Archive for May, 2012

Skios, by Michael Frayn

May 28, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Author Michael Frayn is nothing if not prolific. He has written 11 novels (a quick check says that I have read seven), 15 plays (I’ve seen three in WestEnd productions) and a number of non-fiction works.

Not just that, but in each of these streams Frayn heads in different directions. “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” are literary plays, taut with interior drama. “Noises Off” is a farce. Headlong is a literary novel that deserved its Booker listing; Towards the End of Morning was a laugh throughout. There is no literary box that Frayn can be stuffed into.

And so we come to Skios, his latest novel. For those who know Frayn’s works, forget “Copenhagen” and Headlong — we are in “Noises Off” territory when we come to this novel. (For a review of Headlong, you can check out Trevor’s thoughts here — he gets it dead on.)

The Fred Toppler Foundation is the centre of “culture” on the small Greek island of Skios. Fred himself is long dead but his widow, the former stripper Bahama LeStarr, is now running the Foundation that she created as his legacy (and her contuining sustenance). Each year it hosts a Great European House Party where the rich and powerful from around the world gather to celebrate (and exchange data) and listen to the annual Toppler “lecture”, the highpoint of the week.

The lecture this year is to be delivered by Dr. Norman Wilfred: Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics. Wilfred has been chosen by Mrs. Toppler’s PA, Nikki, the first time she has ever had the chance to choose the distinguished lecturer. Nikki is angling to become the next executive director of the Foundation and this is her chance to prove her worth.

Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unqiue and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, the Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.

That gives you one sense of Frayn’s farce but the much bigger one occurs at the Skios airport. Dr. Wilfred is not the only distinguished guest arriving this day; so too is Oliver Fox, bon vivant and seducer, on his way to a week of sex with Georgie, whom he had met for five minutes in a bar somewhere and arranged a liaison. Oliver is a natural seducer and Georgie is eager for adventure since her partner is heading off for a sailing trip without her.

And so we have the establishing scene at the Skios airport as Nikki, with her carefully labelled “DR NORMAN WILFRED” sign awaits the arrival of her distinguished lecturer:

It was an example of the ever-renewed triumph of hope over probability, thought Nikki, trying to keep the skin round her mouth and eyes soft and amused. Whenever you were waiting for someone and you didn’t know exactly what they looked like, everyone seemed to be them. Fathers with small children. Grandfathers in ill-judged shorts. Women, even … Fat women … Fatter women still… Just for a moment, as each passenger emerged from the baggage hall and hesitated, not knowing where to go, Nikki tensed very slightly with the onset of charm. Then they would spot a familiar word — ‘Polkinghorne’, ‘Whispering Surf’ — and they would raise an acknowledging finger and cease to have any possible resemblance to Dr. Norman Wilfred.

As it happens, when Dr. Wilfred’s distinctive black suitcase with its “unique” identifying red tag comes tumbling down the baggage carousel, the distinguished lecturer is preoccupied with the devastating text he is sending to an obscure scholar in Manitoba who is writing a critical evaluation of his work. Oliver Fox, meanwhile, is looking for a black suitcase with red tag that he has stolen from Annuka Vos, the latest woman to find him wanting.

Oliver picks up the wrong suitcase and the farce is under way. His “date” for the week has been delayed and what harm is there in taking on another identity (he is used to this) for the intervening 24 hours. From here on in, Frayn is at his best — confused twin taxi drivers, worthy guests of the Foundation (and some not so worthy), jilted lovers and a host of others will be enrolled to be part of the author’s scheme.

To appreciate farce, you need to return to your childhood when you lined up the dominoes standing end-on-end in a careful, winding pattern — and then tipped the first one over and watched all the others fall in turn. That’s exactly what Frayn does in this highly readable, very amusing novel — if you want a little more detail on the “plot”, I’ll refer you to Will Rycroft’s excellent review at Just William’s Luck — he does an excellent job of outlining the plot without spoiling it.

I read Skios in two quick sittings and enjoyed every minute of the experience. Yes, you have to give the author a lot of licence — Frayn both deserves and rewards it. I don’t expect to see Skios on the Booker longlist when it is announced in a few months but if you are looking for the perfect book to take on a summer holiday, I can’t find a better recommendation.


