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.