Sunday, 11 October 2020

Psychological Thriller: Shani Mootoo's Polar Vortex

When I told my husband the basic plot of Shani Mootoo's Polar Vortex (2020, Book*hug), he muttered, "Oh, a Muskoka psychodrama." He's more or less right, though the Muskoka part is a bit off. Mootoo's novel takes place in a house on the north-eastern isthmus of Lake Ontario near Kingston. "Muskoka" invokes the insular middle-class Toronto elite who, besides having cottages in the Muskoka District, dominate the country's arts and politics by reporting on themselves as being dominant. The term "Muskoka pyschodrama," therefore, is not a term of endearment.

I ended up liking the book, though not unreservedly. During the first two-dozen pages, I felt a tickling of familiarity similar to what I experienced while reading Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me. Stories of people who leave the urban jungle for a suburban oasis yet who cannot escape their demons have acquired a recently coined subgenre, domestic noir, a crime story with feminist underpinnings.Well-known examples are Big Little Lies and The Girl on the Train.  Any sense of newness about domestic noir requires a lack of cultural memory. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was published in 1938, and before that was Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights. Domestic noir seems to me a resurgence into the mainstream of gothic fiction, which emerged from popular folklore and a backlash against rationalism in the late-eighteenth century. Gothic literature features isolated homes, family secrets, and the threat of death for its frequently (though not always) female protagonists. Domestic noir is updated because of the presence of feminism, though from what I can tell, domestic noir's plots tend not to counter the older idea that innocent, helpless women are perpetually victimized by family secrets animated ny the bodies of powerful, vengeful, and greedy men. Action and violence dominates the climaxes of this genre, so to me the genre is also a subset of the thriller. I tend to avoid this genre myself since I find it too melodramatic and predictable.

Mootoo's version of the tale of a woman in trouble, however, steers away from domestic noir in significant ways. Her book reminds me of Henry James novels, whose plots reside almost entirely in social awarness and the turbulence of its characters' thoughts. His characters tend not to beat the crap out of each other or chase the heroine down a secluded forest path to stop her from revealing the truth about a hidden fortune, a falsified will, or the non-accidental nature of a seemingly accidental death. 

In Polar Vortex, the primary tension is psychological. The two female narrators are both perturbed by the impending arrival at their artist retreat of Prakash, an old friend of Priya, a painter who is married to the writer Alex. Priya thinks that Alex feels threatened by Prakash in some way, but she cannot get Alex to admit to her unreasonableness. At the same time, Priya is unsure why Prakash wants to drive three hours to her new hometown after so many years of silence from him. Priya's thoughts constitute the main materiel of the book. Priya is a bundle of insecurities concerning her present wife, her past partner Fiona from her university days, and the two men who witnessed Fiona and Priya's romance, the heartbroken Stan and the goofy but steady-hearted Prakash. In addition to her thoughts about Prakash, the novel records Priya's fraught interactions with Alex and their neighbour and mutual friend Skye, who drops by the morning of Prakash's arrival. Eventually, Alex gets a chance to narrate her own section, and in this brief escape from the perspective of the tormented Priya, the novel reveals that Priya is not entirely a reliable narrator.

Another difference between this novel and domestic noir derives from its focus on cultural and sexual identity. Priya and Prakash are immigrants of Indian descent, Priya from Trinidad and Prakash from Uganda. Prakash is a cartoonishly "normal" Indian man, at least as Priya keeps insisting, but his background, as does hers, informs more of what happens in their lives than Priya at first will admit. Priya's sexuality also serves as a significant pressure point. Although at first her lesbianism seems besides the point—relationships are relationships, after all—her sexual orientation complicates the texture of her relationships. 

The meteorological force named in the book's title is an emblem for the unpredictable yet always looming pressure that arises because Priya fears reality's incursion on the emotional bulwalks she has put up to prevent any spillage of her past into her life. When she recalls last year's horrific winter, she conjures an image that represents her fear of losing control the narrative that she has constructed for herself and others: "It wasn't a stretch to imagine water undulating, restless, captive, wanting an escape fron all that ice. It felt as if the force of the moving water beneath might actually, at any second, wrench the boulders above from whatever anchored them and send them skidding toward the road, shoving us into trees or, more mercifully, simply crushing us flat." That was last year, though; on this day, nothing can prevent the waves from crashing over her.