The Light of Amsterdam, by David Park

May 24, 2012

Gift from Kimbofo at Reading Matters

There seems to come a point at each stage in life where little annoyances swell of their own accord into seemingly insurmountable problems, turning into a barrier that apparently cannot be crossed. Understandably, that is fertile territory for novelists be the stage childhood, adolescence, middle-age or impending senior citizenship (see Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending for an outstanding example of that stage).

Irish novelist David Park takes on the middle-age version in his new novel, The Light of Amsterdam. He also returns to a device that he used very successfully in his last, much-saluted novel, The Truth Commissioner: giving the reader an ensemble of characters set in somewhat similar circumstances facing very similar problems, although each must come up with a highly personal response to his or her challenge. So, as The Light of Amsterdam opens, here are the forbidding emotional “walls” that each of the three central characters is facing:

— Alan is a university art teacher in Belfast, recently divorced after 20 years of marriage because of a one-time dalliance with a mature student that lasted scarcely an hour in a sculpting studio. He confessed and it proved to be the excuse for his wife to end a union that for her obviously was withering with age and experience anyway. As the book opens, she and her new lover (a contractor) are set to head to Spain to look at a property she wants to convert into a bed-and-breakfast to begin a new life. Adding to the family issues, their 16-year-old son is going through his own adolescent version of scaling a life wall. And just to complicate Alan’s dilemma, his boss (a colleague from student days) has warned him that his post is at risk since he has neither published nor had a show for years.

— Karen is a single mother who works two cleaning jobs to support herself and her 20-year-old daughter, Shannon. Shannon’s father deserted Karen when she was 20 herself and three months pregnant (the prospect of fatherhood was just “too much” for him to face). Life is about to change for Karen because Shannon is engaged — a “hen party” in Amsterdam to which Karen is invited is the defining event that provokes her crisis. And, just to increase the complexity of her situation, she too faces a work issue — a resident at the senior citizen’s home where she works has “lost” a bracelet and the investigation has left her thinking that she is suspected of taking it.

— Marion’s life appears to be just fine. She and her husband, Richard, have spent decades establishing a garden centre that is prospering. But his last present to her — a year-long membership at a tony gym that she wants no part of — has convinced her that he is tiring of her and that his eyes are wandering. His friendly relationship with a couple of attractive Polish workers in the centre has led her to the notion that he intends to take up with one of them.

All three are about to head off from Belfast (religious, moral, tightly-controlled) to Amsterdam (secular, free-wheeling, anything goes) for a weekend. For Alan, who fondly remembers the city from his hippy phase, it is a concert by the aging Bob Dylan that is the attraction. Karen has never been there (indeed, never been on an airplane) and has no desire to go — she not only doesn’t want to be part of a hen party with a gaggle of 20-year-olds, she has questions about how suitable her daughter’s choice of mate is. And for Marion the “weekend away” (holidays are not something that she and Richard have been able to fit into the schedule) seems to signal another stage in the end of her marriage rather than a pause for rejuvenation.

I like to give visitors here quotes from the novel to indicate the author’s style and that is hard to do with David Park. His narrative is orderly and connected, steady and straightforward without the kind of peaks that make for easy quotes. That said, he is also perceptive enough that he frequently digresses to add some depth to what his character is feeling — that is how he makes them complete. Here’s an example as a fearful Karen prepares for the takeoff of her first-ever flight:

Perhaps the flight was her moment of initiation and if only she could endure it then everything would be open to her. Her hands gripped the armrests as the engines started and the plane began to move along the runway.

She told herself that she was brave enough for this, had already shown how strong she was from the moment when three months pregnant she had read his letter telling her that he was leaving. Written in pencil on a page torn from a spiral notebook, the edges had little curls of white that flaked away in her hand. So he wasn’t ready to be a father, it had all been a mistake, it was better to put things right before it went any further, he was sorry but it was better to be honest. He had tried, really tried, but it was of no use. Of course he hadn’t told her that he had met someone else — she would find this out only later. It was a page taken from the book he used in his PVC windows business. He had made her a customer and was settling the account.

In the “freedom” of Amsterdam, all three characters will look not just at what they perceive as their present crisis, but also the past that produced it. Their paths do cross in the Dutch city but that is more a novelistic convenience than anything else — this is a book about how three people come to terms with their similar, but highly individual, challenges.

