Archive for the ‘2011 Giller Prize’ Category

2011 Giller Prize Winner

November 8, 2011

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The Shadow Giller Jury can hardly complain — this novel ranked high on all our lists. And if we had listened to Kimbofo, who ranked it first, we would have completely agreed with the real jury.

Kimbofo’s review is here, Trevor’s is here and KfC’s here.

I have been reading the Giller long and short lists since the Prize started 17 years ago and this was, for me, the strongest year in memory. You can find links to reviews of all the shortlist titles and almost all of the longlist in the sidebar on the right — I assure you it is worth the time to look into all of these books.

Kimbofo reviews Half Blood Blues

November 7, 2011

With the Real Jury selection just over a day away, it is fitting that Kimbofo has posted her review of Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan — her choice as a Shadow Juror to win the Giller Prize and one that ranked high on all our selections. Kimbofo’s full review is here; here are her opening paragraphs to give you a taste:

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

2011 Shadow Giller Prize winner

November 4, 2011

North American cover

The Shadow Jury choice for the 2011 Giller Prize is:

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

This insightful novel is centred on a family of Russian Jews, escaping (or being expelled) from Latvia in the Soviet Union circa 1978, just as Bezmozgis’s own family was. In the short term of the novel, however, the Krasnanskys are stuck in the virtual no-man’s land of unfriendly Rome and its outskirts while they await their final destination, be it Australia, the U.S. or Canada. And for at least a couple of them, that delay sparks some memories that bring the whole immigration strategy into question. It was the way that the author developed those conflicting stories and the characters in them that made this book our choice. We certainly had some debate and I want to recognize that here — Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues was high in all our rankings and first on Kimbofo’s chart. And we all observed in submitting our initial ranking of the shortlist that four or five of the titles would be quite acceptable to us.

Dreadful UK cover

In the final analysis, we opted for The Free World on the strength of the exceptional quality of Bezmozgis’ prose as he tells his story — “on every page I was aware of what a strong writer he was, he never slipped” was juror Alison Gzowski’s observation. Trevor (he blogs at the Mookse and the Gripes) and I both found the incisiveness of his prose impressive. He develops a full cast of characters in a most interesting situation and, while he does not succeed in bringing every one to a full life, he succeeds more often than he slips.

As for Half Blood Blues, it emerged as Kimbofo’s choice (she blogs at Reading Matters) and we would all have been happy to see it win — but we found what we thought was a better book. Here, in Kimbofo’s words, is what I think is a perfect summary of why some readers (perhaps the Real Giller Jury?) might find it better than The Free World: “I can’t help thinking that Half Blood Blues is a more risky endeavour, by which I mean the author has set herself some high aims: there’s the voice, the jazz thing and the Nazi thing. On top of this she’s fleshed out a cast of characters very well, thrown in an interesting plot and offered a complex structure. It’s by no means a perfect novel but its a brave attempt at one!”

Is the Shadow Jury chair covering his bets with this quote? Perhaps. Stay tuned for the Real Jury decision on Nov. 8.

If you check on the sidebar at right, you will find links to our reviews of all of the Giller shortlist (Kimbofo hasn’t posted her review of Half Blood Blues but it will be up soon and I will include a link).

Transparent Judging

We bloggers who follow prizes always whine about juries and their semi-secret — or totally secret — approaches. So, in the interests of transparency, here is how the Shadow Giller Jury evaluated the shortlist.

As Chair, I asked each juror (including myself) to rank the six books on the shortlist. As well, each juror was given 100 points to assign to the books to indicate how strongly she or he felt. That produced the following result:

Trevor – Bezmozgis 40, Ondaatje 30, Edugyan 15, Coady 15, deWitt 0, Gartner 0
Kimbofo – Edugyan 25, Gartner 20, Bezmozgis 18, Coady 15, deWitt 12, Ondaatje 10
Alison – Bezmozgis 22, Edugyan 19, deWitt 18, Coady 18, Ondaatje 16, Gartner 6
Kevin – Bezmozgis 28, Edugyan 22, Ondaatje 17, deWitt 15, Coady 13, Gartner 5

Totals – Bezmozgis 108, Edugyan 81, Ondaatje 73, Coady 61, deWitt 45, Gartner 31

We had an obvious favorite with The Free World and a fairly clear-cut second choice as well in Half Blood Blues. I would also note that the other four shortlisted books all drew significant votes — this is a strong, well-balanced shortlist with much to recommend every one of the six. (Trevor and I both would have ranked Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac ahead of Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection — if Blaise had been on the shortlist, I think our first round evaluation would have been even more tightly-packed.)

