By Daniel Perry

The stories in Daniel Perry’s debut collection Hamburger are arranged in three sections: coarse, medium, and fine. These are three methods of grinding hamburger meat, so there’s a link to the book’s title (which is also that of the first story) as well as a very rough breakdown of the forms the stories take. The “coarse” stories are quite short – one consisting of a single sentence and most of the others only running for a few pages. The “medium” stories average around ten pages each, and the final section, “fine,” consists of a single story divided into three parts.

Tastes in hamburger vary, but Perry’s shorter pieces are the most successful: narrow slices of contemporary life dealing with characters who seem to have just missed epiphanic moments, as though being late for a bus. Relationships slide apart, and often appear not to have been based on anything concrete in the first place. In several cases, people aren’t even sure who it is they’re not quite connecting with.

The first story sets the tone, with its Updikean wannabe-writer hero reading Updike in a hamburger joint while connecting on some imaginary romantic level with a teenage counter girl. We are in a landscape of fast food and garbage, with the two often being equated (the story begins with an image of dumpsters that “serve hungry truck mouths”). Junk food continues to be a leitmotif in a number of the stories, both through characters working in the fast food industry or, on a metaphorical level, standing in for our disposable culture. Junk news, for example, finds its way into a local newspaper in the story “Gleaner,” disrupting lives in the process. Even junk news, it seems, can reveal truths. Even a “crappy, point-and-shoot” picture reveals beauty.

In the longer pieces Perry seems less at ease. The writing continues to be brief and discontinuous, more grounded in revealing moments and impressions than in conventional narrative. In a couple of pieces – “Vaporetto” and “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” – a self-regarding note enters that suggests discomfort with such conventions. Hamburger is a book with flavour, but it’s best enjoyed in small bites.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, June 2016.


By Paul Johnson

The format of the “brief life” invites simplification, and with it overstatement and error. Paul Johnson begins this condensed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by remarking that the French Revolution was an “accident” “because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means.” This is a crazy assertion, if only because there is no historical parallel between what happened in Britain, over hundreds of years and in a very different context, and what happened in France during the Revolution. Nor is there any grounds for Johnson’s “what-if” speculation that if Napoleon hadn’t sold Louisiana, for a song, to the United States he might have built an empire of French liberty in America. France couldn’t even settle Quebec, so they certainly weren’t going to build a new nation west of the Mississippi.

Later, in the same paragraph (and we’re still in the Introduction) Johnson goes on to say that “It does not seem to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law.” Again, this is to draw a comparison to two vastly different historical contexts, and in the end doesn’t really tell us much aside from the fact that Washington and Napoleon were working towards very different ends, with very different routes available to them for achieving their goals. As Robespierre had put it, “America’s example, as an argument for our success, is worthless, because the circumstances are different.”

Finally (we haven’t left the Introduction yet) we are told that France’s “inevitable” “slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status . . . was Bonaparte’s true legacy to the country he adopted.” While admittedly the Napoleonic era was France’s last turn at dominating Europe, to say that its subsequent decline was Naploeon’s doing is hard to credit. One can think of other factors that may have played a part. Was German unification under Bismarck Napoleon’s legacy Napoleon’s fault? Well, some of his harsher critics have said as much. But the rise of the United States? The First World War? Indochina and Algeria? The Cold War? At one point can we let Napoleon off the hook?

Just from these few examples you will be able to tell that in the endless debate among historians between the Good and Bad Napoleon, Johnson is going the latter way. In this he follows Alan Schom, the Napoleon biographer he is most temperamentally akin to (but who doesn’t get a mention in the list of Further Reading). What the Bad Napoleon usually means, and what it means here, is drawing a line between Napoleon’s example and the horrors of more recent history. In short, that the state he invented and dominated was “the prototype of totalitarianism in its twentieth-century manifestations.” The Revolution that Napoleon embodied “created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.”

Did Napoleon have his contemporary apologists, even worshipers? Certainly, but there have always been such useful idiots:

In the twentieth century, this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Staline image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshiping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps. Similarly, the cult of Bonaparte was originally wide, but it did not last.

