it is worth paying attention to his style. Here’s an example, comparing himself to Felix:

“The Irish may be as common as whale-shit — excuse me — on the bottom of the ocean — forgive me — but they do have imagination and,” he added, “creative misery, which comes from being smacked down by the devil, and lifted up again by the angels. Misericordioso! Save me, Mother Mary, and never mind the other fellow! But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler — pardon my wet glove — a supreme and marvellous meddler often, but a meddler nevertheless.” He bowed slightly from the hips. “All right, Jews meddle and we lie, that’s the difference, the fine difference.”

If you find echoes of Joyce’s prose in that, you will find many more. I am a long way into this review and I am only now getting to the main point of the “story” — it is a study of lesbianism, hermaphrodites and the anxiety and pain that were involved in “deviant” behavior in the 1930s (and decades after). The focal point for this is Robin Vote who, while she almost never speaks in the book (her role is that of being a more or less permanent victim who transfers her woes to even greater effect for others), has a dramatic impact on every other character in the novel. Here is how Barnes introduces her:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seem to have been forgotten — left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives — half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick-lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.

Robin Vote is, in fact, the evil centre of the book and I make no apology for leaving an introduction of her until so late in this review — Barnes does the same thing in the novel. She will marry Felix and bear his child, desert him for Nora Flood, desert her for Jenny Petherbridge and move to America. (Nora and Jenny are very important characters in the book, but you will have to read it to discover why). Robin is the vision of the future that keeps elusively moving away; Dr. O’Connor is the voice of the past which is always disturbingly present and more than ready to review and pontificate on your circumstances. That tension between perceptions of the future that are conflicting with memories of the past is a central feature of the book.

I am not even going to attempt to provide a concluding opinion regarding this book. As I hope the review shows, it does have a version of a plot. And it certainly has characterization. More than anything else, it has prose and style — I’ve included more quotes than usual to acknowledge that. If you like the excerpts, I am sure you will like the book. Nightwood is a signicant novel and I am very glad that I read it, even if it did not fit my normal pattern — I will be very interested in what my memories of it are a few months down the road. I suspect that I may be remembering more than I am willing to admit now.

And finally, to get back to the world of fun reading, I would like to offer to repeat John Warner’s “five book” exercise. If you would care to indicate what five books you have most recently read, I’ll do my best to suggest one that you should consider. No promises of success, however.

Chef, by Jaspreet Singh

June 2, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House -- click cover for info

Chef is an interesting example of what I’ll call “the rebound novel”. Written by Jaspreet Singh during his tenure as the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writer at my alma mater, the University of Calgary, it was published by a small Canadian independent (Esplanade Press) in 2008. It found some critical favor (a finalist in the Canada and Caribbean region for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC) but not much by way of sales. It has rebounded, big time, in 2010, with editions published by Penguin India, Bloomsbury Press in the UK and Vintage Canada. Since this is the first UK publication, Chef is eligible for this year’s Man Booker Prize and has attracted some attention as a possible dark horse contender — I would agree that it has an outsider’s chance of making the longlist.

Set in the Kashmir in the early years of this century — but with most of the book a look back at previous times in that troubled region — Chef is also an example of “the tangential novel”. The Kashmir has been a constant source of tension and occasional outright wars (including a nuclear threat) since the Partition of 1947. While that tension is never absent from the novel, it is not really what the novel is about. Rather, Singh has chosen to explore how that world-threatening conflict directly impacts the lives of some individuals who play very minor roles in the bigger drama.

The chef of the title is Kirpal Singh (known as Kip) and we meet him as he boards a train in Delhi, bound for Kashmir after a 14-year absence. He had spent five years there earlier, as chef to General Ashwini Kumar, whom Kip knows as General Sahib. He was leader of the Indian military forces in the area for the first years of Kip’s service, governor of the Indian territory in the last few. Kip has been asked to return to be chef at the wedding banquet of the Sahib’s daughter and the General’s invitation offers the first indication of Kip’s tangential, but important, role in the larger conflict:

Several times in the past I thought of writing to you, but I did not. You know me well, my whole life in the army has been geared to eliminate what is from a practical stand point non-essential.