The psychodrama is something I came to admire as I finished the novel, particularly the construction of Priya's anguished re-fashionings of her memories as she awaits Prakash's arrival. Re-reading the novel is a different experience than the first reading, therefore, since Priya's analytical missteps are painfully obvious. A book that reads differently on the second go-around to me demonstrates the detail and the skill behind its creation.

I recommend this book.



Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Short Miracles

The 2020 Giller Prize Shortlist was announced yesterday, and I have read and reviewed three of the five nominees, if I include today's post, which is about Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife. As I said earlier, I have reduced some pressure on my reading by dropping long-listed nominees that did not make the short list. I feel pretty good about my chances of reading all the short-listed books. I will start Shani Mootoo's book after I finish this post, and I expect a copy of Adamson's Ridgerunner to arrive at my door via Audreys Books free delivery service for orders over $50.00. I am quarantining right now--I have a sore throat--so I was pleased to get that book delivered to me. Else I would have had to depend on the kindness of strangers to get a copy.

The Giller judges dropped the book that I had favoured the most among the three I had read, namely Seth's Clyde Fans. I am saddened somewhat, but not enough to think that I should take nominations and awards seriously. A short-list likely is better than a long-list for sales, but a long-list is good too. I hope people consider reading Seth's book anyway. As it turns out, the fourth book on my reading list was going to edge ahead of Clyde Fans on my most favourite list.

How to Pronounce Knife is another story collection, this one of fourteen stories. All of them are short. (This collection has no novella, as Bergen's Here the Dark has.) Thammavongsa has primarily been a poet, so I am not surprised, as brevity characterizes poems as much as short stories. Like Bergen's collection, a few motifs dominate these unconnected stories. Most of the stories feature immigrants from Laos. The people in these stories tend to be urban-dwellers, and some of them like to fold things into squares, whether a newspaper, a mat, or a parking ticket. Thammavongsa tends to favour the indeterminate ending more than Bergen, though some of his stories do use this ending. I imagine that indeterminate endings drive novel-readers insane, but I like them usually. As I grow older I have grown less tolerant of slice-of-life stories, which often have indeterminate endings. These stories, however, are not slice-of-life, because the events in the stories mark a change in the lives of their protagonists.

Some of the stories could be about the same family, though the differences are enough to make clear they are not the same family. The family is a mother and father with one or two children, all of them recent migrants to Canada, to the point where the parents' English is weak. The children, however, are dependent on their parents for knowledge about the world, and the fact of the parents' foreignness leads to some problems, some relatively minor, as in "Chick-A-Chee," in which the two children do not know what they are supposed to say to home-owners on Hallowe'en. Other problems are major, as in "Picking Worms," when the mother invites her daughter's white date for the school dance to pick worms at her workplace to make extra money, and the boy gets promoted to be the mother's manager. In the title story, the daughter knows her parents shouldn't ignore the notes her teacher pins to her coat, but she defers to their parental good intentions to the point that she argues with her teacher over the pronounciation of "knife."

The tension in these stories tends to stem from cringeworthy misunderstandings and power imbalances. In "Mani Pedi," a young boxer finds himself bottoming out in his career and finds shelter with his sister, who owns a nail salon. The boxer soon finds himself doing nails, but he comes to see that his proximity to beautiful white women doesn't have as many benefits as he would hope; his sister certainly disabuses him of his fantasy of upward mobility. In "Slingshot," the elderly narrator makes friends with a thirty-two-year-old fellow tenant in her apartment building. She knows that other people see only her exterior, but Richard seems to acknowledge the flesh and blood on the inside. Ten years later, she sees him on the street, and she decides to looks through and past him, just like most people do to an eighty-year-old woman.

The stories feel light because of their brevity and the clarity of the writing. Thammavongsa's stories put on no airs, but that doesn't mean that they lack profundity. The stories' depth  lies in the particular details of daily life and the effects of an accumulation of days on a person, a family, and a culture.