For this reader, Park succeeded in making each of his characters an interesting study. At times, each gets his or her own chapter. In other chapters, he alternates with sections for each of the three. The usual problem with books that use this technique is that one of the characters becomes more (or, worse, less) interesting than the others and the book gets choppy — Park succeeded in balancing all three stories and it was easy to move with him when he shifted focus. It is an introspective book, so that balance is important — he brought all three to life and I found myself caring about each of them. In their lives, the three are “ordinary” people; in the novel, Park makes each “special”.

(My copy of The Light of Amsterdam was a present from my fellow Shadow Giller judge, Kimbofo at Reading Matters, who brought it from London on her recent trip to Canada where she was able to meet up with Mrs. KfC and another juror, Alison Gzowski, for a Shadow Giller dinner. You can read Kimbofo’s review here. The novel is not scheduled for North American release until October but is available from the Book Depository and other UK sources — for David Park fans, it is well worth the effort.)

Pittsburgh Stories, by Clark Blaise

May 18, 2012

Purchased at

I need to offer a few words of explanation before I get to Clark Blaise’s Pittsburgh Stories, because personal experience indelibly colored my reaction to this nine-story collection.

I’ve spent virtually all my adult life in Calgary, Alberta. In 2000, however, life changed for three years when Mrs. KfC was transferred to Pittsburgh. Changing countries is a challenge but that was a relatively minor adjustment — Pittsburgh Stories speaks to the much greater culture shock that we experienced.

It was a document that Mrs. KfC brought home from work that brought why that was into focus. In 1950, the population of Calgary was 125,000; when we left it had just topped 1,000,000. My adolescent and adult life had been spent in a vibrant, prosperous expanding city that, despite the inevitable booms and busts of a resource-based economy, always found the future offered more. By contrast, in 1950 the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh was just under 2.6 million; when we arrived there 50 years later in 2000, it was about 2.4 million — we had moved from a city with a constant eye on the future to one that needed to pay a lot of attention to trying to keep up with the ghosts of its glorious past.

The stories in this collection have been written over a number of decades, but all are devoted to Blaise’s memories of the Pittsburgh that he knew in the 50s and early 60s as a child and teenager. Sometimes the point of view is set in those decades, sometimes it is a look back from the present. Always, however, it is the memory of living in a metropolitan city that despite the general post-war optimism knew it was about to face decades of daunting economic challenge.

Consider this paragraph from the opening pages of “Sitting Shivah With Cousin Benny”:

The real Pittsburgh, as I imagined it, housed itself in the East End. Pittsburgh had been the dirtiest city in America, with the ugliest history. But it was also where the Gilded Age had made its money and left its monuments. I went out to the Carnegie Museum every weekend, sketched the animals and skeletons, then walked across the parking lot to Forbes Field to take advantage of free admission to Pirates’ games after the seventh inning. Oakland was the part of Pittsburgh that Willa Cather wrote about, the only part that Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley could have come from. I longed for their kind of friendship, that it might be possible to exchange books and discuss the fate of the world without having to go to New York. It seemed unfair that Oakland also had the dinosaurs, the paintings, the books, the concert halls, the universities and the students. They even had the art movies, where rumors of occasional nudity in Swedish films trickled over to us on the South Side, but usually a day late, after the authorities had closed them down.

This story focuses on the narrator’s Aunt Grace, the much younger sister of his mother who is actually more like an older sister than aunt. Grace married Uncle Talbot as a teenager, before he went to Korea and Japan and that marriage fell apart. Then, she married ‘Hill’ Billy Macdonald from West Virginia — after a few frustrating years raising chinchillas and mink, that fell apart too. Cousin Benny is the product of union three, this time to Danny Israel, a sharp dresser and salesman from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

For some young women that was 1950s Pittsburgh and Blaise paints a startlingly clear picture (just as a teaser, let me offer the tidbit that Benny will appear as a piano soloist with the Pittsburgh Junior Symphony before he turns five) of what the times were like. What makes the story even better, however, is the way he uses the story to capture what has been happening to Pittsburgh youth for decades –they need to leave “home” to survive. The narrator heads elsewhere in America and creates a good career in literary criticism, Benny’s piano career crashes but he lands on his feet in the foreign service. This is one of the stories told from the present point of view — the two meet up decades later in perestroika Moscow and share memories about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

“Snake in Flight over Pittsburgh” explores another aspect of both the city and times: being a teenager in love, mid-20th century.

