Archive for March, 2010

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, by Drew Hayden Taylor

March 30, 2010

Okay, I cannot resist. The image above is a 1953 Indian Chief motorcycle — I’ve never been on a motorcycle, let alone owned one, but even I know the mystique that surrounds the Indian Chief. The picture is there because a 1953 Indian Chief bike is a central (albeit non-speaking) character in Drew Hayden Taylor’s first novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. The novel is strange enough that, if you object to a review of it being introduced with a picture of a motorcycle, I am sure you will not like it. If you can accept the image (do you realize that KfC will now be getting a large number of hits from googlers who are looking for pix of an “Indian Chief” motorcycle?), then read on, because I suspect you might want to consider the book.

ARC courtesy Knopf Canada

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction series, but that is a bit misleading. While it is Taylor’s first published novel, he has an impressive resume. An Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations, he is also a stand-up comedian of note, a playwright and journalist and, perhaps most important, has worked on a number of television series and documentaries. This novel started out as a script for a “cool movie”, in the author’s own words, and it is worth keeping that in mind when you read the book.

The prologue of Motorcycles and Sweetgrass introduces us to Lillian, a young Ojibway woman, having a swim with a young male friend. Lillian is due to leave for a residential school the next day:

Manifest Destiny, as the White people to the south believed, dictated that this little Anishnawbe girl be removed from her home and sent away to be taught about the Battle of Hastings, dangling participles, and how to draw a pie chart. For a year or two anyway. Starting tomorrow. And this man, who’d come into her life a few months ago, was about to be left behind.

“It’s your new boyfriend, isn’t it. What do women see in him?” the man asked.

“Everybody used to talk about me. Now they talk about him. I don’t understand. What’s he got that I don’t. He’s so depressing. What’s his name again?”


Not too many pages later, we meet Lillian Benojee again, now an elderly woman (she has 18 grandchildren) on her deathbed, surrounded by her very extended family “hovering about her house, bringing her food, taking out dishes of half-eaten casseroles, all frustrated by their inability to do anything to help Lillian Benojee.” One of her children, Maggie Second, is chief of the First Nations community of Otter Lake — she has held that office for three years since her husband, the previous chief, died in a boating accident and she was acclaimed as his successor. Maggie has a son, Virgil (“the bell curve was invented for boys like him”) who is in the seventh grade; he becomes an essential character in the story when the motorcycle arrives at his grandmother’s house:

Virgil had a much better view of the motorcycle that was coming up his grandmother’s driveway. An old one, by the looks of it, but in immaculate condition. It glistened in the sunlight as it stopped by the side door. Like most boys his age, Virgil had more than a passing interest in gas-powered vehicles, especially anything that could be classified as “cool.” And this scarlet vision before him put the word cool to shame. It was red, with white trim, old-fashioned headlights, a black solo seat complete with fringes made from what appeared to be black leather, and larger-than-normal wheel fenders. Hanging from the end of each handlebar was a feather, but each was different. The feather on the right looked like it had come from an eagle. But the one hanging from the left was darker, smaller, shinier.

The rider of the motorcycle is young and white and he finagles his way past a couple of Lillian’s protective sons into her room. They talk and he kisses her passionately, despite the decades of difference in their ages. Virgil sees it all and does not really understand but he knows that he should be worried.

From here on in, you need to be willing to accept the mystical and the magical to continue with this book. Both John the motorcyclist (he will use a number of last names and the color of his eyes keeps changing) and Virgil have embarked on a voyage of discovery. A number of other characters, both human and animal (raccoons become particularly threatening — you will note their presence on the book’s cover), will play a part.

It is also at this point that the author’s screen-writing talents start to takeover as Taylor juggles (quite successfully) a number of subplots. Some are quite funny. For example, the band has purchased a large piece of adjoining property — Maggie is more or less continually beset by band members who have great (and conflicting) ideas about what to do with it. She also has a younger brother who has spent the last few years on an island in Otter Lake, where he is inventing a First Nations martial arts form. Virgil recruits him to help sort out the puzzle of John the Motorcyclist.

Taylor moves back and forth between the mundane and the mystical. While it makes for a fast-moving and quite readable book, in the final analysis it is not much more. There is nothing the matter with that (particularly if you are looking for a bit of escapism). Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is an entertaining first novel (if you know the work of Thomas King, another First Nations writer, you will find yourself in familiar territory). And for those who know and appreciate the almost iconic reputation of the Indian Chief Motorcycle, its role in the novel alone makes the book worthwhile.


What’s For Dinner?, by James Schuyler

March 27, 2010

A NYRB book

I will confess to a highly ambivalent response when it comes to novels that are written by authors who, for the most part, are poets. I am not a poetry reader, so that bias is admitted up front. Most often, I find that the language gets in the way of the novel — Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault would be a good example. And then, just when I am getting ready to give up on poet-novelists, along comes something like Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog and I realize I would be doing myself a tremendous disservice if I became so arbitrary.

My poetry knowledge is so slim that I did not know James Schuyler was an outstanding poet when I ordered What’s For Dinner? — a recommendation from leroyhunter in a comment on L. J Davis’ A Meaningful Life was what put me on to the book. It was, leroy said, ” a study of suburban mores [with] a pleasant sharpness that is reminiscent of Davis”. That is as good a description as you could ask for — there are echoes of both Richard Yates Revolutionary Road and Mad Men, the television show, but more than anything else there is an exploration of New York suburbia in the 1970s.

To fill in the background that I did not have: Schuyler is indeed a major American poet of the New York school with a score or so of published volumes to his credit. He was also W.H. Auden’s amanuensis, among other things. And he was a significant playwright; both the poetic and stage-writing talents come to play in this book.

