Archive for May, 2010

Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

May 30, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House -- click cover for more info

While Ghosted is the first novel from Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, it is worth noting that it is not his first book. Bishop-Stall spent a year living with the homeless in Toronto’s Tent City and chronicled his experiences in Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown, a non-fiction work that was good enough to make a number of 2005 prize lists (I have not read it). Before you pick this novel up, it is also worth paying attention to the first sentence of the cover blurb from Linden MacIntyre, winner of last year’s Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man: “Ghosted is not for the faint of heart — in places it’s an unflinching exploration of depravity.” Given that MacIntyre’s novel was not exactly cheery, the need for that warning from him in a cover blurb is not something to ignore.

I will add my own warning. When an author has spent a year living with the homeless and already successfully written about that, yet feels a need to expand on it in a work of fiction, there is good reason to expect some pretty grim stuff — and Bishop-Stall delivers that. His central character, Mason Dubisee, is not homeless, but that is only because his drug dealer has put him up in an apartment in a particularly tough part of Toronto. Dubisee is an alcoholic and chronic losing gambler, as well as a drug addict, and a struggling survivor of the city’s underside. Among the depravities in the book, suicides play a central role, there is a rape of an eight-year-old child and a fair bit of random violence takes place.

If that puts you off, by all means abandon this review now — I won’t be trying to sugar-coat any of it (although I’ll also just be skimming the surface). On the other hand, Jon McGregor’s Even The Dogs involves a similar setting and cast in Birmingham, is equally disturbing and is a novel that many, including me, believe should be on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. Bishop-Stall’s book is, for me, equally successful: a faithful portrayal of a disturbing way of life lived by all too many in Canada’s largest city, featuring a credible central character and supporting cast and a carefully-developed plot that evolves into a compelling thriller. If you can get past the blackness, there is even humor and hope. For this reader, Ghosted ranks with the best first novels that I have read in recent years.

The title comes from a diagnosis that Mason’s counsellor at MHAD (the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Centre) has made. She says that the path of his life is “ghosted” by the memories of various damaging incidents, betrayals, sins and traumas from his past. They began, literally, at his birth:

Mason Dubisee dodged a booze-propelled bullet on the day he was born.

His father came in to the hospital room smiling — a bottle of champagne cradled in his arms. He looked at his wife and new-born son, tore off the foil and cranked the wire. Angling the bottle heavenward, he pushed with his thumbs.

The cork shot out with incredible force. It ricocheted off the ceiling, a wall, then rocketed into the pillow an inch from Mason’s infant craniium.

His father told the story for years to come. Grinning with pride, he’d pass around the infamous cork: “I swear to God, he dodged the fucking thing.”

It was a feat that would prove more difficult as Mason’s life went on.

Bishop-Stall spends the first half of the novel setting in place the characters, incidents and surroundings which will serve as the building blocks for the thriller that the latter half of the book will become — his chapter headings actually make this clear. The first five “titles” list characters that will be introduced in that chapter, Chapter Six (of ten) is headed “No More Introductions”. This review is going to concentrate on the first half — if you are up to that, the last half flows very quickly.

First, let me note the fidelity of the novel to contemporary Toronto. The apartment that Mason’s drug-dealer (Chaz, whom he grew up with in British Columbia) has put him in is located at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and College Street, one of the city’s better-known, if seedier, intersections. His window offers a view of MHAD (in real life, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) across Spadina. A short walk down the street, there is a Harvey’s restaurant where a fair bit of the action takes place. A modern speakeasy/drug den will eventually show up in the basement of the building. All of this is real — I know because during the three years that I lived in Toronto I stopped at this intersection (the light was always red) every day on the way to and from work. In the real world, there is a men’s shelter on the ground floor next door to Mason’s building. You can imagine the characters that an addiction centre and homeless shelter attract — I can assure you, they were all loitering on the sidewalk every day and they are present in Bishop-Stall’s book.

In a brilliant piece of design, one of them even makes the cover — a disturbed person who spends his time flying an imaginery kite and whom Mason frequently watches (the kite is white in the cover illustration here; on the real volume it is almost a palimsest that can only be seen by tilting the book). Bishop-Stall is equally faithful to the rest of Toronto in the book: it features realistic portrayals of Spadina’s Chinatown, the Kensington Market and, perhaps most important, the Bloor Street viaduct, until a few years ago North America’s second most popular site (after the Golden Gate Bridge) for individuals who chose that method of suicide. You don’t have to know the city for this aspect of the book to work, but if you do, you will be in familiar territory.

Chaz does want Mason to pay for the apartment, so he needs a job — and Chaz has found him one. Chaz’s Uncle Fishy has just set up the Dogfather Hotdog Company and Mason is hired on to tend the Dogmobile, a street-vending hot dog kitchen van shaped as an over-sized fedora (a literary tip of the hat to A Confederacy of Dunces here) that he parks each day in the Matt Cohen parkette (another homage, this time to a Canadian author) at Spadina and Bloor, one of the city’s busier intersections. It is at the cart that Mason meets Warren, who on first meeting is so afraid of everything that he can’t even eat the hot dog Mason sells him because the mustard and ketchup scare him. The two eventually find a non-scary version (a weiner securely wrapped in a leaf of Romaine lettuce — Warren is afraid of mixed colors) and become sort of friends.

Warren discovers that Mason is a writer working on a novel (this one, of course) and hires him — for $5,000 — to write a love letter to the clerk at the video store whom Warren has fallen in love with. After several false starts, Mason produces a final, acceptable version. Only a few days later, he discovers that Warren has drowned in Lake Ontario. He goes to the funeral and is stunned to hear his “love letter” read by Warren’s sister as a eulogy:

“They found this on my brother’s desk,” she said, then flattened the papers and began to read:

I’ve got a lot of fears.

I am scared of heights and tunnels. I am scared of crowds and being alone, of speed and paralysis, of dawn and dusk and so many lights between.

I am scared of spiders and Janet Jackson, of needles, bonfires and middle initials, of the earth speeding up so that gravity kills us and the birds explode in the trees.

I am scared of drought. I am scared of drowning — of tidal waves, heat waves, electromagnetic radio waves, the signal passing through our bodies; the static, the snow, the wind that blows through your sleep so it feels like you’ve fallen awake in your bed, the terror of hitting the waves.

That’s only about a third of the letter, but you get the point. The love letter part comes at the end: “But also I am brave as hell. I look and then I leap. I hope to see you when I land.”

Mason convinces himself that Warren actually hired him to write his suicide note; another ghost has just been planted in memory, but it won’t loom until later on. In the short term, the cost of his drug, gambling and alcohol habits is outstripping the income he can generate at the hot dog cart and Mason decides to open a new enterprise. He places an ad on (“A forum for those with final thoughts”):

Professional ghostwriter available, for notes and letters. Rates negotiable.

He has his first client, a disturbed young woman, within a week. His second is one of the book’s more interesting diversions: Soon Sahala, a designer who was the runner-up in the competition to produce a plan to make the Bloor Street viaduct suicide-proof. This too is faithful to Toronto — they really have made the viaduct suicide-proof with a curtain of harpstring-like steel rods, a design which Soon and Mason (and Bishop-Stall, obviously) don’t like. Soon’s proposal (The Wings Of Hope, originally called Save Your Breath) had been rejected:

The “wings” would be made of a strong, translucent material — the same stuff they make parachutes out of — suspended from the sides of the bridge by airplane cables that angled upwards. They wouldn’t necessarily stop someone from jumping but rather catch them if they did. And there was no real way to climb out of them. Once caught in the wings’ embrace there’d be little to do but wait.