Two young men — boys, really — are playing chess in a living room in Pittsburgh in the late summer of 1960. Their shoes are polished, they wear flannel pants with white suspenders, formal shirts with pearl studs, maroon bowties and cummerbunds. Their jackets are on the sofa. They are eighteen, home from their first year of college. Terry has gone from high school honours to Princeton honours. Alex has struggled through the year at Oberlin. Nothing serious; just a confimration that absolutes do exist in the world, and Terry, who plays better chess and who’d gotten better grades and who goes to a more competitive school is by all accounts smarter than Alex.

The two have been inseparable friends since meeting in eighth-grade. Alex’s parents run a down-market furniture store (that parental situation appears in almost all the stories — a reflection of Blaise’s own growing up) while Terry Franklin’s father is a research chemist at Westinghouse, so the friendship has some tension.

Alex resents anything that separates him from communion with the Franklins. He resents being shorter and slower and less-co-ordinated, less intelligent and clean-featured, less noble and religious, less hard-working and clearly committed, less universally admired, less socketed in the community. He resents the smells of his parents’ apartment, the stale, bluish air, and having parents — nobodies from nowhere — who smoke and leave their bottles around the house, who wouldn’t mind if he smoked and drank, and give him no credit for choosing not to, who’ve failed so miserably in so many undertakings.

The Franklins go back at least five generations in Pittsburgh, and none of them, apparently, has known a Pittsburgh life of millwork, squalor, black-lung, or Catholicism. Hardly any of the aunts and uncles and sturdy, reliable cousins that Alex has come to know by the dozens in the past five years, smoke, drink, or even swear.

The reason the chess-playing boys are dressed formally is that it is the wedding day of Terry’s twin, Francesca, to a senior from Harvard — she’ll be skipping going to university for a few years until she has started a family. Blaise delays the reveal a bit in the story but it is no spoiler to say Alex has even stronger feelings for Francesca than for his friend Terry. And I have only started on the “strong” feelings that permeate the story….

I seem to have fallen into a string of “city” books lately. John Lanchester’s London in Capital and Teju Cole’s Manhattan in Open City both impressed me with the way they brought to life cities that I love. Pittsburgh ranks not nearly as high on my list of favorites — but I have to say that Blaise does every bit as good a job of portraying what growing up in that city was like in the mid-20th century.

I should offer a note of warning that in some ways the two stories that I have chosen to explore are in some ways not typical of the collection. They come relatively late in it and feature an older narrator — earlier stories, while every bit as careful in their portrayal of Pittsburgh, tend to be grittier and perhaps more tightly focused on the narrator’s parents and friends since he is much younger.

This is the third Blaise collection reviewed on this site (here’s a link that will take you to the other two, The Meagre Tarmac and Southern Stories). He is now in his 70s and it took me a long time to get to reading this outstanding short story writer — it was worth the wait and I look forward to the two remaining collections that I have on hand.

The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam

May 8, 2012

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

The present tense of Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager opens in 1966, the most recent Vietnam War already under way and American involvement beginning to increase. But the novel starts with a short memory passage from 1930: the eve of the departure of the father of the central character (born Chen Pie Sou, but now known as Percival Chen) from China to Cholon, the Chinese community just outside Saigon:

This place in Indo-China was just like China, he had heard, except with money to be made, from both the Annamese and their French rulers.

With his thick, tough fingers, Chen Kai [the father] fumbled to undo the charm that hung from his neck. He reached around his son’s neck as if to embrace him, carefully knotted the strong braid of pig gut. Chen Pie Sou searched his chest, and his hand recognized the family good luck charm, a small rough lump of gold.

“Why does it have no design, ba?” said Chen Pie Sou. He was suprised to be given this valuable item. He knew the charm. He also knew the answers to his questions. “Why is it just a lump?”

“Your ancestor found it this way. He left it untouched rather than having it struck or moulded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.”

The 36 years between that departure to Saigon and the present have been marked by a continuing series of conflicts in Vietnam, all with their own atrocities: Japanese occupation, a war with the French imperialists and now conflict between the South and North, soon to include the Americans.

