Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Favourite Books of 2011

Sticking with last year's approach, these are my favourite five books in any genre from 2011.

1) Grant Buday, White Lung (1999). The title derives from the occupational hazards inherent in working at a mass-production bakery. Buday is a severely underplugged veteran novelist, short story writer, travel essayist, and (most recently) memoirist, and here, in the former capacity, he penned an honest, emotionally versatile, complex tale of class necessity, subterfuge, and plans both thwarted and promising. Notice I didn't frame it "working class". Buday is observant, intellectually honest, and enlightening in turning the searchlight on characters from the bottom "up": the mentally challenged friend and foil of the protagonist who can't get off graveyard shift even after acquiring decades of seniority; the "outsider" who takes the job for quick cash but who splurges on inessentials through credit cards; the main character who dreams of starting his own bakery but whose inertia diminishes his future, both emotionally and financially; the floor boss whose comically "romantic" episodes weave between an equally impotent job-related revenge; the supervisor whose plodding professionalism and career cautiousness is sympathetic to the reader yet overlooked and derided by workers both under and over his level, as well as his wife; the site manager who's caught between the dictates of the owners and Central Canadian bosses, and the workers set to strike; a director whose oily cynicism is part of his spiritual make-up, and not a job description. But as page-turning a story as Buday can tell, the beauty is in the details. The characters are humourously and dramatically idiosyncratic, but in addition, the description of local detail is gritty and aesthetically creative, and the set pieces are unforgettable in tone and execution (the graveyard shift foreman calmly looking up to a passing neighbour while trapped under his carport door is terrifically dry in its humour, yet simultaneously sad in its transformative suggestion). The ending of the novel is superb, and widens the contrast between the two friends at the story's heart.

2) Martin Amis, Money (1984). This was the fifth (and best) Amis novel I've read. Extravagantly creative and consistently vibrant, it's tighter than The Information, more mature than Success, more realized than the (at times) apocalyptic London Fields, and more coherent than the clever yet problematically structured Time's Arrow. Plenty of philosophical digressions, which in a novel I love, and here they're tied to the first-person obsessions, and make sense in the back-and-forth with the narrative. Too many hilarious characters to outline in a short review, and too many imaginative set pieces, but one stand out episode was the tennis match between the physically catastrophic John Self and the athletically efficient Fielding Goodney. Money is humour at its best: it works on its base entertainment level while also driving huge non-comedic daggers into the soft dough of hard-assed greed.

3) Grant Buday, Monday Night Man (1995). A collection of loosely-linked short stories, Buday created three unforgettable characters in the financially and socially challenged friends who gamble, whore, and drink their way through existential exasperation. This is courageous humour, wild and low, but there're also moments of heartbreaking pathos (the story set in the Patricia Hotel) and dramatic, even quiet, counterpoint. Buday never forces a laugh at the expense of the characters. Actions, no matter how bizarre and entertainment-oriented, have consequences, and it's a grim reminder that we can sympathize with those we initially dismiss or make fun of.

4) D. G. Jones, The Stream Exposed With All Its Stones (2010). This is a poetry Collected, though some poems from Jones' lengthy opus have been excised, either through editorial choice or authorial pruning. It doesn't surprise me that several Canadian postmodernists have applauded the poetry of Jones since one of his poetic obsessions is with the creative act itself. His concern for a wide-ranging aesthetic for and to nature, art, and thought is generous, and not solipsistic. A delightful contrast exists throughout Jones' career score in his unironic handling of heavyweight themes (sex, death) with a stylistically light touch. Though I often have a distaste for recurring tropes in a poet's particular volume, I actually thrill to repetitions in variations when adroitly handled. "Sun" and "snow" are two of those unassuming emblems. And, in "Little Night Journey", they're joined by other elements in a smorgasbord of suggestion. The poem has a curious propulsion, both reverie and kinesthetic awe, and is nuanced enough to reward multiple efforts and delights of unpacking and stratification. If that sounds a tad highfalutin', how 'bout: it'll haunt one with its dark fathoms. Poets, unfortunately, even the best, are often remembered, if at all, for several poems, perhaps just one. If fate favours Jones with that small but unchippable corner of granite, I hope "Little Night Journey" is the reason.

5) Thomas More, Utopia (1516). Beheaded because of his integrity, Thomas More's life reminds us, five Cs later, that power mixed with integrity is a dangerous brew. The consensus on his philosophical tract the past hundred years has swung to a supposed satirical meaning, yet influential views, still strong, side with a belief that More was sympathetic to the ideal society while knowing it could never happen (thus explaining the narrator's inconsistencies, once thought a defect in More's thought). It's wonderful that the work is still debated. My enjoyment increased when I noted those inconsistencies gathering: the "moral" strictures, e.g., on infidelity, divorce, and sloth were illuminating as a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" match with certain politically-entrenched religious codes this particular year of our lord(s).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Susan Musgrave's Origami Dove

Never a fan of Susan Musgrave's thirty year ditch-and-witch imagery, I was pleasantly surprised by her first new book of poetry in eleven years, 2011's Origami Dove.

The emotional alarm systems still go off in all five firehouses, at times ("and then I start weeping/I can't help it I can't/stop" from "Conjugal Visit"), but a maturity based partly, it seems, on the reading of detachment spirituality has given her poems more proportional resonance: "Small flocks of twitchy sandpipers/scoot out on the tide; a pheasant/stutters from the ditch into the trees" and "There's just enough light left/on the river tonight to turn/the water black. You see it flare up/behind my eyes: the obituary of light." The latter quotation is from the very good section two, and it represents a heartfelt merging of unadorned natural movement with personal mood, fate, and conclusion.

Advocacy overruns aesthetics in section four, the last, but I'm grateful for the many fine poems here as a stronger counterbalance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Phil Hall's Killdeer

"Department of Critical Thought No. 4". Winston Smith would have been terrified of this back cover tag. And when you combine it with the publisher's own appellative aggression -- BookThug -- who would blame him for following Phil Hall's example regarding the latter's own earlier poems, where they were "hidden ... in stumps -- under floorboards -- behind pseudonyms ... in bus station lockers -- under bridges" ?(p.99). Leave the book in its closed state, that is. I'm not sure Hall wants to be identified with "departments", and mindful of two of his main anti-themes -- the awful intrusion of the personal onto the observation, in poetry; the awful declarations of aggressors in politics, personal relationships, chance incidents, poetics -- I'm not sure he wants to be identified on the side of the "Thug" as he or she (literally) presses against the "Book". But then, metaphors are too convenient.

Or are they? The chief metaphor -- with various spinoffs -- in Phil Hall's 2011 Killdeer is the titular victim. The nod to a lyrical trope here is indeed curious since, absent that occasional vulnerable walk-on, the book is much better classified as memoir, poetics apagoge, and cultural retrospective than as poetry. What's funny is that saying this immediately marks one now as narrow-minded. Note, I'm not saying the book is a hybrid -- prose poetry, say, or lyrical travelogue -- but that it could be shelved under poetry, and be eligible for awards in that category, without so much as a shake of the retreating tail. So I'll dispense with a critique based on verse lexicon, as such, and focus instead on the rambling assertions and anecdotes.

"I also handed her poems -- far too many -- a crumpled bundle -- I knew she didn't write poems -- I didn't care

She said that she didn't write poems but that she would read them & write me a letter about them" (p. 21)

This is the language and rhythm of telephone conversations, and rushed and distracted, at that. Hall would likely concur. Poetry as language doesn't seem to hold much merit for him: "these have healed me -- not cleverness or career or language" (p. 101).

I'll get to the defensive self-promotion later, but for now, note the italics. Elsewhere, and in a second hypocritical parade not covered by postmodern ambiguity, Hall relates as to how he doesn't like to talk about writing. Right. Just stuff it all in a book, and then don't ever discuss it, reader or writer. Makes sense. But that would prompt a third hypocrisy, that I'm being rational. Of course, one can't find any rational inflections and conclusions amongst Hall's mishmash, despite the furlongs of literary references and personal exegesis. Uh huh.

The suffocating tone and mood of Hall, the recorder in Killdeer, is so persistent, one wonders if he's progressed much beyond his first published chapbook at 20, of which George Amabile remarks to Hall: "Far from giving me any pleasure this book almost made me puke -- if I were you I wouldn't write another book for 10 years" (p. 28). Immediately on this quote's heels comes, "I was 20 -- that letter broke my stupid heart" (p. 29). As alluded to in the preceding paragraph, it's hypocritical for him to focus here on his emotional excesses (that it happened in his callow past doesn't alter the incongruities -- this book is chock full of Poet suffering the slings and arrows of derision and neglect) while in another section/poem/essayistic context criticize Irving Layton for the latter's reactive closer -- "I turned away and wept" -- to his "The Bull Calf". Hall references his own parallel summation elsewhere -- "I should have shot my father" -- as an absurd reaction, in his words, "the false politics of honesty" (p. 85), but emotional ham-handed tack-ons aren't any worse than the reverse pride Hall assumes in his own flashbacks and poetics statements. Your unhumble correspondent actually prefers the cruder calls: at least I don't have to negotiate contradictory and deadening theoretical ruminations at every turn.

More of the same here: "someone rescued me from years of ass-kissing

I longed to be a writer before I felt driven to write

I got a degree in writing -- & I published a first book -- way before writing became my compulsive practice" (p. 27).

In all seriousness, who, other than he and some of his friends, cares? This is what's given confessional writing a bad name for the past thirty years. Nothing transcends the hermetic particulars. Not the language, not the sentiments, not the commonplace revelation. The pun in the following line's, "Since then I have always learned to put the art before the course" doesn't cover up the solipsism.

Hall drops more names in Killdeer than periods. "See The Captive Mind (1953) -- in which Czeslaw Milosz chronicles the gradual corruption of the minds of artists by totalitarianism in central Europe" (p. 79).