Both of those clients join the “ghosts” that are part of Mason’s driving memories, but it is his third, a psychopath, that sets the thriller part of the novel in motion.

And that’s enough of the story for this review, which has already gone on too long. Rest assured, a lot more happens but I think you can get the sense. I would like to emphasize that I have dealt with only a fraction of the stories, themes and characters introduced in the first half of the book (I figured some depth around a few was better than a cursory survey of many) and haven’t touched any of the material in the latter half of the book (which includes the most gruesome parts). As well, I have not even mentioned some of the writing devices (some successful, others not) that Bishop-Stall uses — be aware they are there, and while most worked for me, I know they won’t work for some. As Linden MacIntyre says, this is not a book for everyone but if you are open to it, Ghosted is an amazing reading experience.

Ghosted is one of four novels in Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program for 2010 (two have been previously reviewed here: Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton and Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor). Both those novels were good; in my opinion, this one is better. The New Face of Fiction program has an impressive record of introducing outstanding new Canadian novelists: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake are just three of the more outstanding titles that have been published as part of this program. For this reader, Ghosted is a worthy addition to that impressive roster.


All That Follows, by Jim Crace

May 26, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House -- click cover for info and excerpt

The year is 2024, the setting England. Leonard Lessing, a jazz saxophonist with the stagename Lennie Less, to evoke “penniless”, is on sabbatical from music, plagued by rotator cuff issues that make playing difficult — he can afford it thanks to past successes. He’s at his telescreen (this is the future, so all communication functions have been centralized in one device — just like Google and Sony promised us last week) when a report comes on with live coverage of a hostage-taking:

The hair is unmistakable: old-fashioned Russian hair, swept back from the forehead, thickly and unusually abundant. Leonard stands on the rug a meter from the television screen to see more closely. The video footage is grainy and unsteady, purposefully amateur. The man reading the prepared statement in the curtained room does not mean to be recognized. Instead, he has masked his face to the bridge of the nose with what appears to be a child’s scarf. His voice, crudely distorted on the sound track, is childlike too. He wears sunglasses, defiantly unfashionable E-clips, ten years old at least. The light beam from the camera is lasered at his chest and the lowest half of his scarf, so that what little of the face can be seen — the ears, the eyebrows and the forehead — is underlit and ghostly. But the hair is unmistakable.

Lennie recognizes the image — it’s Maxie, Maxie Lermon, Maxie Lermontov, “the big-smiled American son of Russian immigrants”. Eighteen years earlier in Texas, Maxie was “a comrade, colleague, accomplice” of Lennie’s. The television image evokes memories of some dubious activity then — Lennie, a classic avoider of involvement, has opened the door to his own version of personal hell.

That is the opening of All That Follows, the tenth novel from Jim Crace, a Birmingham-based writer of some renown. I had heard about him but have not read any of his previous work. I have been meaning to rectify that and when he said in a recent interview that he would only be writing one more novel, now seemed a good time to start. A blogger whose opinion I trust highly — John Self at the Asylum — is a Crace advocate, which added weight to that resolve. I won’t try to summarize Crace’s career — you can find a link to John’s review of this novel (which does include that history) and an online interview with the author here. I recommend both highly as supplying far more Crace context than this review will.

That hostage-taking and its eventual conclusion form the thriller part of the novel. But for this reader at least, the much more interesting, parallel, story line is introduced in the final paragraph of the first chapter when Lennie contemplates what he should do now that he knows who the unidentified hostage-taker is:

Leonard could pick up the telephone at any time to offer information to the police. He knows he should. Identify the unidentified. Supply a name. Provide intelligence. But it is already late and Leonard is still trembling. It has been a tense and shocking day, and he is too troubled for anything except retreat. It has gone midnight. Everybody will be sleeping now, or trying to. The police, the comrades, the hostages. Leonard will be sleeping soon, still dressed, on his futon, so frequently his bed these days, the television flickering, Francine unreachable upstairs. Tomorrow he should phone. He will phone. He will never phone. He does his best to sleep.

Back in Austin in 2006, Lennie was one of three members of a political group of “Texas troublemakers” who called themselves Snipers Without Bullets. The other two were Maxie and his girl friend, the newly-pregnant Nadia who is Lennie’s reason for having flown in from England (he didn’t know about either Maxie or the pregnancy). Maxie has developed an “action” for Snipers — code-named AmBush — and mentally bullies Lennie into taking part. That radical action wasn’t life-threatening (it becomes hilarious in fact) but this one seems more serious. Crace does have a sense of both humor and the absurd.

We don’t find that Texas history out until well into the book so I will go no further. In an action-driven book, reviews that indicate too many of the driving incidents effectively destroy the book — part of what is attractive about this novel is the way Crace takes his next absurd step and he needs the element of surprise. Take my word for it, all three plot streams — the semi-dystopia, the hostage-taking and Lennie’s devout conflict avoidance — all have numerous surprises. Indeed, perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that there are simply too many of them.

So how do those three streams flow?

The semi-dystopia (sorry about the term, but the novel isn’t really dystopian; neither is it normal) is perhaps the weakest. The author needs the conflict between 2006 and 2024 both to set up the tension arising from the 18-year-gap in his narrative threads and to underline the powerlessness of his characters. While there is a Reconciliation Summit about to take place in the district and the hostage-taking is believed to be linked to it, the thread doesn’t really go anywhere — when Crace inserts one of his surprises on this theme it is almost as if he has thought “whoops, have to get back to that one now”. The problem with dystopias in fiction is that they always need to be there at the centre of the story and this one is merely a third of it.

The hostage-taking line works far more effectively and is what kept this reader turning the pages. The twists and turns in the present stretch credibility but provide rewards if you go along with them; the excursions back into history are equally worthwhile. Again, however, if you are going to use a device like this it needs to be the dominant theme throughout the book and, like the dystopia, it is only an equal strand in this one.

By default, that leaves the conflict avoidance thread as the strongest in the book. The Lennie of 2006 wants no more a role in being part of the action than the Lennie of 2024 does — even to the point of being unwilling to call the police to reveal an identity. And yet…he has a curiosity that means not only is he equally incapable of taking evasive action, he has a driving need to get close to what he sincerely wants to avoid to see what is going on. Which of course locates him as an unwitting victim right at the centre of what he is trying to avoid.

Action, absurdity, humor and a sympathetic, if hapless, central character — coupled with a reader-friendly prose style — make All That Follows a fast-paced, entertaining read. Unfortunately, a product of those three equally-weighted story lines is that it is not much more. I closed the book thinking “that was a good read” and four days later needed to pick it up again to remind myself what it was about. I’d call it “a great airplane book for serious readers”. There is nothing the matter with that but I must admit that, given Crace’s literary reputation, I was expecting more.

The Women Who Would Be King: A Guest Post from Mrs. KfC

May 23, 2010

In Canada, this is the Victoria Day holiday weekend, marking the beginning of summer. The day is named for Queen Victoria (birthday, May 24, 1819), the monarch on the throne when this new country was organizing itself and we are all very grateful that the Powers in Charge turned their collective attention to the business of designating holidays. That they named this day after Queen Victoria speaks to their attachment to the crown of England and the esteem in which the monarchy was held in those distant days.

Of course all that has changed, and the British monarchy today is a quaint anachronism. It is, however, the world’s most visible and famous matriarchy, having an unbroken line of defining women dating back to Queen Victoria. The men on the throne were weak, ineffectual sorts, oversupplied with the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha blood which rendered them rather gormless and to a man they sought out strong defining partners. From 1936 to today, five steely women alternately nearly destroyed the monarchy (Wallis Simpson), redefined it (the Queen Mother ), stabilized it (Queen Elizabeth II), nearly destroyed it again (Princess Diana), and rendered it irrelevant (Camilla Parker-Bowles). As we await the announcement that Prince William has proposed to Kate Middleton, it’s interesting to explore the women who have preceded her and ponder what part she will play in the future of the monarchy.

Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice divorced American, brought the throne perilously close to destruction in 1936, and defined the monarchy’s world view to this day. She was a cunning, ambitious woman who stole the heart of Edward the Eighth and prompted him to abdicate the throne as he tearfully announced that he could not bear the weight of the crown without the support of the woman he loved. Charles Higham’s superb book The Secret Life of the Duchess of Windsor chronicles her journey. From early days as a poor aspiring deb in Baltimore, to her mysterious sojourn in China (some say as a skilled prostitute), through her two early marriages, Higham follows a ruthless, manipulative woman, who puts herself in the way of a weak and narcissistic David Windsor (Edward was his chosen coronation name), who throws caution and decorum to the wind, and embarks on a sybaritic and self indulgent life with Wallis, travelling the world openly as lovers. Once the British press broke their complicit silence on the affair, a full constitutional crisis ensued and he was forced to abdicate. Higham does a wonderful job of painting a picture of the “bright young things”, making ready to take over the monarchy, to their painful fall from grace and their empty existence as vagrant émigrés, living in Paris and searching for meaning for the rest of their lives. The British were unforgiving, never allowing the couple to return to England after their scarper out of the country and this humiliation drove them in to the arms of Hitler, who planned to restore them to the crown when he won the war. To understand why the Windsors think and behave as they do today, and why the current Queen will never abdicate, this book is a must read.

Hugo Vickers helps us understand the next phase of the monarchy in his scholarly yet immensely readable biography of Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. Often regarded as a bonnie lass from Scotland, a sweet tempered grandmother to the nation, Vickers debunks those quaint notions with dispatch in his book. Elizabeth finally married Prince George after he wore her down with his proposals and they settled in to a life of happy domesticity. They watched with horror as the crisis unfolded in 1936, and understood that their private days were over as George was to ascend to the crown upon the abdication of his brother David. Not only was he woefully unprepared for the role, he was a reedy, shy, self conscious man with a pronounced stammer which rendered him incapable of speaking when under any stress. Vickers is masterful in his description of the transition which forever changed their lives. Elizabeth understood that the British people had become entranced with the love story of Wallis and David, supporting their marriage and ascendance to the throne. In a stroke of genius, Elizabeth, who understood that George was incapable of governing on his own, invented “the Royal Family” playing off her brother-in-law’s departing words that he could not govern without the support of the woman he loved. Elizabeth commissioned a film of the family at work and at play (a brilliant move which forever engaged the British public with the King, the Queen and the little Princesses) and set about to create of herself the “un-Wallis”. While Wallis was a chic clothes horse, much admired in her Mainbocher and Schiaparelli creations, Elizabeth studied the portraits of former monarchs, and styled herself in the manner of women in Winterhalter paintings, and commissioned Hardy Amies (the royal clothier) to create the frothy, feminine pastel outfits she wore for her entire life, which defined her as a soft, sweet woman of the people. She refused to leave London during the war when it was being bombed, and earned the undying respect of her subjects when she toured the bombed-out East end of London to support and encourage the families whose homes had been destroyed. She was Queen for a mere 16 years, but Queen Mother for 51. She was a public relations and branding genius who put the survival of the monarchy above all else, forever scarred by the drama of the abdication and the close call the institution had with irrelevancy. (Ironically, as we shall see in the Princess Diana segment of this post, she sowed the seeds of its second near-death experience.)

Elizabeth II, the current Queen, has now reigned for 58 years, 3 months and, with one notable exception, has never put a foot wrong. She ascended the throne at the age of 26, as a young wife and mother and devoted her life to duty and the crown.

The Queen – A Biography of Elizabeth II by Ben Pimlott is a workmanlike biography of a remarkable life. Queen Elizabeth has served 12 British and Canadian Prime Ministers and known 12 US presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. (KfC says Australia and Italy come next on his list of visitors – for the record, her reign has seen 11 Australian Prime Ministers and 45 Italian heads of state.) If she lives until September, 2015, she will surpass Queen Victoria as the longest serving female monarch in history. Her story is the story of the 20th and 21st centuries and to follow her reign is to follow the history of all the important themes of modern British history. When she makes her 24th visit to Canada next month, this indefatigable monarch will be received with the warmth and affection she has earned as a steadfast supporter of the people and institutions of the country.

Her devotion to duty, though, has come with a price. Three of her four children are divorced and the Windsors became the poster family for dysfunctional relationships in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Considering that one of the most painful times of her life involved denying her sister Princess Margaret leave to marry Peter Townsend, the love of her life, because he was divorced, it is indeed ironic, although not surprising, that her family is in marital disarray.

In 1997, she followed the advice of tone deaf courtiers and responded coldly and remotely to the death of Princess Diana, incurring the wrath of her subjects. She had reigned with a supreme sense of duty and decorum, but was ill-equipped to understand or respond to the emotional outpouring caused by the premature death of Diana. While this was the cause of her “annus horribilus”, and once again imperiled the very monarchy, she gradually restored calm and dignity to The Firm and has not has a bad annus since. She has lost her beloved mother and her much loved sister Margaret, but invests much in William, who carries her hopes for the regeneration of the monarchy in the future. What she thinks of Prince Charles, and his prospects as a king, is a mystery, and deservedly so.

Princess Diana’s life is much chronicled, but the definitive work remains Diana, Her True Story by Andrew Morton. Written with her full cooperation, and that of her friends, this is the story of the consequences of the Windsor’s ill conceived choice of a brood mare for Prince Charles. The Queen Mother was instrumental in tipping Diana for The Bride, as she was the granddaughter of Ruth, Lady Fermoy, her Lady in Waiting, and was presumed to know the drill: get married, produce an heir and a spare, and then go on about your business, as your husband goes on about his (in this case, Camilla Parker Bowles). But Diana was having none of it, and when, as a young and beautiful bride, she realized that her husband had never given up his torrid relationship with Camilla, and was openly flaunting it with the country set, she took a page from the Queen Mother’s book and proceeded to win the hearts of the people, in her eventual quest to become the Peoples’ Princess. She was glamorous, warm, modern, and just plain fabulous. Aside from stalking heart surgeons, and the odd fling with a footballer and various psychics, she came to devote her time to good causes – AIDS awareness, land mines. Had she lived she might well have become a saint — or blown herself up, we can never know. Her record of poor choices in men ultimately caused her death. She and Dodi Al Fayed were en route to see the Paris chateau of Wallis Simpson and Edward the night she died. Her lasting contribution to the monarchy is in the gene pool, which she has greatly enhanced. Her attempts to modernize the institution have fallen on fallow soil, as Prince Charles has reverted to days of yore and is given to muttering to his plants and criticizing architectural carbuncles, often crossing constitutional lines with his opinions.

And finally, Camilla Parker Bowles. Camilla, The King’s Mistress: A Love Story by Caroline Graham is a sanitized but still prurient account of the affair between Prince Charles and Camilla which started when they were both 18 years old and continues uninterrupted to this day. It prevailed through each other’s marriages, the birth of four children (two to each) and 44 years of life itself. She is a thoroughly unlikeable woman to those of us who know her only by her story. To those who DO know her personally, she is apparently a topping great gel and wonderful fun. She is not beloved by Prince Charles’ subjects, and if he does become king and she does become his queen (which she will do), they could well render the monarchy irrelevant and hasten the road to a republic. Poor hapless Charles has led a life waiting for his mother to die – which must be a very strange way to exist. If the Queen follows her mother’s example, she will live to a very old age indeed, and Charles could be a very doddering old thing when he is crowned. Not a good sign for someone who so closely resembles his great Uncle Edward. And who is not helped by his consort, an entitled and unloved woman.

