Monday, May 28, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 16th post

I decided I ought to go ahead and wrap up my Kroetsch reviews.  His final novel was called The Man From the Creeks.  It becomes immediately apparent that the novel is designed to lead up to the shoot-out in the Malamute Saloon portrayed in Robert Service's poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew (text of poem here).  In fact, the narrator is well aware of the poem, but he was present at the shoot-out and notes that the poet (or scribbler as I think he calls Service at one point) came along several years after.  Not surprisingly, he says a few of the details were wrong.  Kroetsch occasionally has to tie himself almost in knots to get some of the details portrayed in the poem to come to pass.  For all that, there is still a fair bit of playfulness present in a book with such a preordained and fatal outcome.  I occasionally found myself thinking of Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as well as Chaplin's The Gold Rush.

In a nutshell, the narrator is the son of "the lady that's known as Lou."  Lou and the boy decide to escape their lives running a pawn shop in Seattle and to try their hands at prospecting at the height of the Gold Rush.  They sneak aboard a boat heading up north but are discovered.  A man buys their release with two barrels of whiskey he's bringing north.  This man, Benjamin, hasn't brought any proper prospecting equipment at all, only whiskey, though this is nearly worth its weight in gold.  In any case, they set out as an unlikely trio, none of them with any real sense of what they are getting themselves into.  While Lou tends to be the most level-headed, she makes many critical mistakes along the way.  It does strain belief that they actually make it north in one piece.  Benjamin saved Dan McGrew's life (hiding him in a huge barrel) and has been told that if he makes it up north, he'll be cut in on the action.

They are also supposed to bring another woman (Sal or perhaps Lil?) who used to be a dancer but now runs a hardware store.  The boy starts working for her and falls under her spell.  As spring comes and the ice melts (to allow the Gold Rush to continue), she rather wisely decides to go back to the States with her earnings and to not go on to meet up with Mr. McGrew.  It falls to the boy to break the news to McGrew.  McGrew puts Benjamin to work, working a terrible claim, and the stress more or less sends him around the bend, though indeed he does strike goal near the very end of the book.  Lou and the boy come work for McGrew in his saloon (and indeed the boy is "the rag-time kid" of the poem).  The denouement does play itself out largely as laid out in the poem, with one critical difference, which I will not reveal.  The boy ends up taking over McGrew's saloon (perhaps a bit unlikely), living to 100 (which is mentioned throughout the book) and never fully getting over his puppy love for McGrew's lady-love (Sal or Lil).  Am I being too harsh in having trouble believing that someone in such a challenging climate would remain in this state of arrested development for over 80 years?  After surviving some truly terrible conditions, he would just sit and regress for this length of time?  I suppose there are people that do fall into that category, but I just thought it was unnecessarily cruel on Kroetsch's part to leave the kid in such a state when it didn't really add anything to the overall story arc.  It's almost as if he was thinking about a kid killed off in another one of his novels and says, see, given the kind of person he was, he didn't really miss all that much...  Maybe I am just reading too much into this, but I wish he had chosen a different approach for handling Lou's son and the aftermath of the shooting.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 15th post

Alibi is one of Kroetsch's most openly postmodern novels, perhaps only topped by his follow-up novel The Puppeteer.  There is a fair bit of doubling (indeed the narrator's name is William William Dorfen, though he is almost universally addressed as Dorf).  He acts as a buying agent for a reclusive Alberta millionaire, Jack Deemer, primarily in helping him amass unusual collections.  Dorf claims to have never even set eyes on Deemer, though he runs into Deemer's runaway wife, Julie Magnuson.  Deemer sends him on a quest to find and buy the ultimate spa, and he of course checks out Baden Baden, though this isn't the chosen spa.  The chapters are short and do sort of cover the same ground from a variety of perspectives, not completely dissimilar to Last Year at Marienbad, which may have been an inspiration for Alibi.  Or not.

