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.

The Measure of Darkness

By Liam Durcan

There comes a time for everyone when they have to do an accounting of all that they’ve accomplished, for good or ill, in their personal and professional lives. Usually this happens around middle age, when we can no longer avoid facing the fact that our end is much closer than our beginning.

For architect Martin Fallon this process of looking back and trying to make sense of it all has a specific trigger. After his car is struck by a snow plow on a Quebec highway he suffers a brain injury that leaves him with a condition known as “neglect” which limits his perceptions of the left side of his world, while at the same time leaving him unaware of being so compromised.

From this premise, Liam Durcan, who is both an author and a neurologist, spins an intriguing and layered medical mystery. Martin is a man on a quest to put his life back together by revisiting old haunts and reconnecting with estranged family members. The goal is to reconstruct a life story out of fragments, to fashion something “linear” with integrity and coherence out of what are now ruins (it’s no coincidence that one of Martin’s daughters takes the exploration of urban ruins as a subject for a documentary she is filming). Along the way he might even come to understand what he was doing on the night of his accident.

Part of the story of Martin’s re-integration of memory and personality is intertwined with his fascination with the Soviet-era architect Konstantin Melnikov. Martin recalls a visit to Melnikov’s home years earlier, and he was working on a sort of biographical sketch of the architect at the time of his accident. It is, however, never entirely clear what connection Durcan wants to make between the two men, and one has the sense here of an angle to the novel that is never fully in play.

What is in play is the ambivalent nature of Martin’s affliction. Martin is both partially unaware of and in denial about the consequences of his accident, both of which may be coping strategies. There’s an early episode in the novel when Martin’s brother keeps the fatal condition of someone’s pet hidden from them, and in doing so feels he is doing them a favour. Too much awareness is not always a good thing.

Martin’s accident is also a metaphor for the loss of the artist’s visionary gleam of imagination and creativity. It is an excuse for his awareness that, having achieved the top rank of his profession, “There would never be a golden season and he would never be great. . . . that if there had been a vision, he had abandoned it, or forgotten it, among all the trappings of security.” These are dark thoughts, leading to desperate acts of erasure.

In short, it is perhaps better not to take the full measure of darkness. Humankind can’t bear very much reality.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2016.

The Hellmouths of Bewdley

The Hellmouths of Bewdley
Tony Burgess

I wonder if at one point Tony Burgess thought he might become a writer of tough-guy, dirty realism: adopting an approach that is popular among the (male) bards of Ontario’s backwoods. In The Hellmouths of Bewdley, his first book, you can definitely see leanings in that direction, especially in the stories dealing with the pretty town of Bewdley’s down and out. A more powerful pull, however, is felt toward the transformation of the rawest physical experiences into poetry, and in particular the transformation (metamorphosis? apotheosis?) of dead bodies into hallucinogenic, lyric visions. The end of the story “Winter” is a good example of this, and shows where Burgess would soon be heading, leaving Bewdley behind and jumping down the hellmouth into an anti-Bewdley where there is no law but the law of the jungle and everyone is either executioner, victim, or witness.

Going Solo

By Eric Klinenberg

Why are so many people living alone today?

Because they can.

To unpack this: Today roughly half of all Americans are single, with just over a quarter living alone (“singletons”). These numbers have been rising sharply over the last sixty years. In this fascinating overview of the single-living phenomenon, Eric Klinenberg provides several different explanations for this “remarkable social experiment.” Today’s societies have a more advanced social safety net to care for people living alone; women have gained more wealth and power, allowing them the choice of going solo; advances in communications technology let us stay connected and socialize without being social on a more personal, shared level; more people are living in cities, which enable single lifestyles; people are living longer, meaning they are spending more time without partners who have predeceased them.

Aside from the last point mentioned, these factors don’t explain why people are choosing to live alone but only tell us why, all of a historical sudden, they now have the option. The reasons why they want to go solo are partly cultural – Klinenberg adverts to the tradition of American individualism – but since this is a global phenomenon such an explanation only goes so far. Instead, the bottom line is that it is more human nature to want, in Garbo’s famous line, to be alone.

So why are we living alone? Because (now) we can.

