Hollywood North

HOLLYWOOD NORTH
By Michael Libling

Hollywood North is a terrific novel about growing up in mid-century Trenton, Ontario, but it’s also a great deal more than that.

Michael Libling proceeds by way of subtlety and misdirection. On the face of it, Trenton in the late 1950s and early 1960s seems like a dark idyll from the pages of Stephen King, with a gang of kids – narrator Gus, buddy Jack, and budding love interest Annie – slowly becoming aware of something sinister going on in town.

It seems a lot of accidents and disappearances have been happening in Trenton, going back nearly a hundred years. Adults, however, are curiously apathetic, if not hostile, to the gang’s investigations. Is Pennywise the Clown up to his old tricks? Or does this all have something to do with Trenton’s brief incarnation as a movie hub, dubbed Hollywood North, back in the days of silent film? Perhaps the cache of silent-film title cards that Jack discovers holds a key to the mystery.

Or perhaps there’s no mystery at all. Movies are, like the idylls of childhood, illusions. As we get older both fade from our memories, or are reimagined as something less dramatic.

Hollywood North is a coming-of-age story like no other, masterfully using the guise of supernatural horror to wrap its poison pill. Childhood idealism gives way to deceit. We give up the freedom of youth for weary resignation to the inscrutable and mostly grim workings of fate. Cold revenge is not a dish to be enjoyed but only a petty and bitter satisfaction. Dreams are a source of regret, and their loss a welcome oblivion.

That probably sounds rather downbeat, but while Hollywood North is a dark fantasy it’s presented in such a lively way, right down to the book’s delightful interior design elements, that you don’t notice the darkness falling until the curtain is pulled on The End. The writing has an immediacy and power of observation that tears the reader through the story like a dangerous set of rapids leading into a whirlpool of horror.

The psychological and emotional business of growing up is a familiar theme in fiction, but it’s rarely been handled with this much sophistication while being so entertaining in the bargain. The balancing of pop, or pulp, fiction with profundity is hard to maintain, but Libling makes it seem easy. As a novel containing history, real and imagined, we might even say the epic of Trenton has arrived.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 20 2019.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

FALL; OR, DODGE IN HELL
By Neal Stephenson

Exposition, or the background explanation necessary to make a fictional plot understandable, is often seen as the bane of narrative: usually introduced in a clumsy fashion and bringing the action to a halt until the reader is brought up to speed.

This is not the case in a Neal Stephenson novel. Exposition is Stephenson’s métier. There is nothing he likes better than to have his characters break into mini-TED talks and go into full explainer mode.

But these discursions are never a drag on the story. Stephenson’s lecturing has the same energy and imagination as his descriptions of nail-biting action. He is as informative as he is entertaining when dealing with just about any subject.

Such as, for example, the next step in our digital evolution.

Fall; or Dodge in Hell is a book with a lot of explaining to do. As things begin, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire videogame developer we first met in Stephenson’s 2011 novel Reamde, dies during a routine medical procedure. But, being a titan of tech and having more money than God with the hubris to match, death no longer has to be the end.

Cheating death by having one’s consciousness digitized is currently a hot topic in silicon circles, and it provides the launching pad here for an epic account of just how such a process might work and what a digital afterlife might look and feel like to the saved and uploaded.

It’s an ambitious agenda for any author to pursue, but Stephenson has never been one to shy away from epic undertakings. And with Fall coming in at nearly 900 pages, he’s again given himself room to approach his subject from many directions: scientific, social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical.

With all of this, we’re 300 pages in before Dodge’s brain gets a reboot and awakens in the digital dimension known as Bitworld (the virtual counterpart to Meatspace). Bitworld is a blend of SF and Fantasy, mythology and science, that may be the next generation of cyberspace, an outmoded construct Stephenson sees as being badly in need of a conceptual update anyway.

As Milton put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” And if we replace the mind with a connectome in cyberspace? Bitworld, like any imagined afterlife, is the product of a certain culture or historical moment, casting its creators into a heaven or hell of their own making. A scary thought for the rest of us.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, May 31 2019.

Songs for the Cold of Heart

SONGS FOR THE COLD OF HEART
By Eric Dupont

Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart (the Giller-shortlisted English translation by Peter McCambridge of the Quebec bestseller La fiancée americain) begins with a father telling a story to his three children. It’s the winter of 1958 and what makes the date significant is the fact that television hasn’t yet arrived in the town of Rivière-du-Loup, which means that the tall tales of Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne are still the best way to pass the time.

Songs for the Cold of Heart is a novel built out of such stories, beginning with that told by Papa Louis but then taking us much further afield. The way the narrative spreads through time and space is a leitmotif, as the act of storytelling (taking in all forms of gossip, rumour, and fabulation) is likened to the flow of lava or the contagion of smallpox. There’s no stopping the fiercely readable voice of this book once it gets going, no holding its incestuous proliferation of stories down.