Consider the opening, where we meet Mary C. Taylor and her husband Norris in their living room:

It was a lovely light living room. Or it would have been, had not a previous owner found quick-growing conifer seedlings an irresistible bargain. When the sun set, a few red beams would struggle in, disclosing in their passage the dust of which the air at times seems largely composed. Mary C. Taylor — the laughing Charlotte of the class of 19** — found the sweet mood brought on by contemplation of the spick-and-spanness in which her husband Norris perused and, presumably, memorized the evening paper, soured.

“It seems to me all I do is dust this room.” She put on the bridge lamp at her elbow, in hopes of fighting light with light.

“It isn’t dust, it’s pollen.” Norris was never so absorbed as not to leave a trickle of attention running.

Lottie and Norris are childless; they have replaced the rigors of child-rearing with collecting (and dusting) knick-knacks and, in Lottie’s case, a dependence on the vodka bottle that will eventually see her checked into a rehab centre.

The Delehanteys, by contrast, are a Catholic family with two teen-age, twin sons, who tend to dominate their attention. Father Bruce sees himself as a strict disciplinerian, monitoring and directing (mainly on the negative side) the boys’ musical, athletic and scholastic careers. Alas, like most parental intervention, his efforts are being overtaken by reality and the twins are growing up with the same kinds of distractions (say soft drugs) that most teenagers run into.

Family three in the book actually isn’t a family it is a widow, Mag. Her husband’s death was pretty much a surprise and Mag is not yet ready to give up her life to widow’s weeds.

That’s the framework for one half of the narrative of the book. The three family units interact with each other — sort of. Dinners are hosted, bridge is played and hanky-panky does develop.

As the novel unfolds, Schuyler also spends a fair bit of time exploring the institution where Lottie has been confined, which has an entirely separate community of characters.

That cast is large enough (and very well developed, I must say) that I won’t even try to list them. What is significant about this thread of the book, however, is that it is where Schuyler the playwright comes into play (sorry about the pun). Almost all of these sections, which alternate with the suburban life ones, are done completely in dialogue. The patients go through family and occupational therapy (stitching moccasins, braiding belts and “painting” and “potting”) but most of the non-dialogue parts read like stage directions; the story and relationships between characters comes in the dialogue. An example from early in the process:

Group was in session, and Dr Kearney looked bored. “All right, Bertha,” he said, “you’ve made yourself the center of attention long enough. We’ve all heard your stories of marijuana, music and LSD. You’ve convinced us that you were a real swinger, and you swung yourself right in here.”

“You never talk about your problems, I’ve noticed,” Lottie said, “the things behind your actions. That might be more interesting and helpful. To all of us, not just yourself.”

“My only problem,” Bertha said, “is that I have a family. They’re nice, but they bug me.”

“Bug you?” Mrs. Brice said.

“They let me do anything I want, but all the time I can tell they secretly disapprove. They don’t know what to make of me , but I know what to make of them. Spineless. Nice, but spineless.”

“We haven’t heard much from you, Mrs Judson,” Dr Kearney said.

“I never did talk much,” Mrs. Judson said.

“That’s true,” Sam Judson said. “Ethel was never much of a talker. She shows her feelings in other ways.”

“In other ways?” Norris said. “I’d be interested to hear an example.”

As that excerpt illustrates, there is a somewhat painful slowness to this thread of the book but, to the author’s credit, it does eventually acquire a rhythm of its own, in contrast to the equally slow (but differently developed) world outside the institution. Like Yates (and Mad Men), part of what Schuyler is exploring is the inherent boredom of suburbia and life outside the institution is not that different from life inside it.

I don’t think What’s For Dinner? is a great book, but it definitely is a worthwhile one — exactly the kind of volume that the NYRB should be ensuring stays in print. I am sure that, if you are a poetry reader, Schuyler’s poetry is a better investment of your time, but then I am not a poetry reader. In its own way, this novel captures the same kind of stasis that drives Yates’ Revolutionary Road and explores what kinds of outcomes that suburban stasis produces — with somewhat less disastrous consequences. Written in 1978, it captures that “bust” era — the liberation of the 1960s is now a fact, it has left some damage in its wake. In its own way, that has contributed as much to the modern world as the revolution of the sixties did — it is more than worthwhile to investigate how it looked at the time.

The Long Song, Andrea Levy

March 23, 2010

Purchased from the Book Depository

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is a rare book for me. I approached it with a list of concerns that I was pretty certain would lead me to find it wanting and concerns like that generally get confirmed; I concluded it feeling that Levy not only had disposed of them, she had produced a highly readable and informative book.

Why was I reading it in the first place? Levy’s last novel, Small Island, won a slew of prizes (Orange, Whitbread, Commonwealth Writers’) and was adapted in a popular BBC series that aired in December. I have not read it nor seen the mini-series but intend to — she seems to explore some of the same turf that Sam Selvon’s Moses trilogy (reviewed here ) did in an earlier generation. The Long Song seems likely to be on some 2010 prize lists (it is already on the Orange Prize longlist) so I figured I would start here and then decide whether to work backwards.

And those concerns? The novel is set in Jamaica in the first half of the nineteenth century. The driving part of the story is about slavery on the sugar plantations and what happens when the faraway colonial masters in Britain proclaim an end to that slavery. I’ll admit that I felt I’ve read as many slavery novels as I think I want to, even if most are about the American experience. An even bigger concern was that all early descriptions of the book indicated Levy told this story in an almost lyrical fashion — and I was pretty sure that this grumpy reader would not find that appropriate, given the horror of the circumstances.

Score one for the author. The book is definitely about slavery and the transition from it in Jamaica. While Levy does not shy from recounting some of the abuses and the horror of that practice, she does it an almost romantic fashion. Like Selvon, there is a fair bit of “survival” humor in her story — unlike him, it has much less of a bitter edge. And she succeeds admirably in peopling her book with a cast of interesting characters; the way that they adapt to their fates (be it as slaves or masters), rather than the larger story around them, becomes the intriguing tale.