And now we wait. Kate Middleton will be the next in this line of powerful women – each having shaped the monarchy, some for better, some for worse. To date, Kate remains a cipher. She is a beautiful, elegant young woman who has kept her own counsel and kept her set in check. No tittle tattle to the press, or embarrassing stories popping out of the closet. All we know of her is that she has played a brilliant long game, and appears to have learned lessons from predecessors’ past mistakes. The monarchy is in serious need of a glamour infusion, and she is well equipped for that. But can she reform it in the face of the intransigent courtiers who have re-taken the court in service of the Queen and Camilla? We wait………

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

May 19, 2010

Purchased at

Let’s pause for a brief glance over the shoulder. KfC has already confessed to an attraction to “school” novels, first in a review of two recent U.S. ones (reviewed here) that attracted prize attention, later with Tobias Wolff’s excellent Old School. And I have also admitted a fondness for “foodie” novels; see Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody.

But there is an even bigger KfC reading talisman — novels about journalism. My first real job in 1969 was as a summer reporter at The Calgary Herald; 26 years later I walked out of the Herald as its departing publisher. The last 30 years of the 20th century were, in North America at least, an amazing time for journalists and I was proud to be part of it. And I will also admit I am very glad that I am not a part of the struggles that newspapers are facing now.

So when I read two falling-off-the-wall, upbeat, complimentary reviews of Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, in the NY Times (see them here and here), I will admit that the book was ordered immediately and moved to the top of the reading pile. Journalists are protective of their turf and often resent fictional descriptions of it — but when they are well done, that grumpiness means we love them even more. And while Breslin or a couple of others might have been around long enough to allow description, a “kid’s” view (that would be anyone under 50) would not be appropriate, unless it was truly exceptional. The Imperfectionists has now been read and — ta da — it is every bit as good as those NY Times reviews said it would be. While I won’t be revealing any of my “newspaper” favorite novels until the comment discussion opens (okay, Scoop is one), this novel will be on the list, I assure you.

In the early 1950s, Cyrus Ott is a rich American wandering around Rome without a purpose. He decides to found an international, English-language newspaper based there. While that may sound like a strange economic decision, he is also buying, almost like ju-jubes or some other candy, art work by Leger, Modigliani and Turner, so this “newspaper” is just another trifle where his considerable fortune can be put to use.

A trifle for Ott, but not for the people who work there. The current time of The Imperfectionists is more than a half century later — 2007 to be precise. The paper (it is never given a title in the novel) continues to publish, although not thrive. Its early circulation, stuck at about 15,000 a couple of decades ago, “soared” to 25,000 and now is back to about 10,000 — the paper is draining money every day, kept alive by Ott’s hapless survivors (who are blowing most of his fortune anyway — beware the third generation) in his memory. It is home to a beehive of interesting characters.

The Imperfectionists is being marketed as a novel and I have no objection with that. What it really is, at least for me, is 11 character sketches of individuals whose shared experience happens to be their relationship to “the paper”, headquartered in a building on the Corso Vittorie Emanualle II in Rome. If you have been to Rome, you know about that address — if you haven’t, rest assured you will see it on your first visit. And if you stay there long enough and are a perceptive observer, you will see some of these characters. The ex-pat who finds a way to survive in Rome is one of the sub-themes that Rachman is most effective at developing. He lives there and did work for The International Herald Tribune so he knows whereof he speaks.

I am not going to try to give you a portrait of all 11 but would like to provide a few quotes to illustrate a couple, if only to interest you in the other nine. Rachman introduces each of his chapters with a headline from the paper. Under the heading of “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”, here are some observations about Herman Cohen, Corrections Editor of the paper:

* GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor’s job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.

He hits save. It is entry No. 18,238. “The Bible” — his name for the paper’s style guide — was once printed and bound, with a copy planted on every desk across the newsroom. Now it exists solely within the paper’s computer network, not least because the text has grown to approximately the size of metropolitan Liechtenstein. The purpose of the Bible is to set down laws: to impart whether a “ceasefire” is, properly speaking, a “cease-fire” or indeed a “cease fire”; to adjudge when editors must use “that” and when “which”; to resolve quarrels over prepositions, false possessives, dangling modifiers — on the copydesk, fisticuffs have broken out over less.

If you ever worked at a daily newspaper prior to, say, 1990, you would know a version of Herman Cohen (the version at the one that I ran — “Gus” — was rigorously insistent that no one could talk to him when he arrived at work until he removed his street shoes and put on the rabbit-fur-lined slippers that were his work attire). These guys had been there forever, been through most jobs (Herman has been “acting” editor-in-chief three times in his career) and they knew more about corporate history than any of the legitimate files could ever reveal. They did not just have a copy of Strunk and White or Fowler on their desk, they had all of the last five editions and could tell you just where changes had been made in each, usually to their dismay. A young reporter going over to their lair to consult on an apostrophe would be risking an hour of direction.

(ASIDE: My personal favorite: “To the manner (manor) born.” I knew enough that “manner” was correct but headed over anyway. After more than 30 minutes discussion with two of these creatures — and reference to numerous works — it was agreed that both versions are correct, but a reporter has to know when to use each. E.g. Prince Charles is “to the manner” born because of the way he leans on his birth to justify his shortcomings. Diana, Princess of Wales, is “to the manor born” because of the way that she exploits her birth in her upward surge, moving on to bigger castles.)

Consider the editor’s relationship with Herman:

She often stops by for advice. Her deputy may be Craig Menzies, but Herman is her true counselor. He has worked at the paper for more than thirty years, has held most editorial jobs here (though never reporter), and served as the acting editor-in-chief during interregnums in 1994, 2000 and 2004. Staffers still shiver to recall his stewardship, Yet for all his bluster Herman is not disliked. His news judgment is envied, his memory is an unfailing resource, and his kindness emerges for all those who hang around long enough.

Then there is Ruby Zaga, a copy editor “who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.” Here’s the opening of Ruby’s chapter — since she is a copy editor who writes headlines, it is titled with one of her better ones, “Kooks With Nukes” (for those visitors who don’t know about headline writing that is a one column, three deck — i.e. you need to have three words, none of which are longer than about eight letters).

The jerks tooks her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It’s amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then. “Pricks”, she mutters. She should just quit. Hand in her resignation. Never set foot in this place again. Leave these idiots in the dirt.

Here are a few more of the characters and the headlines for their respective chapter: Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko (“Bush Slumps To New Low In Polls”); obituary writer Arthur Gopal (“World’s Oldest Liar Dies At 126”); business reporter Hardy Benjamin (“Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says”); chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola, universally known as Accounts Payable to the staff (“Markets Crash Over Fears Of China Slowdown”) and reader Ornella de Monterecchi (“Cold War Over, Hot War Begins”).

My fascination with Rachman’s exceptional portrayal of detail is getting in the way of my description of the volume itself (although it is the detail that truly makes the book). The novel may be a collection of character sketches but at the end of each one the author goes to the back story for a page or two and gives us some history of “the paper”. It is a highly effective device for knitting together the present and the past — and very unusual for a first novelist to be able to carry off.

I loved this book and I am pretty sure anyone who has ever worked in the “news” business — or is a spouse of those of us who have — will have the same response. Does that make it a great novel? I’m not sure. But it is certainly good enough to join a canon (which we will talk about in the comments) of books about journalism. And finally, if you have never worked in the news writing business but wonder about it, this is as good (well, funny) a fictional portrayal of what was happening there in the last few decades as any I have read. And, not to be overlooked, it is set in Rome and Rachman obviously knows that exceptional city very well.