Milosz makes it clear in indefatigable character studies that those minds weren't corrupted as much as they were ensnared, and necessarily two- or three-faced by opposing forces of political opportunism and ideological tenacity. To compare postmodern parlour games in Canadian learneries with the world of Poles drenched in blood and hazardous message-code is obscene.

The only parts of this book of poetry I enjoyed were those parts where poetry was actually on tap, and allowed to breathe. Unfortunately, the deer only popped up every ten pages or so. "The fawn nuzzled the doe -- wiping grass-flecked slobber along her withers" (p. 69) sure beats "Hope becomes the expectation of finding next an intricately imperfect process that might prove all of one's own imperfections worthy & irrelevant" (p. 49).

And after reading, "The bad sequence's mother is the Canada Council for the Arts -- she sings to the child in the womb a song of research & travel grants -- prospectuses -- itineraries" (p. 89), I'll note, with interest, Hall's obvious refusal of the 25 Gs, should he get tapped for the win.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anne Simpson's Is

The back cover of Anne Simpson's 2011 Is informs us that the author "illuminates what it means to be alive". Heady stuff. The book is also "[r]ich with muscular craft". If jacket photos weren't de rigueur, one could almost imagine a poets' union of middle linebackers or hod carriers. It's past time this hoary adjective was deprived of its steroidal cachet. There. Now on to the poems.

"before blue before blue deepening and unwinding inside blue before bluegrey before the envelope of morning before opening the crisp envelope of morning ..." (p.2)

Shouldn't this note-stretching proceed in reverse chronology? I'm probably missing the significance of the syntax, but if amazement is the feeling of the recorder (and the wish for the receiver), it seems a peek through a microscope would do the trick more effectively. I can't get a deep view of all this "blue deepening".

"sounds not yet sounds darkens before darkness and light before light beginning and ending ending and beginning." (p. 3)

I guess this is the illumination of "what it means to be alive". Or maybe it's just abstraction multiplying like Nut's fart in a chromosphere.

"You are day divided from night, night from day, minute from minute, hour from hour. Time begins, sliced into now" (p. 5)

Goddammit, can we get on with infanthood, already? The first chapter of Genesis and the beginning of The Iliad are boring, too, but at least they recorded basic elements and specific people, respectively.

"You are dark inside dark, and within this dark, intricate contraptions of darker darkness" (p.6)

Any smartypants outdark that?

"Before tinkering. Before the ululation of a siren. Before scarlet. Before latches. Before eyes. Before ... " (p. 7)

Ah! The world. The little fucker is finally with us.

"You are spaciousness." (p. 8)


"You are depth and more depth, earthing and earthed." (p. 9)

And never forget you are a child of the universe which is unfolding as it should. (Apologies to the lyricists of that gawdawful song.)

"a woman untucking a cotton shirt a man undoing a belt" (p. 13)

Wait a sec. What happened to Deep Blue? Are we having flashbacks, or is this number two already? Pp 14 and 15 shrinks the same poem (15 set tinier than 14), with two and four columns respectively. I don't think we're supposed to read this, and in any event if I wanted to read it again, the original p. 13 is the right option: I don't have a magnifying glass at hand.

"Break into break up break down break out break off break ... " (p. 16)

At least Quartermain's cliched variations had some wit.

"Aftershocks of noise -- a gas main, propane tank." (p. 17)

I'm lost. Is that the point? Is there one? Perhaps I've been in this mitotic funk and fug too long.

"syllables of spun light" (p. 18)

Here we go. The linguistic nature tropes. Soon we'll encounter "glottals of mud bubbles". And if our little lump of protoplasm was real, wouldn't the latter image be more accurate that the former preciosity? Or have we moved from the placental stew to the gas main to yet another universe?

(p. 19) : the paratactic list. Hurrah! A "poetic" rendering of a Titanic-like drama. In 13 ragged lines. My blood pressure: unchanged. E. J. Pratt is spinning in his grave like the Tasmanian devil.

"You imagine all that lies below: dank palaces under the ground." (p. 25)

She might imagine it, but I can't. But being "poetic" means taking it on good faith. Things are mysterious on page 25, and no lie. But it's a mystery, alas, not worth wondering about. As for imagining: imagine what Gwendolyn MacEwen could have done with this passage. Or Patrick Anderson. You could've seen the flux and dazzle of partially obscured, vivid shapes under the surface. That murk wouldn't have been announced with stock vagaries. Instead, strange word combos colliding. Awe or danger invading the mind that reads it.

"Crocuses, murmuring secrets to earth." (p 28)

If vegetables and flowers are going to be anthropomorphic studs and soothsayers, I suppose this is better than Lorna Crozier's carrots fucking the earth.

(p. 30): Bees are back. I sense a dramatic arc. "Broken necklace of bees in curled, damp grass." Not bad. And the rhythm of the pentameter makes sense.

"Is" (p. 33) is anaphoric five-and-dime rhetoric gone mad. I can't imagine this read aloud. Hushed? Excited? Solemn? The "is" of "Is" in Is is repeated as line and phrase starter 26 times. None of them are illuminating. Grandeur is not realized, not broached, not in the same solar system with these words just because we're supposed to be lulled into cheap awe by the "gathering force" of the repetitions.

(p. 37): Possible explosions on ship. Sentences cut like fingernails. In fact, "Cut-glass water. The ting of a fingernail against it." (p. 37). Terror as Morse Code. Easier to handle. Not important, anyway. Set up for poetic image. The world is dangerous. But there is always beauty.

(p 41): The plot, of a kind, thickens. Courtroom drama. The bad guys act cool under questioning. Serviceable journal reporting, albeit in court reporter shorthand, a la Heather Spears' Required Reading. Wonderful possibility for psychological complexity, inductive rage, physical detail. But we're left with that frequent three-quarters blank page. Of course, poetry is distillation. Distillation is so successful the distillery is bottling nothing but air.

The fisherman is "settling into his dreams. Into all he's given, dazzled with sea gleam." (p. 42)

(p. 43): a list of marine birds. Simpson wants us to know she's studied the library's pelagic thrust. Undoubtedly carved some walks on sand and pier.

(p. 46): "Sun shot through leaves, leaves, leaves."

I know of no other phrase as precious as "shot through" unless it's "shot through with light". The triple exit makes for a nice unintended irony, though. Oops! Two lines later: "Sun shot through trees." The sun is dangerous enough. Do we have to duck it from its assault behind natural hiding places?

(p. 48): "Someone's hand, a sweeping gesture in a window."

Suspense. Suggestion as importance. Letting the reader fill in ... what?

"The woman doesn't think herself old until the girl moves through her."

The paranormal is apparently one of the hottest selling sub-genres, lately. Robert J. Wiersema would be envious. It takes him over 300 pages to have the sympathetic dead enter the sympathetic living.

The poem "Life Magazine" (p 50) is, so far, the book's most pukeworthy effort. "Two monks doused Thich Quang Duc with gasoline, set him on fire." Why doesn't she just insert the news headline? Wrapped up seven clipped sentences later. Pain as idea. As opportunity for ... "Afterwards, his heart. Untouched plum." It takes a peculiar talent to not only suffocate a poem with a final line, but to take a dull meat-cleaver to it.

(p. 52): "Stink of gas and burning flesh." I believe "stink" is slightly redundant, and takes the immediacy and shock out of "burning flesh". But maybe that's just me. I just finished a YA novel written at a level of effectively-transmitted sophistication far above the faith Simpson shows for her reader. This, and the next five poems, takes another six disposable snapshots for that fifteen-years running overcrowded album: the poetry photo album. Sensitive (yet Olympian-cool, Olympian-frosty, even) poet scans war/family/art photo (sometimes painting), puts herself in place of tortured/sad subject, and concentrates on the traded chiaroscuro. The dead get a quick sigh (never a shudder), are put away, and we're left with horror-as-aesthetic, just another game to play between (in this case) cellular gobbledegook and placemats for the Titanic. Ralph Gustafson's "The Newspaper" (from the poem sequence "Phases of the Present") has a narrator looking at a war photo, too. The genius of the poem -- in artistic fashioning too detailed to describe here -- is that it implicates the narrator, transparently the author, and that the "face/Down" is both historically accurate and a blistering denunciation of Western complacency. In one of the six "photo" poems, Simpson includes the picture taker, but it's thrown into the remove unconvincingly, a tacked-on idea that isn't integrated with anything else in the wandering study in how-to-look-at-a-photo. John Berger's novel G has a similar style, in places, but you feel you've been there, or at least could be there, even if he hasn't.

I could go on -- there's another 36 pages, and I've read them -- but this has become unwieldy.

It would be funny if it weren't tragic how the forces of "write only what you know" have scared off much serious speculative work in poetry -- political, historical, religious, sexual -- yet it's A OK to give an authoritative inside-out biography of a cell. I suppose the takeaway here is "regression rules".

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meredith Quartermain's Recipes from the Red Planet

Meredith Quartermain's 2010 Recipes from the Red Planet, published by BookThug, didn't make it to this year's Governor General's poetry award shortlist, which must be somewhat equivalent to being repeatedly passed over in a shorthanded pick 'em pick-up indoor soccer game. Most other potential players, at least, never had a chance, locked out and deaf to the proceedings. The funniest part of that story? Recipes from the Red Planet is clearly a better book than its more celebrated home team competitors, so the McCaffery-led cabal couldn't even get that right.

I'd read one previous book of poetry by this author -- Vancouver Walking -- and though footnotes on local history also appear in this latest collection, they're far fewer, and have passion (in drips if not surges) filtering through their veins, as in "On my way to the overpass".

Gone, too, are the boring walkabouts and schoolroom lessons. These are replaced in Recipes from the Red Planet by language and rhythm that churns and declaims. The tone is relatively narrow, but is convincing and confident ("winding around me its magnetic flux of elastic vibrations -- until I threw off Bellerophon and kicked in the Helicon which they now call the horse fountain" from "She would"). I don't like "magnetic flux", but I'm not an overbearing stickler for detail when the voice and its sounds are this much fun.

