Archive for January, 2012

Southern Stories, by Clark Blaise

January 31, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Grant me the indulgence of explaining how I came to read Southern Stories, a collection of Clark Blaise’s early short stories, before I get to the volume itself.

Blaise’s 2011 collection, The Meagre Tarmac, was one of my top ten books of the year — a masterful collection of 11 stories that chronicles the experience and regrets of successful South Asian emigres to North America. It also served as a powerful reminder that while I certainly recognized the author’s name and reputation, I had never read Blaise’s earlier work and that it was a time to take a trip back and remedy that shortfall.

Blaise was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1940 to Canadian parents. His childhood was spent moving around North America (the Canadian Encyclopedia says he went to school in 25 different cities), before he arrived in Montreal in his mid-twenties — he published his first collections of short fiction A North American Education and Tribal Justice (the sources for most of these stories) while living there. He has lived in the U.S. since 1980 and has impressive credentials: chair of the highly-regarded Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, teaching posts at colleges ranging from Skidmore to Berkeley. He is married to Bharati Mukherjee, with whom has co-authored a couple of books — which helps explain the power of the stories in The Meagre Tarmac. For the past decade, he has been President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story; if you respect the form, Blaise is an author who demands to be read.

The Canadian independent publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has collected Blaise’s stories in three volumes that reflect his peripatetic writing life — this one, Pittsburgh Stories and Montreal Stories. (Correction: The author has kindly pointed out in comments that there are four — World Body collects those that are not set in North America.) The examples in Southern Stories are drawn from his early collections and reflect his childhood experiences — the first was published in 1958 (my only complaint concerning this outstanding collection is that it does not tell readers when or where the stories were originally published — the data would have helped). I assume that most followed soon after — the 13 stories here represent the first works of an author whose name deserves to be linked with the best of the “modern” short story form (and, yes, many critics describe Blaise as “post-modern” but I will forego exploring that aspect of his writing).

Part of the attraction of The Meagre Tarmac for me was Blaise’s ability to capture the sense of dislocation in the immigrant characters of his stories. The examples in Southern Stories were written decades earlier but have the same strength — only in this volume, more often than not, the central character is a thinly-veiled version of the author himself.

Consider “Snow People”, at 30 pages the longest story in the book (it carries the subtitle of “A Novella”). It opens with the narrator experiencing a playground incident where he is struck by a baseball: “…he was wandering out beyond second base with a ringing in his ears, his nose smelling bone and all his side-vision gone.” He is only nine, his broken jaw will soon be wired shut and his playground experience for the next while will be restricted:

And so, standing behind the teacher as a junior referee, he found a niche that had been waiting for him though he hadn’t known it; how much better it was, keeping track of his classmates’ performances, carrying a rulebook and a whistle, than trying himself against physical odds that were obvious if unadmitted. He was a reader and speller and if it had not been a Southern school where science and arithmetic lagged behind, he’d have been a wizard there too. His place slightly behind second base or at the top of the concrete keyhole, at the teacher’s side with whistle and rulebook, was proper, though he didn’t know it yet.

Like most of the stories in the collection, that memory is set in the northern Florida swampland, before Disney and retirement turned it into a populous, overbuilt version of parkland. Yankees were distrusted, those who spoke Quebecois French (our narrator is the son of Gene Thibidault, known locally as T. B. Doe) were even further removed from the perceived norm, although it does have to be noted they were not black (the “n” word does figure in this collection). Here is how he came to be at the school:

And so they had moved from the apartment near South Street in Hartley two years before the baseball game, deep into the country to be near their airport. Airfields like this, built during the war for undefined purposes, dotted the South: an octopus of concrete hacked through the cypress and live oak in that Florida geography of sand and swamp, palmetto and cactus, behind a wall of palms.

The furniture equipment was housed in the lone standing hangar; the office and showroom in the old conning tower. The equipment — joiners, planers, saws, lathes, sewing machines and button presses — had been bought through the Citrus National Bank. The designs of Citrawood Furniture were his mother’s, who’d been trained for that much at least, and the orders came from his father, still in casts and confined to a chair, who’d sold enough on approval to satisfy the bank.

Citrawood will not come to a happy end — the bank, lawyers and co-operating corrupt local police will soon shut it down in a “raid” that both puzzles and terrifies the narrator. The Thibidaults will move on yet again (as, one presumes, the Blaise family did through 25 different locations). Their next stop is the furniture fair in Thomasville, North Carolina, where father begins the process of starting over — and moving further north to where the “snow people” really belong.

Let’s contrast “Snow People” with “Broward Dowdy” which is perhaps more typical of the stories in the book, although those themes of dislocation and “we don’t really belong here, do we?” are present in most of them:

We were living in the citrus town of Orlando in 1942, when my father was drafted. It was May, and shortly after his induction, my mother and I left the clapboard bungalow we had been renting that winter and took a short bus ride to Hartley, an even smaller town where an old high school friend of hers owned a drugstore. She was hired to work in the store, and for a month we lived in their back bedroom while I completed the third grade. Then her friend was drafted, and the store passed on to his wife, a Wisconsin woman, who immediately fired everyone except the assistant pharmacist. Within a couple of days we heard of a trailer for rent, down the highway towards Leesburg. It had been used as a shelter for a watermelon farmer, who sold his fruit along the highway, but now he was moving North, he said, to work in a factory.

It is here that the young narrator meets Broward (yes, he is named after the Florida county where he was born):

Then on a muggy day in July the Dowdys’ rusting truck loaded with children, rattling pans, and piles of mattresses in striped ticking churned down the sandy ruts I had come to call my trail. I helped them spread their gear on the floors of tarpaper shanties, and watched their boy my age, Broward, pour new quicklime down last summer’s squatty-hole. Within hours, he had shown me new fishing holes, and how to extract bait worms from lily stalks.