KfC’s IMPAC thoughts

May 18, 2010

Having now completed my reading of the 2010 IMPAC shortlist, I’ll indulge in some critical thoughts and even a hesitant prediction. Those who know my record in literary predictions outside Canada (where I actually have a pretty good record) will realize that this is most likely to produce sure losers, rather than probable winners. Still, I’ve read the books (and reviewed all but two — Trevor and dovegreyreader do a better job than I could on those ones). You can find links to reviews in the sidebar over here >>>>>>. And before we start, a reminder that entries in KfC’s 2010 IMPAC contest remain open until June 16, so by all means join the contest. Full details are here — you can submit an entry on that post or this one.

As noted in that post, the IMPAC is an odd duck in the literary contest world. Nominations come from libraries around the world (which I think is a good thing because it reflects reader judgment) and are restricted to English language books or books published in English translation in 2008. On the positive side, that means the novels have been reader-tested; on the negative side, it means they risk being a bit shopworn or have been overlooked.

I would offer the observation that IMPAC juries seem to relish this oddness and respond with some offbeat picks, as though they appreciate the chance to draw attention to books that have fallen through the cracks. Consider the last five winners:

2009 — Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas — a post-modern American novel that attracted a few favorable reviews but not many. And one of the rare books that I abandoned (I warned you about my contest record).
2008 —De Niro’s Game, by Rawi Hage — a Canadian novel that did not go very far in national competitions here. I was lukewarm about it .
2007 — Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian. A book that I would never read had it not been an IMPAC winner and a book that I very much liked — some readers did find it slow.
2006 — The Master, by Colm Toibin. In the IMPAC world, this is the oddball winner because it is the most conventional novel of these five and the only one written by a “name” author. A very, very good book.
2005 — The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. An American novel about slavery that I have not read — I’ll confess that I have read as many of those novels as I think I am up to. It does have a good critical reputation.

So, with that recent history in mind, how does the 2010 shortlist stack up? I’d start by breaking it down into three categories.

There are three “American” novels: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and The Believers by Zoe Heller (I know she’s English, but it is set in New York). Home is probably the most accomplished of the three and won last year’s Orange Prize. It provokes some highly varied responses — many readers love it with a passion, others (including me) have no taste for it at all. It would be The Master on this year’s list and I’m guessing the jury will decide it has already won enough prizes. Of the other two, Netherland has attracted more attention, but no significant prizes: The Believers has tended to pass unnoticed, despite Heller’s reputation. If the winner comes from these three, I’d guess Netherland — and that would be my choice as well.

Then there are three translated novels: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (from the French); The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (from the Dutch) and Settlement, by Christoph Hein (from the German). The Barbery is an international success story and a book club favorite — I suspect too light to win this prize. I liked both the Bakker and the Hein — my choice would be Settlement and I suspect it would be the jury’s as well. It is an excellent book and the subject matter (the complications of re-unifying Germany) is both timely and worthwhile.

And there are two UK books: In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric and Ross Raisin’s Out Backwards (God’s Own Country in the UK.) Edric is a prolific novelist whose work shows up periodically in competitions — I think this book is the weakest of the eight (which means you can mark it down as a sure winner). Settlement was a wonderful discovery for me. Hein has a substantial European reputation but this was his first book that I have read; I will be reading others. Settlement is a major achievement.

My personal choice would be Settlement, with Netherland a close second. I thought all eight of these shortlist books were worthwhile reads; only Settlement moved into the exceptional category.

As for the jury choice, I’m guessing that they will come down to Hein or Raisin — there have been enough North American winners in the last few years that I am predicting that they will be passed by. Having confessed my preference for Settlement, that would be my prediction but I would not be surprised to see God’s Own Country as the winner — it is a more than competent first novel and has much to recommend it. And, as a longshot choice, I would throw Netherland into the mix.

And I am not entering my own contest, so all of the above is drivel as far as that is concerned.

KfC's choice

KfC's jury alternate

In Zodiac Light, by Robert Edric

May 16, 2010

Purchased from

So, you are an author and you are going to write a novel about an insane asylum in England following The Great War, featuring a central character who is both a published poet and, maybe, a brilliant musical composer. If you are thinking that Pat Barker’s Regeneration is looming on the horizon as a comparison, you are with me. And, while it was published a year after this novel, Adam Fould’s The Quickening Maze is also waiting in the lists. I wish you good luck as we embark on the reading experience.

Robert Edric’s In Zodiac Light is set in the City of London Mental Hospital, Deptford in 1922. Most of the patients are “war casualties”, still trying to come to terms with what they experienced, be it front line trauma, chemical war or declining to join the conflict back home. The narrator is Dr. Irvine, a young graduate “brain doctor” and a new arrival to the professional staff at the asylum. One of the patients that he has been assigned is Ivor Gurney, the real life poet and composer whom Edric has adopted as a central character in his novel.

Irvine is new to the asylum routine — he is still feeling his way with the director and has even more problems with Cox, an ex-sergeant who is in charge of the orderlies and believes that strong military discipline and the occasional beating up is what most of these sick characters need. Here is Dr. Irvine’s introduction to the challenge that he faces from Osborne, the acting director of the asylum:

“A strange request,” he [Osborne] said.

He read from one of the sheets for a few seconds.

“From the Royal College of Music. A woman.” He searched the sheet. “Marion Scott. She lists all the initials of her qualifications. None of which means a thing to me.”

“Apparently, we have a genius amongst us. Man called –” he read again. “Gurney, Ivor.” He pronounced both names as though he did not believe either of them. “Gurney. Gloucester man. Delivered to us some time ago from Barnwood House. Apparently — according to Miss Scott, that is — he’s something of a poet and a musician. He writes music. She doesn’t say anything about him playing the ukulele.” He laughed at the remark, waiting for me to do the same.

While I do my best to alert visitors here to spoilers, I am afraid that that quote effectively spoils this novel — you now know what it is about, where it is going and whom all but one of the key players are (more on that in the next few paras). I would feel guilty about that, but the quote comes from page 31 of a 368-page book, so I’m thinking it is more of a Distant Early Warning than a spoiler. This is a novel that has an excellent chance of hitting the “most often abandoned” charts.

Miss Scott will be a factor in the book as it progresses. Despite Ivor’s obvious problems, she does believe (perhaps selfishly, because it serves her interests — as does Ivor’s incarceration) that he is a genius and his work should be performed. An asylum recital would be entirely okay, even if it is not in his best interests (surprise, surprise; it is not) if she can bring along the right listeners.

On the other side of this external concern, we have Lyle, an inmate whose “crime” was being a conscientious objector — five years after the war, he too remains institutionalized for no reason. Dr. Irvine has a plan to bring him back to the real world, but Lyle, like Miss Scott, has attached himself to Gurney and considers that his life’s mission.

My biggest problem with this book is that not a single one of the characters, ever once, even for a moment, departs from form. The first few chapters set the book up just fine; the rest is a depressing downward sprial. Irvine is always straightforward. Gurney is never more than half there. Lyle is always selfish. Ms. Scott rivals that selfishness. Cox is always brutal. Osborne is always looking to his future.

Obviously, I didn’t like the book and I will go no further. Edric has found a theme that deserves exploration but other authors have done it far more competently than this book. I believe that Regeneration is one of the greatest novels of our age — I also believe, without any evidence, that Barker discovered in writing that novel that there was a trilogy that flowed from it. And I salute Adam Foulds for following the same theme of an artist trapped in an asylum, with much better results than this volume. I did read In Zodiac Light to the finish — Edric is a competent draughtsman and the language and story run along just fine, the problem is that there is not much to them.