The lessons, though mixed with sweeter medicine, keep a comin', however. Quartermain, through her narrators, has a big problem with authority of many kinds. And those authority figures -- whether bosses, politicians, mythic beings, or local heroes -- are invariably male. The ladies are persistent, tough, clever, or (to reach back into a more tilted patriarchal past) forgiveably winsome. And when a specific brute isn't handy, a generalized one will do, in the guise of unthinking (by creator and receiver) advice. "Directors Change Directions" is just one example of the latter tendency: "Don't touch. Don't skateboard. Don't talk with your mouth full." (Ah, to make a poem completely out of cliche and homily. To alter another popular phrase: "try this at home, kids, because anyone can do it!").

But "Directors Change Directions" and "Maximal" aren't just about guy-knows-best (or brainwashed woman-knows-best), they are list poems. Credit Quartermain for sticking to her belief in the poetics of her male masters. The so-called patriarchal dominant and subjective clauses must be powered over by the matriarchal, all-inclusive steamroller. Samuel Beckett wrote apparently levelling sentences, but there are exquisite shifts and ironical shenanigans going on within those units in Molloy, for example. Most other mortals haven't approached that kind of sophistication, though, which just goes to prove that theory which promotes "only one way" is both narrow-minded and exclusive of nuanced (ironically so) vertical evaluation, whether paratactic or (the form of most speech and thought) hypotactic. The anti-authoritarians don't or won't see their own attempts to dominate. The paratactical straightjacket limits syntax, rhythmical range, dynamics, mood, reverie, thought, and time signatures in all sorts of ways, and what results from the Oulipian, supposedly democratic arrangement is a temptation to flatline. Hence, the list.

A list, by nature, has no coherent beginning or ending, no arc, no reference within the structure. (All language has some kind of structure, even in brain-damaged individuals.) So all endings are arbitrary. Many of these poems could be fifteen lines shorter or fifteen thousand lines longer without helping or harming the finished product stylistically or structurally. After you've click-clicked through a few, the lists -- and the paratactical hopscotching -- start(s) to run away from the voice like the engine of a train separating from the other rolling cars.

At 119 pages, Recipes from the Red Planet feels like too much ice cream after too little protein, but since the diction and playfulness are an improvement over her previous starvation diet in Vancouver Walking, the meal is often enjoyable if not filling.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tony Burgess' Ravenna Gets

Appropriate that I picked up Tony Burgess' 2010 vignette collection Ravenna Gets today. Horror ain't my thing, but literary horror sounded more intriguing. Thoughtful literature is to horror as is erotica to porn. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The plot: the townsfolk from Ravenna, Ontario kill the residents of neighbouring Collingwood.

Why? Well, there are a lot of possible reasons, but it's all conjecture.

Perhaps Burgess is making a satirical swipe at the entire horror genre where an "ah-ha!" psychological explanation will be tied like a tourniquet on the book's (or movie's) last pages and scenes.

Perhaps there's a clue in basic power trade-offs where one "picks up on this. Weakness." (p. 70.). But, no. The story subverts that. The one who, in the above quote, feels momentarily empowered is, seconds later, killed.

Perhaps it's a simple dream, or wish-fulfillment, and the murderers can be seen as liberating angels: "It's that he knew that when she left he would want to die." (p. 62). The victims are in one sense as depressing in their mundane lead-ins as is the (later) sudden received violence. But no, again. The victims at times are about to kill others, as well, and (in the collection's final brief chapter with the previously innocent primary character) sometimes succeed.

Perhaps this is Burgess' take on the Mad Max psycho-scenario where marauding bands of (literally) hungry thugs get their kicks in an eat-or-be-eaten energy-depleted world. But ... no, again. There is no hint that food or gas or heat or a basic level of economic activity is missing.

Perhaps the intriguing third paragraph on page 85 (I won't reveal it here) joins aesthetics, dream imagery, creation, and implication in a brave symbolic necessity. But that's doubtful because the story bursts out of its bounds and violently binds imagination with its non-symbolic realization.

What, then? Perhaps Burgess is making the scariest (and most responsible) statement of all, far scarier than the paper blood gushing out of stabbed hearts and perforated heads: there is no reason for a lot of the violence, which is also an everyday feature of our non-fictive world. (The first, above "perhaps", then, is partly correct.) As someone wisely noted in a vicious world only a breath away in the chasms of history: a staple of violence is its banality. And Burgess has accomplished much in this collection in that he has had to surmount the structural and aesthetic difficulties attendant in the (mostly stupid) horror genre. The writing, in other words, is what saves Ravenna Gets from the shotgun pump book dump. That, and its aforementioned anti-message. One example from page 66: "Sprinklers toss party rice across lawns and bent crosses like plague graves hold yellow leaves and hot tomato sacs."


Like last year, I'll be posting, shortly, mini-reviews here of some books that made this year's Gov-Gen poetry longlist. That should continue into early December.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Life as a Book Juror

The Telegraph just published an article by one of the jurors of The Man Booker prize in which it was revealed that the readers had to finish 138 books in seven months. That's two books every three days. Since the average novel clocks in at 250 pages or so, that's 166 pages a day. Every day. If one is otherwise busy for a time -- meaning, if one has a life -- and can't manage to read the 166 requisite pages, that means 332 pages the next day, or 190 pages every day for the next week. These are the people who're entrusted to make fine distinctions, thoughtful ones, about what they're reading, and to weigh those distinctions against the other 137 books in creating a detailed evaluative list.

(I work, socialize, write, etc, the same, I imagine, as the other jurors on this, and other, prize commitee(s); I manage to read about 40-60 pages a day, but then I don't skim, and I often reread what I've just experienced, as well as pausing, out of pleasure or confusion.)

Or one could just read five pages and pitch it in the "out" tray if the beginning isn't catchy. Or if it's from a publisher one's had mediocre experiences with. (The extension to this is Saul Bellow's remark on "The New York Review Of Each Other's Books.") Or if the jacket copy mentions zombies or grief-stricken daughters of alcoholic rural retirees. Or if one chances upon a great novel not on the list during those seven months.

Or one could just excuse oneself altogether from the masochistic ordeal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Carol Shields' Larry's Party

I'd read only one Carol Shields novel before recently finishing Larry's Party. Small Ceremonies, her first effort, struck me as blandly middle brow and middle class, and left no residue. Larry's Party had a more appealing tone of vulnerability, though the possibilities it promised were rarely realized. A two decade tour in the life of the eponymous protagonist, the novel achieves Shields' stated wish to honour ordinary lives as they actually play out, notwithstanding the supposed metafictional ploys. James Joyce had the talent to find gold from muddy, subjective banalities, but Larry's Party, like many other novels of "small ceremonies", disintegrated for long stretches, including entire chapters (Larry's Kid; Larry's Threads; Men Called Larry), when the faithful rendering of the daily grind was the aim. The let-down was significant because most of her characters -- especially her female leads and support cast -- were idiosyncratic, lively, occasionally surprising. Larry was another matter. A lifelong dreamer, passive schlub, and befuddled reactive naif, Larry nevertheless stays in his first job for twelve years, is promoted to head honcho, then pursues his passion to become a leading entrepreneur in a career held by twelve others worldwide. The discrepancy was difficult to square up. And the dreaming artist/maze creator link didn't work for me: Larry was presented not only as an imaginative dynamo, but as a persistent, organizational stickler.

There were three serious plot contradictions in the novel, the most important between the first reference to Larry's mother mistakenly mailing away for literature for a Flower School class instead of a Furnace School class to help a bewildered Larry get an idea for his first job, and a later explanation that Larry had always wanted to enroll in that school and work with flowers, even though earlier it was made clear Larry had no particular interest in even observing them, let alone thinking about them.

Several scenes were powerful, their emotional pacing and build-up excellent. I'm thinking here of the events leading to Larry's first divorce, and to the strange death of his mother's mother-in-law.

Two shortcomings ultimately pushed me face first into the overgrown shrubbery. Shields has been praised, in other quarters, for a fearless view into dysfunctional domesticity. Sex and love -- she'd reveal those fireworks in all their glory and disarray. So one begins the chapter entitled Larry's Penis with the hope of transgression, vulgar hilarity, heartbreak, tenderness, anything raw or divine. Instead, we're treated to a belaboured list of euphemisms for the poor appendage -- all played for one-toned schoolyard laughs -- as well as narrative flaccidity. "A few days later he was in her bed, sweetly, plumply, satisfyingly fucked." That's the complete one-sentence story of Larry's first encounter with his eventual first wife.

The second problem came to a head in the last chapter. Without giving away the plot resolution, I'll just say Larry's epiphany was unconvincing, both in its realization and in its build-up from his time with Beth and Charlotte. Any maturation in the separate lives of Larry and Dorrie have no bearing on a believable resurgence in their own present and future as a couple.

Two additional notes: Alex Ramon, in a career rehashing of Shields, praised her attention, detail, and skill with setting. He even concluded that she was the best purveyor of Winnipeg-situated storytelling. This speaks either to the paucity of Winnipeg-centric novelists, or the individual projections of Mr. Ramon. The only references to local detail in Larry's Party are to a new coffee shop, to Winnipeg being the windiest of cities, to an outlying community being upscale, and to several passing notations of heavy traffic. I found it an extremely generic novel in its situational manoeuvrings -- (the description of Chicago was likewise vacant) -- which lent credence to Stephen Henighan's assertion that Shields sees little difference between one place and another. (The text explicitly states this, though it's in the guise of a specific character.) I don't buy into Henighan's ideological certainties, but it's easy to see how a lack of regional specificity and strangeness plays into favourable market forces in the U.S.