After that first evaluation, we asked Kim for a more detailed response regarding her favorite, had some online discussion and eventually came to the unanimous conclusion that Bezmozgis would be our choice — with a clear statement that all of these books have value.

Now, it is a matter of waiting until the Real Jury makes its decision. We know from experience that it will not be an easy choice.

The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts

October 31, 2011

Welcome to the second guest post from Dorryce Smelts, the Winnipeg librarian who has been complementing my reviews of a couple Giller longlisted short story collections with her own thoughts. Her review of The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise can be found here — here are her thoughts on The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie:

Michael Christie’s debut collection, The Beggar’s Garden, takes as its constituency the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the lonely and isolated. For Christie, this includes the residents of Vancouver’s downtown east side and he portrays them, for the most part, in a style that is straightforward and unadorned.

The predominant tone among Christie’s characters is one of world-weariness and a comic resignation to their collective fate. In the first story, “Emergency Contact”, this tone works quite well in conveying the loneliness of a woman who uses and abuses the city’s 911 emergency service. Christie uses Vancouver’s neighbourhoods to good effect too, where his characters spend much of their time travelling within their limited orbits. In “An Ideal Companion”, the glass and steel condo towers of the West End successfully convey the sense of isolation experienced by single young professionals who tentatively seek connection with others.

Christie favours a kind of muted sensibility in his characters’ interactions — this works to heighten their sense of separateness and evokes, again, the unique nature of his chosen character ensemble, some of whom are homeless or mentally ill. In “The Extra”, Christie employs a first-person narrative that engages the reader with the character, who suffers from a ‘disabled brain’. At first, the narrative demonstrates the extremely narrow scope of the character’s experience and understanding, as he is routinely exploited by his opportunistic roommate, Rick. As the story progresses, however, the flat tone (due to the character’s disability) of first-person narrative becomes monotonous, repetitive and unfortunately predictable. By the end of the story, I found that while it was initially entertaining to follow the protagonist around — and Christie does arouse some sympathy for his rather callous treatment at Rick’s hands — by the story’s end, it did not feel as though Christie had delivered on the promise of the story.

Here is where I diverge from published reviews of The Beggar’s Garden, most of which have bestowed high praise. While Christie is on the whole a competent writer, and some of the pieces in this collection demonstrate writing of excellent quality, the basic elements of the short story form are not altogether balanced and most of his stories achieve only a haphazard sense of completion. “The Quiet”, for example, nicely conveys the experience of the young man Finch who boosts a Mercedes-Benz and takes it on a tour of the city, against his brother’s wishes. Woven into the fabric of this story is Finch’s own conflict at the strictures and controls his brother places on him. In a split second he decides to throw it all off. Just as the reader is getting to the point where Finch might come to a realization of his condition, or discover what his hopes and dreams might be, Christie introduces a further plot element that, in my opinion, weakens the strength of Finch’s actions up to that point and the story rolls to an unsatisfying and hasty conclusion after that.

As a counterpoint to “The Extra” and “The Quiet”, the story “Emergency Contact” does in fact achieve a more satisfying ending for this reader — Christie establishes Maya’s desire to transcend her condition, despite its debilitating nature, and successfully delivers on that promise. Christie shows Maya’s epiphany to beautiful effect:

‘…and it was then I felt the sound penetrate to the very doorstep of the dead part of me, the part that had been strangled long ago by someone or something I could not name, and there the sound wavered, diminished, and was turned away.’

“King Me” also shows a much more developed sense of the character’s yearnings and aspirations, and Christie allows much fuller play here. As Saul falls further and further into paranoid delusion, Christie demonstrates his pathetic decline with a deft combination of sympathy and comedy. The ending of this story is a bit of a punchline, and I think Christie could have done a better job here, but “King Me” is more of a complete story in this collection.

I am aware, for those readers who find more to like in The Beggar’s Garden than I do, that the short story form in the post-modern sense does not necessarily require that the traditional elements be present or even adhered to. In Christie’s collection, the particular issue I have is with the notion that by the story’s end the character must somehow come to terms — or not — with his or her problem. In a story such as “The Extra”, the open-ended nature of the story’s conclusion is unsatisfying, and I think Christie could have raised the stakes a little higher for a character who, unable to shake off his disability and with limited intellectual means to come to grips with it, is forced to come back to ground zero because it seems as though the writer decided not to push the story further.

