Minds of Winter

MINDS OF WINTER
By Ed O’Loughlin

When the wrecks of the expeditionary ships HMS Erebus and Terror, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century, were finally discovered (in 2014 and 2016 respectively), it was an event that marked the final mapping of some of the most mysterious geography in the Canadian subconscious.

The fate of the Franklin expedition is one of this country’s founding cultural myths, its very mysteriousness adding to its historical resonance. At the end of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter the two main characters – Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan – watch a news story about the discovery of the Erebus on a television in a bar in Inuvik. The bartender responds in a manner that goes a long way to summing up the novel’s theme: “So that’s the end of that,” he says bitterly. “HMS Erebus. They had to go and find her. They had to solve a perfectly good mystery.”

What makes a mystery “perfectly good” is its power to work upon our imaginations. The search for Franklin’s missing ships did more to map the Arctic than Franklin himself ever could have on his own, and the mystery of what happened to his expedition has been an abiding subject in Canadian arts and letters. If the history of exploration is the story of a shrinking world, Franklin’s expedition offered, in O’Loughlin’s formulation, “something magical, a hole in the map, an escape from dull causality.”

Nelson and Fay aren’t explorers but they are both detectives. Nelson is looking for his brother, who has disappeared. Fay is looking for information relating to her grandfather. The two investigations are connected by a mysterious object, a nineteenth-century chronometer thought to have been lost with Franklin. More broadly, both are engaged in a “search for meaning,” a way of making sense out of the siren call of the north. But their researches only turn up “fragments, or footnotes, of some vision shimmering beyond their sight.” They may be chasing a myth as much as a mystery, the sort of thing Pierre Berton meant when he called his book on Arctic exploration The Arctic Grail (a work that O’Loughlin credits as his own chief research source).

The narrative structure is likened to that of the chronometer. As Fay continues her investigations she has “a vision of clockwork, of wheels within wheels, the hint of bigger wheels lurking behind them.” We skip forward and back in time, meeting figures famous and unknown, many of whom turn out to be related in eerie ways, their “stories converging at the poles, like meridians.” As with most modern novels dealing with such arcane connections there is also the hint of a conspiracy behind it all, with government agents, coded messages, secret devices, and obscure references to a Room 38.

The scope is truly epic, taking us literally from pole to pole and covering 175 years of history. Time present follows the investigations of Nelson and Fay, but the chapters take us back to earlier events involving people like old Sir John Franklin himself, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (another famous disappearing act), and the Mad Trapper of Rat River (whose identity remains to this day a point of speculation). The story also takes different narrative forms, ranging from newspaper reports to letters to a more conventional third-person.

There’s nothing unorthodox about any of this, though it’s certainly ambitious. Nor does O’Loughlin experiment much in the way of style, beyond presenting a story supposedly written by Jack London and taken from his unfinished memoir that’s done in a credible imitation of London’s voice. Instead of stylistic pyrotechnics there’s an economy of language and grounding in physical detail, casting a cold eye on the spare, climatically-determined human environment and making us feel the kidney-clamping cold and lungs lacerated by the “razor-blade air.” The title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man” and there is a general sense built up throughout of his listener who beholds the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Emptiness, absence, and mystery are pregnant with meaning.

O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery, or really several mysteries, without a solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided. The point is not to tie up the loose ends. It’s fitting that Nelson and Fay, both “prisoners of the north” in Pierre Berton’s phrase, are finally absorbed into the story, their identities dissolving as they themselves become mysterious footnotes in a new legend, conspiracy, or myth. Minds of Winter is a novel as much interested in unofficial as official histories, with people who slip through the cracks as in heroes. And it doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good mystery.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2017.

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation and They Would Never Hurt a Fly

YUGOSLAVIA: DEATH OF A NATION
By Laura Silber and Allan Little

THEY WOULD NEVER HURT A FLY: WAR CRIMINALS ON TRIAL IN THE HAGUE
By Slavenka Drakulić

Democratic politics tend to have an authoritarian tug to them. The “people” do not clamour for liberal values. As has often been remarked, nobody ever ran for office on a platform of being soft on crime. We want leaders who talk tough and exude power. People who kick ass and take names. Even if the ass they kick may be our own.

This was something brought home to me while observing the campaign of Donald Trump for president. Watching coverage of his rallies, I couldn’t help noticing how it was the chants of the crowds that were egging him on to make his most outrageous statements. An insecure person, he responded to such encouragement every time, which only made him seem more a creature of the crowd than their master. We like to think of the demagogue as someone adept at whipping the masses into a frenzy, but more often than not they are something simpler: figures tossed up by the crowd and made the emblem of a radicalized general will.

You’d think it would be hard to find a more unprepossessing demagogue than Donald Trump, a television personality whose candidacy was seen as a joke by most observers. Without intelligence, experience, or charisma, few gave him much of a chance. However, he (or his managers) had his finger on the pulse of what was bothering people and was so able to ride their resentment into the highest office in the land. I don’t think anyone was as surprised as he was at this turn of events. In the words of Sidney Blumenthal, “Winning the presidency was never [his] deep desire, more a branding scheme that spun out of control.”