Finally, a word on the theme of Larry's Party. The "maze = life" analogies were too frequent and occasionally obvious -- "every classical maze contains at its heart a 'goal'. This is the prize, the final destination, what the puzzling, branching path is all about" -- but I liked them, nonetheless.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mark Carney, and Occupy Wall Street, Canadian Edition

I just caught the tail end of the disgustingly sane Peter Mansbridge interviewing Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (perfectly appropriate last name) on one of the media spin networks. Carney, in measured tones, with "papa knows best" slight smile -- condescension-lite -- actually said that Euro Central will need to print more than 1.5 trillion dollars. Guess who that inflation hurts, and guess who gets the money? It's obvious now that the Lloyd Blankfein/Jamie Dimon good cop/bad cop show spooked Carney after the latter publicly scolded Dimon for the Morgan Chase villain's first thumbscrew session. Round two, behind closed doors, must have been Carney's offer-you-can't-refuse moment.

For those going to the upcoming Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Canada, save a corner of your placard for JAIL THE BANKERS. And it ain't just Americans and Europeans who're corrupt to the core.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Michael Boughn's Gov-Gen Acceptance Speech?

"And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence—that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill. ...

We however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you?" -- Michael Boughn

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Ed Champion's Review of Ian McEwan's Saturday


I finished reading Saturday Sunday. That is, I finished Ian McEwan's post-Atonement novel, and then googled the above link to read, this morning, Edward Champion's review of it upon its release in 2005. I like Champion's style: good writing, provocative analysis, controversial ideas, allusive interest. But I didn't like this review. Here's a response to some of his words.

"There's a major anti-Iraq protest tying up traffic, serving more as an inconvenience for Perowne than a revelation of the fractious political circumstances around him." -- Champion

The reviewer, as is apparent from the rest of the piece, would have been more enlightened about McEwan's purposes if he'd spent a bit more time wondering how that protest tied in with the novel's larger issues.

"And there's a modest car accident the provides the linchpin for the novel's denouement." -- Champion

The modest car accident (typically wonderful set-piece by McEwan) provides the linchpin for the novel's climax and (in union with the novel's bigger theme, Perowne's conflicted and wise suspicion of his own set ideas) falling action in the operating theatre. The denouement is all about that narrator's conscience, the car accident becoming a faded spur to a resolution having much wider implications than his relationship with a mentally ill terroriser.

"But this time around, McEwan keeps his plot twists and character revelations to a minimum, throwing in a deus ex machina for good measure." -- Champion

It's true that the characterizations, outside of Harry Perowne, are limited, though still rendered with elegance and an individual flair. There's a good reason for that which I'll elaborate on later.

The deus ex machina may seem unconvincing, as the term suggests, but one of the novel's themes, a difficult one expertly handled, is how chance can operate to terrifying momentum and force in the most comfortable lives. Think on the odds, right at the novel's outset, as Perowne watches the flaming plane, of disaster when boarding a flight. Or the odds of Baxter's destruction encoded in that one renegade gene. Or of Perowne being waved through to the side street by the cop only to collide with Baxter and gang just after they spilled out from the bar. The home invasion, after those longshots, doesn't seem so implausible in those terms. It's against the same reasoning that damned Thomas Hardy's novels as being too coincidentally bare, inexpertly contrived so's to move the plot along its rickety tracks. In Hardy's case, there's a tragic arc so chilling that those critiques seem churlish and inapposite. Greater flukes happen everyday. And in Saturday, after establishing the theme, McEwan shows great restraint. A lesser novelist would have used the set-up as the perfect excuse to go the way of maudlin horror or metafictional gymnastics.

"In prioritizing consciousness instead of a series of events, McEwan has made himself more vulnerable to exposing his very few flaws." -- Champion

I saw it somewhat differently. The only notable flaw I found in the novel is that Perowne's consciousness violently stanched the flow of narrative shock.

"He is a passive observer. One might argue that he isn't a particularly lucid one." -- Champion

Huh? Observation by definition is passive, but only in that it can precede action. Effective action is usually precipitated by shrewd, even pitiless, observation. Think of the connections with Perowne's highly successful neurosurgery career. As for "lucid", yes, Perowne is presented as having a dreamy nature. The opening scene at the window shows this to mesmerising effect. But he's only dreamy in patches. He recovers quickly, as in the conversation with the woman he's just met in surgery (who would become his wife). Perowne's more complex than Champion's thumbnail-ridge sketches would indicate.

"He keeps to himself, relegating his social life to squash games with co-workers and dreamy morning booty calls with his wife." -- Champion

This is conveniently reductive. The novel spans one day in his life. It's a very active day, at that. Champion even misses some of the events of the day. How about his trip to visit his senile mother? Family, of course, but it's a social visit. Or his social visit to watch his son play the new blues tune? Outside of this day, he also runs marathons, follows up with patients with proactive, non-professionally motivated interest, and may have other social avenues not disclosed outside the time constraints of the novel. And since Champion brought up the "booty calls" -- disgusting term for a fearless depiction of loving sex between he and Rosalind, especially the second coupling near the book's close -- that means all family union can be included. Perowne's the opposite of "keeping to himself" with his family; he needs frequent and meaningful congress with his wife and son, and is overjoyed with daughter Daisy's visit. He neglects father-in-law John, but that's because of personality conflicts, not intimacy issues. Even here, the denouement brings a touching, believeable resolution.

"He's a neurosurgeon close to 50 who barely stirs in the operating theater, concentrating exclusively on the surgery at hand. He complains of other people going "nowhere without a soundtrack," yet insists on Barber's "Adagio for Strings" to be played over and over during the final stages of an operation." -- Champion

His complaints of the young have everything to do with a lack of concentration. He's most alive when under supreme concentration: making love, and operating. The text makes it clear that Perowne is completely focussed on the long brain operation. He loses track of the specific musical development in Barber's piece, yet at the same time is infused with its mood. This is perhaps complex for some to understand; I don't find it to be so. The people "going nowhere without a soundtrack" are in no way alike. Their music is a distraction. If they were to turn it off, they would have to actually observe -- you know, that "passive" stuff that Champion denigrates. They would have to find something to be passionate about in total concentration.

"With the character so married to his work and so casually misanthropic." -- Champion

This is the most cynically egregious statement in the review. First, he's not married to his work. He's passionately, faithfully married to his wife of twenty-five years. He loves his work, but also loves his family. Despite my previous statements, he doesn't have a magpie's fascination or involvement with the world. But when you're digging two deep wells, there's not a lot of time left over.

Misanthropic? A surgeon who talks with great sympathy of his patients post-op, and with care of those patients with his surgeon-friend Jay. Who feels guilt in two instances over his conduct after seeing the plane in flames, and turning the tables on Baxter in the street, and where no misanthropic spirit held. Christ, he operated on the disturbed man who, an hour before, had threatened to kill his entire family.

"Perowne may serve as an apt persona for McEwan himself. In expressing middle age so strenuously, Saturday might serve as a rhetorical novel for whether McEwan believes his work holds any relevance for people under the age of 40. That's an odd idea coming from a novelist who has repeatedly demonstrated his universal relevance." -- Champion

Or he may just be examining the binding similarities between young and old, accomplished and mentally shattered, an emigrant from Iraq and one England born. Proof? The tender conversation between the doctor and the fourteen year old who wants to be a neurosurgeon after she's been operated on by Perowne; the conversation between Perowne and the man who reveals to him the pervasive reality of terror under Saddam Hussein's rule, and how even the torturers were to varying degrees exempt from blame seeing as how their own lives were on the line from supervisors themselves marked by higher-ups in a never-ending chain of fear and confusion; and the brilliant depiction of the similarity between Perowne and Baxter with the theme of stupid pride, Perowne and Jay becoming ever more testy in their squash game (wonderful heart-accelerating section of the novel), and Baxter becoming infuriated, upon reflection, with loss of face to Nigel and the other friend in the alley when with Perowne. Nothing to do with age; everything to do with more universal concepts of human make-up and shortcoming.

"Other critics have made comparisons between Saturday and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." -- Champion

Fascinating for English profs, perhaps, but the details Champion provides don't apply directly to Saturday. Woolf's novel is extremely subjective, the world (as I remember Mrs Dalloway from many years ago) only existing as a dream extension of the narrator's interiority. McEwan shifts between the inner and outer with equal concern and force.

"Such is the curse of tying a novel so explicitly to one man's consciousness: the important details that Perowne catastrophically ignores are also ignored in the text. McEwan might have had a better novel had he dared to think outside of Perowne's taut box." -- Champion

Champion again reveals his misunderstanding. McEwan concentrated on Perowne's consciousness because he wanted to make a point about how ideas solidify, and how they can perhaps unravel or loosen with luck, grace, and persistent observational courage.

"Baxter himself drives a BMW, also an expensive car. Is there a correlation between these two men? Absolutely. Yet while Perowne's past is muddled with a passive swagger (he's described as being pitiless several times), McEwan shies away from comparing these two, preferring instead to keep Baxter's description confined to Perowne's speculations and their respective identities separate from each other." -- Champion

I've just described how McEwan joins the two in the theme of pride. But Baxter's impetus is described through action. Narrative action is often more revealing of character, certainly more poetically and dramatically so. There is no need to go into Baxter's consciousness. And how would that work, anyway? Not every author has the talent of Faulkner describing Benjy from within. And here it's not necessary. Baxter's frequent shifts in emotion show how his fevered mind operates.

"Why, for example, does McEwan spend so much time chronicling a banal political dialogue between Perowne and his daughter on whether the United Kingdom should get involved with Iraq? Does he want to memorialize the kind of hollow cocktail party banter that shows no sign of abating four years after September 11?" -- Champion

Firstly, McEwan began the novel in 2002. 9/11 was a hot topic, not a rehash, "cocktail party banter". (And how would this disparaging description apply? Daisy and Perowne get into the argument reluctantly on the latter's part, and the scene is there to show the greater theme of ideas in self-examination, how ideas are often provisional, and how fate, that oddsmaker again, can explain why many people hold the opinions they do, as in Perowne's encounter with the Iraqi emigrant.) Also, the conversation is anything but hollow. It may not be scintillating political discourse, but it's intelligent, and represents vividly how both sides on the Iraq war thought about that (then) impending decision. The novel is set just before the bombing, remember, not in 2005.