The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

October 30, 2011

Purchased from Indigo.ca

The city of Vancouver has one of Canada’s more active (arguably, most active) communities of writers and in 2011 the results have shown up in a number of books which feature Vancouver’s urban landscape. Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, is Giller short-listed — many of those stories are located in the wealthy neighborhoods of West Van and explore some twisted aspects of upper middle-class life there. A Vancouver novelist for whom I have much respect, Timothy Taylor, showed up earlier this year with The Blue Light Project, a futuristic, dystopian look at the city’s vibrant youth counterculture. For me, it did not measure up to his first novel, Stanley Park, which included an exploration of both Vancouver’s foodie culture and the underclass who camp out in that stunning urban park as a means of survival rather than the more recent political statement of Occupy Whatever.

Michael Christie’s Giller longlisted story collection, The Beggar’s Garden, joins the 2011 list. While Christie lives on Galiano Island (unlike the U.S. where westward migration gets halted at the coast, Canada has both the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island to serve as one last step in the push west although frequent ferry service maintains contact with the urban world), he brings to this first book some distinct Vancouver experience. He is a graduate of the highly-regarded creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, but prior to this he worked in a homeless shelter in the Downtown Eastside, perhaps the toughest, most drug-ridden neighborhood in all of Canada. The nine stories in this collection reflect that experience, with a number focusing on the distressed characters who live in and around that neighborhood. (Regular readers of this blog may recall that one of my favorites of 2010, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, reflected a similar history of street-level social work followed by writing, that one set in Toronto’s underclass — the two books do compare.)

The characters in Christie’s stories aren’t all down-and-outers, but most of them are — and all are damaged people, which probably helps explain how they have come to land in or near the Eastside. The central character in the opening story, “Emergency Contact”, is Maya whose social life consists of phoning 911 and waiting for the emergency crew to arrive. A recent call resulted in the appearance of a paramedic with whom she immediately developed an obsession. The fire department unit usually comes first, she notes in the first-person account:

When they came before, they all had the same moustache and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t on fire or at least dead. To be honest, I prefer the paramedics.

And the paramedic who had come last week I prefer most of all. He’d spoken tenderly and stayed for nearly an hour. After he checked me out, I made him green kool-aid in the plastic jug, stirring it with my wooden spoon that’s stained green from all the times I’ve used it. He sipped, his elbow on my counter, pursing his lips until they disappeared, and said it was a slow night.

I asked him what days he worked.

Four on four off, he said, and I have tomorrow off.

Maya has counted the days carefully before placing her next emergency call and she is ready with a carefully-chosen card from the dollar store — Love is in the air! is the printed message, but she has added her own on the inside. Alas, the ambulance crew that arrives does not include her chosen one, but she knows he will inevitably show up at the hospital emergency ward so, quite literally, she goes along for the ride.

And her budding love interest does eventually make an appearance, but that is mainly window-dressing for the author as he explores the inner workings of an obsessed, lonely person for whom an emergency ward represents hope of human contact, not a way station for the injured. The premise might seem absurd but any veteran EMT working in the neighborhoods where the poor and distressed live will tell you it is only too common. Christie handles it very well.

The title story, “The Beggar’s Garden”, is the last in the book and explores how individuals arrive in this sorry neighborhood and state. Sam Prince is middle-class, works in the fraud department of a bank (“initially, his rise at the bank had been rapid”) and is married to Anna, trained as a lawyer but now a casting director for the many films and commercials shot in Vancouver. Alas, she has recently embarked on an extended visit to her wealthy parents, who live on one of the sprawling acreages outside Calgary, taking the couple’s child Cricket with her. She seems determined to stay there and wants a break, perhaps permanent, from Sam — his response has been to lock up the house and move into the backyard:

Sam Prince lay awake, listening to a squad of raccoons loot his recycling. Since moving into the slumping structure behind his house — it backed onto the alley and was either a shed or a small garage, he’d never been sure — he’d taught himself to distinguish the noise of the raccoons licking his containers clean from the more orderly clanking of the men who came on trailered bikes to rummage his blue bins for anything they could return for deposit. There, in the interminable dark hours of recent weeks, Sam had come to the fearful knowledge that the alley doubled as a nocturnal highway where all valuable things were to be carted away.