While I have vacationed in and visited the American South, I do not know it well — and my visits all took place well after it became “settled” and “civilized”, in the “northern” sense of the word. Despite that, Southern Stories struck a responsive chord, offering me perceptive insight into a world that I do not really know. I’ll close with some useful thoughts from the introduction to the volume that I read from Fenton Johnson, novelist, memoirist and professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona:

That we are obsessed with home makes perfect sense, of course — those people farthest from any sustainable experience of home romanticize it most — but on the whole U.S. writers are too immersed in the illusion to perceive and write out of its contradictions; our very adjective for citizenship (‘American’) presumes that we and the continent are coterminous, as if no America exists outside the lower forty-eight states. To understand ourselves fully we must turn to outsiders — to immigrants sufficiently removed from the vastness and power of the U.S. to perceive its illusions, and in writing of them to give us a glimpse of the truth that lies on their other, darker side.

Reading Clark Blaise’s stories from the South is like visiting a retrospective of a brilliant painter — one sees in the earlier work the themes that gradually emerge and sharpen. This is the great joy of writing, enough to offset its burdens. Across a lifetime a writer’s words, diligently and honestly compiled, allow his essential character to emerge, and as it emerges to shape what comes behind, a symbiosis between art and nature in which the writer shapes the clay that shapes himself.

The Meagre Tarmac introduced me — powerfully — to a writer whom I already knew had enormous talent. Southern Stories takes me backs to his roots and, in its own way and despite some imperfections, is equally powerful. It may take me some months because I want to space the reading out, but you can look forward to reading my thoughts on both his Pittsburgh and Montreal stories here in the future; he is an overlooked author who speaks to our age and who deserves more attention.

The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt

January 26, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I will confess upfront that Tony Judt has been a KfC favorite for some years. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I galloped through his epic work Postwar (assuming that it is possible to “gallop through” an 850-page book) — it told me all I needed to know about the history of post-war Europe. And I very much appreciated his more recent essays in the New York Review of Books which cast a thoughtful critical eye on contemporary American involvement in global politics.

Like many readers, I was dismayed when word arrived that he had been diagnosed with ALS and the inevitable end that that meant. The later news that a collection of feuilletons (most first published in the NYRB), The Memory Chalet, was on the way was both welcome — there would be a final collection to read — and anything but welcome: it would be so final.

Tony Judt was born in January, 1948, one month before my own birth. His background and education were English, mine Canadian. But we both grew up and prospered in a post-war global community — I won’t compare my humble journalistic work to his outstanding historical studies, but both of us did end up spending our working lives trying to write about the world around us. The Memory Chalet sat on my shelf for a year simply because I was reluctant to say goodbye to a writing “friend” — it was the reading of Adam Gopnik’s Massey Lectures, published under the title Winter, that convinced me the time had arrived to read Judt’s final volume.

The Preface and two introductory essays in the book brought tears to my eyes. In the very short preface, Judt explains that these pieces were never intended for publication; rather they were dictated by him at the encouragement of fellow historian Timothy Garton Ash “who urged me to turn to advantage the increasing internal reference of my own thoughts.” In the second introductory essay, Judt is unflinching in describing what was involved in the process:

The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect upon the past, present, and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words. First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences, except at the cost of such logistical complexity that the mere fact of mobility becomes the object of attention rather than the benefits that mobility itself can confer.

Next you begin to lose your voice: not just in the metaphorical sense of having to speak through assorted mechanical or human intermediaries, but quite literally in that the diaphragm muscles can no longer pump sufficient air across your vocal cords to furnish them with the variety of pressure required to express meaningful sound. By this point you are almost certainly quadrapeligic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility, whether or not in the presence of others.

Nighttime is the worst time for Judt — after being carefully arranged, his body is “frozen” for six or seven hours, with sleep eventually arriving. Before it does, his mind, unaffected by the condition, roams and it is in this process that he discovers his “memory chalet” (based on childhood vacation experiences in French-speaking Switzerland) where he can rebuild and reorder some of his life experiences and place them in a friendly environment.

Don’t let that gloomy introduction put you off the book. It is important for the reader to understand what produced these essays and the author does that — by page 21 of a 226-page book the stage-setting is done and there is not a word of self-pity in the remaining 23 essays of the book.

It is also fitting that Switzerland becomes the “home” for Judt’s chalet — a global financial centre, multilingual and multicultural, socially conservative but politically a sort of leftish neutral, it represents the kind of detached, observant, non-ideological, disciplined place that reflects his own life experience. Born in working class London (home was an apartment above the hair-dressing shop where his parents worked), Judt’s youthful radical days were spent as a kibbutz volunteer. That escapade ended with a scholarship offer to King’s College, Cambridge (the kibbutz would have never let him accept), followed by graduate schooling at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and further study in Germany. Teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge followed, before Judt headed to the United States, teaching in California, and finally arriving in New York, the global city where he spent the last decades of his life. As he makes clear in some of the later essays in the volume, he was “at home” in some ways in all these places but not really “at home” in any, except perhaps the non-American, global version of New York.

The structure of the book — and each essay — reflects the process he describes in the opening essays. A memory, usually simple, springs to mind and sets off a series of (sometimes remotely) connected further thoughts that become increasingly complex, although never dauntingly so. The first seven pieces in the book proper are inspired by images that come from his childhood — let me quote the opening paragraphs from the first, “Austerity”, as a representative example of the style that will pervade the book:

My wife earnestly instructs Chinese restaurants to deliver in cardboard cartons. My children are depressingly knowledgable about climate change. Ours is an environmental family: by their standards, I am a prelapsarian relic from the age of ecological innocence. But who traipses through the apartment switching off lights and checking for leaking faucets? Who favors make-do-and-mend in an era of instant replacement? Who recycles leftovers and carefully preserves old wrapping paper? My sons nudge their friends: Dad grew up in poverty. Not at all, I correct them: I grew up in austerity.