Champion then throws in a few faint bouquets in an attempt to avoid his own characterization of
"bitter book critics or outright lunatics [who] may be pining for a scabrous takedown", but it's clear, at least to this Saturday lover, that the reviewer missed living in this particular day by several years.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tomas Transtromer

Good to see Tomas Transtromer finally get the nod for the Nobel. Also enjoyable to read some of the predictable reactions to a poet winning the award: ("who?").

For any English-language readers unfamiliar with his work, and who are stumbling on this post when googling "Transtromer Nobel", there are plenty of translations. I don't have any particular favourites. Most anyone except that musical butcher Robert Bly would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit (Part Two)

(cont'd from last post)

"The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” " -- Nazaryan

The quote within the above quote is only part of the story of what makes (or, more precisely, what can make) for a great body of work. Yes, Morrison doesn't flinch when tackling her ambitious material. But, again, this is a literary prize, not a politically correct tour of the immoral and criminal forces in America's past. But of course Salon is going to leap on this. Nazaryan's article is notable for its jejune thesis and lit-absent focus.

"You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before." -- Nazaryan

Yes. The struggle and the understanding: it's too bad Morrison's writing doesn't match her compassion.

"Can you honestly say that about Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys”?" -- Nazaryan

I haven't read it, but I wasn't aware that this single book was the cause of forty years of previous neglect of the Nobel towards American writing.

"Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas — but it’s been 38 years since “Gravity’s Rainbow,” " -- Nazaryan

If the commitee were contemporarily consistent, this should boost Pynchon's chances. Actually, Pynchon's attitude towards his native land should warm the Nobel panel, and it's no surprise the odds on Pynchon are the shortest of any of this year's American roster. But I think the reason Pynchon has been overlooked for the award since the 70s is quite simple. They probably figure, and quite rightly, that Pynchon would embarass them by not showing. The Swedes may hate American culture, but I wouldn't doubt that even they watched Marlon Brando's stand-in at the Academy Awards many moons ago.

But now we get to the heart of the darkness. Notice that Nazaryan can't form his own argument, but has to lean heavily on David Foster Wallace:

"Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”" -- Nazaryan

I'd read the Wallace denunciation some time ago. It has a degree of merit, but the trouble is that in aceing the frustrating scope of much fiction of the last forty years, it leaves out much else and misunderstands the greater concerns and ambitions of those authors.

Literature is supposed to hold up a mirror, not just in front of the supposedly narcissistic author/narrator, but for the reader and to society writ large. If Updike's protagonists can't see past their noses (or dicks), did it ever occur to Wallace (or Engdahl or Nazaryan) that Updike is making a serious point about Boomer selfishness and entitlement, about insularity and obsession? Even bringing up global misery in acknowledgement would serve to briefly trade in the microscope for the telescope, thereby breaking the pond-gaze dream.

"Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior." -- Nazaryan

Now this is either disingenuous or naive. It's also dead wrong. First, Nazaryan calls these writers "great". How does that help his argument? Second, and I can't believe I'm defending creative writing programs, there's a lot of wisdom in writing about what one knows. O'Connor and Faulkner stuck to the South, Hemingway carried his persona around with him no matter what the subject. And two of those "claustophobic" writers won the Nobel. Especially for writing students just getting their feet wet, it's a good idea to not come out of the gate with a one thousand page techno-thriller-fantasy-romance anchor about the gritty realities of a Kashmir teen seeking refuge throughout Continental Europe while participating in local protests, trying to avoid being kidnapped by mysterious plutocrats, taking a sidetrip to Tibet for an ambiguous encounter with a Mahayana adept, and agonizing over the economic lures and spiritual dilemmas of selling Russian weapons to Iranian proxies, not to mention impregnating a Chinese student in Poland during a spring thaw where chemically-laden birds circle the docks in a repeating symbolic gift for the amazed protagonist.

That can all wait for the second book, at which point the creative writing programs can no longer be blamed. Of course, if career advancement is the only goal, as it is for so many, teachers-writers-prize dispensers-job procurers will be aped no matter what the prevailing aesthetic. In Canada, at least, the novelistic equivalent of the scene that Nazaryan depicts is quite different. A lot of multicultural nods and entanglements, though (often) not a lot of depth or enlightenment or energetic writing.

"Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards." -- Nazaryan

Just because an author inhabits the skin of another race or sex or species or inanimate object doesn't make this a daring success. One still has to be sold on the pronouncements, the relationships, the conclusions, and it has to again (and often) be said, the writing. I haven't read any of Styron, but I have read enough "progressive" lit to know that that approach is damnably difficult to pull off. As for the "vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty", I don't know what he's talking about. There are many American authors detailing the "big stuff" in their works.

Here, it would be appropriate to switch things up a bit. Why are American poets neglected in Nazaryan's article? Robert Lowell kicked off in 1977, but his greatest work was done by 1962. Transatlantic, steeped in European history, contemporary, politically engaged, Lowell is often stupidly pegged as a confessional, as if he had no more scope than an Olds (Sharon, not the car Nazaryan previously disparaged). He should have been a slam dunk for the award in his lifetime, but of course the panel who couldn't salute James Joyce knows a thing or two about merit. (That damn Irishman, picking scabs off that tiny island. What can a slum garreteer in Paris possibly enjoy from such a puny focus?)

The rest of the article is high-toned boilerplate, sermonizing vagaries with all the right adjectives. But I'll just note two snippets that caught my eye (one of them up-text):

"What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?"


"And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal." -- Nazaryan

What does universal mean, here? That the favoured Euros create a tale wherein a disenfranchised minority crosses a border, is subjected to the indifferent or menacing fates of a political elite the protagonist can't understand or defeat, which then gives lease for the author to vent or prophesy from an elevated third-person stoop on Truth and Beauty? And isn't that just as conformist as any narcissistic moaning in a small room? And what makes those authors automatically exempt from charges of narcissism? The Lebanese-Canadian Rawi Hage wrote an excellent novel based on his boyhood experiences in his blighted homeland, but how many Nobel Laureates wrote from the study, from historical and folkloric knowledge, the same as any American removed from the "action"? Some, if not most of them, are steeped in conscience, and are sincere. Last year's winner comes to mind. But they're writing from a protected position, and are espousing points of view (many of them) which have been accepted now for decades. Important? Often. Transgressive and daring? Not so much, unless you're talking about aesthetics. But aesthetics are political, too.

The argument breaks down, though, fundamentally. Roth, used as a punching bag in the piece (and its related quotes) because he's often cited as the most deserving American yet to win the Nobel, was talking deftly and intelligently about class differences and hatred as far back as Goodbye, Columbus. And the war of the sexes isn't universal? Other authors' narratives have spanned (for example) California to Indiana to New York in one work, a more complex socio-economic reality than books about poor maids in Jamaica brutalized by men, the women then travelling to England to become poor maids brutalized by men.

Click on the Lit Nobel winners of the past ten years or so, and note how the plaudits are framed. You'd think they were winning the awards for sociology exams.

P.S. , and edit:

I forgot to mention that Nazaryan is a Russian emigre teacher living in New York who is publishing his first novel about a Russian emigre in New York. But perhaps this is just an Oulipian experiment, the straightjacket he's putting himself in (perhaps?) an ironic comment on narcissism. Or is anything universal just because you've crossed an ocean by plane?

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit


As literary prizes, with their attendant controversies, go, I've always been more interested in the Nobel than in our national, annual bluster-in-beer-mug versions. The politics are messier, the judgements more fascinating, the aesthetic conclusions more grandiose and self-serving (if that's possible).

Here's most of the record, from Alexander Nazaryan at Salon (itself a one-note ideological internet rag), with my responses.

"[T]he literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.” --Nazaryan

Nazaryan uses Engdahl's quote as a springboard for identical views. But let's first investigate Engdahl. The permanent secretary for the literary prize with the biggest cachet (though no longer with the biggest cash) not only misrepresents American literature (however much of it he -- and by extension, the 16 member panel -- reads), he also flunked Contemporary History 101. Here's Engdahl, in words Nazaryan fails to quote:

"Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death."

Got that? In America, as the Soviet media were and are fond of reporting -- in eras of Andropov or Putin, Gorbachev or Brezhnev -- not only are the citizenry, urban or rural, fearful dupes locked in apartments constantly obsessing over impending criminal surges while trying to grow tomato plants through the light from cracked windows, the thugs have successfully breached the walls. Or, as the more balanced "political" section of Salon would no doubt update it, the stooges of the oligarchy/new world order.

Back to Nazaryan. He cedes several points to those American publishers, writers, and critics who rightly took Engdahl to task for his incredibly presumptuous views.

"It’s true that the Academy, like any body of judges, has made some ill-informed decisions. And they’ve not done themselves any favors with some George W. Bush-era selections that plainly had more to do with politics than literature.

In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter fulminated during his Nobel lecture about “the crimes of the United States” with all the embarrassing authority of a college freshman who just discovered Howard Zinn. In 2007, the prize was given to South African novelist Doris Lessing, who called 9/11 “neither as terrible nor extraordinary as [Americans] think.” " -- Nazaryan

Those Bush-era decisions weren't anomalous. The Nobel lit commitee has always viewed the prize through an ideological prism: Eurocentric, and, in the last forty years, multicultural. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. But be up front about it. The Nobel for scribes is a stamp for Euro-centred cross-culture. Even this subset of a subset, though, (World Prize?) is contaminated. I'll get to that after going through the rest of the body of quotation.

"That only fed the vitriol directed at Stockholm, --" -- Nazaryan

A credit. Certainly no Stockholm Syndrome, then.