Dorf keeps running into people with connections to Deemer's past, particularly Fish (a man maintaining a spa near Banff).  Fish and Deemer both were vying for the hand of Julie back in the day (and before Deemer was so rich).  Dorf also tangles with Karen Strike, a documentary film maker who ends up in Deemer's employ, making a movie about spas (naturally).  Dorf keeps learning more about Deemer, little of which sits well with him.  Dorf actually has liaisons with both Julie and Karen (not at the same time), but finds himself unable or unwilling to purchase a spa for Deemer.  Despite a few interesting set pieces, particularly when Dorf and Fish are in Banff together, the novel kind of drags in spots.  Maybe Hamlet-like characters are only interesting when there really is a lot going on around them.  If the plot moved a bit quicker and the book was more linear, it might have been something like North by Northwest, but it really isn't in that tradition at all.  In a bit of a left-turn, Dorf ends up fleeing Canada and turns up at a European spa, where he and Julie end up in an extended menage a trois with a doctor, who happens to be a dwarf.  Pretty kinky.  I'd rather not spoil the ending.  I think in general, the book has its merits, but is a bit disappointing.  I don't think it really caught on with the general public.


After a roughly 10 year gap, Kroetsch published The Puppeteer, which is actually a direct sequel to Alibi.  Apparently, Kroetsch was considering writing a third novel to round out a trilogy, but wrote The Man From the Creeks instead.  Whether he completely abandoned the idea or he would have returned to it had he not died in a car accident is unclear to me.  It's so hard to say what he might have done, but I thoroughly disliked The Puppeteer and am actually a bit sorry I read it, so it is hard to imagine a third novel having reversed my feelings.  Again, my impression is that the public did not care for this book, though I don't know what its critical reception was.  Basically, Kroetsch throws all the postmodern contrivances together.  Relatively quickly we learn that Dorf is hiding out in Vancouver, working as a pizza delivery man who is masquerading as a kind of monk.  He goes by the name of Papa Vasilis.  A bit later in the book, he breaks up with his girlfriend (the pizza queen of Vancouver) and hides out in the attic of Maggie, a female novelist, who is separated from her husband, Henry, an archeologist working in Greece.  Dorf has become a fairly pathetic character who for some unknown reason starts putting on elaborate puppet shows up in the attic.  This felt like a total contrivance to me, and is one of the flaws of post-modern fiction where the artifice is so foregrounded that characters don't have or require any internal coherence.  Dorf was a relatively resourceful guy in Alibi -- why would he have fallen quite so low?  But even beyond this, there are two devices I didn't care for at all.

1) Periodically a different narrator breaks in, and it turns out this is Jack Deemer himself, still rich but almost blind (and presumably the true puppeteer).  He seems to know all kinds of things about the female novelist but nothing about Papa V. (or the goings on in the attic).  Maggie leaves Papa up in the attic and heads out to Banff with a couple of older women (they might actually be Papa's V's aunts, but I can't exactly recall).  Of course, they run into both Fish and Karen Strike.  I suppose this is inevitable in a sequel.

2) However, it isn't that much longer into the novel that we find that Dorf did not kill the dwarf after all, and beyond that, Julie Magnuson faked her own death.  So basically absolutely everything in Alibi has been upended and reversed.  I just couldn't get with that.  Some readers like these kind of games, but it was too much for me.  There was a subplot about this wedding dress (worn by both Julie and Maggie).  It basically completely stretched credibility that the whole cast would end up in Greece and Jack Deemer would put on the wedding dress and pass as a woman for a while.  I really disliked the ending, which seemed fake and unearned.  Maybe Kroetsch just wrote himself into a corner and couldn't see how he could reverse or invert the new ending (or that the marginal payoff was so low) for a third book.  About the only thing of interest (aside from some decent street scenes set in Vancouver) was the subplot about Henry trying to smuggle out Greek icons, including one with a (female) face of God.

There is no question this is my absolutely least favorite novel by Kroetsch.  I would only recommend it to a lit. major who had a real hankering for postmodern fiction.