Sam runs into the beggar of the title during one of the street roamings that now fill up his free time — Spare Change? Drug/Alcohol Free, GOD BLESS is his begging sign — and he strikes up an acquaintance. Sam maintains some of his former middle-class character and drive and it is not long before he decides to take on the beggar in a form of street venture capitalism. Sam will be “director” of the enterprise, both in terms of allocating funds (he sets up a high-interest savings account for the daily surplus) and overseeing marketing and location. New to vancuvr. Spare Chanje for food and medecine? Thanks is the new sign and the begging site is re-located to the trendy Granville district where tourists just off the cruises to Alaska wander with spare Canadian currency that soon will not be of use to them.

The enterprise is succeeding but the dramatic twist comes when Sam heads to Calgary at his wife’s request to explore the slim prospects of reconciliation. He installs the beggar in his shed/garage to tend things while he is away and the beggar proves adept at restoring the Prince’s once flourishing garden. That motivates him to explore changing his life to a more conventional version — the contrast between someone finding escape from squalor with someone inexorably descending into it provides for a powerful story.

Christie’s debut is an impressive performance which struck a chord with me. Those of us who live in communities that are prospering are well aware that prosperity brings with it the subcultures of extreme poverty and damaged individuals who just can’t cope with the everyday demands that are part of it. It is that thread, more than anything else, which runs through the nine stories in The Beggar’s Garden and it is a phenomenon worth exploring. While it would not have made my personal Giller shortlist, the collection does introduce a writer who is certainly worth watching in the future.

(The Beggar’s Garden was the second choice that Dorryce Smelts made for my gift to her — her thoughts on the collection will appear in a guest post tomorrow.)

Kimbofo reviews The Antagonist

October 29, 2011

Giller Prize night is only 10 days away and the Shadow Jury is completing its reading before heading into deliberations (our objective is to post our choice here on Friday, Nov. 4). In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of Kimbofo’s review of The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady — full review is here:

A misunderstood giant who confronts his past is the subject of Lynn Coady’s Giller shortlisted novel The Antagonist.

The giant is Gordon “Rank” Rankin, adopted at birth by Sylvie and Gordon Senior, a well-meaning but mismatched couple — “The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess” — who raise him in small town Canada.

A larger-than-normal child, Rank looks like a fully grown man by the age of 14. With this comes all kinds of complications — people treat him like an adult even though he’s just a teenage boy — and he struggles to get on with his father, a short, angry man, whom he realises he “could’ve taken” at just age six “if I’d wanted”.

Their relationship, which is largely the focus of this novel, becomes more strained when Sylvie is killed in a car accident, leaving Gordon Snr to raise 16-year-old Rank alone.

But Coady gives this tale of a difficult father-son relationship a new twist. She has Rank looking back on his troubled past from the perspective of a soon-to-be-40-year-old man who has supposedly changed his ways, although it’s clear he is filled with resentment and has a special talent for holding grudges. It’s written epistolary style, in a series of emails to a college classmate, over a three-month period in 2009.

KfC’s review of The Antagonist is here.

Solitaria, by Genni Gunn

October 26, 2011

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Piera Valente has lived life as a self-proclaimed — perhaps even selfish — martyr. One of six children in the Santoro family, led by a lowly railroad worker/tobacco farmer who struggled to support his family, as a teenager she entered a marriage of convenience with an Italian magistrate which brought with it enough wealth to ensure her siblings had a chance — indeed, a half century later, one is a successful lawyer and another an opera soprano based in Canada, but with a global reputation. Piera has never travelled (her role was to support, whatever sacrifice that involved) and still lives on the Adriatic coast where she was raised. For decades, “she and Teresa [her sister-in-law] have been shackled to each other — giver and taker — in a complicated dance of insults and insinuations, ever since Piera’s brother Vito abandoned Teresa.” A year ago, the relationship of “giver and taker” turned upside down when Piera fractured her ankle. Piera enjoyed the attention that recovery brought with it and “has become reclusive, solitaria, and has left the apartment only once or twice since then, yet has convinced herself that she knows all that occurs outside.”

Bocca Della Verita

Author Genni Gunn establishes those powerful dramatic forces very early in her novel. More important, however, is the way that she qualifies the reliability of the voice of Piera which will become the dominant source of historical narration in the rest of the book. She does it by referencing the Bocca Della Verita — The Mouth of Truth that hangs in the Church of Santa Maria in Rome: “According to legend and tradition, the mouth was used as a lie detector, and its mythical teeth would snap shut on the fingers of any liar” who submitted his or her hand. Her father had whittled a large, grotesque copy of the mask and Piera has retained it to this day:

Throughout her childhood, the crude wooden Bocca mask hung on a thick nail at the side of the doors of all the railway huts they occupied. Her father used it, in jest, whenever he thought she might have been tempted to lie, unaware that she truly believed in the powers of the mask.

