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.

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.

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.

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.

Hamburger

HAMBURGER
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.

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

This Census-Taker

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.

Notes:
Review first published online September 12, 2016.

The Beach

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.

Notes:
Review first published online September 5, 2016.