These are reviews 15/13 and 16/13.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 14th post

So on beyond 13.  I actually read Morley Callaghan's A Fine and Private Place basically at the same time as Barometer Rising (switching on the bus and so forth).  I found this novel a bit more engaging from the get-go, though it is somewhat meandering.  It is set in Toronto.  The basic plot is that a graduate student, Al, finds himself in a relationship with Lisa, a former classmate, who now works in the news media.  She supports him as he struggles to complete a dissertation.  While he initially expects to write on Norman Mailer (an obvious topic that Lisa feels is a bit beneath Al), with some prodding, he finds himself fascinated by the writings of Eugene Shore, a local writer who is generally unappreciated in his hometown but has a bit of a claim to fame elsewhere.  Shore is a fairly transparent stand-in for Callaghan himself, given that he writes books about outcasts and tends to sympathize with criminals over cops.  While this is a bit of an over-simplification, a number of Callaghan's books like Such is My Beloved and More Joy in Heaven were upsetting to the members of the literary establishment that wanted "moral" and uplifting fiction.  (While I haven't read enough of Callaghan to know for certain, it strikes me that he is intrigued by the same themes as Graham Greene.) Callaghan definitely has a negative take on reviewers and academic critics of all stripes, or at least he voices these sentiments through Shore.  Nonetheless, with Lisa's intervention, Shore agrees to meet Al and they fall into a bit of a mentor-mentee relationship.

Lisa begins to get concerned as Al seems to be getting lost in his new topic, pretty much starting over after having written dozens of pages, because he just can't seem to get the angle on Shore.  She begins to despair he will ever finish and regrets pushing him towards Shore in the first place.  (She might have some things to say to the wife in Kroetsch's Gone Indian where the narrator has finally exhausted everyone's patience by switching dissertation topics repeatedly.)  This section does seem to go on a bit too long for my taste, so I was glad when one of the subplots took over in the third act.  I don't want to reveal too much about this aspect of the book and certainly not the ending.  I will note however, that, just as in Bissoondath's The Innocence of Age, a cop gets involved in a shooting.

I wonder how many cops show up in novels and don't shoot someone? Pretty few, I'd wager. It's probably a corollary that if a gun shows up in the first scene (of a play or movie), it has to go off in the last scene. (Sometimes attributed to Hitchcock or Godard, it is more likely that it stems from Chekhov.)  The ending is just a bit ambiguous, at least in terms of whether we really think Al and Lisa have emerged from a rough patch and are now are on firm ground as a couple.  Al is clearly going to have to stop relying on Shore as a kind of crutch or an excuse to keep from writing (in fear that Shore will write something new to overturn all of Al's previous judgements).  As an aside, while this isn't the only lesson to be learned from this novel, it generally is a bad idea for English lit. students to write dissertations on living writers.

I wouldn't say that Toronto emerged as a strong backdrop in this novel.  There were certainly shades of "Toronto the Good" when the newspaper reviewers had a particularly moral take on Shore, but there weren't too many times when I didn't think the novel could have been set in Winnepeg or Edmonton.  The Innocence of Age, despite some shortcomings, was more thoroughly a Toronto novel than this one.  I expect that the next three novels I tackle will be Toronto-based novels.  The plan is to reread Atwood's Cat's Eye and Findley's Headhunter.  If there is still time remaining before the challenge ends, I will tackle (for the first time) Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls.  And if I don't get through them, they will be the first reviews for the next challenge.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 13th post

So I have been creeping up on the 13th review, and here it is.  Maybe a book that touches upon trench warfare is an appropriate 13th novel.  Or not.  I definitely had a hard time getting into Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising, due to the somewhat alien mentality of the characters.  The novel was written in 1941 but is set in 1917 in Halifax.  A great deal is made of the fact that the female lead is helping design ships for the British Navy to the point where it is almost like they are talking about putting lipstick on a pig.  The other characters are so incredulous about this and other aspects of this fairly liberated woman, that I wonder if MacLennan is just going too far.  Maybe it really was all but impossible for a female to be in such a position in WWI (with women really entering the workforce in WWII).  Maybe it would have made more sense for her to have a more "realistic" job for that era, since we also hear about how scandalous it was that this woman was having dinner with a known drinker, etc. To top it all off, she has an actual scandalous secret that she does keep hidden. Her father is a bit tyrannical, except with her, and he really loses it when he realizes that his nephew has come back from the war (rather than being blown up at the front).  The main plot of the novel is the nephew's attempt to clear his name and avoid being court-marshaled and shot.  Even when given the offer of slinking away to the States, he decides that he loves his country so much that he will take the risk.  (Again, perhaps over-egging the pudding.)  The major sub-plot involves a doctor back from the war who is struggling to regain use of his arm (and who drinks too much) and who also begins courting this female ship-designer.  There are a number of sociological asides about how Canada is linked to England and how the fairly rural life of the Maritimes is coming to an end and that people moving to Halifax from the country are generally doing this for their children.  At times the digressions are a bit much.  (As an aside, I suspect the sociological insights come even heavier in his novel Two Solitudes which probes the English-French tension in Canada.  Something for the next challenge perhaps.)