When her parents moved into town, Papa gave her the mask, and she hung it at the side of her bedroom door, like a ghost or a conscience, the crude carved face superimposed over Papa’s face in memory, so that his empty eyes watched her, his lips were ready to crush her bones. When people asked her about it, she said it was a reminder of Papa’s many sacrifices. But the mask hung in her house as a testament to her ability to outwit it. She crossed herself when she passed it. She took it down, finally, after her housekeeper died, when she decided to renovate the old house.

So we have a narrator with a martyr complex who also delights in outwitting “the mouth of truth”. What is required to complete the set-up for the novel is an incident that puts both these elements into play on the stage of history. It comes in the form of a television show — Chi l’ha Visto — which reports that a team demolishing a villa in a nearby community has found the body of man who died of gunshot wounds to the head almost 50 years earlier. From the picture posted on the screen, Teresa recognizes her husband, Vito, who abandoned her in 1955 and it is now 2002. But how could that be? Vito has been in Argentina all that time — Piera has been getting letters from him.

Gunn manages to communicate all of the above by page 15 of a 250-page book — the remainder consists of filling in the details of the backstory and there is no way that I am going to spoil the reading of the book by giving too much of that away. I can however safely explore some of “how” the author goes about filling in those details because, for this reader, that was the real accomplishment of this book.

Piera’s four surviving siblings all make the journey to Belisolano to stand together (sort of) as a family while this drama unfolds. We know early on that that is not going to be an easy task when Clarissa, the opera diva, informs her son David that he will have to take a leave from his teaching job and come with her:

Slowly, he gets the details. His aunt, Piera, the only one who claims to have received regular letters from her brother Vito, has locked herself in her bedroom, and refuses to speak to anyone, including her sister-in-law Teresa, who lives one storey below her.

“She says she’ll talk to you and only you,” Clarissa says, a tightness in her tone.

When his mother speaks of her sister Piera, it’s always with slightly pursed lips, with a permanent tone of disapproval. It’s more than bias, David thinks, it’s something historical. “But that’s ridiculous,” he says. “Why would she choose me, when she hasn’t seen me in years? What do I know about her life?”

“I think that’s the point,” Clarissa says. “She says we’re all biased against her. She adores you and thinks you’ll be impartial.”

I’ll admit that it was that exchange that got me involved with the novel. The only person who knows the truth has a chip on her shoulder that is so large that the only person she will talk to is a nephew who used to spend summers with her but whom she has not seen in decades. The family may be facing a new version of “crisis” but all the old wounds of history will remain in place and need to be explored, despite the new circumstances.

Gunn develops the picture of how those wounds came to be through a parallel narrative. Piera not only has known this moment will arrive she has been preparing for it with both some written memories and her own version of an oral history — in one stream, we share with David his aunt’s recounting of the family history leading up to Vito’s disappearance in 1955.

In the other stream, David reports back to his aunts, uncles and cousins in the now of 2002. We know that Piera is not only unreliable, with a deeply-ingrained victim complex, we know also that she delights in out-witting the Mouth of Truth. Her brothers and sisters have their own versions of the stories she tells David — but then how much is their own self-interest altering their recollections of the truth?

Solitaria is not without its problems. The cast of characters is large for a short book and the fact that the story spans more than half a century (with a multi-decade gap in the middle) means that many people and elements don’t get as fully developed as one might wish. That means when it comes time to finally solve the riddle the characterization and empathy that are needed to offset the “plot” just aren’t strong enough to carry the weight needed to support its final reveal.

I’m not disappointed that the Real Giller jury included this novel on its longlist — I would not have read it otherwise and I did find it worthwhile. On the other hand, they were right to leave it off the shortlist. As interesting as the Santoro family history is, the 2011 Giller has better books on offer.

Kimbofo reviews The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

October 23, 2011

The Real Giller decision is only 17 days away and the Shadow Jury is completing its first set of detailed observations. Trevor has already reviewed The Free World by David Bezmozgis and KfC’s review is here. Here are the opening thoughts from Kimbofo (her full review is here):

Imagine being stuck in a figurative “no man’s land”. You can’t return to the country you just left and you have no idea which new country will let you in. That is the dilemma experienced by the wide cast of characters in David Bezmozgis’ debut novel, The Free World.