I think the library readers who nominated this book for the IMPAC found a story line that was of legitimate interest. I only wish that I could tell them that other authors have explored it with far more success.

Settlement, by Christoph Hein

May 12, 2010

Purchased at

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Settlement starts out with one unusual claim to fame — it is translated by an American, at a time when most translations of German literature come from European sources. As well, it has another claim — it is a novel that explores some of the difficulties which followed the end of World War II, through the Soviet occupation of East Germany and finally the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 breakdown of the Soviet Empire.

Bernhard Haber is a refugee, a German who was in Poland when WWII took place and whose family has been sent “home” to Guldenburg, on the German side of the newly-established post-war borders. Haber is an incomplete youth, with both weaknesses and strengths — he has missed much of what is normal in growing up, but he has also found a compensating strength (read, violence) that helps to offset his problems. Permit a quote from about a third of the way through this excellent novel:

Bernhard spoke very little, and he was very stubborn, but he was also easily influenced, if you knew how. There was something mule-like about him — a stubborn beast that wouldn’t respond to words or whips, but then, after you’d given up, would suddenly take off in the desired direction, because it had finally dawned on him what was wanted. When I told him something, he first had to chew on it and digest it throughly before it sank into his head. He was a little slow on the uptake, and mistrustful, just like his father and the rest of the family, and they all did these strange things with their eyes when you spoke to them. They didn’t completely squint, they just narrowed their eyes as if they were anxiously awaiting what might come next. Maybe that was normal where they came from. Maybe everyone there was mistrustful, or maybe they had lived through terrible things and were afraid they might happen again in our town.

A nation that has just lost a war is one thing; a community inside that nation, with an influx of refugees from that war claiming access to scarce resources, is quite another. This is the challenge that Hein has set in this novel and, I am happy to report, he delivers with exceptional success. Given that his central character speaks very little, the author has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of five people who know Bernhard — the parts are arranged chronologically so we meet him first as a pre-teen and then follow through to his success as an adult business owner. (The device brought to mind J. M. Coetzee’s similar approach in Summertime, albeit without the authobiographical angle.)

As a child, Bernhard developed an initial coping mechanism of withdrawal to address the discrimination that he faces:

His one true friend was his dog, a young mixed-breed terrier farmer Griesel had given him as payment for a week’s field work, which he gave the unusual name of Tinz. He even tried to bring the dog to school. When the bell rang he tied the terrier to the school’s low picket fence and told the dog to sit down and wait. The dog sat and looked at Bernhard attentively.

“Sit and no barking,” Bernhard said. Then he went inside, turning around several times to make sure that Tinz was doing as he’d been told and keeping quiet.

During our first lesson the custodian came to our classroom and, after consulting with the teacher, asked Bernhard whether the dog in the yard belonged to him. When Bernhard gave a silent nod, the custodian said that bringing animals to school was against regulations, that it was cruel and a public nuisance and he didn’t want to lay eyes on the beast in his schoolyard ever again.

For Bernhard (and his family), there is always a regulation. Stubborn lad that he is, he continues to bring the dog to school until finally he is threatened with expulsion. Eventually, Tinz is murdered and his body left to rot. It marks the start of Bernhard developing a more agressive response to the discrimination that he faces.

He never retaliates directly, but he does retaliate. And along the way he spots and siezes opportunities that allow him to create his own place in the world. His path to success is not a direct one, but it is one he understands. He remains an outcast even as East Germany descends into the chaos that will eventually end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall — at this point Bernhard’s well-honed coping skills stand him in good stead as he is more used to dealing with uncertainty than most of his neighbors.

As I hope the quotes illustrate, there is a flatness to Hein’s prose style that suits his story well. His central character is not an emotional person — as the story goes on there is more inevitability than there is dramatic catharsis. It is accomplished very effectively.

There is no doubt that the dislocation of post-war Germany created many examples of stories like Bernhard’s. Settlement is not a long novel but the ambiguity implied in the title is maintained throughout the book. The result is a very significant book which I am pleased to recommend. I don’t read as many European works in translation as many other bloggers do — I am very happy that I read this one.

Cities of Refuge, by Michael Helm

May 9, 2010

ARC courtesy McClelland and Stewart -- click cover for info

I approached Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge with some sense of anticipation. Promotion of the book indicated that it was about the Toronto of the 21st century, with a particular emphasis on the tensions involved in the multicultural mix that has made the city one of the globe’s most diversely populated metropolitan areas. I was born just down the highway from Toronto, have known the city well throughout my adult life, lived there for the first three years of this new century and was eager for a work of fiction that would capture its unique character.

The city has been well-chronicled in the past — Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion are two excellent examples of novels that captured the Toronto of the era in which they are set. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye has a sub-theme that contrasts the Toronto of the 1950s with that of the 1980s. But in the last decade, there has not been a novel that addressed what has been happening in Canada’s largest city — Russell Smith’s satirical Muriella Pent comes closest, but Smith only set out to portray a very thin slice of the city (and he does that very well in a highly entertaining read).

So Helm’s novel held promise. It is his third — his first, The Projectionist, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and was proof positive that he can write. He would seem to have the tools for the ambitious scope of his project.

Cities of Refuge opens with a crime. Kim Lystrander, a former Ph.D. candidate who has abandoned the academy in favor of the real world, has had dinner at her divorced mother’s home (her birth father, a history professor of some renown, is there as her mother’s current husband, a boring mathematics prof, is away at a conference) before heading off on her bicycle to her job as an overnight security guard at what is obviously the Royal Ontario Museum. She locks her bike outside an all-night cafe some blocks from the museum, picks up some coffee for her co-workers and heads to work. Despite sensing that she is being followed, she ventures down a badly-lit block where a new high-rise is at the foundation stage of construction. She is attacked in what promises to be a rape, a struggle ensues and she ends up falling into the excavation, severely injuring her leg when she lands.

When the dark finally began to burn off she heard human sounds. A clacking. Voices. Then she heard the name of Jesus and saw a man in a yellow hard hat standing far above, looking down at her. She stayed awake as they came down. One of them kneeled close by and someone said not to touch her and the kneeler said he would cut away the tape and he put a hand on her head lightly and the moment the air hit her mouth she was sobbing. The man cut free her hands and then stood and stepped back. More men had gathered there but even when the ambulance attendants arrived and strapped her on a board, none came closer.

Helm wastes little time expanding his plot. Kim’s avocation is working as a volunter for GROUND — the Group for the Undocumented — a non-profit agency that works with refugee claimants whose claims have been rejected, moving them about the city from place to place to keep them out of the hands of the authorities who will deport them, probably to a deadly future. Her involvement extends to sheltering individuals in her apartment on occasion (there is one there now). Harold, her birth father (whose specialty is Latin America), is concerned about this; aware that some of these “refugees” are the opposite of innocent victims, that they are the perpetrators of the violence.

The argument against her volunteer work usually ran that she was in over her head and didn’t know it. She did in fact know it, but admitting doubt to him won her nothing. She had to seem sure of herself, not at all who she’d been at university. Long before quitting her Ph.D. there were signs she didn’t belong on her father’s career path. Her work lacked scholarly vigour. Her undergraduate history papers had admitted quite a lot of speculation.

This refugee subtheme diverges even further with the introduction of Rosemary, another worker in the volunteer cause who toils in even shadier territory than GROUND with individuals who are even more suspect, one of whom (Rodrigo) is currently staying with her. An entire subset of action is developed around Rosemary, Rodrigo and his fellow fugitives who are reduced to the kind of slavish day work that is the only thing available to illegal immigrants who will inevitably be deported if they ever come into contact with the authorities.