After the war everything was in short supply. Churchill had mortgaged Great Britain and bankrupted the Treasury in order to defeat Hitler. Clothes were rationed until 1949, cheap and simple “utility furniture” until 1952, food until 1954. The rules were briefly suspended for the coronation of Elizabeth, in June 1953: everyone was allowed one extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine. But this exercise in supererogatory generosity served only to underscore the dreary regime of daily life.

From 21st century Chinese takeway in cardboard cartons, to Churchill’s war leadership, to postwar austerity marked by the treat of four extra ounces of margarine — all in the space of a few hundred words. Those are the kinds of connections that a great mind, imprisoned in physical immobility, goes through; it is to Judt’s credit that he makes sense out of that strange (dis)order in every essay.

The titles of the seven essays in Part One are pointers enough of the stepping off points for Judt’s childhood memories: Austerity, Food, Cars, Putney, The Green Line Bus, Mimetic Desire, The Lord Warden (okay, that one might need a bit of explanation — it was the flagship British Railways’ ferry between Dover and Calais that was the Judt family favorite). I did not make my first trip to London until 1975, but I can tell you every one of these essays struck a chord with this Canadian.

The eight essays of Part Two are sparked by Judt’s memories as a student — starting with “Joe”, his teacher of O-level German, through “Bedder” (the Cambridge version of the Oxford “scout”) to “Revolutionaries” (it was the Sixties and he was in France) and finally “Words”, the tool that will become his life.

The opening essay of Part Three, “Go West, Young Judt”, supplies hint enough at the theme for the final section — the mature Judt did go West and some of the other titles (“Midlife Crisis”, “Captive Minds”) offer incentive enough to attract any reader. I would point in particular to “New York, New York”, an essay that contemplates the idea of a “world city” through time, with a concluding paragraph that begins:

New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the EU’s semi-detached British satellite: and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.

I am at a rare loss for words in trying to describe how much I was impressed by the memories and ideas that are captured in this book — I have read it twice already and will be picking it up again soon. Part of me does wonder (as it did with Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending) how much of that positive response comes from being of Judt’s generation — I’ll be interested in how younger readers respond.

Certainly, Tony Judt has a deserved reputation as one of the most outstanding historians of our time. The Memory Chalet provides a highly personal, but equally important, closing chapter to his career. Whatever your age and however many tears it brings to your eyes, it is a book not to be missed.

The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean

January 23, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I think that it is fair to say that for as long as there has been an English novel, authors have chosen to place dysfunctional families at the centre of their work. From Austen through the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Waugh, Amis (father and son) and into the contemporary generation, it has been a very convenient device that provides lots of opportunity not just for developing varied characters but also placing them in a non-forgiving world open to critical observation.

In the early examples, it is true that those families tend to come from either the landed gentry (or those close to it) or the abject poor — although cautionary tales about those who futilely dream of rising above their station do represent a significant subset. Post World War II, however, the device acquired another thread — the middle-class dysfunctional family (usually located outside London) and the strains, both internal and external, that it faced became a popular model.

Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic is ample indication that the device is alive and well as the 21st century gets under way. The opening of her novel pays an oblique homage to the form:

People seem to tumble down to Hastings and not get up to go home again. It’s where they turn up, every Jack and Jill that never fell out with family, lost a job, had half an idea, got a bad habit. The town is a huddle of administrative towers and down-at-heel shops with their backs turned on the sea views.

Poor Hastings. The steam train once chuffed proudly into Warrior Square, where the statue of the Empress of India stood with her hooded eyes on the sea. The minor royals played here for a season, the gentry’s carriages drew up at the West Hill lift, the bourgeois bought villas in St Leonards. But now the Olympic-sized bathing pool is gone, the model town vandalized and the pier closed. Rock candy congeals in cellophane under blow heaters, and steel udders drop soft whip in souvenir shops. In the tuppenny arcade, on any given day of the week, there’ll be an old man feeling for change in the trays.

I’ll confess that Dean had me hooked with that opening: my knowledge of Hastings is confined to it being the WWII setting for the incredibly good television series Foyle’s War (which would be on my shortlist of “best television ever”, but I digress). Clearly, this is not Foyle’s Hastings. The fact that the television production could find an old town that is a definition of charm indicates that not all of handsome Hastings has slipped into distant memory — Dean wastes little time in showing that a lot of the surrounding area has. Here is her introduction to the area, seen through the eyes of Nick Goodyew, one of two middle-aged sons in the dysfunctional family whose troubled relations are the core of The Old Romantic:

This is not his town; this is his father’s town. This is not coming home. He did that when he moved back to the Weald, where two counties meet in hills and valleys, in a hinterland of hop bine and tractor track, whiteboard cottage and oast house, fruit field and orchard. That morning when he walked the dog, with woodsmoke forming halos above the dwellings, the countryside of his childhood seemed primitive to him — with no tarmac, no pylon, no telephone mast visible at all. Walking brings back memories. He likes to potter into the past and nip into the future, the way the dog moves, a waggy-tailed waverer on the scent of something good and aware too of other pleasures all about.

Nick, a family law solicitor (read “divorce”), is the elder son of the family, estranged for decades from his father Ken who is now 79. Those memories come to mind as he and his common-law wife, Astrid, are pulling up at Ken’s house. Ken, even grumpier now than in memory, has recently “re-opened” family relationships with a series of abusive phone calls — Nick’s younger brother, Dave, has set up a post-Christmas luncheon as an opening attempt to get the family back together.