UK publisher Headline Review has produced this book in an unusual fashion — an embossed cover, with no dust cover, using the inside front cover to introduce the book and the inside back cover for its brief author bio. That front inside cover excerpt is also the opening of the book:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work. My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

July is a slave girl who lives upon a sugar plantation named Amity and it is her life that is the subject of this tale. She was there when the Baptist War raged in 1831, and she was present when slavery was declared no more. My son says I must convey how the story tells also of July’s mama Kitty, of the negroes that worked the plantation land, of Caroline Mortimer the white woman who owned the plantation and many more persons besides — far too many for me to list here. But what befalls them all is carefully chronicled upon these pages for you to peruse.

Perhaps, my son suggests, I might write that it is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of the people who lived it. All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a novel they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.

That’s as concise and exact a book summary as I have read in a long time — and I can testify that it is honest. The three central characters are introduced, with an appropriate indication that there will be many others. The setting, both geographical and political, is established. And we are given the hint that the “thrilling journey” which the publisher son desires may not be what the narrator intends to produce.

All of The Long Song comes in the form of a “novel” draft written by July, now a woman of advanced years living with her son and his family. She was born a slave, grew up as a slave and lived most of her life as a freed-slave. Levy has chosen to use her characters not to illustrate and develop that overall political theme; rather she uses the setting and circumstances as a ground on which to locate a fascinating cast of characters.

Here is July’s entrance (literally) into the novel:

July was born upon a cane piece.

Her mother, bending over double, hacked with her cane bill into a thick stem of cane. But it did not topple with just one blow. Weary, she straightened to let the fierce torrent of raindrops that were falling run their cooling relief upon her face and neck. She blinked against the rain, wiping the palm of her hand across her forehead. When the serrated edges of the cane leaves dropped their abrasive grit into her eyes, she tilted her head back to permit the rain wash them with its balm. Then she stooped to grab the base of the cane once more to strike it with a further blow.

So intent was she upon seeing that the weeping cane was stripped of its leaves — even in the dampening rain its brittle edges flew around her like thistledown — that she did not notice she had just dropped a child from her womb. July was born right there — slipping out to fall bloody and quivering upon a spiky layer of trash.

Those two quotes don’t just illustrate Levy’s style, they also provide an indication of what she asks from the reader. The novel is written oral history, recounted by a central participant — like most oral histories, it has elements of both fantasy and playing with reality that call upon the reader to give the writer licence. If you don’t like doing that, you won’t like the book — if you are up to it, Levy does deliver a reward.

The Long Song is a story of adaptation and survival in difficult circumstances, not just for the slaves but for their masters, for both are essentially powerless to address those circumstances. Caroline, who ends up owning Amity, doesn’t start out that way. She arrives as a fat, young, spoiled English widow on the plantation owned by her brother who will soon die in circumstances that I’ll leave you to discover. While the novel has its necessary share of villains, Levy chooses not to develop any of them as central characters — the masters in this book are every bit as helpless in their circumstances as the slaves they own. Unfolding history has a way of dragging them all along in its wake.

The result is a novel of fully-developed characters and the story of how they face the world in which they have involuntarily been set. It is not a book about the slave trade; it is a study of a group of people affected by that trade. Levy makes them both lifelike and interesting — and that is all that can be asked from a good work of fiction. And I will be going back to Small Island.

What Becomes, by A. L. Kennedy

March 20, 2010

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I’ve been on a good international run with short story collections in the last year:

— From Canada, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness lived up to very high expectations; Deborah Willis’ debut collection, Vanishing and Other Stories, was a very pleasant surprise.
— From the U.S., Maile Meloy (Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It) was new to me, but I’ll be reading more of her in the future. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, offered a short course in modern Pakistan history. And Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge deservedly won last year’s Pulitzer, drawing comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s classic collection, Winesburg, Ohio, a book that I am very happy I finally discovered.
— Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons confirmed that the Irish author is every bit as good a short story writer as he is a novelist — and provoked me to order a couple of William Trevor collections to re-visit the acknowledged Irish master of the short story (stay tuned on that front). Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes may not have been up to his best novels, but was a worthwhile read.
— And of course I did reread my favorite short story collection of all time, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.

UK cover

I don’t consider myself a particular advocate of the short story, although as a Canadian reader I suspect I read more than many international, particularly UK, readers do — it seems to be a format that attracts more talented writers here than it does elsewhere. And I was somewhat surprised to discover that I had read so many good collections in the last 12 months.

All of which is a very long introduction to A. L. Kennedy’s What Becomes. Kennedy is an oft-published Scottish writer of considerable reputation (this is her tenth fiction book) and positive reviews of this collection at booklit and dovegreyreader did put the book on my radar. Kennedy’s Canadian publisher, House of Anansi, recently released the volume here, so now I can add a Scot to my short story resume.

What Becomes includes 12 stories and calls for a reading discipline that is often beyond me. All short story collections benefit from an approach that says you should only read one or two and then set the book aside for a while (a trait that I have admitted before that I find difficult to practise). Kennedy demands it — both her prose style and content have a lot of similarities from story to story. Read too many at once and they start to run together — space them out and you can appreciate the author’s talent.

Kennedy’s characters tend to be damaged people, either dealing with a loss (a death in the family, the end of a realtionship) or fearful that showing initiative involves taking a risk that will end in loss. Consider Peter, a greengrocer in the story “Edinburgh”, who notices that a young woman has become a frequent visitor to his shop:

Or you could simply stand in your shop and hear yourself dying and do the job that is supposed to pass your time — and then see her.

His day — that day — had not been ready for seeing her.

His days were not ambitious in that way.

Other customers had been about because it was lunchtime, but they were just the usual. She wasn’t. She was made of something different.

Silly how you went home and you thought about her, having nothing else to occupy you beyond a small number of television programmes about Hitler and sharks, anything else being really too much of a challenge, if not an insult, to the mind.