Harold, meanwhile, gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that the attack on his daughter was committed by one of the GROUND clients with whom she worked. On the one hand, he does try to help her with her emotional recovery, encouraging her to write a narrative on what she experienced, not just to purge herself of it but also with the hope that perhaps it will reveal leads that the police should be following. Kim does and that leads her down some highly speculative paths. On the other, Harold is developing his own theories about just who might have been responsible for the attack and begins his own version of detective work.

Another theme is opened with Kim’s recollection of how her mother (who is dying of cancer, incidentally) and Harold came to conflict and the eventual dissolution of their marriage. And the part played in that by Donald, her mother’s new husband. This line of thought also leads her into her own obsession — Harold was in Chile in the 1970s when the Pinochet coup and resulting atrocities took place but he has never talked about it. Just what was his involvement there?

Harold, meanwhile, has come across Rosemary, her political activity and her boarder — all of which fuels his obsession but also introduces a new one, with his attraction to Rosemary.

Are you getting the impression that perhaps there is just a bit too much plot here? Or rather, too many plots? That’s certainly the way it landed with this reader. As the book goes on, the author needs to spend so much effort and space keeping them all active that he ends up never adequately developing any one of them. Unfortunately, doing that also requires the introduction of ever more implausible coincidences and developments in an attempt to knot the storylines together. And while Helm is an accomplished writer, he is not a particularly gripping one — his style is much more suited to characters and their introspection than it is to being an active observer and describer of their actions and environment.

The end result, at least for me, is a book that opens doors to several fictional rooms, any of which might have lead to an interesting book, but none of which are ever really entered and explored satisfactorily. While I am sure this narrative is a fair representation of the complexity of life that would face any real life version of these characters, it makes for a very frustrating read. As the book proceeds, character development — which should be Helm’s strength — increasingly becomes shallower rather than deeper. And the subplots become almost tedious.

While I salute the author for his attempt to address this complexity, it evolves into a frustrating reading experience. Cities of Refuge ends up being a novel where less would definitely have meant much more. The Toronto of the 21st century continues to await a novelist who can adequately capture its unique character.

The Believers, by Zoë Heller

May 5, 2010

Purchased at

The last two posts here have looked at IMPAC-shortlisted books that have featured the rather common theme of “troubled farm youths cause violent mayhem with the locals”, to paraphrase wording that John Self used in his comment regarding Out Backwards.

Two other IMPAC finalists (The Believers and Netherland) come from a genre at the other end of the rural-urban spectrum. If I can be permitted to echo John’s phrasing I’d call it “dysfunctional family faces challenges in New York City”. Like the confused farmboy coming of age template, this is one that has an extensive and honorable history that has attracted some very, very talented authors. Say Edith Wharton and Henry James — each wrote so many New York stories (not to mention novels), often involving this theme, that the NYRB has published excellent “New York story” collections for both. Then there is Philip Roth in numerous novels (probably most notably American Pastoral, but as recently as Indignation) and Saul Bellow (say, Humboldt’s Gift and Mr. Sammler’s Planet). More recently, Cynthia Ozick in Heir to the Glimmering World. And as an indication that the tradition is bound to continue, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, published last year (a year after the book under review), has attracted much critical approval, including a National Book Award.

The fact that I can put that list together (and have read all those books) is a testimony not just to my personal interest in it, but also to the viability of the theme. Obviously the “mayhem” that New York injects into families produces a variety of responses. Having said that, I would add that Zoë Heller’s The Believers and Ozick’s book have the most in common of those that I have mentioned — and that this one, for me at least, does come second in the comparison. Still, it is a very readable book and certainly a change from introverted farm lads disrupting the rural world around them.

Joel Litvinoff is a 72-year-old radical lawyer who has spent his life defending unpopular clients, mainly of the left-wing variety although he also represented a Mafia don. As the book proper opens, he is preparing to head off to court to defend Mohammed Hassani, the only member of the Schenectady Six (for those who know their post 9/11 New York history, the real-life version is the Lackawanna Six) who has not made a plea bargain to the terrorism charges that resulted from their visit to an al-Qaeda training camp in 1998. Joel suffers a stroke as he heads into court and remains in a coma for the rest of the book, but that set-up effectively establishes the circumstances in which his wife, two daughters and adopted son have lived their lives. The novel is about the chaos that this overwhelming presence has produced in those four lives.

We have already met his wife, Audrey, in a wonderful prologue that recounted their first meeting and whirlwind decision to get married. They first set eyes on each other at a leftish party in 1962 at a bed-sit just off Gower Street in Bloomsbury — Joel is a visiting star American, fresh from participating in the fledgling civil rights movement. Audrey is a wimpy typist, there with a date in whom she has little interest. Joel flirts with her, invites himself along on a visit to her working-class parents in Chertsey the next day, sleeps with her that night and a few days later the two are on their way to New York. Audrey may have escaped a boring existence in England but those circumstances suggest that the 40 years that have passed before the book proper starts have not been entirely pleasant.

She has, in fact, a coping strategy that has developed over those decades:

Jadedness was Audrey’s default pose with her husband. She used it partly in the English manner, as a way of alluding to affection by manifesting its opposite, and partly as a strategy for asserting her privileged spousal status. The wives of great men must always be jealously guarding their positions against the encroachment of acolytes, and Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction — the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend — would be a deadpan unimpressibility. “Oh, I forgot!” she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

Joel is definitely a leftie star (Judy Collins comes to his hospital bedside to sing to him; Jesse Jackson also visits) and Audrey has developed her own defensive strategy. The children of radical stars have a much more difficult time coping.

Heller does structure the characters of the three Litvinoff children along lines that are familiar to those who know “the children of the left” (I should note that I was a late sixties leftie, not quite a decade behind Joel and Audrey, so I have some experience with the types — which was certainly an attractive feature of the book for me). Rosa is probably the most interesting — she enrolled completely in her parent’s politics (and antitheism), went to Commie camp as a youth and in 2002 is just back from four years in Cuba. Unfortunately, in terms of of family politics and unity, the last couple of years there effectively destroyed her lifelong, family-taught ideology. Shortly after returning she wandered into an upper West-side Orthodox synagogue and (re)discovered her Jewish roots: “She was part of this. She had always been part of this.” It never occurred to Rosa not to tell her parents of her conversion:

Audrey’s initial response had been one of derision. She sang snatches of “Hava Nagila” and asked Rosa if she intended to marry one of those smelly old men with the payess. It was Joel who was nakedly enraged. That Rosa had succumbed, however temporarily, to the idiocy of faith was terrible enough, he told her. That she should have chosen Judaism in which to dabble could only be construed as an act of parricidal malice. “This is bullshit!” he yelled at one point. “I know you! You are constitutionally incapable of buying into this kind of fairy tale. You never even believed in the tooth fairy, for Christ’s sake.”

Rosa had to smile at that. She was not so swept away that she could not see the high comedy of this spiritual seduction: a Litvinoff daughter, a third-generation atheist, an enemy of all forms of magical thinking, wandering into synagogue one day and finding her inner Jew. But there it was.

If Rosa’s is the confrontational response, her siblings’ coping behaviors are much more defensive. Karla has kept herself shyly out of the way all her life, battling (unsuccessfully) weight problems throughout since eating is her defense mechanism. A hospital social worker (if you can’t lead radical change, being in a caring role is an acceptable alternative in this family), she has spent the last two years not getting pregnant by her union leader husband. She’s not too upset by that, as she doesn’t really want the child.