Saturday, 3 October 2020

Stories of Sex and Power: David Bergen's Here the Dark

David Bergen's Here the Dark consists of seven stories, the last, a novella, being the title story. Masculinity, sex, love, religion, and power constitute the overarching themes. This covers just about everything (just about, not all....). The littler stories deserve a bit of own attention, since these are not connected stories, those novels in disguise that have crept into the marketplace and, I think, have damaged the value of the short story genre these days. Bergen's six are honest-to-god short stories.

My favourite of the six is "How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?" about a math teacher who uses his wise-spirited high-school students as a sounding board for his relationship problems. (This story won the CBC Literary Prize for the Short Story in 1999.) The students become a Greek chorus cheering on their alcoholic, demoralized teacher in his search for love and meaning such a sweet way that I was genuinely surprised and delighted.

Anoter  story that stands out from the others in its focus is "Hungry. It addresses one of the collection's main motifs--teenagers and sexuality--but with the addition of a recent migrant from Rwanda who gets mixed up with a jagged-edged white family whose sons' sexual power plays take no prisoners. A reverse version of this story is "Saved. "Set in Vietnam, its protagonist is a destitute teenaged boy who becomes involved with a Christian missionary group. Like all the characters in this collection, the boy's sexual desire serves as a symptom for a spiritual neediness that organized religion can't assuage. The story shocked me, not a bad thing for me.

The other four I group together loosely as stories of men whose sexual and romantic desires face resistance from gatekeepers.  "Man Lost" features an island-dwelling fisherman named Quinn who has  a customer known simply as K who is, well, the worst: wealthy, tacky, misogynistic, alcoholic, and socially disruptive. Quinn should know about the last part because K impregnates his sister. K wants to catch the big fish so Quinn takes K out on the ocean and, probably inadvertently, demonstrates how precarious human life is in the face of nature and one's own weaknesses. In "April in Snow Lake," a displaced young man gets taken into the bush by the uncle of a young woman who attends his Christan youth group. Yes, the trip to the bush is a test, and yes, the uncle does not make things easy for him.The protagonist of "Leo Fell" has better helpmeets among the locals he meets when he moves to Kenora for a job after his finances and his marriage fall apart. The waitress Girlie has all kinds of people trying to play matchmaker. The protagonist's road is not so easy in "Never Too Late." An old farmer is romanced by a wheel-chair bound woman whose psychopathic ex-husband still feels some proprietoriness towards her since she is an heiress. A dog proves to be a useful bridge for the couple

A dog serves as a similar bridge in "Here the Dark." This story gathers some of the motifs in the other stories but this time features a female protagonist, Lily, a young Mennonite who does not acquiesce easily to the expectations of her community. Her problem is her openness to the  other world through her school-friend Marcie and her Aunt Dolores, who plies her with books in a deliberate effort, it seems, to introduce the outside world to Lily. Lily in particular wants to explore her sexuality, a desire that her husband Johan has little problem with in actuality but in the end has spiritual misgivings about. Another outsider complicates things for Lily: Frantz, her wayward brother-in-law, who has a dog as well as plenty of experience with the outside world. As might be expected, Lily's extended family and the community's elders want to keep Lily in the community.

I have read quite a bit of writing, fiction and non-fiction, about Mennonites and other closed religious communities, and I may have lost too much sympathy for these groups to be patient with the slowness of Lily's haphazard rejection of her upbringing.  As well, the trajectory of Lily's life resembles those of other protagonists in these other stories, so I did not feel like this story was original enough to make me appreciate it.

Notwithstanding the title story's female protagonist, the stories seemed old-fashionedly male- and sex-oriented. Hemingway in particular came to mind. People who want to have this kind of reading experience might like this book more than I did. With the exception of "Hungry" and "A Bottle of Vodka," I did not experience enough of a push at the envelope. I want something new when I read, and the other books Giller long-listers I have read so far were closer at achieving this for me.

I am now reading another story collection among the Giller nominees, and I am curious about how I will react to them.