‘They ought to combine them. “Hitler’s Sharks” — everybody would watch that.’

A lonely man needs to decide whether to take a risk. Even though “Edinburgh” is only the third story in the collection, the reader is pretty certain it won’t turn out well. Kennedy is more interested in exploring life’s disappointments than its successes and she does it well.

“Whole Family with Young Children Devastated” is literally about a loss. Another young man is being awakened in the middle of the night by frequent wrong number telephone calls which feature a woman yelling at the dialer in the background, apparently believing he is calling a lover. The frustration is that the awakened man can do nothing to stop the interruptions to his sleep. Kennedy segues into a street scene where the young man discovers every pole features a poster with “pin-sharp colour shots of a tubby old retriever that’s looking up at the camera as if it trusts me, trusts children, trusts absolutely everyone” and with the text:


As you can see, sometimes the author piles up the losses to enable her to contemplate how they relate to each other.

And then there is “As God Made Us”, which explores loss of a different kind:

Once every month they swim together: six gentlemen sharing a leisurely day. They choose whoever’s turn it is to be host, fire off the emails, travel however far, and then rendezvous at a swimming baths and christen the Gathering.

They call it that because of the movies with the Highlander in, the ones with everybody yelling at each other — There can be only one — and mad, immortal buggers slicing off each other’s heads with these massive swords.

You have only got the one head and shouldn’t lose it.

The six all share a kind of loss, but that isn’t what Kennedy makes the story about. Rather, it ends up focusing on a school teacher who objects to their presence at the pool because it upsets her young students who are also out for their swim.

I hope those three examples supply an indication of what What Becomes is about. And perhaps more important why you need to give Kennedy the time to explore in depth what her collection sets out to achieve. None of the stories are cheery (despite the fact that Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian in Glasgow); but every one does examine in detail the particular theme that she has chosen. That is what good short story writers do: They accept the limitations of the format, realizing that is what allows them to paint their limited story in painstaking detail. Kennedy does that with considerable talent — like Meloy, she is another author whom I will be investigating further.

I have included copies of the covers from both the Anansi and UK versions with this review. While they are very different, Kennedy has been well-served by both designers. Her collection has the other-worldliness that the UK cover with its “disco” ball evokes; equally, it has the penetrating introspection that the Canadian cover implies. If you want 20 minutes worth of reading that combines both a level of disturbing fantasy and equally troublesome but intriguing details, any one of the dozen stories in this book will fill the bill.

The Dark, by John McGahern

March 16, 2010

Purchased at

Mrs. KfC suggested the other night that a St. Patrick’s Day posting might be appropriate (I know we treat the day much more seriously in North America than the Irish do — any excuse to drink beer in March, I’d say — but what the heck). I am susceptible to the slimmest of excuse to pick up another John McGahern novel and that suggestion was motivation enough. McGahern ranks as my personal “discovery” of 2009, with many thanks to kimbofo at Reading Matters and John Self at Asylum. They both know Irish fiction much better than I do, but both are also wonderful guides — you will find reviews of McGahern on both their sites.

The Dark was the McGahern novel that I had on hand, his second, a coming of age story that seemed a good counterpoint to The Leavetaking, my last McGahern, a novel that explored his own departure from the teaching trade.

The Dark opens with a classic scene that is typical of the author. The young narrator has used “that word”, his abusive father heard him and it is time for a whipping with the leather strop that is used to hone the knives and razors. He is forced to strip, in his sisters’ bedroom — perhaps even more humiliating than the punishment itself — and await his punishment from the evil father, Mahoney:

“Into that chair with you. On your mouth and nose. I’ll give your arse something it won’t forget in a hurry.”

“No, Daddy, no. I didn’t mean,” he gave one last whimper but he had to lie in the chair, lie there and was as a broken animal. Something in him snapped. He couldn’t control his water and it flowed from him over the leather of the seat. He’d never imagined horror such as this, waiting naked for the leather to come down on his flesh, would it ever come, it was impossible and yet nothing could be more worse than this waiting.

“I’ll teach you a lesson for once,” and then he cried out as the leather came, exploding with a shot on the leather of the armrest over his ear, his whole body stiff, sweat breaking, and it was impossible to realize he hadn’t actually been hit yet.

That quote is McGahern-dark and there is a lot of that in this book of the same name. The mother of the family has died, Mahoney is inclined to drink and abuse anyway and is well beyond his capabilities in raising the children. Parenting becomes a version of bullying and abuse; indeed what the narrator and his siblings most effectively learn is how to bond with each other in a mocking reaction against their father.

As terrible as family life is, it is a life that is known. And for the young in this family, that is a constant that may be better than what the future might hold. The narrator’s oldest sister has had her first period, there is no opportunity in the district and a priest who is an uncle has found her a “situation” in a drapery shop nearby — she is due to depart the nest:

“So the first bird is leaving the nest?” the priest said.

What was there to do but nod in vague depression, she was going, all departures touched in some way everyone’s departure, became disturbing echoes.

“You’ll not feel till your own turn?”

“No, father.”

“You have no final inkling of what you might do yet?”

“No, it’ll depend on the exams.”

“Do you still think of the priesthood?”

“Yes, father, if I could be good enough.”

“It was a great pity you were never sent to the Diocesan Seminary, the time your father wanted you to stay at home from school altogether.”

That exchange captures much of what is so good about McGahern. Joan is headed into the world — surely that must be a good thing given how terrible her existence in the family is, but, but, but — perhaps the future might be worse. And her departure plays back on the state of her brother, the narrator, who basically has four options:

— taking over the marginal farm from his father and remaining, at least for now, in the oppressive womb.
— the priesthood, as represented by his uncle.
— excelling in the Leaving exams, winning a scholarship to the University (only two are on offer in the entire district) or perhaps a spot with the ESB.
— moving to England, to seek his fortune there.