Not sure this is a spoiler for any Canadian who really knows his or her history (or who reads the blurb on the back cover), but there is a munitions ship that explodes and destroys half the town.  The book's pacing definitely get better after this enormous explosion, and we see who pulls through. Yet it is a little unrealistic in that virtually everyone who does survive becomes much nobler during the aftermath, but that can be overlooked. It is certainly true that at least in the short term, this kind of trauma would bring the community together. Still, this is not likely a book I'd return to.

While I don't think it will be an explicit goal, I will probably work my way through most of the books in the "New Canadian Library" over the next 3-4 challenges, as this is a pretty good list of the key Canadian novels of the early 20th Century.  However, I will kind of draw the line at the earlier books like Haliburton's The Clockmaker or anything by Susanna Moodie.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 12th post

Definitely in the home stretch as far as reviewing goes.  If I actually am able to finish reading the three books I have lined up before this challenge ends, I will also have met my goal of reading and reviewing 13 different Canadian authors.

This marks my first review of one of Timothy Findley's novels.  He's definitely up there as far as my favorite Canadian authors.  I enjoyed both Headhunter and Not Wanted on the Voyage quite a bit.  I wasn't sure if I had read The Wars before or if it was Famous Last Words, but after a few pages in, it was clear to me that I had not read this book before.  While I don't think Findley was particularly influenced by Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, there are a few parallels.  The somewhat unknown aspects of the character's inner life reconstructed from documentary evidence after the fact, the heavy foreshadowing of the main characters' tragic ends, some whorehouse hijinks, reflections on the "eternal" bond between man and horse (in both cases, the authors are well aware that mechanization has largely destroyed this relationship) and humans caring more for animal welfare than their own lives.  As a bit of an aside, I can find this at least plausible in a post-Romantic era, Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare has a somewhat similar plot point, but the action occurs in 17th Century London and I have a really hard time believing that humans of that era would risk their lives for horses.

One thing that this novel apparently did was to sort of re-inscribe Canadian participation in WWI in  popular awareness (at least according to the introduction).  That part didn't really come across as clearly, in part because I have little interest in WWI and partly because, as an American, I've never felt "left out" of any of the major wars of the Twentieth Century.  It was certainly an interesting and fairly quick read, but not as rewarding to me as Headhunter.  Incidentally, the next book I am reviewing is an earlier book (MacLennan's Barometer Rising) that also looked at Canada's role in WWI and the impact that the war had on Canada.

This was review 12/13.

Edit Aug. 2014 -- this is an absurdly short and meager review for a book that has become part of the CanLit canon.  While I probably won't be rereading The Wars for quite some time (maybe not until the kids read it in high school!), when I do, I will try to do the book more justice in a second review.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 11th post

One of the very first books we read in my Canadian lit class was Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town (the first might have been Susanna Moodie's Roughing It, which few of us enjoyed).  I had a chance to return to this a while back.  This book is kind of a gentle satire on the pretensions of the people who stay in a little town in Ontario (with its own train station!).  It is very much in line with Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories (and perhaps a bit gentler than the Corner Gas TV show).  It's enjoyable but it is hard to say too much about the book.  The townsfolk are decent and well-meaning but not really the sharpest crayons in the box.  Probably the most intriguing character is Mr. Smith who owns one of the most profitable bars (with attached French caff) in town.  He runs rings around the other characters, and is a bit of a grafter, but even he is basically a decent sort (aside from wanting to build up a huge bank balance).  Towards the end of the book, he runs for office.  There is a funny moment when suddenly the townsfolk realize that Mr. Smith is going to win, and they all rush to cast their ballot, since they all want to be on the winning side. The sinking of a passenger ferry in the middle of a tiny lake is also unexpectedly comic, but I don't want to give away too much for those that haven't read the book.