‘God Almighty,’ Nick says to Astrid now, peeping at his father’s house, humourous and rueful, ‘I did mention to you that my father was a touch working class, didn’t I?’

‘Perchance’ is the name painted onto a cross section of a log varnished and tacked to the guttering over the front door of the bungalow. The front garden is concrete. The other houses have two-foot-high walls for decency’s sake but his has been demolished. Weeds have sprung up in the cracks of the forecourt. There’s a lean-to shelter outside the bungalow, with a corrugated yellow plastic roof and under it is a tall set of shelves stack with various plastic bottles, some with their heads cut off: cooking oil, window cleaner, plant food. There is a decrepit Christmas tree in a pot, and an old Queen Anne wing-backed chair bearing a large string bag of onions.

They sit there with the engine running. She turns the bracelets on her wrist. ‘Grim,’ she says lightly.

Let us allow Astrid to set the stage for the family reunion. The front door of the bungalow opens and Nick’s father and step-mother emerge: ‘She is red-faced and merry; he is pale and disdainful.’ ‘Oh, shit me, it’s the Krankies!’ says Astrid.

It would not be your traditional family roast lunch, she thinks, but then it hadn’t been your traditional Christmas call that got this particular ball rolling. She’d amused their friends with it all on Boxing Day in the pub.

‘I couldn’t believe it! I mean, call me old-fashioned but in our family we have turkey and stuffing on Christmas Day and a call from Auntie Jan in Portsmouth. So there we are, paper hats on, about to pour gravy and the phone goes, and Laura [Astrid's pre-pubescent daughter] is like, who’s Nick on the phone to? And I’m like, It’s his dad, darling, he’s just wishing him a merry Christmas. And the next thing you hear from the conservatory is Nick screaming, And you’re nothing to me either, you old bastard!’

For Nick, the post-holiday roast lunch is a return to the surroundings of his childhood. The driving force of the novel, however, is a different kind of return: Ken’s retreat into a real-time version of childhood, brought on by a futile attempt to delay, or perhaps accept, his approaching end.

The conflicts developed in this narrative stream will be familiar to anyone who has read previous novels featuring dysfunctional families so I’ll ignore them here. There are not a lot of surprises but there is a wealth of wonderful set pieces. Ken, for example, has been filling in time by helping out at the local funeral home which provides the stage for a number. Father and sons take a motor trip to Wales, chasing Dad’s current wife who is eager to escape him. And there is a wonderful scene where the family thinks he has died — it turns out that it was just a very intense forty winks but it takes a while to discover that.

I had read good things about The Old Romantic but would have given it a pass were it not for the novel’s appearance at the top of Tony’s Book World’s 2011 best list (his review is here). Tony’s previous year-end lists have put me on to some genuine finds (he introduced me to Maile Meloy for which I will always be grateful) so that was recommendation enough. Tony describes The Old Romantic as a novel that has “a wicked joy with the meanest and sharpest dialogue of the year” — the quotes I have used illustrate Dean’s descriptive abilities, so dialogue lovers have much to look forward to in the book itself.

I didn’t rate the novel quite as highly as Tony did, but it was genuine entertainment from start to finish. And I’ll admit that the next time we load Foyle’s War into the DVD player (and we will be doing that soon, I assure you) I will be looking at Hastings and surroundings through an entirely different set of eyes.

Ru, by Kim Thúy

January 17, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Translated by Sheila Fischman

The original French version of Ru has already garnered an impressive pack of prizes — Canada’s Governor-General’s award for French-language fiction and significant awards in both France and Italy. Foreign rights have been sold to 15 countries, so the non-French reading world is about to be introduced to this book, a best-seller in Quebec since its publication there in 2009.

The jacket cover accurately describes Ru as “a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland” — indeed, “ru” is Vietnamese for “lullaby” but one of its meanings in French (a flow or outpouring) is equally appropriate. The near novella (my version is only 141 pages and many of the sections in it are less than half a page) is a fictional memoir — Kim Thúy was born in Vietnam and the book reflects her experiences as a refugee, immigrant child in Quebec, seamstress, interpreter, lawyer and restaurant owner in a cascade of stream-of-consciousness past experiences in her still-young, but now adult, life.

The opening offers a fair portrait of what is to come:

I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of the machine guns.

I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered through the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

We learn within a few pages that the narrator is now an adult “exile”, a mother of two. Her family was on the wrong side when the North-South Vietnamese conflict ended, escaped when she was 10 as part of the “boat people” phenomenon and ended up in Quebec. The memories of how that global journey came to pass are relevant in creating the context of her life:

As a child, I thought that war and peace were opposites. Yet I lived in peace when Vietnam was in flames and I didn’t experience war until Vietnam had laid down its weapons. I believe that war and peace are actually friends, who mock us. They treat us like enemies when it suits them, with no concern for the definition or the role we give them.

An illustration from her own family history:

My mother waged her first battles later, without sorrow. She went to work for the first time at the age of thirty-four, first as a cleaning lady, then at jobs in plants, factories, restaurants. Before, in the life that she had lost, she was the eldest daughter of her prefect father. All she did was settle arguments between the French-food chef and the Vietnamese-food chef in the family courtyard. Or she assumed the role of judge in the secret love affairs between maids and menservants.