One of the things that McGahern does exceptionally well in this novel, at least for this reader, is alter the voice of his point of view. For me, some of the most impressive parts are narrated in the second person, by far the most difficult for an author to convey. The author puts you in the circumstances of his central character and leads you through all of the conflicts he is facing: opportunity? history? security? fear? Perhaps most impressively, he acknowledges that we all hedge our bets in the real world. That makes this a realistic novel of the first order.

The Dark is definitely not a cheery novel and it won’t go well with all the green beer that will be on the table here in North America on St. Pat’s Day tomorrow. It is, however, an exceptionally good novel that captures the difficult choices that a young man must make in this environment — if you want, the narrator is the polar opposite of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden actively avoids choices, this narrator has no choice but to make them. If you have not read John McGahern, make room for him on your list. He is an exceptionally good writer and this dark, dark novel is a very good example of him at his best. Recommended without any hesitation.

Solar, by Ian McEwan

March 11, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click for info

So here is a 62-year-old male reader, for the second time in two weeks, trying to review a novel by an author of major, major reputation whom the reviewer has respected for decades who is also in his early 60s (Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow is the other if you missed that post.) The central character in both novels is also a well-off male in his early 60s (how much autobiography?); both have been obsessed with sex throughout their lives (is it really autobiography?). While they have both been good at getting it, dealing with the consequences has been a major, even overwhelming, personal issue, if not outright failure. I’ll return to the comparison later — first let’s look at what Solar is about.

Michael Beard is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work he did while in his early 20s, developing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, an extension of Einstein’s work. When we first meet him at the age of 53 in 2000, he has already spent decades living off the avails of that award: honorary (but paying) university positions, memberships on Royal Commissions, consulting editor to numerous publications, paid conference appearances where he delivers the same speech, etc., etc. — it is a long list. While he has niggling concerns about effectively deserting his field, his major current worry is far different — his fifth marriage is disintegrating and, for the first time, it is his wife (Patrice) who is driving the process.

He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleano, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his marriages had lasted more than six years and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented and they protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for something that he was still on speaking terms with his exes.

Needless to say all these wives, except for the first, were younger and the age gap has grown with each succeeding marriage (this latest one is about two decades). Patrice’s lover is a builder who renovated their Belsize Park flat — younger, taller, less fat and with more hair than Michael.

On the professional front, Beard has a new and attractive scam. He is the head (they call him “Chief”) of the National Centre for Renewable Energy in Reading, a Blair government initiative to show concern about climate change and also to one-up the Americans. It is not Beard’s field of expertise and he is a climate change sceptic at best, but the time investment is only one day a week, it is an easy train ride from London and the pay is good since the government needs someone like a Nobel Prize winner to show its commitment. Beard does make a useless, indeed project-killing, suggestion for the invention and development of WUDU (a Wind turbine for Urban Domestic Use, to be mounted like television aerials of the past on rooftops) that completely preoccupies the Centre.

The post-docs who are the scientists of the project (and much more in touch with contemporary science than Beard) are an idealistic, committed bunch (many with ponytails, all in denims). Much of the Centre’s time is taking up by responding to nutbar suggestions from the public, since the Minister has said every idea sent to the Centre would get a response — one post-doc suggests they be sorted into three piles according to their denial of the First or Second Laws of Thermodynamics, or both. That kind of satire is often where McEwan is at his best, but they really are throwaway lines.

This paragraph is a spoiler, in a way, but it is essential to the set up of the book and, honest, takes you no more than a quarter of the way into it. One of the ponytails, Tom Aldous, adopts the Chief as his mentor. Aldous is convinced that the breakthrough answer is a version of photosynthesis, using solar energy to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, just as plants have been doing for millenia to make the planet habitable. In order to set up the novel, McEwan:

— has Aldous become Patrice’s lover.
— die in circumstances that could cast Beard as a murderer
— except perhaps Beard could frame her previous lover
— oh, and Aldous leaves Beard a 300-plus page file on his photosynthesis ideas

If you have ever read any Ian McEwan novel, you will understand why any further plot references in this review are going to be sketchy — it is one thing to outline the set-up, it is truly spoiling to go much further. McEwan’s best novels (Atonement and Enduring Love are at the top of my list) do have a consistent trait. More than 90 per cent of what he describes is very realistic and it is in these parts where the author offers very perceptive observations on modern foibles, usually totally unrelated to the plot. Here is one, somewhat extended, example from an incident at a press conference where Beard is introducing yet another government committee he heads, this one on how to encourage more young people to take up the sciences. It leads to Beard being scandalized in the popular press as the “neo-Nazi professor”:

Then a woman from a mid-market tabloid asked a question, also routine, something of an old chestnut, and Beard replied, as he thought, blandly. It was true, women were under-represented in physics and always had been. The problem had often been discussed, and (he was mindful of Professor Temple as he said it) certainly his committee would be looking at it again to see if there were new ways of encouraging more girls into the subject. He believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached. Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics. There was a concensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different. This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority, nor was it a matter of social conditioning, though of course it played a reinforcing role. These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability.

I have quoted only half the paragraph but I am sure you get the gist. In my days in the newspaper business, there was a phrase that described such incidents (and you would be amazed how often they occur): “Meant it when he said it, not when he read it”. McEwan milks it for several, very funny pages.

Then there is the other 10 per cent of McEwan, where reality is suspended and an unreal, unbelievable world intoduced. In his good books, it is as though the author says “grant me this licence, believe it to be true and I will deliver a result”. In the bad ones, it produces the reader response of “oh, come on, Ian”. Alas, there is far more of the latter than the former in this book. Although there is a hilarious set-piece where Beard heads off to a climate change symposium located on a ship frozen in the winter ice off Spitsbergen. He is the only scientist of the more than 20 participants literally stuck in the middle of frozen nowhere — the rest are all artists of one sort or another, bringing their creative talents to bear on highlighting the issue of climate change. The fact that it works (McEwan in his acknowledgements says he got the idea for this book from a trip with Cape Farewell to Spitsbergen in 2005) is proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, the success of this particular section serves all too much as a reminder of the failure of others in this novel.