As an aside, I'm having terrible trouble reconstructing the rest of the books we read in this class.  Maybe I'll dig up the syllabus one of these days and see which of the books I'd like to reread.  I do recall that my final paper was on Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, and I am just starting to reread this book over the long weekend.  This is by far my favorite Atwood novel out of the five or so I've read (obviously I have a few left to go).

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Canadian book challenge - 10th post

Closing in on my review target.  Actually just wrapped up three Canadian books this week (one of which I will not be reviewing) but I'm trying to review some of the books I read earlier before they completely slip my mind.

Kroetsch's What the Crow Said is a curious book.  It seems to be the book that is the most in the magic realist tradition whereas many of his other novels are largely realistic with some far-fetched elements. (Gone Indian is probably the least strictly realistic prior to What the Crow Said.)  But right from the start we know this is going to be a departure, when a teenaged? girl lies down in a meadow and is covered with bees, who not only bring her to orgasm but basically impregnate her.  I suspect that Kroetsch was attempting to transplant the Greek mythos onto the Canadian frontier, but then lost interest and mixed in all kinds of other legends and tall-tales.  This young woman is one of 5 sisters.  All of them have unusual courtships.  I'll probably get some of the details wrong, but this is basically what I recall.  One marries a man missing a leg (and apparently his testicles) but still manages to get pregnant from the "ghost balls."  One drives a convict crazy with her passionate letters and he spends much of his life trying to break out, which he does repeatedly, and join her, which I don't think he does achieve.  The father freezes to death on his plow, and then the mother has two suitors, including a man that builds a lighthouse out of ice blocks.  There is a card game that lasts a month. One of the sons was abandoned and raised by wolves, and then returns speaking a kind of pig-Latin.

For some reason this final detail about the pig-Latin bothered me more than almost all the others, and it kind of marked the moment when Kroetsch lost me on this book.  It just was too much, one crazy thing layered on top of another until it finally comes to an end.  One theatre reviewer puts it this way -- that a play (or novel) can have really odd ground rules, but once they have been established, then things must operate within those rules.  You can't just keep having random things happen, as the audience will lose interest because there can't be any "stakes" without any internal logic.  I really wanted the book to be better than it was, but ultimately the stakes were too low.  I suppose most of Kroetsch's novels with the exception of The Studhorse Man have disappointed me a bit for one reason or another.

This is review 10/13.

What the Crow Said

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 9th post

Not sure how surprising this is, but I've never read an entire novel by Mordecai Richler up until now.  I actually owned a few but never got around to them before it was time to purge the shelves.  I figure I'll correct that over time now that I am up here.  I decided to start with one of his shorter, and perhaps not entirely representative, works: The Incomparable Atuk.

The novel was published in 1963.  Now the notes at the end say how the book has not dated, and while that might have been conceivably true in the 1990s (when incidentally I lived in Toronto for a year), it is starting to show its age.  I guess there are only so many times you can read variations on the same "hey look at person from Cultural Background X pull a fast one on liberal whites" before you get thoroughly sick of it.  And I've read plenty along those lines. If the entire book was about Atuk and his adventures and misadventures in Toronto, then I probably wouldn't have made it to the end.  However, the intelligentsia that meet Atuk in one party or another have their own side adventures.  Perhaps the most amusing, if somewhat unlikely, event is when a policeman poses as a woman (whose lure is subversive literature) and falls in love with a female newspaper columnist posing as a man.

Anyway, the basic plot is that Atuk is introduced to Toronto society and becomes an instant hit with his poetry.  He also brings down a bunch of relatives and has them working in a sweat shop making carvings and other Inuit art for Atuk to sell.  His father (the Ancient One?) keeps moaning about terrible things (not too dissimilar from Aunt Ada in Cold Comfort Farm).  He makes the rounds of various parties and realizes that his novelty is beginning to wear off.  He eventually agrees to be a guest contestant on a particularly sinister/cynical game show.  It is a quick read for sure and mostly entertaining, though I do feel it is starting to show some signs of wear and tear.  For a similar take on high society and low society mixing (at parties as well as in the bedroom), I enjoyed Chester Himes' Pinktoes, which is set in Harlem.  Published just 2 years prior to Atuk, it might be slightly more daring and may sustain its high spirits a bit more consistently.

This is review 9/13.