Ten years is not enough time for a child’s character to become fully-formed. Life in a Malaysian refugee camp (when the boat reaches shore at a beach next door to a Club Med a storm fortunately breaks it apart — it cannot be turned back to sea) adds another traumatic set of life-learning experiences. That is quickly followed by a completely different, but equally confusing, set in Quebec:

The town of Granby was the warm belly that sheltered us during our first year in Canada. The locals cosseted us one by one. The pupils in my grade school lined up to invite us home for lunch so that each of our noon hours was reserved by a family. And every time, we went back to school with nearly empty stomachs because we didn’t know how to use a fork to eat rice that wasn’t sticky. We didn’t know how to tell them that this food was strange to us, that they really didn’t have to go to every grocery store in search of the last box of Minute Rice. We could neither talk to nor understand them. But that wasn’t the main thing. There was generosity and gratitude in every grain of the rice left on our plates. To this day I still wonder whether words might have tainted those moments of grace.

I hope those quotes adequately illustrate the central theme of Ru: What made me what I am? So much seems to be missing.

Those childhood learning experiences, spread globally both in geography and emotion, had absolutely nothing in common. For the adults involved, survival and adaptation to a series of new, immediate realities always was the pressing necessity — for the children, including the narrator, each was not only “new” in a threatening sense, it was also incomplete. The missing aspects of the memories are as much a part of arriving at maturity as the concrete ones are.

The result is an adult who is as perplexed by what was not there as she is aware of the vast array of different circumstances that did define her life. As the book goes on, more and more of the narrative is devoted to more recent memories of her attempts to fill in those gaps — but even when she returns to Vietnam as an adult she discovers that while she may indeed by a modern example of the “world” citizen, there is no place where she feels “at home”.

I can fully understand why Thúy’s book has seen so much success and confidently predict the translation will see even more. It would take a very callous reader not to enrol in the empathy that the book demands. Unfortunately for me, however, that empathy was not enough — as much as I wanted to engage with the narrator and her story, there was too much surface and not enough depth. Yes, in many ways that is the result that Thúy is trying to convey and she succeeds; I found it powerfully descriptive, but curiously remote, given the personal drama that is involved at each stage.

Don’t take that critical assessment as a rejection of the work. I had much the same response to Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Helen Garner’s The Spare Room and those three novels all have passionate advocates (and outstanding sales). Any novel that relies so much on empathy also risks landing as sentimentality with some readers — that’s what happened with me with all four of these books. I will be the first to acknowledge that many other readers will find that their response tilts towards a much more meaningful and sympathetic resolution.

(A special note for Canadian visitors here: Random House Canada’s hardcover version of this book is one of the most appealing physical books that I have had the pleasure to hold in a long time — an evocative, embossed dust cover; gorgeous deckled edges to the pages; and perfect, diary-like dimensions. Even if you don’t intend to buy it, check it out if you see it in a bookstore — this is what a proper book is meant to look and feel like.)

The Secret Goldfish, by David Means

January 13, 2012

Gift from Lee Monks

One of my objectives for 2012 is to take a more disciplined approach to reading short story collections. While I have always appreciated the form (let’s face it, Canada has enough exceptional short story writers that a serious reader here has to have some acquaintance with it), that has tended to result in more “collections purchased” than “collections read”. And when it comes time to choose a new title to read, there always seem to be several novels that exert a stronger pull — I read in longish sessions, so something that keeps me engrossed for hours instead of shorter parts has more appeal. And when I do start a collection, I have the bad habit of plunging right on, rather than reading a few stories at a time — which is hardly fair to the author.

My 2012 plan is to always have one or two collections on the go, available by the reading chair for a half-hour or one-hour read. I’m not organized enough to have created a physical collections shelf but I do have a mental one: some Russians (Chekhov and Tolstoy), American short story specialists (John Cheever, Tobias Wolff), Canadian greats (Alice Munro, Carol Shields), and that Montreal gang I referenced in a couple of reviews last year (Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, for a start). Then there’s a whole separate shelf for favorite novelists who also wrote short stories (Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Maxwell, Larry Watson). And my friends at Calgary WordFest keep an eye out for me on debut collections from Canadian writers — a couple of which always seem to feature in Prize longlists come fall.

I have read examples from all of those authors (and the list above does not require buying a single book as all are on hand) — disciplined approach or not, it is pretty obvious that this project needs to extend well beyond 2012 even if I don’t add to the existing store of collections.

And that store will inevitably expand along the way, so it is fitting that the first review in the project involves a well-known American short story author whom I have never read. David Means’ third collection (of four), The Secret Goldfish (2004), came into my library a few months ago as a present in a book exchange with Lee Monks, a frequent commenter here. Critics have lavished praise on Means — the Wikipedia entry on him shows comparisons to Munro, Cheever, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver (ouch, there are three more to add to the project list already). My first exposure suggests those comparisons are entirely valid.

Means was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and a number of the 15 stories in the collection are set in northern Michigan. He has obviously spent time in the Rust Belt states, also reflected in this collection. And he currently lives in New York — The Secret Goldfish has stories from the Hudson River Valley, Connecticut and Cape Cod.

So, unlike Munro, Cheever or Carver, there is no “Means” country. Rather, if this collection is a fair indication, there is a distinctive Means’ story style with two central traits. His characters come from society’s underclass (carnies, longshoremen, couples falling apart all feature here) and they are not responding well to their challenging circumstances. And, even more important, the author structures most of his stories in a rapid-fire series of vignettes, most only a page or two long, and the spaces between the vignettes are as important as what is contained in them.

“Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is the story in this volume that illustrates that style best, since unlike many others the “omissions” of this story are included in the text. It opens with the scene-setting current reality:

A pianist was beset with panic because his right hand had frozen up, grown heavy, during a Schubert sonata, missing several notes during the Andante, sending a soft murmur — accompanied by biting coughs from angry throats — through the audience. All was suddenly asunder, his command faltering, the normal alliance between his skill, his talent, and what might be called genius, broken. The audience settled into stunned silence, an aural black hole from which emerged a few more tight coughs. As most everyone knows, his grand celebration, his triumphant return from Moscow, was ruined. And as many of you might have guessed, the sense of panic that began that night would not subside. His fingers — in the parlance of his profession — stayed heavy. Those fingers — I’ll admit — are mine.