While Beard gives up marriage after his fifth dissolves, he does not give up women — the tensions created by that, mixed with the plot line I introduced in the mini-spoiler, drive the bulk of the book. He is an unattractive enough character that one would love to be cheering for the women but they are all drawn in a curiously flat fashion (I’d be interested in comments from women readers on what I at least perceive to be a major shortfall).

Okay, back to comparisons with Amis. The narrators of both books are men in their early 60s, realizing that sex (which has played such a large part of their lives) is entering a diminishing phase at best. Amis sets most of his narrative in the past when his character was 20 and discovering his lifelong obsession — he brings the story into the present in the Coda that I did not like at all. McEwan places his character pretty much in the present (the three sections of the book are set in 2000, 2005 and 2009) but he spends a lot of his time contemplating just what produced his current circumstances. For this reader, the two pretty much look at the same lump of coal, but from two quite different perspectives. For my money, while neither is successful, Amis comes closer to hitting a reader-friendly mark. McEwan’s introduction of the Nobel Prize winner and climate change angles sets the bar for success pretty high (if you are going to use those kind of high level plot gimmicks you have a duty to deliver at an equally high level) and they just don’t work at all. There is enough science to be annoying, not enough to learn much and it mainly ends up getting in the way of what could have been a rather good story.

But then I think that is a characteristic that is true of recent McEwan fiction — Saturday in particular comes to mind. If you liked that novel (I didn’t — the medicine was as distracting as the science is here, the story as thin), I think you would quite like this one. Indeed if you have read a lot of McEwan and liked him (I have read all of his books and for a while would have called him my favorite contemporary author), this book is definitely worth the investment, despite its shortcomings. He is a highly readable author and, if he isn’t annoying you, there are some quite good moments.

On the other hand, if you think he has been slipping badly in recent books (as many McEwan readers do), this one is probably going to confirm that opinion. And if you have only read one or two, my advice would be to go back to the earlier works. For me, at least, McEwan, like his central character Michael Beard, seems to be guilty of living off his past laurels rather than his current achievement.

The Breakwater House, by Pascale Quiviger

March 9, 2010

ARC courtesy House of Anansi -- click cover for info

Translated by Lazer Lederhendler

Just over a year ago in the early days of this blog, I reviewed Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a very good collection of short stories by an exceptional writer.

The Breakwater House might well be titled “Mothers and Daughters” — while it is a novel, the story comes in sections that are very much like a collection of related short stories and the dominant theme throughout is the relationship between mothers and their daughters. Or, perhaps more accurately, daughters and their mothers.

Author Pascale Quiviger is another example of a recent phenomenon — a Canadian author, born in Montreal, who now divides her time between London and Italy (think Kate Pullinger of The Mistress of Nothing fame). She publishes originally in French (think Nancy Huston on that count) but her English translations do very well here in Canada. Her first novel, The Perfect Circle, won a Governor-General’s award and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

The Breakwater House is a complex and often confusing novel, as the author makes clear from the start. The narrator purchases the house of the title on the Normandy coast and wastes little time letting the reader know that all will not be what it seems in this book:

My house is as close to the sea as a house can get before becoming a boat. As close to the sea as a boat when it fails as a boat — by which I mean, when it capsizes.

At times I command the landscape from my house. At times I see nothing at all. In my inner life, this inside of the outside, I exist only as something intangible.

I will write.

When you find yourself prisoner of such a vast horizon, when the shore slips away and the crisscrossing paths on the beach lead to just one house, always the same, with its single huge window, its castaway eye, the only thing left is to unravel, one way or another, the knot that’s choking you. You can’t pretend any more.

The opening section, while filled with powerful description, serves mainly to introduce a number of questions and conundrums about how the narrator came to be there, what history she might have brought with her and why everything is obviously not what it at first seems to be.

Succeeding sections (titled “notebooks”) have a more conventional narrative, yet it is always accompanied by a combination of uncertainty and fantasy that relate to those questions — Quiviger does not answer them, but rather disects them. Lucie is the daughter of a single mother, growing up in a poor side of Paris; her best friend, Claire, the daughter of a conventional middle-class couple, lives in comfort on the other side of a park where the two meet as very young children, but go on to become friends for life. Along the way, they swap clothes, parents and experiences, always learning from each other.

The bulk of the book concerns that friendship (and how these two girls relate both to their own mothers and their past). Lucie’s mother will never address that directly but does tell “stories” about it (fans of A.S. Byatt’s internal fairy tales will find this familiar). The stories are tantalizing and offer some, but not enough, information for Lucie to understand her history:

We all dream the dream of a life where the golden keys turn readily. So much effort goes into our days, so many optical illusions, so much dishwater, so much vague expectation. We all suffer from the body’s imprint, the tightness of its skin, the limits of its strength, its slow wearing out. Because of what we see, know, dream, we look for an easier path. One already cleared. A shortcut instantly within reach. A dogma, a gentle and more or less costly certitude. We set out blind and deaf, but never without the hazy intuition that at the far end of our journey we’ll find both the relief of oblivion and a world with no poem.

I offer those quotes as an example that Quiviger is a writer of considerable talent (very ably translated) who frequently brings the reader to a stop with her observations — and with the inconsistencies of her story. The novel goes down a number of side paths, all worth while, which I won’t attempt to detail here. Both Lucie and Claire become very real characters, but they are always incomplete. There is something not so much missing as yet to be discovered and their attempts to find the absent parts rarely meet with success. Yet they continue to grow and mature and the missing parts become even more relevant to their present, past and future: “Mothers’ daughters become daughters’ mothers, and you will lose only what you can’t let go of.”