That final point may be chalked up to wishful thinking on Johnson’s part. Napoleon still has many admirers, and indeed the Bad Napoleon, at least of this black a stripe, is probably the minority view among historians. The thing is, most historians know that few people are all bad, and when penning a hatchet job on a political leader it’s always worth remembering that there must have been some qualities that propelled them to eminence in the first place. This is a problem Ian Kershaw had in his biography of Hitler, where he was left throwing his hands up at how such a man without qualities or “empty shell,” in his analysis, had risen to power. A more extreme example can be seen in Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. As I said at the end of my review of that book:

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

How much more important is a fuller portrait in the case of a figure like Napoleon, who was a genuinely popular leader?

Of course a biography of Napoleon that comes in under 200 pages is always going to be incomplete. In this case, however, it is also unnecessary because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a good read, but should be taken as more of a conservative essay on its subject than a life.

Review first published online October 10, 2016.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

By George Monbiot

At one point in this collection of essays George Monbiot quotes Owen Paterson, then British Secretary of State, describing a previous government’s refusal to dredge waterways as a “blind adherence to Rousseauism.” This is one of the two ways that Rousseau’s name is most often invoked in today’s political discourse: as being hopelessly naïve and sentimental. The other way, paradoxically, is for being a dangerous proto-fascist, but that’s a trump card that’s usually saved for a final play.

I’m pretty sure Monbiot would rate Rousseau differently, as he’s one of the two presiding intellectual spirits behind this collection. The influence can be seen in everything from Monbiot’s environmentalism (which includes not dredging rivers), his theories of education (“Rewild the Child” by sending them outdoors to learn from nature), and his general distrust of society. “Civilization is Boring,” is the title of one essay, which nicely captures the spirit of Rousseau in our day, for good and ill. In another essay, jumping off from a consideration of the film Avatar, we even get a conventional re-hashing of the myth of the noble savage:

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian.

I think there are a lot of caveats to be registered here – as populations grow and societies become more complex they tend to all fall heir to the same problems and develop in much the same way – but in any event the inverted hierarchy is pure Rousseauian Romanticism: allied with the child (up to and including idealistic university students, before they are absorbed by the system), the primitive, the natural, and the subconscious against the adult values of civilization, progress and order.

As with most Romantic thought, the political point is revolutionary. Our natural sociability and desire to live within nature has been corrupted by the oppressive ideology of a ruling class that needs to be overthrown. This is where Noam Chomsky comes in, the second of Monbiot’s guiding spirits. Chomsky’s name isn’t mentioned in this book (and Rousseau’s is only once), but he’s there on the first page of the Introduction as we hear about the “apparatus of justification” and “infrastructure of persuasion” utilized by the powers-that-be to control the minds of the masses. In other words, manufacturing consent.

Key to this process of control is stealth. “You can learn as much about a country from its silences as you can from its obsessions. The issues politicians do not discuss are as telling and decisive as those they do.” The ruling ideology of neoliberalism, to take the primary example, “remains largely invisible to citizens.” “That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.” “We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing” our mental chains, which has led us to a state of “superhuman passivity” and “elective impotence.”

This is all good Rousseau-Chomsky in that it posits an essentially good human nature that has been corrupted and is now controlled by various systems of power. The opposite view can be identified as Hobbesian or (social) Darwinist: viewing life in terms of a fallen nature, as a vicious struggle for dominance and survival. Monbiot only mentions the name of Hobbes a couple of times, and that is to forcefully reject him: “Thomas Hobbes could not have been more wrong when he claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war of ‘every man against every man.’ We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.”