 


Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Endtimes Revisited: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel feels like a remake of Emily St. John Mandel's previous novel Station Eleven (2014), with the pandemic of the latter book replaced by the 2008 financial crisis as represented by a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. A seemingly significant difference is that Station Eleven is speculative fiction, whereas The Glass Hotel lies in the realm of the literary mainstream.

No matter how much I tried, though, and I tried, I couldn't ignore the doubling between the two books. I can't say too much without revealing their plots, but I will say this. The Glass Hotel contains two characters from the previous book: shipping company executives Leon and Miranda, the latter who is arguably the main character of Station Eleven. Leon gets more attention in the 2019 version as one of the people who suffers complete ruin at the hands of the novel's Madoff stand-in, Jonathan Alkaitis. Another character fills the role that Miranda plays in Station Eleven. Like her, Vincent Smith (named by her parents after Edna St. Vincent Millay) lucks herself into a luxurious life by virtue of her mismatched relationship with a wealthy man (Alkaitis), yet she feels "adrift" and "unmoored," two words that are key in characterizing the emotional states of many characters in both books, in the cocoon of this life.  Miranda funnells her passion into her graphic novel and into the isolation of the title's enwombing retreat for her fictional alter ego Dr. Eleven. For her part, Vincent takes five-minutes videos of the natural world, especially of the ocean of her childhood home of the coast of British Columbia and of the oceans she travels to as the trophy wife of Alkaitis. Standing in for Station Eleven is the Hotel Caiette, the hotel of glass that brings the major players of the plot together. Hotel Caiette constitutes another fragile place of stillness in the wilderness, but it also stands in for all the glass-bound towers that Vincent finds herself in as Alkaitis's fake trophy wife. 

In addition to these plot and character parallels are a similar structure and theme. For both novels, Mandel writes in fragments, and the changes in space and time between adjacent fragments often are marked by continents and decades. Her many characters cross paths, and in those crossings the books emphasize the interconnectedness of things and the ineffability of experienced time. The storytelling in The Glass Hotel is not chronologically straightforward, that is; but Mandel nevertheless has enough control of her material that I never got lost. Each character who is connected to Vincent and Alkaitis has a unique enough personality and narrative circumstance that confusing is difficult. The result of these well-controlled fragments is a narrative that drifts forwards and backwards in time while simultaneously revealing details that, once put in chronological order, depict a melancholic planet full of people whose sufferings are rarely inflected by any of the good things that happen to them. For Mandel's characters, decisions tend to lead to bad outcomes, but no character seems surprised by that downturn; or if a character is surprised, as Leon and his wife seem to be at first, they come to love the freedom that their ill fortunes have brought them. I am not sure of this doubling is conscious or not; I suspect it is, though why I am not sure.

When I say that the two books feel similar, I mean the emotion of melancholy possessed by characters who cannot escape their pasts and the sense of disorientation generated by the books' fragmented structure. When I read both books I had this same feeling. One emotion that the newest book lacks is Station Eleven's thriller elements in the post-pandemic world, but I did not believe that aspect of the earlier book. It seemed much too similar to elements of other postapocalyptic stories, such as the crazed warlord who with his murderous cult threatens the possibility of humans to resurrect their demolished civilizations. 


I liked the pre-pandemic part of Station Eleven much more. The Glass Hotel resembles most that pre-pandemic world, which is not less beholden to the cliches of many postapocalyptic stories. I didn't like Station Eleven that much, but I like The Glass Hotel. The similarity of the two novels, however, puts me off The Glass Hotel to some degree. I suspect I would have liked it more if I had read it first. 

Now that I have read three books, I can start to make comparisons. Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me is stylistically and narratively much different from Mandel's book and requires some effort in comparing the two. By contast, Seth's Clyde Fans, however, resembles Mandel's novel in its focus on  how the past affects the present and with a similar melancholy. 

At this point, I prefer Clyde Fans because of its greater philosophical intensity and closer examination of its fewer characters. But I have eleven more books to read, so I can't say more than this until I get through more, if not all, of them.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Caregiver Horrorshow: Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me

Cover of Watching You Without MeI classify this book as a psychological thriller of the type in which a dangerous person has entered the protagonist's house. In this book's case, the danger has entered the house because the protagonist has invited the danger inside, much like in some traditions of the vampire. Trevor, the danger, is not a literal vampire, but his neediness imitates the vampire's dependence on others for sustenance.

