Thursday, September 13, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 4th post

As ever, my posts are scrambled, but I am slowly making my way through a few recently read books.  I've also tentatively outlined the 13 books that will complete the challenge, though I think I will probably outpace 13 a bit this year.

Yann Martel is definitely going to be in the news this year because the movie version of Life of Pi is coming out.  I read Life of Pi a few years back and enjoyed it, but didn't find it life-changing like some folks.  (Actually, The Hungry Tide (2005) by Amitav Ghosh covers similar territory and might be even a bit more profound and/or moving at least to me, and I would highly recommend it. Maybe a few years down the road, I will reread the two back to back.)

Based on the success of Pi, his first book of short stories was republished: The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and other stories.  The first story (HR for short) is a novella and the second story "... the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto ..." comes pretty close to being a novella as well.  The final two stories are not quite as long.  It is kind of strange to read a book of stories with only four stories in it; it is closer to the Short Works of Joseph Conrad than an Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant collection, that's for sure.

You can certainly tell that these are early works from a promising but somewhat raw writer.  "Manners of Dying" is a fairly forgettable piece in the Twilight Zone/Groundhog Day tradition.

The last story is a bit more experimental and also has seeds in the fantastic.  There is a grandson visiting his grandmother and after a few sentences reporting her speech, the text literally goes to "blah-blah-blah-blah ...." and you then see the grandson's thoughts as he tunes out.  A somewhat unnecessary plot contrivance is that she makes mirrors that are formed by speaking words, words, words and that may be why she is such a motor-mouth (that and the fact she is old and lonely).  I don't even know if it qualifies as a twist, but years later, the grandson is kicking himself for not listening closer to what she said.

I didn't care too much for these two stories.

The Donald Rankin piece seemed like it was also going to be rooted in the fantastic -- a tourist wandering around DC finds an unknown theatre and goes and listens to a piece of music by an unknown composer.  But Martel is going for something different here, more grounded in reality: the theatre is indeed a shell of its former self (they sit on folding chairs) and the performers and composer are all army vets, putting on these performances as a kind of therapeutic outlet.  What is a little hard to buy is that the Canadian narrator would actually have the nerve to chase after Rankin and that Rankin would let him into the bank where he works as a janitor.  I guess there wouldn't be much of a story otherwise...

This story was better but still not that memorable.

No question the strongest piece is HR, which does justify reprinting this collection.  In some ways the set up is even more hard to credit, but the reader just has to move beyond that.  Two college boys meet and become close friends.  The narrator is a senior and Paul is a freshman.  The bond is so close that when Paul gets very sick, the narrator more or less loses his mind, stops caring about classes and fails his final year.  What is a bit unusual is that it is just a friendship and not a sexual relationship between the two.  Honestly, it might have been a bit more believable had the positions been reversed -- a freshman idolizing a senior.  In any case, Paul contracts AIDS in the most blameless way possible -- his father gets in a car accident in Jamaica and Paul needs a blood transfusion and there you go.  (You could call it the Immaculate Transmission, given how far Martel goes to make Paul a paragon of virtue and later suffering.)  When the father finds out his role, he beats his car to death and sets it on fire.  This is transference of course, since they had been driving another car (for a minute I thought I had caught Martel in a lazy error ;) ).

Anyway, the narrator more or less gives up his studies for 9 months and begins visiting Paul whether he is home or at the hospital (mostly at the hospital).  They decide to tell each other stories of a huge clan based in an alternative universe.  Each story represents a year from 1901 to 2001.  The stories are supposed to be inspired by some event in the real world from that year.  The concept is a little like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, though the story that they tell each other sounds a bit more inspired by Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suppose it isn't a surprise that Paul's stories get darker and darker, regardless of the real world events (i.e. the early 40s stories should be darker than those based on the 50s).  It's also not that much of a surprise that the stories get cut short (stopping at 1962) when Paul finally succumbs. 

I kind of wish Martel had stuck with the core of his idea and ditched the AIDS victim frame, since I don't think he had earned the right to use such a device so early in his career.*  Maybe he had indeed been touched by AIDS-related suffering at around 19 or 20, but it strikes me as a cheap or even lazy way of making the story more profound and sentimental.  I'd also say the same about trying to piggyback on the trauma faced by Vietnam War veterans in the second story, which as a Canadian writer, he'd have no real connection to.  I don't mean that any topics are literally off-bounds for a writer, but a writer who goes to these themes (without having more or less earned their stripes) is a cheap hack, heading straight towards Hallmark greeting card or Sunday movie-of-the-week territory.  I think even Life of Pi has some of this easy sentimentality, but is a stronger piece of writing.  I suspect Martel is never going to be a writer I respect,** but I will probably reread Life of Pi once again (and perhaps catch the movie -- once it shows up on TV ;) ).

* My own claim is stronger than Yann's -- my mother spent the last part of her career working for an AIDS hotline and social service agency -- bringing that stress home and so on, but I would really shy away from using/exploiting that in my own published writing.

** Having taken a minute to check what else he has written, I see that Beatrice and Virgil, his latest novel, is described as an allegory of the Holocaust. I guess he has surrendered to his worst tendencies and is already in hack territory, trying to piggyback off of others' suffering to make his work profound.  Maybe I won't bother with Pi after all.

Monday, September 10, 2012

6th Canadian challenge - 3rd post

I have been reading quite a bit of poetry lately, including Canadian poets of course.  What is kind of odd is how I keep hearing about the canon of Canadian poets and honestly had heard of 1 of them before. The others are completely new to me.  I had vaguely heard of Irving Layton, though probably more for his literary criticism than for his poetry.  The other ones that keep cropping up were complete blanks to me: Milton Acorn, Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek and Al Purdy.  After trying to rectify the situation by reading through their selected poems, I find Al Purdy the most up my alley, followed by Louis Dudek.  The others aren't doing too much for me.

