Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991

Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991
Orlando Figes

Historians love defining historical periods, and in the absence of clear markers will happily make up their own. So here we have a history of “Revolutionary Russia” that takes us not from the Russian Revolution in 1917 but rather from 1891, when a famine crisis set the public “for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy,” and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Orlando Figes calls this “a single revolutionary cycle” but I don’t know how cyclical it is, and I don’t buy the starting point at all except as an excuse to make said cycle a neat hundred years.

Matters of periodization aside, this is a decent overview of Russia in the twentieth century, though it’s much stronger on the early days of the Revolution than it is on what happened after Stalin. On the failed reforms of Gorbachev (meaning they failed to achieve what he intended them to achieve), the coverage and analysis is particularly thin, and there is only the briefest of nods to the Revolution’s aftermath. This is disappointing, as we still need to come to grips with what the legacy of Communism was, and what it might yet turn into.

Congratulations on Everything

CONGRATULATIONS ON EVERYTHING
By Nathan Whitlock

“Congratulations on everything,” is a dismissive, sarcastic remark. It means congratulations on nothing. But this is being overly judgmental. A lack of achievement doesn’t necessarily hold anyone back.

Congratulations on Everything, Nathan Whitlock’s polished and confident second novel, isn’t about people who are successful at getting things done. It’s about a man with a plan, or at least a dream. But like so many of us, he doesn’t really know what he’s got till he’s got it, and then somehow managed to lose it all.

The setting is a cozy restaurant-bar named the Ice Shack, located in a strip mall. The proprietor of the Ice Shack is Jeremy, a middle-aged bachelor who is essentially decent but in perhaps too self-regarding a way. It’s significant that we never learn Jeremy’s last name, as he is a pure cultural product, his moral compass and sense of self fashioned by the platitudes of bestselling personal-empowerment author Theo Hendra.

The Ice Shack isn’t just Jeremy’s home, it’s his world: being the owner-operator the realization of a lifelong dream. We can infer from this that Jeremy is not a larger-than-life, heroic figure or even someone who has set the bar of his ambition very high. As he realizes at one point, “Most of the big life possibilities he truly cared about could be found within the [Ice Shack’s] four walls.”

Much like Patrick, another small-business owner operating out of a strip mall and hero of Whitlock’s previous novel, A Week of This, Jeremy is someone who has found a level. A level, in his case, that while low might still be a bit too high.

Despite spending his entire professional life in training for the job, Jeremy is often clueless when it comes to running the bar. He doesn’t understand the Internet, makes poor financial decisions generally, and gets romantically involved with a younger, married employee, a waitress named Charlene.

In all of this one senses an inevitable fall, albeit one from no great height. You know all this is going to end in tears, and our hero should as well. There’s a bad moon rising and Jeremy, we are told, “like an animal that sensed changes in the air pressure and took shelter before a storm, could usually tell when these kinds of things were on their way, but this time they completely blindsided him.”

That’s not a spoiler. Whitlock provides an immediate heads-up, looking forward at the end of the first chapter to when “everything fell apart with the Shack and everything else.” We also know that Jeremy, “with this skinny legs and dumb gut,” isn’t cut out to be a tragic figure. His story will not be tragic but only “something close to tragic.” He is an ironic figure: the kind of guy we just have to smile and shake our heads at.

But what Congratulations on Everything is really about is its setting. By this I don’t mean romantic natural vistas. The only nature we catch a glimpse of in the novel is a river running through a ravine behind the bar and a lake in cottage country, neither of which is picturesque or a source of spiritual renewal. Instead they are both seen as dirty and dangerous, while the Ice Shack is imagined as a sanctuary, “an ark that would float away safely with everyone inside when the waters rose again in the world.”

Instead of nature, the setting is the familiar urban, social, and media landscape that defines so much of our lives without our ever being aware of it. Jeremy both comes out of this cultural landscape and is finally absorbed back into it, born of self-help guidebooks and finally becoming a mere human interest story, background noise on TV. But by the time this happens the book’s focus has shifted to Charlene, a more complicated and mysterious character who also balks at tragedy, settling on being sad and resilient.

Despite the sub-optimal outcomes of these limited lives, Congratulations on Everything isn’t a dreary or depressing novel. Whitlock is a smooth, assured writer with a patient comic touch. The scene where Jeremy attempts to get his sister and brother-in-law to invest in his failing business is just one example of the acute subtlety and gentle humour at play. Jeremy evokes our sympathy even as he flounders in pathetic embarrassment. He has a good heart.

What it means to have a good heart is to want to do good. Jeremy has a mission: he wants to help people, to be a mentor and shape lives through constructive, empowering advice. So what if his role model Theo Hendra is exposed as an egregious fraud? Even a fraud can have a positive influence.
The realization that there are limits to how much we can help others even with the best of intentions may be cause for despair, but Jeremy is determined to remain optimistic and soldier on even as he loses faith in his ability to make a difference.

It might not seem like much, but there’s something heroic in that.

Notes:
Review first published online December 29, 2016.

Deliverance

Deliverance
James Dickey

The survivors will be safe because the CSI state (“stupendous filing systems, IBM machines tirelessly sorting punch cards, one thing being checked against another”) isn’t yet fully developed and because nobody talks about fight club (i.e., what happened on the river). Though Ed is telling us the story, which may make us wonder.

