The Blue Light Project, by Timothy Taylor

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I have a soft spot for Timothy Taylor. His first novel, Stanley Park, remains one of my favorites. Not only does he pay homage to Canada’s most outstanding urban park, he contrasts that with some excellent writing about West Coast cuisine and the restaurant business (I’ve confessed to being a sucker for “foodie” novels already) and finishes it off with a delightful, twisted ending. And I liked Story House almost as much — in that second novel he explored architecture in a way that hit a responsive chord with me, although less so with many critics.

So I was looking forward to The Blue Light Project. Taylor ventures into thriller territory with this one and that put him at a bit of a disadvantage with this reviewer — unlike foodie and architecture, it is not one of my favorite genres. I was engaged throughout the novel but admit up front that it did not land as well as his previous two. Read on, however, as that says more about my biases than it does about the value of the book.

The driving incident of the narrative in The Blue Light Project is the Meme Media Crisis. Meme Media is a corporate conglomerate whose most profitable project is KiddieFame, a pre-adolescent version of American Idol and its imitators. The distinguishing gimmick of KiddieFame, however, is the “Killer” feature — despite the audience votes, the most promising sub-teen contestants are often “killed” off arbitrarily.

Television marketing turns into destructive reality when a terrorist disrupts the show, killing two people and takes control of the Meme Media theatre and all its occupants. Here is how we discover the crisis has started:

More sound on the stairs. Otis coming down. Eve could see herself in a wide shot all at once, pulling up the cushions on Nick’s parents’ old couch while, for some unknown reason, a car burned in the plaza opposite Meme Media. While Otis stood in the doorway with an expression Eve had never seen on him before. All his teenaged confidence gone. His eyes wide, mouth seeming to work at some immobilized word. And here came the anchors again, the situation-desk expressions, the pre-fatigue of some event they both knew they’d be talking about for many hours, through the night. An event that already perplexed and astounded. Eve watched a graphic roll on the blue screen. Familiar queues of children. Then the incident banner. It scrolled across the screen like a sash. It read: The Meme Media Crisis.

The Eve of that quote is Eve Latour, an Olympic gold medal winner in the biathalon from some years earlier. An heroic achievement that, since she was hit by a high-tech slingshot that broke her ankle early on in the final “pursuit” phase of the competition. She soldiered on to win and has been a Canadian hero and UNICEF Ambassador since (the novel doesn’t explicitly state she’s Canadian, but Americans don’t remember biathalon heroes the way we Canadians do). In fact, when the Crisis started, she was in the conference room of promotions company Double Vision, high up in an office building on the plaza, exploring an opportunity to capitalize on her fame with endorsements, urged on by her lover, Nick. He used to be a Gerber baby, just to extend the commercial part of the plot.

Tim Taylor’s novels to date have always featured an exploration of the counter-culture and this one is no different. In this novel, it comes in the form of graffiti/graphic artists who are gathered in two conflicting sub-cultures — the Poets on one side, a commercialized version on the other. The author introduces this aspect into the novel while Eve is being pitched by Double Vision. She looks out the window and sees an individual doing a handstand on parapet of the building across the street from the conference room where her video is being screened. She sees him on the parapet again when she is in the alley, preparing to head home:

She wanted to yell: “Don’t!” Or to shout up: “Stop!” But she didn’t, thinking she might startle him and actually cause him to fall. But perhaps more because he was clearly going to jump no matter what she would say. And exactly as she had that thought, the young man stepped back off the parapet and disappeared from view on the hidden rooftop. Eve imagined him flexing his legs, a quick hand down each ankle to stretch the quads. Limbering up. Eyes front, locked on the far side.

She made an involuntary noise, a choked and fearful squeak. But here he was again. He would have leaned forward a fraction before uncoiling. He would have taken a six-step run-up. Bim bim. Bop bop. BAP BAP. And bursting into view, in the open air. He made a long parabola against the gray and cooling sky directly above her. He filled the empty space, his arms spread for balance, his legs tucked. And then, impossibly, he rolled at the top of his arc. He flipped in mid-air, which brought about a micro-second of complete silence and stillness in her. The whole movement was completely dangerous and completely harmonious. And it pinned her to the spot.

It was breathtaking. The most beautiful thing she’d seen in years.

There is another major thread to the novel, told both in the narrative and in three chapters excerpted from the book Black Out, Blue Light by Thom Pegg. He was a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the black sites where torture was used to force people to confess. Alas, he used a composite character to frame his story (put your hand up if your remember Janet Cooke) and lost his Pulitzer, job and reputation. He now works for L:MN, a magazine that features bitchy interviews with celebrities (that’s how he came to meet Eve) and semi-sexy shots of celebrities. The terrorist says he will only tell his story to Thom.