"obscuring a valid point about American letters: We’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers." -- Nazaryan

First off, poor analogy. Today's Prius will be tomorrow's whole 'nother form, let alone genre. Worthy literature is about the long haul. Second, it's wrong. Many American authors are readily translated into Euro languages. It's true that Americans do a piss-poor job of seeking out and reversing the transaction, but the legacy of European culture doesn't automatically equal Oxford dons' noses scoring ceiling-grooves and painterly Parisian bohemians scoffing at the boorish American man of letters.

"Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen." -- Nazaryan

What does this even mean? That American authors should shape and alter their visions to accord with Nobel commitee whims and dictates?

"Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 — and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet √©migr√© he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada." -- Nazaryan

Like an accomplished sophist, an ideological hack, Nazaryan throws up this data without context or elaboration, then shifts tack so that the lack of winners somehow becomes a self-evident damnation. There is no argument here. Americans have been virtually shut out because of ideological -- and yes, baldly political reasons, certainly not aesthetic, moral, or (to directly counter the commitee's claims) comprehensive ones. (And Bellow, though born in Canada, was thoroughly American, having moved there at seven, and possessing the sensibility and peculiar concerns of an American.)

"But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th." -- Nazaryan

I earlier stated that Nazaryan obviously flunked History 101. But he also seems to get the bulk of his current affairs information from the mag he's writing for.

Yes, American authors need to aspire to their teleprompter-regurgitating leader (who doesn't pen the words on the scroll, who needs ghost-writers for his aubiography, whose contribution to putative literature were two poems in an undergrad mimeo, and whose policies vis-a-vis the hated Bush II have only been notable for an entrenchment then amplification of the status quo). Hey, but he sure talks smooth, awright!

"One who is not stuck in the Cold War" -- Nazaryan

Are American authors to be blamed for the glacial, reactionary pace of the commitee's judgements? And isn't that supremely ironic in light of this quote? Pinter's and Lessing's anti-Americanism played a part in their wins as even Nazaryan states, but they also copped the award for a body of work which scaled the uppermost Alps forty or more years ago. And at that time .... well, there was a Cold War.

"or the gun-slinging West" -- Nazaryan

Other than Cormac McCarthy's highly-regarded Western, the genre has been deader'n a rattler lacerated by a cactus in a cyclone. Or is Nazaryan's fixation with Bush reappearing?

"or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark" -- Nazaryan

Yes, because that's all Roth writes about. And because mono-racial and tightly geographic novels can't transcend their "narrow" confines.

(Part Two, and final, tomorrow.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Too Much, Too Little

It's long been my opinion that poets publish too often, and novelists publish too sparingly. I agree with this writer's article regarding the latter trend.


Friday, September 9, 2011

David Gilmour's A Perfect Night to go to China

If you google David Gilmour's 2005 novella, A Perfect Night to go to China, you'll get the melodramatic plot hinge in a tight variation of, "man steps out for a quick drink, and when he returns, his son is missing; guilt ensues". But the vanished six-year-old is just an excuse for an exploration of the first-person narrator's spiritual claustrophobia. The hook, then, is not only unnecessary, it blunts the existential torpor of Roman, since his insights and ambiguous judgements don't have as much to do with every parent's worst nightmare as they do with his spiritual movement pre-disappearance. Too bad, because as wandering (physical and mental) meditations go, Gilmour, through his narrator, has some interesting things to say about gentility, thinly disguised conditional "help", and -- pointing the three fingers the other way -- ingratitude and misunderstanding.

I suppose one has to allow a broad acceptance of "just about anything goes" when it comes to dream revelation, but I've never had even one that involved long conversations without imagery. Gilmour's narrator can conjure them at will (or is assailed by them). Just one more reason the attention-grabbing plot push was a misstep. The connection between father and son, for all its sentiment, was abstract, and that hadn't much to do with dreams and memories. This is where the interiority of the novella was at its least interesting. The ending -- well, who didn't see that coming?

The bank robbery didn't make sense from what we're given by way of financial information. Roman is a TV talk show host, noon slot, in Canada's biggest city. Those types pull in (low) six figures per annum. His is a spartan existence, or at least not extravagant, from the little we're given of his diurnal recording, so how he can veer into the red after a month or two of quitting his gig is farfetched. That said, running into two friendly cops three blocks from the heist who want to waylay him only to chat about interviewing Dean Martin and real cops is hilarious.

The style has repeatedly been called "spare", and I've never been able to understand why this stand alone adjective is almost universally accepted as code for the de facto preferred prose procedure. I'm a lover of maximalist, shaggy, varied presentation, but I'm open to all styles, if well done. I just find this preference a trifle closed-minded, and, what's worse, an immediately accepted (often without evidence) synonym for "clear" or "essential", or "fast moving". Gilmour's prose is quite good, but the repetitiveness of the three-sentences-in-one broken up by commas, the phrasal sentences, and the phrasal tics ("I thought" prefacing many sentences -- clumsy segue between description and interior monologue) became wearing, at times. At other times, the darting thoughts and clipped sentences allowed a convincing opening into the narrator's unstable mind.

A quick, fairly interesting read.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

David Gilmour in the NaPo


This article by Mark Medley in the National Post based on an interview he conducted with David Gilmour upon the release of his latest novel brought to mind a similarly bizarre explosion some years back when listening to Nigel Beale's interview podcast with Gilmour a day after he won the Gov-Gen Award for A Perfect Night to go to China. But first to the NaPo piece.

Gilmour doesn't hang out with writers because they're "insecure".

He then recounts how he went on a manhunt for Andre Alexis after the reviewer had trashed A Perfect Night to go to China. A year and a half of rage. But he calmed down. "Beating the living shit out of this guy" became a plan to "slap him across the face". Medley reassures Alexis: "Still, the critic can breath [sic] easy -- if they do come face-to-face, 'I'm going to try to keep my hands to myself', Gilmour promises." I love the hilarious "try" and "promises". I'm sure Alexis' pulse would slow a few dozen beats per minute if he spotted those two words. It's now been five years since that thumbs-down review.

Beale, in his probing interview, asked Gilmour about the GG award process. The author, to his credit, admitted that success depended completely on the luck of the draw as to who the jurists were that particular year. He followed that up with this juvenile head-scratcher regarding his win: "everyone who's ever been a critic is going to have to eat it". But why would critics uncharitable to Gilmour's work care if he won the award or not since even Gilmour doesn't believe it has any objective merit?

But then the shit really hit the fan. Beale was highly praiseworthy of the book as a whole, but prefaced his comments with this: "I didn't like some of the similes you used in the first two chapters." Gilmour's response?

"Are you fucking with me? Don't fuck with me about my work. I don't put up with bullshit from people. Don't you be telling me that the quality of my work differs from one chapter to another. That is fucking presumptuous. I won't put up with that bullshit, do you understand? Fuck you."

But it gets better. Switching gears ....

"Those books are like children. When someone ... says, 'I like your first son, but I don't like your daughter', my response is to say 'fuck you'. "

The analogy is silly. A book is an insentient collection of words. It would be more accurate to say that a book is a closed-loop extention of the author, or father, to use Gilmour's terms. But rushing to the rescue of the honour of one's son is more noble than justifying one's artistic production by rage and threats. But let's play with his comparison, anyway. A son (or daughter) has to grow up. If a father attempts to continually coddle his offspring from the inevitable challenges and horrors of life, it promotes dependence and -- ironically -- a greater chance that protective intervention will need to be undertaken to save the bubble-world child/adolescent/adult. Which brings us back to the NaPo article.

Gilmour doesn't mix with writers because they're "insecure". Didn't Freud call this projection?

Another irony is that Gilmour relished sticking it to his guests, without warning, when he hosted his own TV arts program.

I bought A Perfect Night to go to China several months ago, but have been plowing through other novels since then. I'm in the middle of two others now, but when I finish them, I'll pick up Gilmour's book, read it, then review it in this space. Yes, even under the implicit threat of physical backlash! I just won't tell the greater public which bars I frequent.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jian Ghomeshi and Rawi Hage

There's been a lot of debate about worth, or more exactly, lack of worth, in the Canada Reads series. The focus has been on the rules and their deployment. But the reason I only tune in for a yearly snapshot, and then only after the fact in desultory fashion, centres on the host.

I recently spent an excruciating twenty-plus minutes listening to Jian Ghomeshi try to cajole Rawi Hage into an admission that Canada is a big-hearted, complex-free assimilator. Hage's patience was admirable, and he also had to set the dilettante faux-chuckler straight on other matters.

I let out a silent cheer when I subsequently read that Hage hated lit soirees, and preferred kibbitzing with his taxi buddies since that's where the real storytelling originated.

I then thought, no doubt naively, that a parallel Canada Reads series would be a bigger bang for reader, author, and viewer if the host(s) were also fretted in depth with the books on display. But passionate digressions obviously scare CBC admin-flunkies who think they know how to "read" the public's taste for hard-hitting current events buffered by soft-boiled lit chat.

I realize the feed is from Feb 2009, but Teh World Wide Interwebz is a big place, and I'm frequently several universes behind.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Paul Krugman

"If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack," [Paul] Krugman told CNN's Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, "and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat, and inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months."

Did David Icke include Nobel Prize-winning economists in his reptilian gallery? And if that prophetic science whiz is on to something, shouldn't Krugman be attack-sacrificing to get this recovery show on the road?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Litterattainment, or Death Waits For No One

A Play in One Act

ROY BEAN, judge
TODD ZUNIGA, defendant
BEN MATLOCK; CHICO MARX, defense lawyers
BOB KRONBAUER, literary juror
SHANE KOYCZAN, performance juror
MICHAEL ROBERTS, intangibles juror
bailiff, gallery

BAILIFF: Hear ye! Hear ye! Court is in session. The People Versus Literary Death Match. Drinking is optional.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

BAILIFF: Judge Roy Bean presiding.

ROY BEAN: (Enters. Slaps pistol on desk.) Opening statement, Burger. Do you have anything to say before we find you guilty?