Truth lies somewhere in between. Despite having huge respect for Chomsky, I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the brainwashing thesis. An alternative view of human nature, seeing humankind as neither inherently good nor originally sinful (broadly, Rousseau and Hobbes, the liberal and conservative positions), is provided by Ian West in his book Why the West Rules – For Now. While disagreeing with some of what West says, his description of human beings as essentially lazy, greedy, and fearful seems correct to me and perhaps the best explanation for how we got into this mess. The truth is out there about our unsustainable lifestyles, the damage we are wreaking on the environment, our exploitation of the poor and the weak, and all the rest of it. On some basic level we understand the situation we’re in perfectly. We just don’t want to think about all of these problems very much, as most of us are managing pretty well and in any event there’s not much we can do about the mess we’re in anyway. If this is “elective impotence,” it is freely elected.

An example of how this works can be seen in Monbiot’s essay on “The Population Myth.” The point he wants to make here is that it’s not population growth, especially among the poorer nations, that is the big problem facing the environment but rather consumption. “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.”

“Where’s Class War when you need it?” he concludes by asking. “It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

All of which may be true, visible, and out in the open, but what of it? As he also notes, almost in passing, “no one anticipates a consumption transition.” Sure we could get along perfectly well with 10 billion people on the planet if we all lived like Bangladeshis, but that isn’t going to happen. “The American way of life is not negotiable,” as a former U.S. president once put it.

Class War, or revolution, isn’t the answer because this isn’t just about the 0.1 % and their monster homes and yachts. There is a very high-consumption lifestyle to which a significant proportion of the people on this planet have become accustomed, and that an even greater number aspire to. At the end of the day, while it’s true that consumption is a bigger driver of global warming than population, it’s not a true dichotomy. People are consumers. You can try all sorts of things to lower your carbon footprint (Monbiot sensibly suggests eating less meat and not buying so much junk at Christmas), but there’s no getting around this bottom line. Humans consume. The single most environmentally destructive act a middle-class North American can do is have a child. That’s a bit of carbon that’s going to go on burning a lot more carbon for the next 80 years.

As Edward O. Wilson once said, “for everyone in the world to live like Americans do would require the existence of four more planet Earths.” Or, in other words, 7 billion Americans would already take us far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. I don’t think Class War is going to provide any kind of solution to that big a problem. A Great Mortality is more likely, and may well provide a more humane and softer landing than revolution.

Review first published online October 5, 2016.

Who Needs Books?

By Lynn Coady

There’s no bigger issue in the publishing world today than the economic and cultural impact being had by the Internet, with sides clearly drawn between cybertopians and Luddites, digital optimists and pessimists respectively.

There is, however, a third ground that takes a step to one side. This is the approach adopted by Giller Prize-winning novelist Lynn Coady in this slim but engaging book containing a lecture given at the University of Alberta on reading in the digital age.

Coady’s response is to shrug at our fears. The Internet is no big thing. There have always been people wringing their hands over the decline of Western civilization, from Plato down to the present day. But decline is something that’s hard to measure, and it may well be that we are no less bookish today than we were a hundred, or five hundred years ago.

I’m a little more concerned about where we’re heading, but what ultimately makes the conversation so stimulating is the fact it’s addressed to that most unknowable country, the future.
Coady’s main target is the defence, made by a self-appointed elite, of “serious” literature’s “cultural primacy,” especially as measured against the leveling forces of the Internet. As a counterpoint, Coady sees the Internet as reflecting a robust and durable human nature that isn’t threatened by digital barbarians because, when you get down to it, “they” are really just “us.”

“Fear not,” Coady assures. “Technology does not have the power to alter our most profound human yearnings and experiences. How do I know that? Because in all of human history, it never has.”

Still, doubts remain. One could argue that technology has altered the most profound human yearnings and experiences (like work, love, and family) a great deal. Meanwhile, a more topical concern is that the threat the Internet poses to literary culture will be felt less by an elite than it will be by an already squeezed middle class.

It’s true that throughout most of human history people didn’t read books, but that’s because they couldn’t read. In an era of near universal education and literacy, and with all the best that has been thought and said literally at the fingertips of anyone with a cellphone, we might expect better than a return to conditions that obtained in the early Roman Empire, with a small tribe of hedonists who read for pleasure and the Internet providing the spectacle of bread and circuses for aliterate masses.