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of a family of Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. Samuil, the patriarch, isn’t convinced of the need to emigrate — “In the war you ran from the enemy. Now who are you running from?” — and he is even less convinced when his war medals are seized at the border as “property of the state”.

But to his wife, Emma, and their sons, Alec and Karl and their wives Polina and Rosa, it is a chance to start afresh in a yet-to-be-chosen destination. The choices are relatively limited: they can go to Israel, direct from Vienna — where the book opens — with no need for additional paperwork, or they can go to Rome, another transit point, and sort out documentation for the USA, Canada or Australia.

The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts

October 21, 2011

A few weeks back, as the 2011 Giller Prize journey got underway, I sent a regular commenter here, Emily Luxor, a Chapters gift certificate so she could purchase a couple favorites — she picked The Meagre Tarmac and another short story collection, Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. She’s promised guest reviews of both — and I am posting them under her real name. Dorryce Smelts lives and works in Winnipeg where she reads extensively and works as a librarian, which gives her wonderful access to Canadian literature. Dorryce confesses a soft spot for short stories, and prefers them over novels, because in her life at present there just isn’t enough time to handle anything longer than a short story. One day she would even like to write one.

Here are her thoughts on a book that is one of my personal 2011 Giller favorites, a disappointing omission from the shortlist in my view.

In The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise’s collection of short stories longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, the reader is advised the stories are to be read in their original order. This is very good advice as Blaise has skilfully woven together the narratives of the lives of seemingly disparate individuals. Some threads interconnecting the characters are more tenuous than others, but just as meaningful and resonant, so that the stories, taken together, constitute a coherent whole.

In the first story triad, “The Sociology of Love”, “When She Was in her Prime” and “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real” we are welcomed into the intimate lives of Vivek Waldekar, his wife Krithika and their children. Blaise not only creates the environment of a successful Indian immigrant and his gifted children living in America, but also shows their heightened vulnerability, by virtue of their history of displacement, and past acts. Here, Blaise expertly combines the uniqueness of the Indo-American experience with the universality of the human condition, particularly as it relates to matters of the heart, and the particular and peculiar choices his characters are faced with. It is Vivek’s daughter Pramila, in the second story, who perceives the awful freight of her father’s past and who foretells the impact of her family’s return to India:

“I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto, when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.”

In “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, we read the heartbreak of Vivek’s wife who revisits the painful experience of relocating to America through her present circumstance of having to sell her house and return to India, where Vivek has gone. Blaise shows his mastery of the cultural and social aspects of Indian life and the immigrant experience as well as his versatility in reflecting the voices of his characters with honesty and fullness of their own identities.

Blaise uses identity to further explore the conflicts between generations, as with Vivek and his daughter Pramila — who says she will kill herself if returning to India means she will be kept out of Stanford — and he uses it to good effect to show how living in America, or anywhere outside India, affects the good cultural intentions of displaced Indians who strive to obey their traditions, such as arranged marriages, or to fit in within the social strictures of their adopted societies.

In the couplet of stories, “Waiting for Romesh” and “Potsy and Pansy”, Chutt is a charming and successful Parsi banker facing an unmarried future. Again, Blaise underscores the vulnerability of a single male seeking marital union with someone who remotely interests him and who is conscious that his rejection of arranged matches (eight so far) not only threatens his happiness but also the survivability of Parsi society. Chutt, like Vivek Waldekar, balances the tension between honouring his family and heritage and the temptations his adopted society places in front of him.

Blaise also introduces the finer distinctions of individuals who not only have been displaced by emigrating from India but who experience dislocation and cultural disorientation in their own country. In “A Connie da Cunha Book” the titular character lives through the invasion of Goa as a young child, and undergoes a series of identity shifts throughout her life. In this story, Blaise highlights the chance occurrences that drive the direction of one’s life, even as much as the concrete choices that are planned or anticipated. “Life is a riotous fusion. She’d always suspected that important decisions are backed into, slid into and even on occasion stumbled over.”

The Meagre Tarmac exquisitely balances the elements of a short story collection by providing complete and distilled images of characters in conflict as well as the narrative and thematic linkages that allow this collection to be treated as novelistic. Whether the stories are read individually, in pairs or triplets, or consumed at a single sitting, it is a bold and humanistic venture into the lives and feelings of Indian immigrants.