My daughter (whom you last saw as a child) is getting married, and she is the one who forced me to write this letter. I have heard that your mother is sick, but this is a very important event in our life, and we would like you to be chef at the wedding. I do not want some duffer to spoil it.

You are the man for this emergency. I want to see you and I am tired and have much to talk over and plan with you. This wedding feast is perhaps my last battle and I would like for you to win it. I am sure you will not disappoint me.

A wedding feast is “an emergency” and “last battle” in an area where wars have been fought for more than half a century? Jaspreet Singh’s story is a reminder that individual lives go on and that they have their own crises, even when they are lived surrounded by major conflict. To underline this point, Kip decides to accept the invitation even though his doctor has just told him that he only has three months to a year to live as he has an inoperable brain tumor — this will be his last battle as well.

Kip’s train journey to the Kashmir is the same route that he took 19 years earlier as a new recruit in the Indian army:

I still remember the day I had arrived in the Kashmir the first time. The mountains and lakes were covered with thick fog. I was nineteen. And I had bought a second-class ticket on this very train. For some reason I remember the train moved faster then.

Kip had joined the army following the death of his hero soldier father, Major Iqbal Singh, in an air crash on the Siachen glacier that is the constantly shifting (melting) front of the Indian-Pakistani conflict.

When I think about my past, time begins flowing in a different way and my thoughts turn to the mountains of the Kashmir, and to the river that begins at the toe of the glacier.

The river begins in India, crosses the border and flows into enemy territory. In Pakistan time is half an hour behind India, and the moment the river crosses the border it moves backward in time. But three or four mountains away it re-enters our side, becomes Indian again, and by doing so moves forward in time. The crossing of borders keeps happening over and over again.

If the glacier is the broader canvas of Kip’s time in the Kashmir, it is the kitchen of Chef Kishen, where he is assigned as an assistant, that supplies the detail of the picture. Kishen had trained at embassies in Delhi and international cuisine is his greatest strength but with a twist: “Foreigners have colonized us for a long time, Kip. Now it is our turn. We will take their food and make it our own…” That food theme will be present throughout the book; I am no expert on Indian cuisine, but even I found the “make it our own” line interesting, right down to the recipes that pop up every now and then.

Kirchen personally represents the powerful consequences of the mundane side of the larger conflict. His career effectively ended when he made a “major error”; he refused to serve tea to a Muslim officer. The battle for the Kashmir is not fought merely on the glacier.

Chef Kirchen also introduces the third story line of the novel. He knows he will be transferred to a camp on the glacier when Kip has been trained. And he tells Kip his training will end “the day you lose your virginity”.

Kip never does lose his virginity but he is not quite 20 and falling in love — well, infatuation — is something he does quite frequently. It is when his infatuation settles on a female prisoner from Pakistan, Irem, that he becomes drawn into the broader conflict. Irem literally floated into the India side; her story is that she threw herself into the river in a suicide attempt. The Indian authorities are convinced that she is an infiltrating terrorist.

Food, with an international touch. Prejudice, at the personal level. Infatuation, that conflicts with the official conflict. Those are the elements of Kip’s “war”.

Chef works as a novel because every long-running global confrontation ends up producing human stories on the ground that are similar to this one. Singh frequently returns to descriptions of the beauty of the Kashmir, of the complex tastes of the dishes that Kip produces, of the inner turmoil that his feelings for Irem evokes. He also never loses sight of the tense environment that surrounds this very ordinary life — the life lived is a miniature version of the war being waged.

Narrated in the first person, the novel is a detailed mirror image of the louder, dominant story. They may not be earth-shattering to anyone else, but those minor conflicts are Kip’s world. An epigraph for the book from Thomas Bernhard is particularly good: “The cold is eating into the center of my brain.” Jaspreet Singh does excellent work in exploring the chilling effect of that invasion; Chef is a touching and rewarding novel.


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