With all the digital revolution has wrought, are we experiencing progress? If nothing has changed, isn’t that a sign of failure?

Review first published online September 29, 2016.

This Census-Taker

By China Miéville

In recent years the popular SF-Fantasy writer China Miéville has been shifting some of his attention away from stories toward the way stories are told. Questions of semantics and narratology have taken center stage in what have become pared-down fables of interpretation.

This Census-Taker is a short coming-of-age novel set in a fairy-tale world. We have no idea where or when we are. A boy lives with his parents in an isolated house on the side of a hill. Further down the hill there is a town. Inside the hill is a hole.

The boy’s mother goes missing. The boy suspects his father is responsible, but isn’t sure. Given the indeterminacy of the narrative voice, the reader can’t be sure either. Nothing is clear.

When, for example, the boy comes to describe “a holy old woman or man” he once saw in a cave, he immediately starts backtracking from what he knows, to what he remembers, to what he saw, “if I saw anything, if there was anything to see.”

Into this land of misty meaning comes the Census-taker, a bald, bespectacled bureaucrat carrying a curious “combination gun” who has been sent to “make a record.” He gathers information and counts things. Just the guy to sort matters out, if that’s what you want.

But for a book as open-ended as this, the question of “what you want” it to say or mean is very much left open.

Assuming it’s not all a dream, one reading might be that in a vaguely post-industrial yet pre-digital world that very sense of openness is something threatened by the Census-taker. Even the technology of writing shapes reality in different ways depending on the form the writing takes and the purposes it is being put to. But the power to reduce people and things to information, mere items on a ledger, bestows an especially dangerous authority – all the more dangerous for being invited into our homes.

There’s always a tension in such stories between suggestion and opacity. This may, in turn, be part of the meaning of the Census-taker’s threatening gun, which can be very precise from a distance or spread damage over a wide range of “possibilities” at close range.

Everything in a book is a symbol. You just have to pick your poison.

Review first published online September 12, 2016.

The Beach

By Alex Garland

A huge commercial and critical success, I find The Beach an easy book to like but hard to get excited about. It’s a great beach read, to make the obvious joke. By calling it that I mean it’s plot-driven, without any confusing structural or stylistic detours, and has the right heft for a week of vacation.

If calling The Beach a beach book makes it sound like a light read I’d say that’s a fair judgment. Is that very lightness part of its point though? It’s often described as a novel of Generation X, and Richard (the narrator) seems like Gen X-lite to me. He has a head full of pop culture references (meaning movies not books). He likes to smoke cigarettes and marijuana equally. He is unattached and doesn’t seem to have any strong feelings about anything. In sum, he is a comfortably well-off citizen of the world, and the beach, which is an idyllic post-scarcity environment, suits him nicely.

That sense of weightlessness jars, however, with much of the critical praise the book received. It is, for example, often compared to Heart of Darkness (by way of Apocalypse Now) and Lord of the Flies. Unlike those books, however, it has no political or moral message. The beach-dwellers have created a perfect little commonwealth which isn’t upset from within in any kind of allegory of political corruption but is rather destroyed by external forces (a shark attack, and a gang of armed dope farmers who descend at the end, literally, like a deus ex machina). More tellingly, the group does not succumb to any latent evil or sinfulness, or regress to a state of savagery. The violence isn’t a commentary on original sin or human nature but the result of accidents, misunderstandings or, finally, a transformation of most of the tribe into maenads through the consumption of drugs and alcohol. What this means is that while the story is presented as a kind of parable or even allegory, there is no real point to it or lesson to be drawn. Conrad and Golding were saying something about the human condition. Garland is describing some weird shit that happened (or might have happened) to a young fellow while on vacation.