Such a phenomenon was not without precedent. Thirty years earlier, a similarly uninspiring candidate, Slobodan Milošević, had come to power in Yugoslavia, carried on a rising tide of nationalism. Milošević didn’t invent Serbian nationalism, and indeed the ferocity of his supporters seems to have taken him by surprise. In their excellent, journalistic account of the Yugoslavian disaster, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, Laura Silber and Allan Little paint a picture of a weak man who did not control events but was controlled by them. Opportunistic, to be sure, but something even less than that word implies. Recalling the first steps of Milošević’s rise to power, then Serbian president Ivan Stambolić describes his response to a rally of Kosovo Serbs in 1987:

After hours of heated talks, the Kosovo Serbs agreed to leave Belgrade. But the crowd had delivered an unmistakeable message – the sheer power of their numbers could easily disrupt daily life.

Milošević understood what it meant. For the first time he saw that an angry crowd could unsettle the Yugoslav leadership. He turned to Stambolić and said: “The fatherland is under threat.” Stambolić was astounded and asked what the matter was. He saw that Milošević was shaking. It struck Stambolić as a decisive alarming moment. “And that’s how it all began. The nationalism ran into his embrace. They grabbed him. He didn’t really enjoy it very much. But he knew it was politically very profitable.”

Throughout these early days Silber and Little describe how Milošević “felt the pull of the masses” and responded to it, rather than the other way around. In many ways Milošević was simply the mouthpiece for a growing sense of disaffection and resentment among a population that felt itself left behind. He understood their anger at being globalism’s losers. Faced with the secession of more successful states like Slovenia and Croatia his rhetoric had to fall back on the last refuge/threat of militarism. “If we have to fight, we’ll fight. I hope they won’t be so crazy as to fight against us. Because if we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”

And so, as with the accidental President Trump, “things spun out of control.”

Later, after a descent into total barbarism, a peace was hammered out. Silber and Little see only gloomy lessons having been learned. The death of Yugoslavia “demonstrated that might, rather than reason, brought rewards; and it showed that the carving out of ethnically pure territorial units produced neater maps on which to build a peace settlement.” In order to salve their conscience, the West put some of the worst bad actors on trial for war crimes.

This is the story Slavenka Drakulić tells in They Would Never Hurt a Fly. The star of the show, “one of the biggest villains of the twentieth century,” is, of course, Milošević. But who is he? Drakulić admits she doesn’t know. He is an actor, he “needs a public.” It was the public, after all – the crowds, the masses – who made him. As a result, “It is almost as if this man has no other personality than his public one.”

There is nothing interesting about him as a private person, period. The transcripts [of private conversations taped by Croatian secret police between 1995 and 1998], like the biographies, reveal what there is to reveal about this man: banality, vulgarity, and emptiness. There is no elegance or grandeur about him, not a single interesting thought, nothing to inspire curiosity. All in all, Milošević appears to be just a boring character surrounded by corrupt children and a wife thirsty for power. In history, he may have played a gigantic role, the role of a villain, but he appears to be a dwarf. A small, angry, autistic man.

No, people like Milošević, or Donald Trump, are not great men. They are banal, vulgar, hollow men who only amplify the anger of the masses. This suggests at least one way of responding to the familiar questions that Drakulić poses at the end of her account of the trials:

My biggest disappointment was finding that [Borislav Herak, sentenced to death for rape and mass murder] was a man who looked like any other man: a neighbor, a relative, or even a friend. I looked for any evidence that he was different – in short, that he was a monster. And I was not the only person looking for such signs in war criminals. Many have done the same.

Does some personality flaw – or a specific type of character – cause human cruelty? Is there in every community a certain percentage of people who have the pathology to commit the worst crimes if given the chance? Or do they commit crimes only under social and psychological pressure? These questions are not new.

Obviously evil people exist, but in the case of many of Yugoslavia’s war criminals what we’re seeing may only be representatives (literally, in the case of the democratically-elected leaders) of a popular malaise. In other words, this is less the case of “criminal personalities” than a criminal society. As Drakulić puts it, “Perhaps what had changed [in Yugoslavia] was not the person, but the circumstances. There was no longer peace; now there was war”:

there must have been many such “criminal personalities” around to be able to rape tens of thousands of women and to kill more than two hundred thousand people during the war. There would have had to be thousands upon thousands of men committing such acts. Were the majority of them criminal personalities? This is hard to believe. More likely, the war itself turned ordinary men – a driver, a waiter, and a salesman . . . – into criminals because of opportunism, fear, and not least, belief. Hundreds of thousands had to have believed that they were right in what they were doing. Otherwise, such large numbers of rapes and murders simply cannot be explained – and this is even scarier.

I’m not sure this is scarier though. What’s worse: that there may be thousands of murderous psychopaths among us straining at the leash of civil society, or that the general will itself has such apocalyptic desires? It seems to me it would be easier to blame the monsters than ourselves.

Notes:
Review first published online February 13, 2017.

