I have a soft spot for Timothy Taylor. His first novel, Stanley Park, remains one of my favorites. Not only does he pay homage to Canada’s most outstanding urban park, he contrasts that with some excellent writing about West Coast cuisine and the restaurant business (I’ve confessed to being a sucker for “foodie” novels already) and finishes it off with a delightful, twisted ending. And I liked Story House almost as much — in that second novel he explored architecture in a way that hit a responsive chord with me, although less so with many critics.
So I was looking forward to The Blue Light Project. Taylor ventures into thriller territory with this one and that put him at a bit of a disadvantage with this reviewer — unlike foodie and architecture, it is not one of my favorite genres. I was engaged throughout the novel but admit up front that it did not land as well as his previous two. Read on, however, as that says more about my biases than it does about the value of the book.
The driving incident of the narrative in The Blue Light Project is the Meme Media Crisis. Meme Media is a corporate conglomerate whose most profitable project is KiddieFame, a pre-adolescent version of American Idol and its imitators. The distinguishing gimmick of KiddieFame, however, is the “Killer” feature — despite the audience votes, the most promising sub-teen contestants are often “killed” off arbitrarily.
Television marketing turns into destructive reality when a terrorist disrupts the show, killing two people and takes control of the Meme Media theatre and all its occupants. Here is how we discover the crisis has started:
More sound on the stairs. Otis coming down. Eve could see herself in a wide shot all at once, pulling up the cushions on Nick’s parents’ old couch while, for some unknown reason, a car burned in the plaza opposite Meme Media. While Otis stood in the doorway with an expression Eve had never seen on him before. All his teenaged confidence gone. His eyes wide, mouth seeming to work at some immobilized word. And here came the anchors again, the situation-desk expressions, the pre-fatigue of some event they both knew they’d be talking about for many hours, through the night. An event that already perplexed and astounded. Eve watched a graphic roll on the blue screen. Familiar queues of children. Then the incident banner. It scrolled across the screen like a sash. It read: The Meme Media Crisis.
The Eve of that quote is Eve Latour, an Olympic gold medal winner in the biathalon from some years earlier. An heroic achievement that, since she was hit by a high-tech slingshot that broke her ankle early on in the final “pursuit” phase of the competition. She soldiered on to win and has been a Canadian hero and UNICEF Ambassador since (the novel doesn’t explicitly state she’s Canadian, but Americans don’t remember biathalon heroes the way we Canadians do). In fact, when the Crisis started, she was in the conference room of promotions company Double Vision, high up in an office building on the plaza, exploring an opportunity to capitalize on her fame with endorsements, urged on by her lover, Nick. He used to be a Gerber baby, just to extend the commercial part of the plot.
Tim Taylor’s novels to date have always featured an exploration of the counter-culture and this one is no different. In this novel, it comes in the form of graffiti/graphic artists who are gathered in two conflicting sub-cultures — the Poets on one side, a commercialized version on the other. The author introduces this aspect into the novel while Eve is being pitched by Double Vision. She looks out the window and sees an individual doing a handstand on parapet of the building across the street from the conference room where her video is being screened. She sees him on the parapet again when she is in the alley, preparing to head home:
She wanted to yell: “Don’t!” Or to shout up: “Stop!” But she didn’t, thinking she might startle him and actually cause him to fall. But perhaps more because he was clearly going to jump no matter what she would say. And exactly as she had that thought, the young man stepped back off the parapet and disappeared from view on the hidden rooftop. Eve imagined him flexing his legs, a quick hand down each ankle to stretch the quads. Limbering up. Eyes front, locked on the far side.
She made an involuntary noise, a choked and fearful squeak. But here he was again. He would have leaned forward a fraction before uncoiling. He would have taken a six-step run-up. Bim bim. Bop bop. BAP BAP. And bursting into view, in the open air. He made a long parabola against the gray and cooling sky directly above her. He filled the empty space, his arms spread for balance, his legs tucked. And then, impossibly, he rolled at the top of his arc. He flipped in mid-air, which brought about a micro-second of complete silence and stillness in her. The whole movement was completely dangerous and completely harmonious. And it pinned her to the spot.
It was breathtaking. The most beautiful thing she’d seen in years.
There is another major thread to the novel, told both in the narrative and in three chapters excerpted from the book Black Out, Blue Light by Thom Pegg. He was a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the black sites where torture was used to force people to confess. Alas, he used a composite character to frame his story (put your hand up if your remember Janet Cooke) and lost his Pulitzer, job and reputation. He now works for L:MN, a magazine that features bitchy interviews with celebrities (that’s how he came to meet Eve) and semi-sexy shots of celebrities. The terrorist says he will only tell his story to Thom.
Can you count the elements? The emptiness of 24/7 news in times of crisis. Our pre-occupation with celebrity — and tearing it down. The purity of the counter-culture — and its inevitable commercialization by destructive elements. There is much more: the plaza where Meme Media is located becomes a protest site for groups ranging from the hymn-singing Christian right to the rock-throwing anarchist left. And who is the terrorist? And what about the child performers who are held hostage inside? Have you noticed I’ve not mentioned the blue light project of the title (yes, it exists, but no spoilers here)?
Not to mention the street art, which I have also overlooked. The novel features nine different photo pages of examples which are actually quite interesting. The U.S. cover features an example, so have a look. I thought some of the others were better.
Is it all too much? I am afraid for me it was, although that may be more a reflection of my problem with thrillers than a fair critique of Taylor’s work. Parts of the book — indeed most of the parts — were just fine, it was simply that the knitting together of those parts asked too much to be credible.
If I can be allowed to criticize myself, I had much the same reaction to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which made a number of year-end top-10 lists and just won the National Book Critics’ Circle award for best fiction. I think it is a fair comparison to say that both Taylor and Egan consciously adopt an episodic, panoramic approach to telling their stories; they want to address so many elements, that producing an overall cohesion is not possible. In fact, part of their message is we have no reason to expect that cohesion to exist. Taylor’s previous novels had a charm that stayed with me. This one doesn’t, but I have to admit that does not make it a lesser book.