Each of the stories, in turn, has a granularity of detail and willing waywardness that suggest a depth and familiarity that goes beyond the page. Then the bounds of realism also dissolve as supernatural characters and events are introduced or invented. Just as the narrative spreads out from Rivière-du-Loup so the particular and local events described take on a larger significance as the context for viewing them enlarges to take in whole swathes of the collective consciousness of the twentieth-century.

The usual label given to this sort of fiction is “magic realism,” and Dupont has been compared to the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his employment of the technique. However there have been a number of prominent Canadian novels whose family sagas are directed toward the same operatic intersection of legend and history. For some reason it’s a particularly popular mode among Newfoundland writers, with such books as Galore by Michael Crummey and The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston coming immediately to mind.

Such a large, complicated novel is a balancing act. Songs for the Cold of Heart is rambling and spontaneous but also coherent and carefully structured, rooted in the local but never sentimental or provincial in its outlook. Though some of the energy flags in the middle it’s a wonderful read, a testament to the continuing richness and vitality of the art of fiction.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star October 26, 2018.

No Quarter

NO QUARTER
By John Jantunen

Who knows what horrors lurk beneath the surface of Northern Ontario’s cottage country?

Perhaps George Cleary does. George is the former publisher of the Tildon Chronicle and author of a series of twelve melodramatic novels ripe with an excess of sex and violence. One of these novels is even titled No Quarter. It seems that life imitates art in the town of Tildon, and Cleary’s “Fictions” have a prophetic cast.

Unfortunately, George soon dies, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript for a new novel offering cryptic clues to Tildon’s dark history and fiery fate. So it falls to reporter Deacon Riis, George’s adopted son, to figure out what’s behind a recent crime wave involving people from the top and the bottom of Tildon’s food chain.

At the top we have the uber-rich Wane family, enjoying a life of Chandleresque decadence in a gated lakeside mansion. At the bottom there’s René Descartes, an ex-con living in a trailer and trying to get by doing pick-up manual labour. Remarkably, their paths will cross. Sparks will fly.

Jantunen’s previous novel, A Desolate Splendor, had a similar taste for violence set in an unforgiving, apocalyptic landscape. With No Quarter he has added more self-reflective literary elements. In its end is its beginning, and the story closes in upon itself while still leaving key questions unanswered. There are also hints at some deeper, metafictional or mystical connection between George Cleary’s Fictions and what’s going on in Tildon, though this is finally left up in the air.

No Quarter is presented as the first book of The Tildon Chronicles, which helps explain much of its elaborate, in-depth world building. Readers would be advised to keep track of the names and family genealogies as they go along. There is a lot of back story to get through and many detours into stories within stories, not all of them as yet fully digested.

There’s an ungainliness and energy to No Quarter, its unevenness being the result of an ambitious reach. How far that reach extends remains to be seen. It’s hard to make out the road ahead, but it seems as though the twisted chronicles of this town have a way to go.

Notes:
Review first published online December 26, 2018.

Foe

FOE
By Iain Reid

When Iain Reid’s debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things came out in 2016 its over-the-top psycho-thriller plot drew a number of apt and complimentary comparisons to the films of M. Night Shyamalan. These are likely to continue with the publication of Foe, a very similar but deeper work.

Both Shyamalan and Reid are masters of suspense. Foe reads like a house on fire, and is almost impossible not to finish in one sitting. The story has a gimmick to it, but it’s one that works. You know that twists are coming, but they’re not easy to figure out. Only when it’s over, and you have time to catch your breath, do you start to raise objections in your head as to whether any of it made sense.

Without spoiler alerts only the basic set-up can be described. Foe is set some time in the future, on a farm operated by a young couple: Junior and Hen (short for Henrietta). As the story begins a stranger named Terrance arrives with some disturbing news: Junior has been selected to be part of the work force on the construction of a space station. While Junior is away, the organization Terrance works for doesn’t want Hen to be left alone and so offers to provide her with a duplicate Junior to keep her company.

The details are left deliberately vague, which adds to the unease. There is an air of comic menace reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play, with characters that seem drawn from the same paranoid matrix. Terrance is the threatening but nerdishly comic bully who drops in out of nowhere, Junior is the frustrated, increasingly desperate Everyman who has his comfortable domestic life turned upside-down, and Hen is the oddly passive woman in the middle who gives the impression of knowing more than she’s letting on.

If Foe were just a thriller it would be a catchy beach read, but it’s not a book without further layers.

It may, for example, be read as a parable about the blurring boundaries between ourselves and our technology, especially when we see Junior being gradually reduced to a pile of data collected by the organization. Why does he find it so hard to resist? To what extent is he complicit in his own undoing? These are questions we’ve all had to face.