Obviously, I am neither a mother nor daughter, so for this reader much of the book was like looking into a clouded mirror, another metaphor that Quiviger frequently employs. I was impressed enough with both the writing and the structure to keep on reading, but I never lost the feeling that I was getting less than half the book. I don’t think that was the author’s fault; rather, this book is addressing issues and ideas that are simply outside both my experience and even imagination. My problem, not Quiviger’s.

If you are either a mother or daughter, I suspect this book would have much more to say to you than it did for me. Selfishly, I would like to see Quiviger apply her considerable talent to a narrative with which I could more readily engage. I can’t help but think that there is a lot of this book that simply passed me by — I certainly welcome comments from readers (and I am sure they exist) with whom it made stronger contact. Toibin’s short stories did strike a responsive chord with me (I am a son, after all) and I can’t help but think this novel would do the same for daughters, or mothers.

The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis

March 4, 2010

Purchased from the Book Depository

For readers who are old enough (that would include me), picking up Martin Amis The Pregnant Widow is like turning your personal clock back four decades, in more ways than one. Part of that is obviously the setting: Most of the book centres on the experiences of a handful of British twentysomethings who are spending the summer of 1970 at a castle in the mountains of Italy. For those who have read Amis, part also lies in the echoes in this new novel of his very first, The Rachel Papers, published in 1973. Amis has admitted that he re-read that novel “for research purposes” while writing this one — even more remiscient than the similar time frame and subject matter of the two novels is that in this one he returns to a much more conventional approach to writing than has been seen in his more recent novels.

More clock-turning than anything else, however, is the central preoccupation of the novel: Sex. Amis makes this clear as he opens the novel proper:

It was the summer of 1970, and time had not yet trampled them flat, these lines:

Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP.

Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (formerly ‘History’), Cover Magazine, February 1968

But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind.

Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.

Martin Amis was born in 1949, as was Keith Nearing, the central character in the book. I was born in 1948 — while I never summered in a castle in Italy, I was still part of the “revolution” that this book explores.

It is worth describing just what things were like for a 21-year-old in 1970. If you were a male Brit (or Canadian), you were very glad you weren’t American — men of your age were being sent off in the draft to die in a pointless war. If you were a student (as the characters here are), the previous decade had closed with sit-ins, occupations and violence — French students came that close to overthrowing the government. The feminist movement was gaining strength; the first gay activists were coming out (there is a gay couple in the book). Those Beatles that Larkin describes had also radically changed the whole notion of “music”. But it is also true that, at least at an individual level, the most “revolutionary” thing was sex. Yes, it had always been there, but the Pill had changed everything — both males and females were fully aware that there were no precedents to tell them what that change meant, they just had to learn through experience. This was different from all that had come before.

The novel’s title, drawn from a epigraph from Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, acknowledges that:

The death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Twenty-year-old Keith is at the castle with Lily, on a “trial reconciliation” which we know from the start is not going to go well. He is walking the streets of Montale with Lily (5’5″, 34-25-34) and Scheherazade (5’10”, 37-23-33). Keith himself is not quite 5’7″ but he is already obsessed by Scheherazade and Lily is full aware of that. This was not an unusual circumstance at that time; remember, both young males and females were trying to figure out what the new order was and they didn’t have much to go by, beyond hormonal pressure.

While these three are at centre stage in the opening parts of the book, Amis does indicate that the other residents of the castle are also on there own voyages of discovery. Everyone does have a partner of sorts, but that doesn’t get in the way of experimentation. A very rich Italian count, Adriano, wanders into the story and becomes even more obsessed with Scheherazade than Keith is — alas, his height (4’10”) puts him at a bit of a disadvantage but the bank account and his helicopter are offsetting factors.

The kids spend a lot of time at the pool in various states of undress or no dress at all. You can imagine the effect that Scheherazade, who favors a monokini, has on Keith. It is also where we first meet Gloria (nicknamed Junglebum by Lily), who will become the most threatening character in the book.

While the sex is always there, Amis does head off along some other avenues. Narcissism is a frequent theme — the 61-year-old author can look at his 20-year-old self with quite a critical eye. Keith is also an English student, working his way through the classics (Austen, Hardy, Eliot and Dickens, among others) as the summer progresses — he has a vague notion that he’d like to work for the Times Supplement. (I should note that the book has many literary references — Ted Hughes, Saul Bellow, William Blake and William Shakespeare are some others.)

Despite the book’s often absurd plot lines, if you lived through the time, it strikes a responsive note. Our generation was self-indulged to the point of narcissism, perhaps at its worst at the fully-developed, but not-yet-quite-adult age. The confusing and often damaging response to the sexual revolution which the 24-year-old Amis explored in The Rachel Papers is examined with a much more sceptical eye in this novel. And the curious removal of these kids from any aspect of the “real” world is a reflection of the times, which I am sure grates on any one who was not of that age (none of these people thought about preparing or applying for a job because when the time came that you had to have one there were lots of choices available — no wonder Generations X, Y and Z hate us).

If the strength of the book is the accuracy with which it captures that age for those of us who went through it, that is also its biggest weakness. I suspect a 35-year-old reader would cheerfully spit on all these characters. And it must be admitted that we males did not treat women very well then (and Amis is not very kind in his portrayal of women), so I also suspect a lot of women readers might equally find the book wanting.

Even this 62-year-old male (that hardly seems to be a fiction reading demographic likely to make The Pregnant Widow a bestseller) has some serious problems with the book. Amis tries to add weight and meaning to his story with “intervals” — observations from the narrator set in 2009:

They were the children of the Golden Age (1948?-73), elsewhere known as Il Maracolo Economico, La Trente Glorieuses, Der Wirtschaftswunder. The Golden Age, when they never had it so good.