HAMILTON BURGER: What? Your Honour, I'm the prosecutor. I have no wish to make an opening statement. I'll allow the creator, perpetrators and seals of this mushrooming abomination to self-administer the poison.

ROY BEAN: Got any money?


ROY BEAN: Matlock, you want to say anything?

BEN MATLOCK: I do indeed, Your Honour. I'd like to call to the stand the defendant Todd Zuniga.

BAILIFF: Do you promise to tell the truth, most of the truth, or a conning verisimilitude thereof, so help you God or Goddess?

TODD ZUNIGA: More or less.

BEN MATLOCK: Mr. Zuniga, you've been charged with aiding and abetting the murder of literature, worldwide. How do you plead?

TODD ZUNIGA: Insanity.

ROY BEAN: Case closed. Defendant not guilty by means of insanity.

TODD ZUNIGA: No! The charge is insane. Not guilty.

BEN MATLOCK: Please explain the genesis of your idea for the Literary Death Match.

TODD ZUNIGA: It was a response to readings in general, which went, I started to notice as a person who went to three or four a week, this way: there'd be three readers, and one would be race-to-the-bookstore excellent, one would be so self-indulgent they'd go seven minutes over the limit, and one would read a "story", a.k.a. blog post, they slapdashed earlier that afternoon. Or we'd go to a reading with comedians, and some poor sap had to follow a hilarious stand-up with a memoir excerpt about his sister passing away. We wanted every reader to be great, to keep them within a time limit (I secretly believe that audience attention starts to wander at six minutes, can hold until seven, and largely evaporates at eight -- our time limit is seven minutes). And we wanted the comedic elements to have context, to blend into the show in a sensible manner.

BEN MATLOCK: What was the initial event like?

TODD ZUNIGA: The place was packed. We couldn't believe it. And we didn't know everyone -- which was the point: to get people outside the immediately literary world to come and enjoy literary things.

ROY BEAN: That'll be enough tongue-wagging, young man. Jurors? Who wants a go?

BOB KRONBAUER: This is too awesome!!!

GALLERY: (Cheers, clapping.)

SHANE KOYCZAN: We are the true north strong and free.

GALLERY: (Louder cheers.)

MICHAEL ROBERTS: There is no strong guiding aesthetic. Everything is for the moment.

GALLERY: (Shouts, the Wave.)

HAMILTON BURGER: MR. Zuniga, I don't want to characterize you as a cheerful cynic or as a literary equivalent to one of ... to steal Timon's phrase ... Mr. Shakespeare?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: (offstage.) Time's flies.

HAMILTON BURGER: Thank you. (Turns back to Zuniga.) But isn't this ruse just lo-cal/ so-Cal entertainment for the text-messaging set?

TODD ZUNIGA: Literature, and hearing it, is at the centre of what we do. (A water balloon sails over his head and breaks across the photo-imprisoned face of Queen Elizabeth.)

GALLERY: (Laughs and titters.)

HAMILTON BURGER: Excuse me? I must have misheard. Could you repeat or rephrase that for the court, please?

TODD ZUNIGA: The most important aspect of the entire show is to showcase literature.

HAMILTON BURGER: We'll get to the extracurricular dominance later, but for now I'd like to direct everyone's attention to this you tube video of a Mr. Dan Lichtenberg reading an extract of his to a Literary Death Match audience. Please dim the lights, clerk, and if I could press upon the audience to refrain from cell phone usage and hitting on their immediate neighbours.

DAN LICHTENBERG: (Walking in circles, repeatedly high-stepping over mic chord.) We fucked. It was all right. And then I told her we had to stop doing this to ourselves. "Doing what to ourselves?", Jenny asked. "You know." "No, what? Fucking? Fucking ourselves?" "Yeah, exactly." And then she kept asking me what the hell I was talking about. I think she knew it was over but she stayed there in bed for awhile and we smoked cigarettes even though I told her I didn't like smoking in the house because as soon as I made a habit of smoking in the house I'd be admitting to myself that I had an addiction on my hands, in my hands, in everyone's hands.

HAMILTON BURGER: This is the first 90 seconds of the six minute skit, or reading. The performance concludes, with no suggestion of irony: "To hell with diction. Sometimes word choice didn't mean shit." I'll remind the jurors that Mr. Zuniga, in his first response, "wanted every reader to be great". If what we just witnessed was greatness, what superlatives remain for Alexander? No further questions at this time, Your Honour.

ROY BEAN: Thank God. I need a nap. Court adjourned till two p.m.

GALLERY: (Schmoozing, drinking.)

BAILIFF: All rise for --

ROY BEAN: (Eyes make-out session on gallery bench.) Don't you have parents or the like? Next witness, Matlock.

BEN MATLOCK: I call Sean Cranbury to the box. While we wait, I'd like some feedback from the jurors on Dan Lichtenberg's art.

BOB KRONBAUER: You can't not fall in love with that magic.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

SHANE KOYCZAN: An experiment going right for a change with influences that range from A to Zed.

GALLERY: (Wild cheers.)

MICHAEL ROBERTS: We stood there admiring the khaki mesh cotton hoodie and drop-crotch tweed track trousers.


BEN MATLOCK: Mr. Cranbury, you organized the Vancouver chapter of Literary Death Match. You've expressed enthusiasm for the event. Could you elaborate?

SEAN CRANBURY: Vancouver has some of the most talented writers in the world, so this gives us a chance to put ourselves on the map internationally. What I really want to do with these events is grow the community and give people a chance to be cool and not be lame and literary, because that shit is just so old and nobody cares.

GALLERY: (Deafening cheers.)

HAMILTON BURGER: Objection, Your Honour. The audience is trying to influence the verdict. (Ducks a flying cupcake.)

ROY BEAN: Don't fret on it. I wouldn't waste my bullets on them, let alone my seed.

HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Cranbury, how would you advertize the Death Match in a catchy, concise manner?

SEAN CRANBURY: The tag line should be -- "Come meet some attractive, intelligent, semi-drunk people."

GALLERY: (Laughs.)

HAMILTON BURGER: Interesting. Yet you've given a glancing, half-hearted acceptance of the Vancouver International Writers Festivals, where the dinosaurs do roam. Tough words -- "lame and literary" -- but I don't hear any specific names. You've mentioned Toronto in this context -- could they be the enemy?

SEAN CRANBURY: There's a distance in Vancouver from the hive of Toronto's -- which is good -- but we're very different here than Toronto.

HAMILTON BURGER: "Very different". "Which is good". Thanks for the specificity. I wonder what this "very different" amounts to. Lots of difference within Toronto. And lots of similarity between Vancouver and Toronto. In any event, you've learned well from Literary Death Match. The Vancouver Writers' Series had Sonnet L'Abbe doing push-ups while labouring through a poem, and the twelve-pack were kept close to the preferred six minutes, as well.

BEN MATLOCK: Objection, Judge. Is there a question in any of this?

ROY BEAN: You just asked one. Who's got the hooch? There's another one. Are you through flapping your gums, prosecutor? And another.

HAMILTON BURGER: Fair enough. Brevity is ... is ... well, it's my turn for first dibs on questioning. I call William Shakespeare.

BAILIFF: Do you promise to tell the truth, and then some?

ROY BEAN: Get my Bible.

BAILIFF: Can't find it, Your Worship. This 1879 Texas Revised Statutes book do?

ROY BEAN: Proceed.


ROY BEAN: This ain't no wedding, and that's a law book, not a salt lick.

HAMILTON BURGER: Help me out, Mr. Shakespeare.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Brevity is the soul of wit.

ROY BEAN: Mark that well, Mr. Burger. Now I'm hungry.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

ROY BEAN: I am bending over backwards to be fair. Shut the hell up.

HAMILTON BURGER: What do you make of the Literary Death Match?

BEN MATLOCK: Is this an Avon calling?

GALLERY: (Wild laughter.)

ROY BEAN: (Snores.)

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity.

HAMILTON BURGER: But you were a hands on author and performer. Have you no sympathy for the entertainment focus of the event?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be.

HAMILTON BURGER: Over to you, Defense.

BEN MATLOCK: Is it all vanity, Mr. Shakespeare? Surely there is a genuine kernel of connection desired, at least by some?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.

BEN MATLOCK: Can the words not remain in the hearts of the audience?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Go to your bosom, knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.

BEN MATLOCK: Nothing to be salvaged, then?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, this is outrageous!

ROY BEAN: (Awakes with a start.) I agree. Another dead soldier. Damn good phalanx here. And I'm coming after you, Bailiff.


ROY BEAN: Top cupboard! Bourbon's behind the liniment.

BEN MATLOCK: No, no, Your Honour. I mean, the prosecution has trotted out a reverential quote machine. This is nothing more than an animatronic wax figure.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: If you prick us, do we not bleed?

HAMILTON BURGER: James Joyce to the stand.

BAILIFF: Do you promise on this Bible to state the truth, the whole ... ah, forget it.

HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Joyce, your insights concerning the Death Match festivities.

JAMES JOYCE: What do they go about for only getting themselves and their poetry laughed at?

HAMILTON BURGER: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge of the organizers?

JAMES JOYCE: The difficulties of the selection of appropriate music and humorous allusions from Everybody's Book Of Jokes (1000 pages and a laugh in every one).

BET MATLOCK: Jurors, I'd like your pronouncements on the performative farce from these wired wind-ups.

BOB KRONBAUER: Okay, seriously ... my favourites performing free. Full steam ahead!

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

SHANE KOYCZAN: That's where we used to be at.

GALLERY: (Ooohs, aaahs.)

MICHAEL ROBERTS: A multicoloured collage, clothes made from odd pieces of unrelated material, such as wool with leather or lame, chiffon, and stretch jersey combined in one outfit. Also, British heritage items such as green Wellington boots, eccentric floral dresses, flat caps, kilts, all accompanied by funny hats or headpieces.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

BEN MATLOCK: The defense introduces Sara Bynoe into the record. Ms. Bynoe, how do you think the general book-inclined public views non- Literary Death Match readings?