The Chens, as Chinese merchants, are not political and have been on no side in any of these conflicts. Rather, they have been businessmen who accepted whatever system was currently in power, willing to part with the red envelopes stuffed with bribes that made business possible and exploit the niche that yielded the most current profit. Chen Kai grew rich in the lucrative rice trade and built the family mansion, Chen Hap Sing, before the Chinese were banned from trading rice. But the family has always been able to spot opportunity — the house and former rice warehouses of Chen Hap Sing are now the Percival Chen English Academy, training the translators who are increasingly in demand as more and more Americans arrive.

That sustained economic success as repressive regimes change requires non-involvement not just in the politics of the day but also avoidance of any close personal connection with non-Chinese. As the book opens Percival is having a confrontation with his teenage son Dai Jai whom, he has heard from teacher Mak, the Academy’s effective headmaster, has been seen (often) with an Ammanese student at the school. He is about to tell Dai Jai that the involvement has to end when a black Ford Galaxie pulls up outside:

Dark-coloured cars were something the Americans had brought to Vietnam, thinking them inconspicuous. They had not noticed that almost all of the Citroens and Peugeots that the French had left behind were white. Now, many Saigon officials had dark cars, tokens of American friendship.

Two Vietnamese officals emerge and soon communicate the latest government policy: all schools must teach Vietnamese. Chen protests that this is an English academy, not a school, but, under modest pressure from Mak, signs the agreement — it is important not to make waves. The new policy does, however, set in motion a domino effect of catastrophes (which I will leave you to discover) that finally ends with Chen arranging for Dai Jai to be smuggled to “safety” in China. You don’t have to be a serious student of history to realize that he is being sent to the Cultural Revolution, not the most welcoming place for the offspring of wealthy merchant families.

And then there is the “wager” of the novel’s title. To finance Dai Jai’s escape, Chen has had to resort to series of loans and is now having to make even more to make repayments (needless to say, the loans don’t come from conventional sources). Divorced from Dai Jai’s mother, Chen has also taken to gambling as his leisure activity — and that leads to occasional liaisons with the métisses (prostitutes) who are ever-present in the gambling dens.

He takes his latest “loan” to the Sun Wah Hotel in an attempt to multiply it and is immediately attracted to a métisse that Mrs. Ling has brought to the mah jong game. Lam extends the scene over many pages (and does that well) but it ends with a particularly expensive game with Chen and another player putting up substantial cash and Mrs. Ling betting the métisse. Chen’s luck holds and he leaves with both the cash and the girl: Jacqueline (of mixed race) has entered the novel and will join Chen at its centre for the remainder.

I have tried to choose examples for this review that illustrate what, for me, is the central construct of The Headmaster’s Wager. Percival Chen may be surrounded by a series of global catastrophes and atrocities, but he is a creature who is caught in their cracks. His survival depends on not choosing sides and nimbly keeping options open, but his more pressing daily concerns are his own family and the products of his own weaknesses — and those concerns are constantly exacerbated by developments in the bigger world around him. Continual adjustments (both legal and illegal) are required to keep the “crack” open — and even then the immediate pressures of family concern must be addressed.

The Headmaster’s Wager, as a result, is not a conventional novel about the Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s; rather it is the story of what it took for a marginal (albeit wealthy) creature to survive in that milieu. The need to react to changing outside threats is always present and Chen is powerless to change them — his personal concerns and challenges only get more complex as all that takes place. Unfortunately, the big picture keeps getting bigger — and worse.

I have noted before that Canada seems to have developed a sub-genre of novels written by Canadians but set in the troubled south-east Asia of this period — Kim Thuy’s Ru, Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared and Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement are just a few that have been reviewed here. David Bergen’s The Time In Between also is part of the genre and won the 2005 Giller Prize — alas, that was pre-blog so there is no review here. While Lam’s novel explores a different aspect of the broader story, I didn’t find The Headmaster’s Wager to be significantly better than any of those cited above.

A final note. Lam is himself a former Giller winner, in 2006 for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, his debut collection of linked short stories. This first novel has been much praised in Canadian media, in contrast to the lukewarm reception here. Part of that may well be my fault: I read The Headmaster’s Wager (and its account of Vietnam war atrocities) immediately following Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper with its even more dramatic account of the atrocities of the Holocaust. My failure to completely engage with Lam’s novel might perhaps best be attributed to a case of short-term atrocity overload.

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