What you could hear in the background, during this period, was progress music. The sort of music you heard, for instance, in Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones (1961). We don’t mean the songs. We’re thinking of that long sequence when, with a tap-tap here and a knock-knock there, and to the sound of progress music, the young ones transform a derelict building into a thriving community centre — a youth club, for the young ones.

In the Golden Age progress music was heard in the background by nearly everybody. The first phone, the first car, the first house, the first summer holiday, the first TV — all to progress music. Then the arrival of sexual intercourse, in 1966, and the full ascendancy of the children of the Golden Age.

(SPOILER PARAGRAPH) Perhaps the biggest shortfall of the book is that Amis chooses to end it with a 72-page “Coda” (I am all for codas, but 72 pages is a bit much) where he fast forwards through what happened to the characters between 1970 and 2009, with a couple of pages devoted to almost every year in between. While it seems to be intended to add weight and meaning to the first 80 per cent of the book (all that growing up behavior had consequences), it ends up achieving the opposite effect, almost as though the author lost confidence in the story he had just spent almost 400 pages on and now has to head in another direction.

Despite that, I found the book more than worthwhile (again, with the caveat that maybe you had to be there for it to land that way). This is what it was like — and as the last few decades and particularly last few years have shown, it will never be like this again. That did produce consequences in the current day — with or without the coda, I think most readers can grasp that and draw some of their own conclusions. If you were coming of age in 1970, it definitely rewards the read. I’ll leave it to younger readers to offer an opinion on whether, alas, that might be a necessary condition for it to be a worthwhile book.

Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor

March 1, 2010

Review copy courtesy Bloomsbury

Any story summary of Even the Dogs is bound to discourage, rather than encourage, potential readers. “They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away” is the opening sentence. The story of that body, both how it came to be there and what happens to it in the hands of the authorities in the next few days, is the novel’s narrative structure. Within that structure, author Jon McGregor develops portrayals of a cast of society’s losers, united by their addiction and homelessness, the fact that they used to shoot up behind that door and, most important, their shared alienation from the normal world around them. The sorrow and degradation of the members of this cast are not only relentless, they are explored in often excruciating detail.

The publisher’s description of the book was enough to have me thinking that it wasn’t for me. Two readers whom I respect (Ang and paddy-joe at the Palimpsest forum) convinced me otherwise and I am very glad they did. Even the Dogs is an incredibly moving novel — no matter how dreary this review might make it seem, it deserves to be read. And I fully expect to be discussing it again this summer when the 2010 Booker Prize list is announced; regardless of what is published between now and then, McGregor’s book deserves a place on that list.

It is not just the subject matter that makes Even the Dogs difficult to review. McGregor does not so much tell his story as weave it from badly-damaged raw material. The narrative voice changes, often from paragraph to paragraph. He moves back and forth in time equally frequently without warning and the point of view is often ambiguous. Part of what is so strong about the novel is his ability to slowly pull the reader into that discordant rhythm; any attempt to describe it in more detail is a spoiler in itself.

There is also a “chorus” that is introduced only a few short paragraphs after that opening sentence:

We see someone getting out of taxi parked further up the hill. She leaves the door open, and we see two carrier bags stuffed full of clothes and books and make-up on the back seat. She comes up the short flight of steps, and bangs on the door. This is Laura. She shouts through the letterbox. She gestures for the taxi-driver to wait, and goes round to the side of the building. We see her climbing on to a garage roof and in through the kitchen window of the flat. She stands in the kitchen for a few moments. She looks like she’s talking to someone. She climbs out again, drops down from the garage roof, and gets back into the taxi.

That “we” will be present throughout the book, but McGregor does not neglect the individuals that are part of this ramshackle, substance-abusing community. Permit a couple of quotes on just one, Danny:

We see Danny, running across the playing fields with Einstein limping along behind him. We peer round the corner of the flats and see him climbing on to the roof of the garages. Einstein looks up, barking and scrabbling at the garage door, and we hear the creak of a window being opened.

A few pages later, the opening to chapter two (there are five, each exploring a different aspect of the story as the body moves through the post-death stages of officialdom):

They carry the his body through the city at dusk and take him away to the morgue.

And we see Danny, stumbling away from the garages at the back of the flats, tumbling down the hill like he’s about to fall, rubbing at his cheeks with the backs of his hands in great angry gestures which look almost like punches, wiping at the tears which haven’t yet fallen from a face still twisted with fear. Einstein beside him, snapping and whining and trying to keep up, held back as always by the weight of her broken

That is not a typo at the end of that quote; suddenly breaking off one of his observations while he moves somewhere else is one of McGregor’s more effective techniques. And while the “we” introduces the characters and is always observing, those characters do acquire their own voices and stories. Danny and Laura — and a number of others — become tragically real people as the novel progresses. If you have the patience to join with the novelist in letting your mind roam, rather than asking for tidy linear development, they all come to life.

They do have some other things in common. Their situation is definitely someone else’s fault: parents, child welfare experiences, the army, the state generally. It is a handy excuse and the author (and they) know that is bullshit. They are incredibly accomplished liars, be it at the rec centre, the day shelter, the soup kitchen, the vicar’s manse. Also, being an addict is a full-time job and then some. Having scored (and usually shared) a hit, life immediately moves on to getting the next one. In fact, many of the characteristics of “normal” life (threats, opportunities, fear, hope, the value of loyalty, the cost of misplaced trust) play out in this community as well, they just play out in different ways.

As I hope the quotes illustrate, without being too much of a spoiler, the author accomplishes this with prose that is deliberately flat and unemotional; absolutely devoid of melodrama and as results-oriented as the coroner who eventually shows up late in the book. The material is so powerful in and of itself, that there is absolutely no need for flourish — for this reader, at least, all of the emotion builds of its own accord.

I’m afraid this review does a very poor job of adequately describing why this is such a good book. Trust me — it is. And trying to illustrate why would ruin the chance of letting you discover that for yourself.

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