Lenny, the adopted brother (his father was killed when a bomb he was making exploded, his mother is serving a long sentence for a botched armed robbery), is Audrey’s favorite, precisely because he is not hers and Joel’s — rather he is a (selfish) symbol of her own caring. Alas, this produced a spoiled child who has turned into a manipulative, drug-consuming (on money his mother gives him) 32-year-old. He has been to rehab five times and is now back on drugs. He is as remote from his adoptive father’s politics as one could possibly be.

The bulk of the book is about how these four try to come to terms with each other — and with the destructive personal legacies that they have been left by Joel, whose comatose presence is always a factor in the book. Those who have read Zeller’s well-regarded What Was She Thinking? Notes On A Scandal will be expecting a plot twist to set up the conclusion of the book and they will not be disappointed. Heller is a very accomplished storyteller — and an equally adept writer — so the novel proceeds at a very brisk pace.

That in fact is probably what produced my ambivalent response to the book. The set-up of the circumstances (which does take up close to a quarter of the book) is so good, that it is hard not to be let down by the remainder — everyone likes a good first act, but it should not be the best of the four or five that comprise the play. As the novel goes on, it seems to become increasingly inward looking, with intriguing ideas that were introduced in the early pages simply not being persued. And when the final page is turned, the feeling is “good story, but not much here to walk away with”.

Having said that, there is nothing the matter with a well-written story, as Heller proved with Notes on a Scandal. I just can’t help wondering, however, after that outstanding opening quarter of the book, if there wasn’t a much better book possible here. I’ll certainly be going back to Heller in the future — if she ever does find a way to maintain the strength of that opening quarter, it is going to be an exceptional book.

(NOTE: Having mentioned Netherland in this review, I should note that I will not be reviewing it here — I read it twice just before starting this blog and am not up to a third read. As well, Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has a far better review here than any that I could write.)

Out Backward, by Ross Raisin

May 3, 2010

Purchased at

In addition to his attention-attracting name, 28-year-old Ross Raisin has an intriguing employment history in preparation for this, his first novel — waiter, dishwasher, barman. Certainly there are a lot of youngish people plying those trades with bigger ambitions (more for film than publishing, it must be said). Raisin, however, has managed not just to get published but to gain surprising recognition. Out Backward (published as God’s Own Country in the United Kingdom) won him the 2009 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for a number of other prizes. Raisin can now add an IMPAC Award short-listing to his one-book resume.

While I followed all that with some curiosity, it did take this last short-listing (and my IMPAC contest) to convince me to read the book. The reason is straightforward — any plot summary of the book leaves this reader (and I suspect many others) thinking “I’m pretty sure I’ve already read that book and don’t really want to read another version”.

So let’s get the plot out of the way. Nineteen-year-old Sam Marsdyke lives with his abusive father (he calls his son “Nimrod”) and repressed mother on a sheep farm in the Yorkshire Moors. Sam is not quite all there — that may be a product of an isolated upbringing or illustrate far more serious concerns. He was kicked out of school a few years ago, the result of an incident that may have been innocent sex play or perhaps the start of attempted rape. As the book opens, a family of “towns” has moved up from London to take up country life in the next door farm house. They have a 15-year-old daughter and Sam becomes obsessed. Complications (and as the summary suggests they are predictable) ensue. The obsession has ominous overtones which prove to be true.

Have you read or heard about a similar book? From Canada, Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog comes to mind. The previous post on this blog is a Dutch version — Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God adds an American book to the list. Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory would be another UK example. And those are all contemporary — I won’t even get started on some of the classical books built around the same premise.

So the strength of the book is obviously not the plot, but that is hardly unprecedented. After all, aren’t all of Jane Austen’s novels variations on the same plot? In fact, the list probably suggests it is a structure that has served as a platform for a number of very good authors to explore some other strengths — which I am happy to report is exactly what this book does.

The book is all told in Sam’s voice and opens with him hidden behind a rock field wall, observing a group of “ramblers” from town who set up for their mid-day picnic in the next field:

A middle of the way down the field and they stopped. They parked down in a circle like they fancied a campfire but instead they whipped out foil parcels and a Thermos and started blathering.

I’ve got ham. Who wants ham?

I’ll have ham.

Oh, wait a moment. Pink Hat inspected the sarnies. We have a choice — ham and tomato, or ham and Red Leicester?

He gave them each a parcel, then stood up the Thermos in the middle of the circle.

Nasty old day still, he said. Wish it would perk up a little.

Doesn’t look too promising, though, said one of the females.

I teased a small stone out the wall and plastered it in sheep shit.

That is such nice ham.

Isn’t it? Tesco, you know.

Crack. I hit the Thermos bang centre, tea and shit splashing up the fog.

That excerpt illustrates a number of the characteristics of the book. Raisin has an ear for dialect, slang and language which he knows how to turn into prose. The conflict between townies invading and demeaning farmers will be a constant sub-theme in the book. And, in addition to illustrating a capricious violent streak in the narrator, we get some of the first hints about his credibility or lack thereof.

There is a discipline to both Raisin’s control of his story and his language that is unusual in a first novel. He introduces all of his important tangential themes early in the book and then carefully keeps paying attention to them (without introducing annoying distractions) as the novels proceeds. It is those themes and the way that Raisin weaves them together which make this novel a success. Here is another example of the set-up, when the new neighbors from town arrive next door:

And look who was first out the van. The girl. Young. Fifteen maybe. The others got out — mum, dad, kid brother, two furniture lugs — and they went at clearing the van, mum and dad pointing commands, the fridge, yes, that goes indoors, as if they feared the lugger-buggers might set it in the vegetable plot, and the boy skittering about, unsure, like a louse on the flat of your hand. The girl got stuck in, mind, bounding back to the van after each round, her ponytail flop, flop on her shoulders.

While Sam is a perceptive observer of selected parts of the world around him (and completely oblivious to others), he is a reluctant participant — or rather an incomplete one. He is good around the farm, but not much good at anything else. He is equally good at observing the conflict between farmers and townies, but most of that is a reflection of the opinions of Father, a man whom he does not like at all but who is still his major influence. Raisin plays that particular theme in a consistent satire that continues to be effective as the book progresses.

Unfortunately, this approach means that there is not a lot of character development in the book — it is a novel of observation, rather than development. The structure certainly ends up developing the character of Sam but every other human in the book is presented only through his eyes and to that end the reader is expected to evaluate just how perceptive his observations are. Because the author does such a good job of making sure that he keeps all those tangential themes active and balanced, that process is not nearly as difficult as it might seem. The action proceeds pretty much as expected but the interesting part of the book is the way those themes are presented for consideration and contemplation at each stage in the plot.

Raisin’s success in achieving that, I would suggest, is reflected in the different UK and North American titles of the book. They would seem to reflect two very different ideas that could hardly be contained in the same book — indeed they are different and indeed they both are drawn directly from the book. The UK one comes from a statement the girl’s father makes to her mother on the day of their arrival: “Don’t you see, he tells her, I told you it would be wonderful, it’s God’s own country here”. The North American title comes from a statement from Sam’s mother to her son: “Janet says I’m not to blame myself. I couldn’t have done different. You must’ve come out backward.” (For those unfamiliar with sheep farming, that’s the greatest challenge the farmer faces during lambing season.) Each title is equally valid, although I am biased toward the North American one, which I understand was Raisin’s original title.

That, coupled with Raisin’s adept use of his Yorkshire dialect, makes Out Backward a highly readable book. I read the 211 pages in a single day — I won’t call it a page-turner but it does proceed at a consistent pace and rarely gets side-tracked for even a paragraph. And that, I fear, may also prove to be its greatest weakness. As involving as the story was in the read, I have a concern about just how much of it I will remember down the road in a few months. I promise to check back then with an edit to report on how this very impressive first novel aged.

(For another review of this book, check out John Self at the Asylum.)

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