In any event, the inspiration for Palahniuk’s novel is hard to miss. Lewis is Tyler Durden, so muscular he has veins even in his gut and obviously a focus of homoerotic attention for the narrator. He offers a kind of violent salvation. The city men are stuck in “the long, declining routine” of their lives. Ed, stricken with apathy and looking for a way out of his professional rut (sliding, or “living by antifriction”), is also an American type, like Thoreau looking to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The canoe trip will be his release, his deliverance from a fake reality.

Does it still resonate nearly fifty years later? I would have thought the men’s movement’s return to the woods (Iron John, etc.) would have dated it more, but I guess given the success of Fight Club we’d have to say part of it very much still works. The river is gone, but it’s like a primitive, submerged stream of unconsciousness even in our digital minds.

Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich
Ann Brocklehurst

What makes a crime of special interest to the wider public? A combination of the unique and the particular. The murder of Tim Bosma by Dellen Millard and Mark Smich struck a chord because of its randomness and the sense that it could have happened to anybody.

Bosma was a target literally pulled off of the online classified ad site Kijiji, where he had posted a truck for sale. Anyone could relate. At the same time, homicides committed by total strangers are very rare. Also very rare are homicides committed in the commission of a robbery where the killer has no need to steal anything in the first place.

Ann Brocklehurst’s account of the case and subsequent trial is well-paced and informative, though she’s limited both by the need to be first to press (Millard has two trials yet to come, which should fill out the back story considerably), and the still mysterious matter of motivation. No psychological profile is attempted. Presumably Millard — who seems clearly to have been the mastermind and instigator, whatever Smich’s culpability — was a wealthy thrill killer, on the Leopold and Loeb model though with less intelligence. We may think of such evil people as as falling into two categories: the abused and the enabled. We make a big mistake if we don’t pay equal attention to the bad seeds of privilege.

The View from the Cheap Seats

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author whose interests run to just about everything. He has written journalism and criticism, comics and graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy and horror, children’s books, and screenplays.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a selection of Gaiman’s non-fiction that puts this eclecticism on full display. Included here are essays, public lectures, interviews, forewords and afterwords, introductions and even reportage from the refugee crisis in Syria. The subjects dealt with range from appreciations of individual novelists (classic and contemporary, from Poe and Lovecraft to Douglas Adams and Stephen King), to thoughts on genre fiction, movies, music, and more.

The tone is gentle and genial throughout. Most of these pieces are explanations of why Gaiman likes someone or something so much. So The 13 Clocks by James Thurber “is probably the best book in the world,” The Bride of Frankenstein is “my favorite horror film,” and “Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he’s ever done.”

There are slack moments. It’s a big book and the praise sometimes slides into banality or hyperbole. A few of the more frankly promotional pieces might have been cut.

The core of it, however, offers up a thoughtful consideration of the writing life and an earnest and practical guide on how to live it. Gaiman keeps coming back to the question of what writing is for, and as he goes along he provides a lot of helpful tips – often by way of concrete examples – on how to “make good art.” This is what matters.

The title, which comes from Gaiman’s account of attending the Academy Awards in 2010, points to a nice dual perspective. Sitting in the mezzanine at the Oscars Gaiman is a wry observer of the proceedings, but he’s also gathering material. These are roles he often plays in these essays: performer and audience member, the fan and the man at the podium saying a few words. In either role, however, he is a writer at work, and loving what he does.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 11, 2016.

Zero K

ZERO K
By Don DeLillo

Since the publication of his epic novel Underworld in 1997, Don DeLillo has turned toward writing sparer, more abstract and philosophical works. The characters are isolated, physically and emotionally, from everyone but their immediate family, and they spend a lot of time reflecting on life’s big questions, with the biggest being what the point of it all is.

Zero K is a slim, speculative, humorous novel that sticks to this ground. As it begins, Jeffrey Lockhart arrives at a remote facility located somewhere out in the Central Asian desert. Dubbed the Convergence, it is a repository for people of means who want to skip death and be preserved for later reanimation in “cyberhuman form.” They will get to buy their own personal end of the world.

Jeffrey’s tycoon father Ross (“master market strategist, owner of art collections and island retreats and super-midsize jets”) and step-mother Artis (who is dying) are two candidates for this transubstantiation. Ross’s fantastic wealth means that money is no object, which lets the action take place on a certain level of abstraction, removed from the more mundane matters of existence and the “thinness of contemporary life.” People like the Lockharts are only interested in final things.

Zero K is not a novel with a plot so much as it’s an essay on certain themes. Like most of the people we meet in late DeLillo, Jeffrey is obsessed with semantics, as though trying to hold on to a belief in the significance of words and names as language dissolves around him. Another recurring motif is life, or the body, as a kind of performance art. Even the end of the world as we know it is reality TV. Which means it may not be real at all.

The overarching vision, however, is of the techno-apocalypse. The Convergence is also the Singularity, a digital rapture that will bring about a new heaven and earth. It is a process that has already begun, as we feel ourselves becoming “virtualized” and “unfleshed.” Systems are taking over: “transparent networks that slowly occlude the flow of all those aspects of nature and character that distinguish humans from elevator buttons and doorbells.”

It’s hard to tell how optimistically, or even seriously, DeLillo views these developments. Throughout most of Zero K his tongue seems pretty close to his cheek. But however you choose to read him, he has laid claim to a unique perspective on the zeitgeist and its dreams of things to come.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 8, 2016.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Alan Schom

Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.