By Russell Smith
Russell Smith has become, I don’t think entirely by plan, an iconic figure in Canadian fiction. Though far from the only writer we have addressing “the way we live now,” he is one of the best practitioners of, and probably the most prominent spokesperson for such a program (I’m excluding Douglas Coupland here because I see him as primarily a fantasist). Reading Girl Crazy puts one in mind of Tom Wolfe’s injunction for writers to stalk the billion-footed beast of contemporary urban lives.
Smith is on the case. The world he describes is thick with a realistic texture of sights, sounds, and smells – particularly those located somewhere just off the beaten path or where the sidewalk ends. The hero, Justin Harrison, is a literary type stuck in a lousy, non-union job teaching various forms of practical writing skills to classes of unmotivated (and mostly dark-skinned) young people.
To get to Constitution College Polytechnical Institute, Justin walked six blocks to the subway, then took the subway to the end of the line, then a bus. The bus went along a road which was like a highway, parallel to the real highway. You could see the real highway from time to time between the factory buildings, a pipeline of cars, glittering. The bus to the college was full at this time of the morning, before nine, and not air-conditioned. It usually smelled as if most people had had curry for breakfast. Perhaps the had. Justin stood at the back, between two girls in hijabs, and a woman of indeterminate age and shape in a full burka. She didn’t, at least, have one of those horrible masks with holes over her face, like something out of a fetish magazine, but her face was covered by a black scarf except for her eyes.
There is so much finely observed, quiet desperation in a passage like this. The claustrophobic bus, jammed full of smelly people and with no air conditioning. The clothes as another kind of dull, characterless confinement – something that no doubt drives the thong- and bra-obsessed Justin up the wall – the women’s garments like a kind of prison uniform (and the association of various grim, industrial environments with prisons is made several times in the book). The sense of difficult and unpleasant out-of-the-wayness as Justin walks six blocks just to get on the subway that takes him “to the end of the line,” then on a bus that travels the faux-highway to hell. The “real highway,” we can be sure, would take Justin to a real job at a real university. But for Justin a car is just a “glittering” dream.
Smith describes various places like Constitution College in Girl Crazy that convince us of their authenticity despite being invisible for their ordinariness and squalor. The Chinatown poker den that is literally a hole in a wall, the weed den in an industrial strip that is the “sole residential house in a street of concrete boxes . . . a brick painted brown and the windows on the ground floor . . . blocked with cardboard boxes,” and all of those apartments that, like the bus to hell, smell bad and are crowded with criminal types. It is an environment and atmosphere created through an accumulation of detail that is devastating without being over-the-top or hysterical. Smells and sounds, clothes and architecture, are all perfectly rendered. Voices, at least to my ear, aren’t done quite as well. Smith doesn’t seem fully comfortable with the rhythms or vocabularies of genuine slang, but at least one appreciates that even here an effort is being made.
The novel’s style reflects Justin’s own obsessions and thought processes, especially through its use of repetition. When Justin first catches sight of Jenna he notices that she “was hardly wearing anything, actually.” Still staring at her a page later we realize he is stuck on this: “She was really wearing almost nothing.” And here are his imaginings of a pale shade of women’s underwear and its reaction to moisture:
in these new microfibrous fabrics there were definitely startling images to be had in imagining how readily such a pale colour would darken in any contact with moisture, moisture of any kind – the faintest perspiration, for example, or any other moisture.
This is a simple sort of thing, but it works. As readers we are uncomfortably locked into the tight spiral of Justin’s gaze and thoughts.
Another kind of repetition is structural, with the revisiting of certain scenes and passages. Here, for example, is Justin’s bus ride into the College a few hundred pages after the one I’ve already quoted:
There were a couple of beautiful things you could glimpse from the bus out there. There was the big highway flashing like a river in the haze. There were the brown stretches of field that had not yet been turned into townhouses; their emptiness had a certain purity that was not without grandeur. There was the great grey sky unobstructed by towers and perhaps slightly bluer than it was downtown. There was the despair or resignation on the faces of the riders with their plaid plastic shopping bags and their sleeping or wailing infants which made one feel slightly better about oneself. There was the odd gorgeous black girl with a long slender neck and tight jeans. Those girls were very demure; they never returned his gaze, but stared at the grey rubber matting on the floor.