Trevor is a home care worker for Kelli, the developmentally-disabled older sister of the narrator, Karen. Karen and Kelli's mother Irene has died, and Karen must now look after her sister. At first Karen interprets the scope of this new responsability as mainly the finalization of Kelli's installation into a continuing care facility that Irene has already selected. Karen, however, must in the meantime navigate her life through newness such as the schedule of the health care workers who had been helping the ailing Irene with some of Kelli's needs, such as bathing her and taking her for a walk. Trevor is the person who has been walking Kelli, and it seems as though Kelli is fond of Trevor. 

Karen understands, slowly, that in many ways Trevor became a surrogate son. Karen left Nova Scotia years ago, and that departure represented the emotional distance that had been widening between Irene and Karen since adolescence. Karen resisted Irene's attempts at instilling her values of self-sacrifice and religious faith onto Karen. Teenaged Karen didn't view her mother as a saint but as someone who tried to impose moral perfection. After moving to Toronto, getting herself a career, a marriage, and a divorce, Karen returns home to face her mother's arguments all over again. Trevor is one of the people who sees Irene as a saint. Furthermore, he seems to have adopted her moral formula for life.

Trevor is not, it turns out, a saint. Karen sees this at first, but self-loathing kicks in, and she reinterprets her past as evidence of her inability to see the truth of things. Karen doesn't see Kelli as a burden, but she realizes that many people who offer help need help themselves. This understanding alters her view of people such as Trevor as well as Karen's old friend Jessica, now a real estate agent and insistently "with it" person who suffered a traumatic childhood. At the same time, though, Karen's revised view makes her vulnerable. Both Jessica and Trevor see this, and act accordingly.

What pleased me at the outset was the sense of humour, a black humour to be sure, but a well-considered humour given that, I imagine, caregivers experience things that demand the ability to appreciate the strange beauty of complications that arise, as they do for Karen because, for example, Kelli hates elevators and has been drinking too much pop. Along with the humour, tension arises from the obstacles Karen faces outside and especially inside her newly narrowed world. I couldn't put the book down, I must confess. However, it ends more or less the way I expected it to, and I felt cheated; I'm not a devotee of the thriller genre because I know how they end, and I generally stay away from the genre accordingly. Still, the ending is a bit unusual. Is Kelli, in the end, a manifestation of God?

Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me is the second novel I have read recently in which the author basically apologizes for the ending. The first was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. That book devotes many pages to its lament over reader expectations for a clear-cut ending since life never turns out that way. But people know that, no? My sense with Tartt's book is that Tartt may have wondered how to end the book, a fair enough question considering how long that book is and how long it took her to write it. Thankfully, Coady's version of this apologia is much shorter. Still, I didn't think the book needed to warn the reader that it may not end the way the reader would like. I consider an unusual ending to be a feature, not a flaw. As a result, Coady's book has more substance than other thrillers I have read.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Seth's Clyde Fans: My Reading of Giller Prize Long-list Nominees

 


Although the book is thick, heavy, and encyclopedic in appearance, inside is an intimate depiction of a generation of salesmen and the creep through time of disillusion and decay. Set in Toronto from the 1950s to the late 1990s, Clyde Fans (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019) depicts the postwar ideal of optimism and growth that loomed over the reality of people who knew that they did not fit into this ideal. Abe Matchcard, owner and manager of his father's fan business, at first sees himself as an inheritor of the postwar dynamism and optimism modelled by his self-involved, bullying father. Abe's older brother Simon, by contrast, has cultivated an contemplative inner life at odds with Abe's gung-ho validation of commercial enterprise, consumer acquisitiveness, and search for material comfort at the expense of all else.