But, as I’ve already suggested, is this lack of meaning perhaps the point? Richard is less a representative of Generation X than he is a pre-Millennial. The beach is his social network where he casually, even almost without agency, friends and unfriends people. Or it’s a virtual space like one of those sim civilizations. The goal is to get a high score, whether on the Nintendo Game Boy or through the collection of exotic memories and experiences. Either way it is not the “real” world (which is in turn referred to simply as “the world” from the perspective of the beach). Richard even takes this removal from reality a step further, seeing himself as the star of a movie mash-up of various Vietnam War flicks and talking to an imaginary dead friend.

If there is a point it’s that fantasy gets dull after a while. It’s hard to understand how so many of the beach-dwellers have been there for years, doing nothing. “It would be sad to be bored of Eden,” one of them says to Richard, “If you are bored of Eden, what is left?” This is the end of history, not with a bang or a whimper but a yawn and a flickering screen. Game over. Richard “at this exact moment” sitting at his computer. Which I think we’re meant to realize is where we’ve been all along.

Review first published online September 5, 2016.


By Michael Coren

It’s often been observed that we grow more conservative and more fixed in our opinions as we age. All the more remarkable, then, is the “conversion on the road to the rainbow” of author and broadcaster Michael Coren: his transformation from Anglo-Catholic opponent to same-sex marriage to “champion of gay rights and outspoken campaigner for full acceptance of gay people into the Christian church.”

Epiphany describes this momentous movement of the mind and documents the backlash Coren experienced in response to his change of sides. Justification for his new position is made through an appeal to scripture and principles of faith. First-person accounts of the lives of gay Christians are also included to ground the theological debate in the experience of those in the “front line” of the struggle for equality.

In brief, Coren sees those who oppose gay rights as bigoted and hypocritical. Their objections are based less on faith and more on “social convention, lack of comfort, and sheer prejudice.” With regard to hypocrisy, he writes that the Roman Catholic Church (to which he used to belong) “employs more gay men than any other institution in the world,” and estimates “that one out of every three priests is gay, and by no means are they all celibate.”

Coren is, first and last, a rhetorician. His platform style is a barrage of adverbial absolutes – “surely,” “certainly,” “entirely,” etc. – that brook no opposition. We may recognize the aggressive conviction of a fresh convert to a cause, and over the length of an entire book it can be overwhelming.

There are, however, caveats to be registered, even by a reader in complete agreement with his general point. Entering into the messy field of Biblical exegesis was probably not a wise move. The best that can be said (and Coren makes the argument, though not always persuasively) is that the Bible is not overly concerned about homosexuality, and ambiguous in some of its more notorious references to the subject.

In getting to this point, however, Coren adopts a tricky set of principles. He repeatedly insists, for example, on the necessity of understanding the Bible’s commandments and injunctions in their historical context. Doing so, we will be forced to recognize that many of them are bizarre, cruel, and “completely irrelevant to a modern society.” In the very next sentence, however, he explains that we can’t just “pick and choose which ones we believe and observe and which ones we don’t,” because that would place prejudice above “common sense and intelligent reading,” not to mention “God’s plan for His creatures.”

So picking and choosing is essential, but it has to be done with the main criterion for our selection being how relevant a passage is to modern society. This is reasonable, but reason and faith are not always good bedfellows. There is more, for example, to the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage than the Bible; there is a long history of church teaching on the subject. When Coren, however, argues that “equal marriage is not unnatural. It’s non-traditional and that’s something entirely different,” he is placing nature firmly above this tradition.

Again, this is perfectly reasonable, and just. But if religion is not a tradition, it’s nothing. Appeals to nature, common sense, and even a reading of the Bible “in context” (that is, as a historical document of limited utility in dealing with modern society), are all compatible with secular thought. Coren doesn’t need Christ to get where he’s going. Indeed, a more provocative point: he might have got there faster without him.

We can at least be optimistic about the future. Western society continues to progress toward the ideals of legal equality, personal freedom, and social justice. Churches that continue to discriminate will, in Coren’s view, continue to lose younger members and “within a generation or two may well appear as museum pieces.” Of course, this may just as easily happen to churches that don’t discriminate, and it will be another step in the same, essentially secular, direction.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2016.