That quote is the entire opening section; in the next Petrouchka moves on to a hospital visit with his dying father (“certainly you know him, probably have listened to him play when he was principal French horn with the Philharmonic”). And then we get the first [Omission], the parallel thought that is going on in Petrouchka’s brain or happens later, but which is not really part of the current reality narrative:

Omitted from this section: He disagreed with his father. Of course there in the hospital room he wasn’t about to argue. To linger over one or two composers for an entire career seemed like an exercise bordering on cultist adoration, maybe religion; he was no monk. Later that night his father died. Nothing dramatic. Then days of arrangements — the funeral parlor, the minister, and then the funeral, attended by a few retired members of the Cleveland Philharmonic. When he got back to New York he met up with Antoinette right away, at a place on Madison near her building. When someone tells you something just before he dies, he said, it kind of sticks to you like a residue — is that the word? — and you can’t, at least I can’t, just shrug it off.

Those parallel structures continue throughout the 20-page story in an action-reaction exchange that eventually builds a comprehensive picture. “Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is different from many of the other stories in this collection because it makes the exchanges explicit; in many of the rest, the reader is left to fill them in himself.

I have focused on only one story here because I wanted to be able to include enough quoted material to illustrate Means’ style — his distinctive use of language is as important as his distinctive structure. Here are thumbnail descriptions of just a few other stories that illustrate both those strengths and equally impressed me:

– “Lightning Man” tells the story of Nick Kelley whose distinction, as the title implies, is being struck by lightning — seven times over a number of years and in a number of mid-West locations in the course of the story.

– “Sault Ste. Marie” is my personal favorite of Means’ Northern Michigan stories in this book. Ernie, Marsha and the narrator are a trio of low-life drinkers/drug-users on a minor crime spree in the area around the city of the title (lake freighters, longshoremen and locks all feature in it). Minor turns major when “Ernie shot the guy named Tull in the parking lot”.

– “Dustman Appearances to Date” illustrates another aspect of Means’ style — there are no central characters in this story. Rather, the vignettes in this one chronicle the appearances of dust figures that resemble humans across the United States from Crazy Horse in the West, to Truro, Massachusetts, to Nekoosa, Wisconsin (the author observes in this section of the story: “By the way, Ben Franklin was a big believer in dustmen”). For an author who delights in creating the empty spaces between reality in his stories, it is fitting that he devotes an entire story to ephemeral dustmen figures.

– The title story, “The Secret Goldfish”, features a six-year-old goldfish (“outstandingly old for a fish”, the norm being about one month, as we all know) who has outgrown a series of tanks. The parallel line in this story is that the fish has outlived the marriage of his owner’s parents — that collapse is the surrounding story.

Means’ stories are strange enough that you really do not want to read more than a couple at a time (and hence he was a perfect introduction to my project). The reader needs to take some time after each one to figure out just what pieces of the puzzle the author has provided and which are missing and need to be filled in by the reader himself. It is an approach which distinguishes the author from many of the others named in the opening paragraphs of this review — it also shows why Means has attracted such positive and well-deserved critical attention. Now if I can only get some of those other collections read, sometime in 2014 or 2015 I could get back to more David Means :-) .

Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

January 9, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Take an apparently mundane, just a bit out of the ordinary, circumstance. Explore it in detail to create an over-arching, stage-setting device. And then, in much greater detail, look at how it effects the various people who were touched by the initial incident. That describes a device that has certainly long been part of fiction (and you can offer your own examples in comments) but I think it is fair to say that Australian authors have used it to good effect most often in contemporary times.

Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap is the most recent example. The “slap” of the title takes place at a Melbourne barbeque when an adult disciplines an unruly, spoiled four-year-old (not his son). Complications ensue for a couple hundred pages — for author Tsiolkas, “ensuing” included a 2010 Booker Prize longlisting and a popular TV mini-series. Two years earlier, Steve Toltz had used a variation of the form to take A Fraction of the Whole to the Booker shortlist (sorry, that is pre-blog so no review here — KfC thought it good, not great).

I am late to the game with a review of this book, but I would say that both Tsiolkas and Toltz owe a debt to Elliot Perlman for re-introducing the form. First published in 2003, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a 623-page model of the fictional device that they will come to adopt in the next few years. And in its own way it has been just as successful, even if I am almost a decade late in getting to it.

Here are the elements of the central event. Simon Heywood is an unemployed teacher, laid-off partly because of economic contractions, perhaps even more because of effects of reputation fallout based on the kidnapping of a young boy whom he was tutoring in post-school hours. In his loneliness, Simon starts obsessing about a university affair he had with the beautiful Anna — and a chance sighting of her with her young son, Sam, fuels that obsession.

The seriously-disturbed Simon has a friend, Angelique, a prostitute whom he first “engaged” in search of human contact (but didn’t sleep with) and who has now become his only friend — she both feeds and consoles him. Simon’s obsession with Anna climaxes when he arranges things so he can pick up (“kidnap”) her son after school. Angelique discovers what has happened when she drops in to Simon’s, the three enjoy cocoa and chocolate milk and Angelique calls the police. No harm, no foul, for the most part. Not in the novel, however.

Perlman, wisely, has a secondary plot. Anna’s husband, Joe, is a stock broker involved in a major deal which is dependent on Australia approving relaxed rules for U.S.-style private hospitals. An analyst colleague, Mitch, has insider political data that says unexpected approval of privatization will go ahead (which means millions in market profits) and Joe is the front-man for putting a deal together.