Critics have found much to complain about in these developments. Living alone goes against tradition. It is driven by selfishness and narcissism. It leads to unhappiness, poor health, dysfunctional families, and social breakdown. Against such conventional wisdom Klinenberg suggests that singletons are in fact healthy, happy, fulfilled individuals, living sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Klinenberg’s case is, for the most part, convincing. And yet one still feels a tug toward a negative moral judgment, a sense of uneasiness about this blossoming of the Me Generation. The buzz words, for one thing, start to nag. We are opting out of marriage “because we cherish freedom, personal control, and our search for self-realization.” Modern urban living, according to the sociologist Georg Simmel allows us to “follow the laws of our inner nature – and this is what freedom is.” That direct equivalence between our human nature and freedom is key. Going solo is all about freedom, but freedom is a tricky value. Do “the laws of our inner nature” trump other laws and social conventions? Does our cherishing of freedom and our search for self-realization mean we eschew any sense of responsibility for others, or for society in general?

Klinenberg doesn’t think so, but the people he interviews tend to adopt a limited set of values. A singleton journalist named Phil lives alone because he “sees domestic tranquility as a means of developing his self-knowledge and, in turn, enhancing his creativity.” Another singleton named Miguel takes a more expansive page from the same playbook:

“I can’t really say right now that I have a close friend, or that I’m even looking to get a close friend. This particular experience that I’m involved with now [living alone] is giving me a chance to grow more as a man, to allow the man in me to mature more, in the total sense, and to become self-sufficient and of self-worth in my own right. What I need to do is to learn to become my own close friend and best friend, and to love myself, and feel self-worth and validation.”

Is loving oneself selfish or self-centered? On a basic level the charge sticks. One can’t help finding all of this freedom to care for oneself a bit off-putting, however understandable. One interviewee, a former drug-user, admits he doesn’t want to live with roommates because he needs to be responsible for himself: “I’m not antisocial, but I have a hard enough time with my own problems without other people’s problems.” Another interviewee, an elderly woman, breaks off a long-term relationship with a man her own age, who had even proposed to her, “when his health began to fail – not to be heartless, but because she didn’t want to become his caretaker as things spiraled downward.”

We can understand feeling this way, but then wonder what would happen if everyone acted like this: feeling that they have a hard enough time with their own problems (and who doesn’t?) without worrying about others. At what point does care of the self turn into merely “looking out for number one”? As Madonna once put it in song: “You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on. / Second best is never enough, you’ll do much better baby on your own.” Was “Express Yourself” an anthem of liberation, a heartfelt feminist cry against the grim advice of “settling,” or just an entitled whine? It seems to me to have been a bit of both, and I wouldn’t want to downplay the dark side. It may be that living alone is truer to our nature and the inner laws that guide us, but freedom always comes at a price.

Review first published online August 1, 2016.

Licence Expired

Ed. by Madeline Ashby and David Nickle

In our culture what is profitable endures, and so the James Bond franchise keeps right on rolling. The original twelve novels and two short story collections by Ian Fleming have been added to over the years by such big names as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, and Jeffrey Deaver, and been adapted, however loosely, into over twenty movies.

Licence Expired is exceptional in that it is an unauthorized expansion of the franchise, exclusively available in Canada due to a quirk in copyright law landing Fleming’s creation in the public domain.

The editors were looking for a new Bond rendered in diverse voices, but one still anchored in the Fleming canon. It’s a sort of professional fan fiction, but with a twist.

As Madeline Ashby puts it, “As we face an era of almost continuous reboots, sequels, prequels, tentpoles, and seamless transmedia franchises, it’s important to realize that the only way to keep the machine running is to feed it new blood once in a while.”

This new blood is expressed in a wonderful variety of stories, with some authors taking their Bond neat while others preferring him mixed and stirred.

We begin with a sinister young Bond at Eton and end with a retiree in a nursing home suffering from dementia. In between you’ll find a lot of what you’d expect: glamorous girls, exotic locations, violent action, and old familiar faces (M, Moneypenny, Pussy Galore). But there’s also Bond in a post-nuclear war Canadian arctic, a metafictional Bond in letters, and even a story where our hero travels to H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham to take on the many-tentacled Old Ones.

The question of what it is that keeps Bond going when he was so much the creation of a particular time and place continues to absorb fans and critics alike. Perhaps it can be attributed to the way his generic blankness allows for infinite adaptability, or the fact that style never goes out of style.
But whatever the reason for his longevity, Bond seems perfectly at home in Canada in the twenty-first century, his licence indefinitely renewed.

Review first published online June 21, 2016. For more entries in the extended (non-canonical) Bond franchise, see my reviews of Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche and Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. I also recommend Simon Winder’s cultural history of the Bond phenomenon, The Man Who Saved Britain.