Three Years with the Rat

THREE YEARS WITH THE RAT
By Jay Hosking

Jay Hosking has an interesting CV for a novelist, with both a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Given this hybrid background it’s not surprising that his debut novel, Three Years with the Rat, is a work with one foot in the world of science fiction.

The narrator is a young man newly arrived in Toronto, the city where his eccentric-scientist sister Grace lives with her boyfriend John. He soon hooks up with one of Grace’s girlfriends and generally settles into a life of going nowhere. Grace and John, however, are going somewhere. It’s just not clear where they’re going, or where they’ve gone after they disappear.

The “three years” are 2006 to 2008, though there are few identifiable historical markers and one of the novel’s themes is the plasticity of time. The narrative skips back and forth as both Grace and John exit the novel’s presentation of “objective” time by way of a magic box. Grace’s brother, along with a lab rat named Buddy, then try to track them down.

I say “magic box” because the device in question isn’t very persuasive even as a facsimile of high tech. Basically an IKEA-style wooden cube filled with fitted interior mirrors, it’s more like a magician’s cabinet or piece of installation art. Buddy the rat even goes in and out of it like a rabbit being pulled from a hat.

This all makes a kind of sense, however, as Grace’s inquiries are more philosophical than scientific in nature. Indeed the nature of science itself is one of the subjects up for debate. Is science about building understanding, or discovering truth? Either way, exactly what Grace is up to, and what alternate dimension lies on the other side when we go through the looking-glass, seems open to interpretation. We are told by one authority that it is beyond human comprehension, which should be warning enough not to worry about it too much.

Though this much of Three Years with the Rat is a puzzle without a solution, it’s still a skilfully developed novel that catches the imagination. A big reason for this is that the focus remains on people who are all the more interesting for not being very likeable. The main characters stand just outside another small circle of club-hopping friends, with Grace in particular alienating nearly everyone. Even on the Other Side no one seems to care for her much.

There is probably a message here, relating to the need to pull our heads out of ourselves (or the danger of withdrawing into a sense of “subjective time”) and how difficult it is for any of us to escape our past (personified as a hunter tracking us through the multiverse). But more than this it is the novel’s juxtaposition of clashing wills and personalities as much as clashing philosophies that makes it shiver with life.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2016.

The Man Without a Face

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN
By Masha Gessen

In a 2013 review of the book Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, David Runciman had this to say about the author’s line-up of the four people who changed the world in 1979:

If you had told someone at the start of 1975 that the architects of the new age were going to be the MP for Finchley, the bishop of Krakow, the exiled ayatollah and the ostracised apparatchik, you would have been laughed at. Apart from anything, they looked so powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t yet spot who is going to make the difference this time round.

I was reminded of this in reading Masha Gessen’s account of the “unlikely rise” of Vladimir Putin. Five years before taking power as Russian president Putin was a little-known functionary in the government of Saint Petersburg. Five years before that he’d been a typical KGB loser stationed in East Germany. Like the Soviet Union itself, he seemed to be stuck in a rut going nowhere.

What happened?

That’s a hard question to answer, as much of Putin’s early political career is shrouded in mystery. The final step, however, his selection (one can’t say election) as president, seems to have been the result of the decisions of a group of people who underestimated him. He was seen as someone blank and dutiful: the perfect placeholder to manage the affairs of the new elite. He had other plans.

People don’t underestimate Putin as much these days, though he is still not well understood. In this account we can glean a few points. He hates democracy. He is very cynical about the media, seeing it either as a lying enemy or as a tool to be used to control the masses. He is greedy for the most vulgar material things. He likes to power trip. He is intelligent, but conceals it well behind a surprising vulgarity. Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, would express his admiration for Putin’s strength as a leader, but he probably recognized more familiar qualities as well. As Gessen concludes:

What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book – shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed – was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison. If you had told someone only a year before the American election that the next president would be the much-mocked billionaire host of a reality TV program you would have been laughed at. And yet, here we are.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2017.

Strike Anywhere

STRIKE ANYWHERE: ESSAYS, REVIEWS AND OTHER ARSONS
By Michael Lista

It’s a shame that so much of the little discussion of book reviewing we have in this country gets hung up on the label of whether it should or shouldn’t be “negative.”

The charge of negativity is a hard one to shake. In popular culture the bias toward liking things is deeply ingrained. One thinks, for example, of the long struggle to have Facebook include a “dislike” button (because what sort of a terrible person would dislike something?). We shouldn’t be surprised that the default position for book reviewing is relentlessly and strictly upbeat, and that any contrary opinion is going to stand out.

As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a “negative” critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality, and intelligence that makes the best of them worth re-visiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.

A book like this also raises a pair of questions about literary criticism in Canada today that are worth pondering.

In the first place: why is poetry criticism in particular so active? In the last few years there have been a whole shelf of excellent collections of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry published, but next to nothing addressing the state of our fiction. Why is that?

Second: why is popular literary criticism, the kind addressed to the general reader, being written almost exclusively by freelancers or columnists like Lista? None of the best books of literary essays and reviews written in the last several years has been by an academic. Where are the professionals?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we can at least be happy that the flame of criticism is being kept alive, and likely to strike anywhere.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 21, 2016.

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.