Another angle to the story has to do with Junior and Hen’s relationship. How well do they really know one another? How well do any of us know our partners?

While Junior enjoys his life down on the farm, Hen feels herself to be in a rut. Then, as Terrance insinuates himself deeper into their lives they drift even further apart, while paradoxically the bond between them grows stronger. Even after the final reveal we’re left to wonder at the weird mix of dependency, trust, and affection in their feelings for each other.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Foe, however, is something it shares with I’m Thinking of Ending Things: the way Reid takes the familiar gothic setting of the isolated farmstead, which has been a weird enough place in Canadian writing going back many years now, and turns it into an otherworldly hothouse of introversion and fantasy. The rural routes of our national unconscious are getting creepier even as they become the roads less traveled by.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 3, 2018.

Liminal

LIMINAL
By Jordan Tannahill

In 2014 playwright Jordan Tannahill became the youngest-ever winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Drama. Now, still not 30, he has published a semi-fictional memoir. This is what’s known as a fast start for a literary career.

The genre Tannahill is working is a hot one, sometimes referred to as the autobiographical novel or autofiction. Think names like Karl Ove Knausgård. The reader is given to understand that the people and events being described are, broadly speaking, real, but they are being presented and arranged in such a way as to heighten their dramatic effect. As Tannahill puts, describing his Toronto theatre project Videofag in terms that could just as easily be applied to Liminal, “it is both art and life . . . a sort of hyperreal portrait of a slightly more mundane reality.”

This is having one’s cake and eating it, since we have a tendency to accept that what we’re getting in Liminal is a true story, even if we have no idea how much of it really is. That’s a big part of what makes these books so popular. An enhanced reality may be even better than the real thing.

Tannahill begins with the moment that gives the novel its title and theme. On the morning of Saturday January 21, 2017 he stands in the doorway, on the threshold, of his mother’s bedroom, not sure if she is alive or dead. And so she will remain, suspended between life and death, for the rest of the book.

The liminal state between life and death, subject and object, soul and body, self and other, fact and fiction, along with countless other binaries, is frequently returned to (and sometimes has to be shoehorned in). Meanwhile, as Jordan stands waiting in the doorway, he proceeds to tell his story of the life of the playwright as a young man.

It is more a personal than a professional life, with the emphasis less on his writing, which he scarcely mentions, than on the most significant people in his life. These include his mother, of course, but also a friend named Ana and several different mentors and lovers. These relationships, in turn, are milestones on a journey of self-discovery. As borders break down in liminal space “I am all the bodies through which I’ve known my body and all the people through which I’ve known my person.”

It all makes for a fun read, even if it’s not as revealing as one would expect. Tannahill is a good writer, a natural storyteller with a strong sense of narrative rhythm as well as the ability to launch into almost mystical flights of poetic vision, but he’s not into the kind of obsessive self-examination that Knausgård and others have popularized. The book has an immediacy boosted by the fact that what he’s mainly describing are very recent events, unfiltered by mature reflection, but at the same time one gets the sense that a great deal is being held in reserve.

To take just one example, it’s never clear how Tannahill (who, as noted, doesn’t talk about his own writing much) makes a living. In North America, for whatever reason, money is a more taboo subject than sex. Our narrator confesses to appearing in some porn films but never says how he pays the rent. I doubt the porn would be enough. At one point his mother comes to visit him and he is relieved that she “she didn’t ask me how I was making my money lately and I think we both knew that was for the best.” The rest is silence.

We might agree in considering that silence a relief, at least in this case, but in presenting an autofictional confession certain rules of disclosure apply. One needn’t be explicit, but one can’t be coy.

Liminal gives us little sense that Tannahill is someone struggling to understand his life, but it may be that he hasn’t come to that point yet. Again we’re reminded of how young he is. Instead of thoughts recollected in tranquility, he concludes with a climactic paean to the raw, sensual experience of life, taking us with him as his own liminal state collapses and he rejoices in a new physical contact with the world. This is not someone looking back on his life, but being born again.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star February 9, 2018.

Bibliomysteries

BIBLIOMYSTERIES
Ed. by Otto Penzler

As a veteran editor of crime fiction as well as the owner of the famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, Otto Penzler was uniquely situated to bring this anthology about. Over the last decade he has commissioned a who’s who of mystery writers, including names like Anne Perry, Jeffery Deaver, and Nelson DeMille, to pen a series of one-off tales that he then presented as Christmas gifts to loyal bookstore customers. The only guideline given the authors was that the stories involve books in some way. Thus was born the genre of bibliomystery, and this delightful collection.

The ground rules allow for a lot of variety. The settings are bookstores, public libraries, and personal collections — the best of them filled with “that peculiar musty smell distinctive to rooms in which books are aging like fine wines.”