In any case, I am not going to review these books now (though I may eventually review Dudek's Poems from Atlantis).  It's just what I have been up to that has been making it so hard to get to any new reviews.  However, I was able to finish reading a book recently (on the ferry from Victoria actually): Derek Winkler’s Pitouie.  This book is one of the ones I won from last year's contest.  Pitouie is a novel about multiple con games, and it is probably impossible to describe them in any great detail without spoiling the book completely.  It's best to think in terms of some of David Mamet's screenplays as a starting point for Pitouie, though one of the last cons reminded me strongly of one of the cons perpetuated by the Stainless Steel Rat (a character invented by the recently-departed Harry Harrison).  The book is quite entertaining and a quick read.  It is about a reporter from Waste Management Magazine, who is brought out to hear about an opportunity for Western businessmen to dump toxic wastes in a volcano in the center of the island of Pitouie (somewhere off the coast of South America).  However, much like Mamet, when you start thinking too much about the details of any particular con, a lot of things stop making sense, particularly the half-truths told when outsiders must be recruited into the game.  I actually have a somewhat serious objection to the plot but I can't raise it since even mentioning the objection would be a spoiler.  So it's not exactly a review-proof book, but fairly close. I guess I may as well leave it at that.  Actually, I will add that the reporter finally gets quotes from the businessmen he accompanied on his junket, and some of them seem pretty revealing (if somewhat cartoonish).  Still, Derek Winkler's own bio suggests that he did some PR flak-ery, and this may be his way of getting back at the corporate world.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

6th Canadian book challenge - 2nd post

Well, my planned sequence is totally shot, but I guess that is ok.  Given it is a long weekend, I may finally get caught up.  In any case, I am going to review a second poetry collection by Kimmy Beach (the poet featured in my first post for this challenge -- In Cars).  It is Alarum Within: Theatre Poems (Turnstone Press, 2003).  I had fairly high hopes, since I worked with a theatre company for 2.5 years in a non-acting capacity (like Kimmy I knew my strengths were not in acting).  I should say up front that the approach is largely the same as In Cars, i.e. confessional and dealing in marginally aberrant behaviour, but the voice isn't quite as strong or as developed.  Also, the collection as a whole doesn't cohere as well.  Kimmy seems to be detailing odd things that happened to her on a play-by-play basis, and naturally some are not as interesting to outsiders.  In contrast, there is a definite shape to the poems of In Cars -- (semi)-innocent state, risky behaviour leading to tragedy, and then almost a fugue state where Kimmy is processing the accident and it keeps imprinting itself onto the rest of her life, making it (understandably) hard to move on.  Despite my partial disappointment in this collection, I will certainly read her forthcoming books, since she grew considerably between Alarum Within (2003) and In Cars (2007).  It looks like Last Temptation of Bond is coming out next year, though this looks a little more pop culture-oriented than these other two.  In addition to the confessional poems, she has written Fake Paul (2005) about hunting down traces of the Beatles in Liverpool.  I may track that one down and see what I think.

One thing I did learn is that In Cars is set in Saskatchewan*, based on internal evidence.  We learn that Kimmy has runs in with a number of the actors in her small regional theatre and perhaps not surprisingly she pops pills to get through some rough nights. There is a section that seems painfully revealing about her childhood adoration of a man (Mr. Dress-up) who performed for children and who disappointed her by not adopting her and/or showering her with love.  (It isn't entirely clear to me, but either her mother was a single mom or Kimmy desperately wanted to escape her life.)  When the actor comes through town again on a farewell tour, Kimmy works up the courage to tell him that her 5-year-old self wanted more than a postcard filled in using a rubber ink stamp:
"(I told my mom
my name's not Friend)"
from "Dear Friend"

Apparently she asks (as an adult) to look inside his magic trunk:
"Of course you can look inside, Kim
he says, but I'm afraid 
you might be disappointed


Of course Mr. Dressup ("Call me Ernie") is correct:
"inside    a green felt Robin Hood hat
two plastic flutes   one black magic marker
some sawdust   the most
devastating sawdust in the world"
from "Raiders of the Lost Tickle Trunk"

The next section is about Kimmy being struck down by encephalitis early during rehearsals for Brecht's Mother Courage.   Most of the poems are about her partner (husband-to-be) and mother visiting her at the hospital but the director also comes around to see if she is going to pull through in time to stage manage to show (she doesn't).  She does, however, manage to see a performance of the show and finds it terrible and the audience stays away in droves.  While this might just possibly be due to the fact that the bleak topic isn't a good fit for regional theatre, Kimmy decides that:
"it's not true what they say
it will fall apart if you're not there
I'm living proof
I am indispensable"
from "The Worst Show I've Ever Seen"

I wasn't as interested in the sections describing her adventures during Jesus Christ, Superstar or Oliver!, at least in part because musicals are not of great interest to me.  I honestly couldn't really follow the thread of "seek the deepness," although Scene 21 appears to be the seeds of In Cars.

I generally thought the last section (about Hamlet) was the strongest.  Each of the 4 poems in the sequence Proverbs starts with a snarky comment about actors, like "Give not unto the actors their props before their time, for as surely as the sun doth rise in the east they shall lose or break them."

The last poems following Proverbs are definitely a bit darker and they seem to be combining the action on stage with Kimmy's own history of either a miscarriage or an abortion.  Like "seek the deepness," I wasn't entirely sure what she was getting at.  I suspect the topic is (or was then) still so raw for her that she needs to be somewhat indirect about it.

On the whole this is an interesting collection, but I would probably have enjoyed it a bit more had I read it prior to In Cars.

* Oops, Alberta after all (see comments).