The primary plot supplies the ground for studying individuals, the secondary one creates opportunities for a broader look at Australian society.

That’s it as far as “action” goes for Seven Types of Ambiguity — every thing else is back story or fall-out. Don’t take that as a negative, because Perlman exploits the device in a highly effective fashion. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in Singapore causes a snowstorm in New York City (sorry about that), the “innocent” kidnapping of a young boy has a wealth of unforeseen consequences.

As the title of the novel implies, Perlman chooses to tell his story through the voices of seven narrators with widely-varied perspectives in discrete sections:

– The psychiatrist whom Simon is seeing before the kidnapping;

– Joe, the husband/prostitute client;

– Angelique, the prostitute who is the “muse” who keeps the story together;

– the brilliant stock analyst, Mitch, first name Dennis, who consults the same psychiatrist after the central event;

– Simon — he doesn’t show up as himself until part five;

– Anna, part six;

– and the psychiatrist’s daughter who discovers his journals after his death and narrates the denouement in the final section.

The waves that ripple out from the central and secondary events have impact in a 360-degree circle, a strength of Perlman’s structural approach. It allows for different voices (and different interior structures) to explore these impacts which is certainly a positive. Here is one example: the opening section narrated by the psychiatrist, presented in the form of a journal directed towards Anna:

Your husband doesn’t always get told the whole truth. But Simon doesn’t hold that against you either. It’s just that gradually he has been gaining the impression that you have invoked Sam as a device for gaining some kind of secret autonomy from your husband. Simon’s concern is that Sam is not benefiting from this. I’m sure you’ve rationalized this to some extent. Don’t tell me. It goes along these lines: if you are happier, this will somehow trickle down to Sam and maybe even to your husband; the trickle-down theory.

That quote illustrates one of the problems of the structure, however: 623 pages is a lot of reading to be able to maintain interest in a first-person observer narrative voice, even if the voice changes seven times. And using seven different voices also means that, for every reader, some voices are better than others. For what it is worth, my favorite was Mitch/Dennis, a section done entirely in exchanges between him and the psychiatrist, tangential to the main plot, but anchored in riffs of content (specifically, how to count cards at blackjack) that caught my attention the most.

Riffs are an important part of the book. As Tsiolkas and Toltz will do in their later novels, Perlman uses his structural device to maximize the opportunities it presents for a wide variety of set pieces observing modern Australian life — in many ways, they are the best part of the novel.

Those who know literary criticism better than KfC will already have identified one of the set pieces (indeed, an ongoing sub-text). Perlman has borrowed his title from William Empson’s 1930 classic work of literary criticism which defined the “New Criticism” school. The homage extends well beyond the title: Simon (himself a bit of a literary critic) has a dog named Empson, Perlman does list the seven types of literary ambiguity (I am sure those more familiar with symbolism than me will find a host of examples of each in the novel itself) and there is a great set piece in mid-book on post-modernism. Let me indulge in a quote to illustrate it — it comes when Simon is complaining to his shrink about how the post-modernists turned his university English faculty into a “cultural studies” department “with all that that implies”:

“What does it imply?” [the shrink asks].

“Where do I start? It implies a rigid doctrinaire embrace of certain amorphous schools of thought often grouped together under the mantle of post-modernism. Now, you’re probably thinking this is just another fad within the social sciences or the arts to which some people will subscribe and others won’t. Who cares?”

“That’s not quite what I was thinking but if it had been, you would have put it very well.”

“The real and grave problem with this particular fad is what it includes and what it has come to exclude. When English departments become departments of cultural studies, it means that decision makers within them embrace, adhere to, or, to put it more aptly, are under the sway of Jacques Derrida’s deconstuctionism….”

The set piece goes on for a few pages — it is entertaining throughout and I have quoted only a teaser but it is great fun, a tribute to Perlman’s ability.

That, in fact, may be my summary of the book. It ranks on the positive side of neutral overall and certainly has some superlative moments, but there is a fair bit of dross along the way. I am glad I read it, but I’d have to say I would be careful about encouraging other readers to make the time investment — for those with the right set of interests, it would be exceptionally good; for others, it would be a time-wasting chore.

KfC as Worry, the Wombat

Seven Types of Ambiguity has been sitting on my shelf for some time, following a perceptive review from Kim at Reading Matters and comments in a number of blog discussions. In fact, it was my fellow Shadow Giller Jury judge Kim who finally provoked me to get it off the shelf — on her blog, she is hosting Australian literature month — you will find a wealth of recommendations and reviews if literature from the Antipodes interests you at all. I hope to get to one or two more titles before the month is out.

(Note: Elliot Perlman has a new novel out, The Street Sweeper, — see publisher’s data here. I was interested enough in Seven Types of Ambiguity that I will be trying the 2012 release. Stay tuned.)

Lightning, by Jean Echenoz

January 4, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by Linda Coverdale

Lightning is the third (and apparently final) instalment in French author Jean Echenoz’s trilogy of short, tightly-written fictional biographies. The exceptional Ravel, a look at the last 10 years of the composer’s life, kicked off the project a few years ago. That was followed by Running which featured the legendary Czech distance runner, Emil Zatopeck.

While Echenoz used real names in those two, Lightning‘s central charactor is a precocious engineer, Gregor — but the flyleaf informs us that he is “inspired by the life of Nikolai Tesla, often called ‘the man who invented the twentieth century.'”