SARA BYNOE: Hoity-toity, the equivalent of what people think of going to the symphony.

BEN MATLOCK: Over to Mr. Burger.

HAMILTON BURGER: Interesting characterization. I've met engaged, fascinating old people and curious, open-minded young people at both symphonic and chamber concerts. Joke ideas like 'Say Wha? Readings of Deliciously Rotten Writing' use verbatim text just as your words are being used here. What's your aim when performing in Literary Death Match and Say Wha? ?

SARA BYNOE: Learning to love my Roman nose is a struggle. I am lucky to have people in my life who tell me that beyond my unique nose I have other distinguishing features; my eyes, my smile, my curves, and my lady tah tahs (thanks boys).

HAMILTON BURGER: As the Bard said, "no need of such vanity", isn't that the 800 pound you-know-what in the room?

CHICO MARX: Your Honour, that's irrelevant.

GALLERY: (Laughs.)

HAMILTON BURGER: Julie Wilson next.

BAILIFF: Do you --

ROY BEAN: She does. Man and wife. Get on with it.

HAMILTON BURGER: Ms. Wilson, Todd Zuniga suggests that Death Match performers "risk being unfunny". How do you see that in the light of the event's actual ethos?

JULIE WILSON: One of the contenders wrote to ask if it would be a problem to read something sad. I replied, "You're not a sad person, so it won't be a sad reading."

HAMILTON BURGER: I see, then. Sadness is OK as a tone as long as the author doesn't in any way identify with the sadness, making for an uncool reaction amongst the audience. The reflexive emotions have to be event sanctioned, and the author-reader has to be admired even more so than his or her words. Are those fair comments?

JULIE WILSON: I had no clue who the patrons were. Yet they were being introduced to authors I felt I knew quite intimately. And they all fell in love.

HAMILTON BURGER: Trevor Cole, please. Your first novel is dominated by a vain, self-obsessed protagonist, an actor, Norman Bray. What do you have your character say while he watches a histrionic cooking show on TV?

TREVOR COLE: It's awful. But it's fascinating.

HAMILTON BURGER: Miriam Waddington to the box. Ms. Waddington, try, if you can, to get inside the head of the author-performer just before and during one of these seven minute sprints. What question might emerge from his or her curiosity?

MIRIAM WADDINGTON: Who are those giant spectators who chopped down the summer and now fill the arena with loud expectation?

GALLERY: (phone texts, whispers.)

HAMILTON BURGER: And what might the thought be, post-reading?

MIRIAM WADDINGTON: There my defeated choirs sing in broken keys of all the doors I forced by solar acts of love.

HAMILTON BURGER: Thank you. Mr. Matlock.

BEN MATLOCK: With all due respect, Ms. Waddington, metaphors can cover a lot of impressive ground through false union. One person's profound conclusion is another's inconsequential nightmare. The sun rises, we awake, and get on with our lives, more or less with yesterday's convictions. Aren't you reaching for an unnecessary and overdramatic meaning?

MIRIAM WADDINGTON: Under the dawn of city skies moves the sun in presaged course, smoothing out the cunning lies that hide the evil at the source. I sense the evil at the source now at this golden point of noon, the misdirected social force will grind me also, and too soon.

HAMILTON BURGER: I'd like to call Bob Shea to the stand. Mr. Shea, you write books for kids, yes?

BOB SHEA: That's right.

HAMILTON BURGER: Todd Zuniga says that your performance during the Texas --

ROY BEAN: Vinegaroon way?

HAMILTON BURGER: -- Literary Death Match was one of the three best and most popular -- best and popular being mutual terms here -- in its five year history. Your last line garnered the loudest, longest laughs. Would you repeat them here for the court, please?

BOB SHEA: Selling out wins!

GALLERY: (Laughs.)

BEN MATLOCK: Tarnation! Judge, this is out of all context.

HAMILTON BURGER: Is it? The video can be googled. The court of public opinion can weigh in after viewing it. The tongue is lodged only part way in the cheek, no firm stance can be deduced, but the implications for adults or children are clear. The real winner is Bob Shea because pitched to kids, it's a cute, energetic book of happy dinosaurs. Pitched to adults, it's a typical hey-I'm-a-loser-and-that's-cool characterization -- faintly cyncial, completely sympathetic -- which flatters the adult who, after all, has to buy the book and who is then motivated to read it. Kid likes the energy in book and adult reader, begs Daddy or Mommy for more, and the industry is created through cynical, crafty research.

BEN MATLOCK: I'd like to call on Meghan Murphy Suszynski, Jamie Millard, and Regan Smith. Ladies, your assessment of the particular show you attended.

MEGHAN MURPHY SUSZYNSKI, JAMIE MILLARD, REGAN SMITH: (Together.) Let us pay homage to the celebrities who made this possible, and who also made us feel extraordinarily cool when they came to dinner with us after the show.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

HAMILTON BURGER: Alfred Bester. Impressions, sir?

ALFRED BESTER: I decided to sell my soul to the Devil, but the problem was how to find him. I was stumped, so I did the obvious thing: I called Celebrity Service.

HAMILTON BURGER: Nathanael West. Mr. West, Todd Zuniga likes to boast of the number of bums in seats at his creation. One hundred, two hundred. I believe a certain Mr. Springer, indeed a not-long-past Mr. Falwell, could promote numbers dwarfing that, and in the former case, the subjects were the same: sex and humour, the formula explicitly put forward by Zuniga. What are your thoughts on crowds, conformity, and suggestion?

NATHANAEL WEST: They were marching behind his banner in a great unified front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, I'm checking my roster. Since there are no more witnesses, I'd like to call my defendant to the stand a final time. Now then, Mr. Zuniga, one charge against the Literary Death Match is that it's all fun and games, that as long as one at the event meets another and gets laid, or failing that, gets a few good laughs, all's well. But you've insisted on the literary aspect and purpose of the show. Please elaborate.

TODD ZUNIGA: First off -- Vancouver, I challenge you to be a little more drunk than Toronto.

GALLERY: (Wild, sustained cheers.)

TODD ZUNIGA: I do believe there's a way to put literature back into the centre of the pop culture conversation, and our way of pushing it in that direction is to seamlessly marry literature and comedy at an event that very much feels like poetry.

BEN MATLOCK: You run Opium magazine. And you put these notions to work in the print medium. How so?

TODD ZUNIGA: We have an estimated reading time at the top of every page so if someone sees a poem with a :57, they could say, "Hey, I've got a minute." If you make the readers flip the pages fast, it makes them feel like they're getting something done. It's also a gateway to short stories and novels.

BEN MATLOCK: That's all, Your Honour.

HAMILTON BURGER: Mr. Matlock has performed my work for me. The defendant can step down. Judge and jurors, Mr. Zuniga has proudly stated that literature is at the heart of Literary Death Match, yet the party atmosphere at these events reaches its climactic impulse during the final furlong when bricks are thrown at pictures of famous authors, charades are performed, books are slam-dunked through basketball hoops, there's musical chairs, trivial pursuit challenges, and resurrecting Jesus -- photos of Mel Gibson on one side, Willem Defoe on the
other -- a notch at a time depending on whether or not a Cadbury egg knocks over a contestant's book. In Vancouver, Sean Cranbury came up with the brilliant idea of dividing the audience into opposing sides, with a name-that- tune finale. Just a note -- Vancouver TheatreSports did that over 30 years ago, and with real comedians and comediennes at the helm, so I'm not sure how
cutting edge it really is. As for the seven minute time limit, I can only speak for myself. If an author is on fire, literarily speaking, I have no concept of time, and were I to experience that reader getting pelted by a nerf dart as an ever so cute winking aside to the audience in order to terminate the reading, I'd then feel inclined to shoot my own hellebore-spiked arrow at the original assailant. Mr. Zuniga believes his creation is a gateway for readers who think other literary events boring. But literature is derided at every turn in the Death Match. There are some very good authors gracing the event, but they're shackled by the procedure. If new observers of literature learn anything there, it's that one reader's pretty much like the next, though those dreaming of fucking Benjamin Franklin, the belly fat making strange flapping noises against the narrator's flesh, or sci-fi porn rants from the P.O.V. of a horny woman in an
aquarium, often help scoop the deciding votes. Those observers of literature -- ghastly term -- anyone I've spoken to about literary influences are firm: a love for this endlessly fascinating obsession begins when young, but in the minority of cases when the bite occurs later -- as a young adult -- it originates through grace, fortuitous or hard-wired. If Mr. Zuniga wants to use the gateway metaphor, the Death Match would be marijuana, but what would be crack for those people? Just as that scare tactic is overblown, so too is any idealistic notion that seeing or listening to Dan Lichtenberg will lead to anything more lastingly mind-altering. The best readings I've attended have had no whistles or bells -- none. A usually -- not always -- small audience has shown up, been attentive, and I, at least, have lost track of time --

BEN MATLOCK: Your Honour, surely he's gone past the limit.

ROY BEAN: (Puts down newspaper.) Damn right.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

ROY BEAN: Jurors. Wrap up. Shoot.

BOB KRONBAUER: Put yourself in the right place at the right time with the right credentials and experience and you are bound to "click" into some good fortune.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

SHANE KOYCZAN: The design is what makes us more than the sum total of our history.

GALLERY: (Cheers.)

MICHAEL ROBERTS: Epaulettes, eye-popping camouflage, combat boots, brass buttons, peacoats, parkas, battle-dress blousons, flying jackets, military great coats -- even the long johns and skivvies traditionally worn under all of the above -- were paraded up and down, uber-masculine choices.

GALLERY: (And so on.)

ROY BEAN: Mr. Burger, it is the judgement of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of literature, particularly in my bailiwick. I fine you two dollars. Then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That's my rulin'.

GALLERY: (Wild cheers, mosh dives, mooning, ostentatious handshakes.)

ROY BEAN: Bar is open.