The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise

October 20, 2011

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Like many short story collections, Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac discretely announces its form with the subtle label “Stories” in small type underneath the title on the cover. For those who read back cover blurbs, the first hint that this is a collection with a difference comes from Joyce Carol Oates’ comment (“a novel in short-story form, warmly intimate, startling in its quick jumps and revelations”) and publisher Biblioasis’ own contribution of “an Indo-American Canterbury Tales”. A look at the Contents page underlines this impression: “These stories are intended to be read in order”, it says before listing the 11 stories.

I count myself an advocate of short stories, but admit that “linked” collections strike my fancy even more than conventional ones. Some linked collections, such as Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock, are historical — her exploration of her family history starts in 18th century Scotland and concludes with Munro contemplating her own mortality. Others, such as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, use a single individual and community as the common thread to link the stories.

I have just cited some truly exceptional story collections (Pulitzer winners? Chaucer? Yup) in introducing this review of The Meagre Tarmac and it is done deliberately — this impressive volume is fully up to being compared to those classics. The nature of the “link” is much different than Munro, Anderson or Strout (the Canterbury Tales is perhaps closest, but even that is a stretch) but I agree with Oates that it produces a book that is every bit as much “novel” as it is “collection” — and an important novel at that.

Blaise’s linking thread in the 11 stories is the experience of five first-generation Indo-Americans and he develops it by telling his stories in “sets” (four pairs and one trio), which is why they need to be read in order. In each “set”, the first story explores the “success” of his characters in North America (these are not stereotypical struggling immigrants), the following ones delve much deeper into the longing and compassion each feels for the India that was left behind and the continuing need to have an impact there for that “success” to have meaning. I’ll sketch out a couple of the sets to give an indication of how he does this.

Blaise is Canadian but lives (mainly) in San Francisco, which means that he knows well the impact that Silicon Valley has had on modern America — and the contribution Indo-Americans have made to that impact. The opening story, “The Sociology of Love”, introduces Dr. Vivek Waldekar, a nanotechnology expert, as he is being interviewed by Anya, “a monstrously tall girl from Stanford”, herself a Russian immigrant, who is allegedly doing a sociology project on “adjustment and assimilation” and whose interest is the way that South Asians “lack the demographic residential densities of other Asians, or of Hispanics. We are sociological anomalies.”

The following are my answers to her early questions: We have been in San Jose nearly eight years. I am an American citizen, which is the reason I feel safe answering questions that could be interpreted by more recent immigrants as intrusive. We have been married twenty years, with two children. Our daughter Pramila was born in Stanford University Hospital. Our son Jay was both in JJ Hospital, Bombay, seventeen years ago. When he was born I was already in California, finishing my degree and then finding a job and a house. My parents have passed away; I have an older brother, and several cousins in India, as well as Canada and the U.S. My graduate work took four years, during which I did not see Krithika [his wife] or my son. Jay and Krithika are still Indian citizens, although my wife holds the Green Card and works as a special assistant in Stanford Medical School Library. She will keep her Indian citizenship in the event of inheritance issues in India.

That final phrase introduces a sense of some of the personal issues that are part of the diaspora; Blaise carefully unfolds more in the next few pages. Anya’s “academic” project has a very personal agenda. Her boyfriend is Mukesh “Mike” Mahulkar, a friend of Dr. Waldekar’s son, who is headed for a lucrative professional tennis career:

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “That was inexcusable. You must think I came under false pretenses. Mike’s getting married in Mumbai in three weeks. It’s very hard, to be told, without warning, without explanation, that you’re just…unworthy.”

By all outward signs, the immigrants have adapted — but some things (like arranged marriages that are an historic part of the culture) just don’t go away. Anya’s admission provokes some introspective guilt from Dr. Waldekar:

I could not go home for my father’s funeral. I did not see my son until he was four years old and had already bonded with my wife’s family. I think he still treats me like an intruder. So does my wife. It has pained me all these years that I permitted my studies and other activities to take precedence over family obligations. I have been trying to atone for my indiscretions all these years.

Those indiscretions are at the centre of the second story, “In Her Prime”. The narrative character here is 12-year-old Pramila and we already know part of her parent’s version of her future from the first story: “We will not encourage Pramila to date. In fact, we will not permit it until she is finished with college.” Unfortunately for the Waldekars, we discover in this story that the filly has already escaped the barn — the pre-teen is having an affair with Borya, her figure-skating coach. She knows that kind of sordid behavior is typical of the child-abusing Borya and that she will soon be dumped for her even younger skating friend, Tiffy Hu, but it is from that experience that she looks back on family history and draws some conclusions:

I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy were Stanford students and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi [Al's wife -- the couple are the Waldekars only close friends] knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.