Can you count the elements? The emptiness of 24/7 news in times of crisis. Our pre-occupation with celebrity — and tearing it down. The purity of the counter-culture — and its inevitable commercialization by destructive elements. There is much more: the plaza where Meme Media is located becomes a protest site for groups ranging from the hymn-singing Christian right to the rock-throwing anarchist left. And who is the terrorist? And what about the child performers who are held hostage inside? Have you noticed I’ve not mentioned the blue light project of the title (yes, it exists, but no spoilers here)?

Not to mention the street art, which I have also overlooked. The novel features nine different photo pages of examples which are actually quite interesting. The U.S. cover features an example, so have a look. I thought some of the others were better.

Is it all too much? I am afraid for me it was, although that may be more a reflection of my problem with thrillers than a fair critique of Taylor’s work. Parts of the book — indeed most of the parts — were just fine, it was simply that the knitting together of those parts asked too much to be credible.

If I can be allowed to criticize myself, I had much the same reaction to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which made a number of year-end top-10 lists and just won the National Book Critics’ Circle award for best fiction. I think it is a fair comparison to say that both Taylor and Egan consciously adopt an episodic, panoramic approach to telling their stories; they want to address so many elements, that producing an overall cohesion is not possible. In fact, part of their message is we have no reason to expect that cohesion to exist. Taylor’s previous novels had a charm that stayed with me. This one doesn’t, but I have to admit that does not make it a lesser book.

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13 Responses to “The Blue Light Project, by Timothy Taylor”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I am put off these days with books that touch on terrorism. Yes I know it’s topical but perhaps it’s just a subject that’s entered into too many elements of life.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It was the weakest thread in the book for me, although the author does need it to serve as an infrastructure for all the other ones.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      I sensed that from the review. I know that 9-11 was a planet-changing event, but I get tired of how the terrorist theme manages to sneak into so many books these days.

  3. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    Another fine review – just to read your extract of the book about someone doing a handstand on a parapet was enough to bring on a mild case of vertigo!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: The funny thing about the quote is that my copy was a proof version and I drafted my review (including the quote) before I had seen the Canadian cover. Obviously the graphic designer and I were impressed by same early scene-setting passage.

  5. Anne Pilkey Says:

    I felt the same way about the book-had he narrowed down the various plot points to focus on one or two storylines, this book would have been stronger, and less scattered. After finishing it, I was lost as to how to feel about it, thus not having any solid reactions at all!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anne: In his two previous novels, Taylor (for me, at least) managed to sustain three or four story lines, all of which I found interesting, so when he switched from one to the other I was happy to switch with him. In this novel, while a couple of the lines were interesting, he took so long to develop them that I got tired of waiting — and, like you, ended up with no solid reactions at all.

  7. Trevor Says:

    I’m definitely interested, though much more so by his first two novels you mention. I trust your judgment on food and architecture and share your interest in seeing them approached in fiction. Thanks for starting your review with a description of them!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I heartily recommend Stanley Park. It has humor, atmosphere, character and a wonderful conclusion. If you have ever been to Vancouver, it will bring back memories — if you haven’t, you will be wanting to go there.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Any two or so of those strands would really tempt me to read this (except the terrorism one actually).

    All those strands together though seems too much.

    That said, it’s nice to see an author stretching himself and pushing into new territory. I appreciate some of these themes resound through his work generally, but it still sounds like he’s not merely repeating safe territory.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I too appreciate the risk he took, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. I’m also wondering (and this is why I raised Egan’s book) if we might not be seeing more of these “fragmented” novels with multiple strands that don’t get resolved in the conventional sense — a bookish version of “twittering” if you will. A generation raised on texting and 140-character messages is inevitably going to bring a different approach to extended fiction.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I hope so Kevin. The classic 19th Century style novel is still with us and isn’t going away. I don’t see this replacing that. New approaches though even when they don’t always work out have real value. It keeps things fresh.

    Every now and then I see articles about the death of the novel. I’m bullish on the novel. It’s in rude health and it’s partly pushing to new forms that keeps the classic form from becoming stagnant. Not only do I not think it’s dying I don’t even think it’s a bit poorly.

    Not every risk wholly pays off on the level of the individual book which may be the case here (though others may love it, it’ll be interesting to see how others respond). At the level of the author’s craft though and of literature generally there are other benefits even if the occasional book along the way is more a stepping stone than a destination.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I agree with those thoughts 100 per cent. The novel form has always evolved; it is probably evolving even faster right now.

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