Before getting to the book under review, however, let’s contemplate some common aspects of the “trilogy”. A composer, an athlete and a scientist — three fields of endeavor with virtually no overlap. Yet each of the three didn’t just push the envelope or break the mold in their chosen area, they added a whole new dimension. Ravel’s Bolero remains unique to this day. Zatopek’s “style” of running was so awkward and removed from the conventional norm that the experts marvelled that he could actually complete a race, let alone set world-record times. And Tesla lived so far in the scientific future, visualizing inventions ranging from radar to cellular technology decades before their “discovery”, that no one understood what he was really about.

In all three books (Lightning is the longest at 142 pages), the author succinctly documents those achievements. But from the start, he is also careful to portray another common side of his exceptional characters. They all shared aspects of social ineptness, despite wanting to fit into the world around them. And they all had what might best be generously described as “attention flaws” which made many aspects of daily living a challenge.

What is best about the three books, however, is Echenoz’s interest in another aspect shared by the three: all brilliant careers, whatever the field, must eventually ebb and come to an end. And all humans, however exceptional, die just like the guy next door. It is that decline which seems to interest the author the most, with the final third of each book devoted to the theme — and what makes each of these three characters so fully-formed. Here’s his introduction to that part of this book; it follows a list of the aging Gregor’s later ideas (an elastic-fluid turbine, a locomotive headlight, a hydraulic turbo-alternator):

Well, these ventures, like so many others, will never come to anything. And not only because of the indifference of his contemporaries, as Gregor mournfully maintains. Because in a man’s life, it sometimes happens as well that nothing works anymore, that the inventory of fixtures falls into disrepair. Here and there, bit by little bit, one sees how the mind deteriorates: just like matter does. It happens via addition and subtraction: sly elements join in — dirt, dust, mold — while precious ones degenerate through wear, fatigue, erosion. And then there’s the corrosion that attacks, chews up, and devours nerve cells the way it does atoms, producing all sorts of slowdown, cracking joints, aches, negligence, and hit-and-miss messiness. It’s a long, tortuous process, imperceptible at first, but which can sometimes, abruptly, become as plain as day.

I don’t think that I have ever read a better summary of a brilliant individual’s inevitable decline — and, yes, there are similar ones for both Ravel and Zatopek as they hit the closing period of their creative lives.

Back to the beginning. Gregor arrives in New York from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, already bursting with ideas: a tube at the bottom of the Atlantic to carry mail between Europe and America, a gigantic ring immobilized above the equator “so that we could go inside it and circle the earth at about one thousand miles an hour…going “around the world” in a day.”

Obviously, these are not small-minded undertakings, for Gregor is bent upon confronting challenges of vast dimensions. Early on, along these lines, he becomes convinced he’d like to do a little something with tidal power, tectonic movements, or solar energy, phenomena like that, or — why not? — just to get his hand in, the falls at Niagara. He’s seen engravings of them in books and they’ll fit the bill. Yes, Niagara Falls. The Niagara River would be good.

Thomas Edison has already developed a system for delivering electricity but, alas, it is based on direct current and transmission losses are so great that users literally have to live within sight of the power plant. Gregor/Tesla introduces alternating current, an advance which immediately sweeps the market — his royalties should make him the richest person in the world, but he agrees to amend his contract with George Westinghouse and accepts a one-time payment of $198,000 for his invention. (There’s that daily life problem, showing up already.)

Still that success puts him in contact with America’s richest capitalists who are eager to back new ventures. He has some successes, even more good ideas that don’t get developed, but still has the legendary J.P. Morgan’s backing to construct a massive electrical tower on Long Island which not only means the development of radio transmission as a by-product, but also (only Gregor knows this) would supply the world with free electrical power. Alas, Marconi beats him to the post with a radio transmission across the Atlantic and Gregor has to come clean to Morgan about the larger aim of his project:

But, well, the great John Pierpoint Morgan might be touched by the vastness of the enterprise, you never know.

But really, of course you know: Morgan won’t be the least bit touched. Having never embraced the profession of philanthropist, the financier shows no enthusiasm at the idea of delivering current as free as the air to countries peopled by penniless Moldavians, Ainus, or Sengalese. Assuring Gregor that he continues to enjoy his deep personal sympathy and moral support, Morgan cuts off all credit with a stroke of the pen. Work on the tower comes to a halt at the snap of his fingers. Screwed again.

Please understand me, Morgan points out. It doesn’t work at all, your system. If everyone can draw on the power all they like, what happens to me? Where do I put the meter?

While I am giving it short shrift in this review, the author does every bit as good a job at portraying Gregor’s social ineptness. He is famous and successful enough with Westinghouse that he acquires champagne tastes — bespoke suits, hand-made shirts and a massive collection of shoes and ties. He lives, on credit, in a suite high in the Waldorf Astoria (his notion is that they should be honored enough by his residence not to tender a bill and, for a long time, they don’t).

The mental decline may be inevitable, but it is those human failings that hasten the lifestyle decline. Gregor still has a wealth of big ideas but increasingly no one is willing to listen. His ego was always bigger than even his grand ideas, so the scientific community has never welcomed him. The financiers abandon him in frustration. Society no long wants to be his patron. Everything that is contemplated in that paragraph that I quoted above starts to come to pass.

My knowledge of the history of science is sketchy enough that I can’t even hazard an opinion on how much Echenoz has exaggerated Tesla’s ideas and accomplishments — for this reader, Gregor came so fully to life that it doesn’t matter. My experience with the first two biographies had me aware early on, without the author’s forebodings, about what would be happening in the latter third of the novel. I wasn’t disappointed at all.

This is the sixth Echenoz novel reviewed on this blog (see all the reviews here) so he is obviously a KfC favorite. If you haven’t tried him, you should. And if Echenoz should happen to decide not to halt his fictional biographies with this one, I will be first in line to buy number four.


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