The tensions of the immigrant extend to the next generation. The Waldekar’s are the trio set and the third story, “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, is told from Krithika’s point of view (her husband is back in India) — I’ll leave it to you to discover what she thinks.

Blaise explores another version of dislocation in the stories featuring Cyrus Chutneywalla of Baroda, Gujarat –”called Chutt by his Indian friends and Chuck by his colleagues at the Mellon Bank”. We meet him at The Factory Tavern in Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh where he is waiting for his “Wharton batch-mate”, Ramesh. Chutt/Chuck is brilliant at finance although a Wharton scandal (his “girl-friend” stole his ideas and he reported her) means that he is stuck in the backwater of Pittsburgh while his schoolmates are Wall Street successes.

Chutt is thirty four and unmarried — he also has siblings around the world (Germany and India for starters). Chutt is also Parsi, one of only 50,000 still left:

His old teacher, David Solomon, said the Parsis are the real Jews of India: a dwindling minority, huge in commerce and the professions. With so many Parsi trusts and hospitals, there are no poor Parsis.

Chutt’s doctor father has not found a Parsi match for any of his children yet and Chutt himself has already rejected eight marriage proposals from prominent Bombay Parsi families — father is threatening to head to Africa to perform free surgery to atone for his failure in properly marrying his offspring.

Blaise sets up the tension in “Waiting for Romesh” through the waitress at the tavern, Rebecca — Romesh never does show up but she picks up our hero as her “trial” boyfriend of the week and the two soon set up household in Squirrel Hill, the former Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh now being taken over by South-or-East Asian immigrants, most employed in the lucrative health industry there.

The tension is increased in the second story featuring Chutt, “Potsy and Pansy”, when an email arrives from his mother in Bombay announcing the latest marriage on offer: Pansy Batliwala, from a very good family that endowed the Dadaji Bottlewala Gardens in Bombay. Pansy is a screen actress in Canada — under the name of Darya D’Aquino — but that slip in status can be overlooked. A visit to Toronto where she is filming is suggested. As you can tell from the story title, Chutt/Chuck is about to acquire a third nickname.

The marriage tension is heightened by a new career opportunity as well. Chutt’s new boss (Ms. Harriet Mehta) is proposing a promotion to become head of Section Four (We have a Section Four? is his mental response), EAT, an Estates and Trusts division the bank is setting up in San Francisco:

“The first generation Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley aren’t getting any younger [Ms. Mehta explains]. They’ve made tons of money and they’ve invested it conservatively but they want to retire comfortably to India. They want servants and flat screens and gourmet restaurants and travel and maybe a country house and philanthropies. And they want to leave trust funds for their grandchildren. We think EAT is something we haven’t exploited.”

“Potsy and Pansy” is the ninth story in the collection and that excerpt is a precise synopsis of the over-arching diaspora thread that runs through the collection. Blaise develops it with painstaking care and I appreciated it very much since context is one of my favorite traits in reading — but I am delighted to report that, successful as it is, it is a secondary strength of this collection. The real worth of these 11 stories, and what makes them truly exceptional, is the depth of person that the author develops in his central characters, their families and the insurmountable challenges of trying to be faithful to the two incredibly different worlds in which they live and prosper. For individuals, “success” in the global economy often comes at considerable personal cost — and it is that thread that Blaise so brilliantly develops.

Clark Blaise has been a “name” in the short story world for decades — he hung out with the Mordecai Richler-Brian Moore-Hugh Hood-John Metcalf bunch in Montreal many years ago, was director of the International Writing Program at Iowa for almost a decade (that’s a holy grail in the short story world) and has been President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story since 2002. If you want to see how good the form can be — and how it can take a new direction, centuries after Chaucer — read this volume.

Obviously, I am disappointed this book did not make the Official Giller Prize shortlist — it would certainly be on mine. This review is much longer than normal for KfC (actually, the longest ever), mainly because I’d like to persuade as many people as possible to read the collection. And there is more — a few weeks ago I “gifted” a frequent commenter here, Emily Luxor, with copies of this book and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. Stand by for a guest review from “Emily” (and the revelation of her real identity) to be posted here tomorrow. And do buy this book.


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