 The graphic novel never shows favour for this ideal. Clyde Fans begins with Abe wandering through his family home and soliloquizing about his past. At first he discusses salesmanship as though he has absorbed sincerely the self-help-style mantra of Always Be Closing. Soon, however, he drops the facade, which crumbles as images piles up of his home and its attached offices, scraps of paper littering the floor, stacks of piles, boxes of unsold fans stacked in storage, and cracks in the walls. Abe acknowledges his ill-suitedness to salesmanship and hints at the disorder in his family, beginning with his father and leading to Simon's disengagement from the practicalities of life and his attachment to their aging, disappointed mother and to the writing of a book about the novelty postcards he has collected since the 1950s.

As he states in the afterword, Seth wrote Clyde Fans, inspired by an actual deserted storefront for Clyde Fans, in installments over twenty years. Though his obsession with the subject remained steady, his drawing style changed, becoming blockier and heavier in its outlines. Nevertheless, what remains constant is the insistence on silence and distance as represented by the many wordless panels and the attention to the clean geometries of the city landscape, often presented in a birds-eye view or slightly lower. Throughout the colours are stark black, varieties of grey, and pale blues. When the Matchcards go to smaller towns and the countryside, the panels are less crowded and favour curves rather than straight lines. Wherever and whenever the plot leads, images repeat: birds, shadows falling across facades, three trees on a hill, a lighthouse, drops of liquid, and those scraps of paper lying in hallways, in office floors, on sidewalks.

The Matchcard brothers have the urge to burrow into the comfort of the past as protection not only from the present and the future but also from the most distasteful elements of the past. Abe admits that he came to this awareness late in life, whereas his brother has acknowledged this reality since boyhood. Simon, introverted, dreamy, and dissatisfied, laments the "impenetrable wall of time" that separates him from the past and from the past versions of himself. He learns to cope, at least some of the time, by constructing fantasies that, though not without their painfulness, demonstrate memory's malleability and the imagination's constructive power. Although the characters, and people in general perhaps, have a wall that separates past from present, narrative literature can move around those walls. The chronology skips forward and back. The book ends not with the chronological present but with Simon at his happiest moment. That he disavows this moment later in his life is not important to the texture of Clyde Fans. That moment exists, and the book treasures that moment for Simon by reinvoking the bittersweet vision that inspired it. 

Seth's graphic novel may remind people of the plays Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet and the 1968 documentary Salesman by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. In other words, Clyde Fans will not stoke the enthusiasm of anyone about to embark on a career in sales.

The book expresses a particular and peculiar personal vision, melancholic and obsessive of the past without sentimentality. Simon's attempts to make sense of life's disappointments arethe strongest part of the book, and I can't forget the sequences of images that form his visions and ratiocinations. I recommend this book.


 


This is the first of the fourteen 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist of  nominations that I plan to read this fall. I will devote one post per book. The Giller Prize opened its nominations to graphic novels for the first time this year, so Clyde Fans is competing with Canadian novels and short story collections. 

If I don't finsh reading the longlisted books before the announcement of the short list on October 5, I will skip to the shortlisted texts I have not yet read. The winner will be announced at a televised gala November 9 on CBC television and CBC Gem.

I have never tried to read all the Giller longlists. But I have recently finished reading all the books on my bookshelf, and I am doing this to sink me into contermporary writing after years of catching up with the past. I have a lot of reading to do. Better get at it.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Creativity Podcasts

I listen to a few podcasts regularly, but I thought I ought to boost my podcast consumption with respect to creativity. Here are some ones I like because they inspire me to take risks and because they pump up my fragile self-esteem.

WTF with Marc Maron. Maron has been podcasting from his garage since 2009. His guests tend to be fellow comedians, but occasionally he veers into other realms, such as when he famously had President Barack Obama as a guest. Maron has a philosophical bent, and he also has his guest speak about their origins and their creative processes, so I find his guests' commentary often inspires me to think about taking risks, something that comedians are forced to do every day.

Your Creative Push. Host Youngman Brown interviews people from all kinds of creative fields: writers, painters, musicians, small business owners, you name it. The goal is to encourage people to work on that project that they've always wanted to do but are waiting for something or someone to get out of their way. The podcast emphasizes bucking up creative people who have been struggling to achieve their dreams. Brown is a thorough interviewer, and he gets the most of out of the experiences of his guests.