Justin is now a different man, he is feeling “slightly better about” himself, and this is the world seen through new eyes, and a new nose. Gone are the hijabs and burkas, replaced by tight jeans. And there are no more curry smells to offend his nostrils but rather seductive “human smells” like that flowing from a girl crammed next to him: “a creamy skin product tinged with sweat, and he wanted to breathe it in for as long as he could.” Not perhaps what one thinks of as a natural human smell, but the whole passage plays off an inversion of the natural and artificial environments. The earlier pipeline of cars has been transformed into a hazy river and while the beautiful open spaces may be touched with grandeur they are also unnaturally pure. The brown fields are only a blank slate to be transformed into townhouses.
Both paragraphs are used as chapter openings and the echo is clearly deliberate. But in this case repetition with a difference is used to illustrate Justin’s transformation rather than his ruttish idée fixe.
The nature of Justin’s transformation defines the kind of book Girl Crazy is. As things start out we are in the world of LoserLit, that male ghetto populated by young, single guys stuck in poor jobs that get them no respect (but, oddly enough, lots of girls). He spends too much time playing violent videogames and (naturally) looking at Internet porn. Because he is also, like most such guys, horny as hell. Even a trip to the college cafeteria – another realistically depressing environment – turns into an ogler’s buffet:
He sat at a plastic table that had slightly less red sauce and coffee on its surface than the others. There was always a barely perceptible buzz of fluorescent lights in there, which niggled like an expectation of nausea, but it was at least cooler than the hell outside, and there were no windows to remind one of freedom. And there were legs, of course, legs and breasts half-covered, restrained by elastomers and filmy cottons, and hair, everywhere, swinging and scented, with hairbands and ribbons and other fetishistic items. It was a pornographic place, actually, the cafeteria.
This fabric fetish and pornographic gaze may seem a bit much, but Justin remains a lovable if pathetic schmuck. Loveable because everyone loves a lover and Justin has nothing to do with hate and only with hormonal urges. “He didn’t know what it would be like to hate people, or to feel that you did.”
But when Justin meets Jenna, which even strangers on the street recognize is hitting well above his date-weight, his life begins to change. He clearly starts out as the weaker, submissive partner in the relationship, even spending more time crying than she does. But after getting a taste of thug life he finds he likes it. Accessoried with gun and pit bull he becomes a macho jerk, dominant and bullying. From LoserLit the novel starts to head into a genre I’ve referred to before (in reviews of Headcrusher and Dance With Snakes) as the revenge fantasy. In such books the sensitive untermensch gets to enjoy a spectacularly violent (if fanciful) payback against the mindless corporate/authoritarian jerks who have always had the upper hand over him. Specifically, Girl Crazy presents the revenge of that most downtrodden of all literary types: the English major. What does New Justin want? To teach a real literature course. “At last!” Claudius thinks to himself as he is made emperor. At last he will be able to make people read his books! Good books, too!
Except Justin has, in the end, gone too far to ever want to go back to teaching literature. Too far even to go back to Jenna. And what a price has been paid for his breaking free! He now knows very much what it is like to hate people. Indeed, he has even acquired a taste for it. It makes him hard all over. Which leaves us with an uncomfortable message: the more of a pig Justin becomes the more respect he receives and the more the chicks dig him. One is either a player in this world, knowing how to treat your bitches, or one is a cunt-struck booby.
I like an angry novel probably rather more than the next guy, but Smith is dealing with something almost reptile here in its primitiveness. Then again, Justin has finally to be understood as a product of his grim environment. And while it may be a snake pit, we need to acknowledge that these lower depths have a power to seduce.
Review first published online September 20, 2010.