The cast includes police detectives, private investigators, and of course lots of book lovers. Though in some cases “love” may be too tame a word for obsessions that lead to murder.

And then there are the books. Books for children and adults. New and used. Some can be used as weapons – to hide a bomb in, for example, or beat someone to death to with. And some even possess magical powers.

An anthology like this could have been just a curiosity, a bit of fun for bibliophiles, but the authors rise above the occasion with a selection of excellent stories that are great reads in their own right. It’s obvious everyone was enjoying themselves, and the results are just as much a treat for the rest of us.

There’s even something bittersweet to it as well. Behind the mystery and suspense there is the fading romance of books. Books are more and more associated with a world that is disappearing, and the book people we meet are almost all eccentrics and loners, aware of the fact that they are living in the past and that bookstores and libraries have something archaeological about them today.

But is the twilight of the book something to feel sad about? Not really. For connoisseurs they’re only aging like fine wines.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 18, 2017.

The Blinds

THE BLINDS
By Adam Sternbergh

Genre fiction is made healthier through cross-breeding. In The Blinds Adam Sternbergh has created a multi-layered hybrid of a novel strengthened by several different bloodlines.

In the first place we might think of it as a Western. Calvin Cooper is the sheriff of the town of Caesura, a place known locally (and less pretentiously) as The Blinds. It’s a dusty desert town, or “glorified trailer park,” set down in the middle of a West Texas nowhere, with the only link to the outside world being a weekly mail-and-supplies run and a clunky fax machine.

Sheriff Cooper doesn’t have much to do in The Blinds seeing as there are only about fifty residents and he’s the only one with a gun. Or at least he’s supposed to be the only one with a gun. The Western turns into a mystery when residents of The Blinds start turning up dead.

What makes solving the mystery tricky is a science-fiction spin. You see, the residents of The Blinds have had their memories selectively wiped as part of an advanced “fresh start” program for criminals. The town is actually a kind of penal colony. So the question of “whodunit?” is complicated by the fact that nobody even knows who he or she really is.

This is just the set-up, but things get even weirder. In some ways The Blinds resembles M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, with layers of mystery enfolding the town and its history that are only gradually revealed. Also like Shyamalan’s movie are the many rapid-fire and bizarre plot twists that come at the end.

On a deeper level, The Blinds is a novel that asks interesting questions about how our memories make us who we are. The nature vs. nurture argument over criminal responsibility is lying in the background here. Is someone who can no longer remember their past crimes still responsible for them, or even the same person who committed them? And to what extent do the subjects in this progressive experiment still have free will?

These philosophical questions are secondary, however, to the busy, action-filled plot. The Blinds is first and foremost a fun read, or really about half-a-dozen reads rolled together in one.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 28, 2017.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives

MR. SINGH AMONG THE FUGITIVES
By Stephen Henighan

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives is a short novel written in the form of a parable. The reason it takes such a form is because its subject is the Canadian literary establishment, and specifically the role within that charmed circle played by identity politics. And, as many Canadian authors have shown – think of Russell Smith’s Muriella Pent or Andre Alexis’s A – the best (and safest) way to approach such touchy matters is through the lens of fiction.

Author Stephen Henighan is one of Canada’s most outspoken critics of our literary culture and he even makes a brief cameo here as a certain “notorious literary troublemaker” and “thug” who is slapped down by the capos of the CanLit mafia. This is not, however, a book about him.

Instead, it is the tale of Mr. R. U. Singh (the initials are meant to cast his name in the form of a question): an Indian immigrant who has come to Canada to make a fresh start in life. Almost immediately on arrival he reinvents himself, on a whim, as a Sikh. The turban gives him an aura of exotic mystery and valuable multi-cultural cred, so it’s not long before doors are opening to exciting new romantic and professional opportunities.
But even though he goes to law school and becomes a quietly successful small-town lawyer, Mr. Singh is drawn to the literary life. Specifically, he has dreams of being a genteel man of letters, a squire of “loiterature” in the best clubby, nineteenth-century style.

The bite in Henighan’s satire comes from his observation that, in pursuing such a dream, Mr. Singh has come to exactly the right place.

This is because the CanLit establishment, and indeed Canada in general, is still very much stuck in the nineteenth century. The mandarins of culture rule over what is symbolized as a cozy garden party that Mr. Singh crashes by stepping through a hedge. Immediately he feels at home among a group of aging bohemians with very fine taste, realizing that “Canadianness – the Canadianness I loved and embraced – was rooted in sedate aristocracy.”

Mr. Singh can have a place within that aristocracy not because it is colour-blind but because it isn’t. He manages to escape racism by way of tokenism: “by ascending into a milieu where prejudice was displaced by the genteel desire to socialize with diversity.”

What makes Henighan’s satire work is its measured tone and ambiguity. His representation of the cultural elite as lazy and complacent, corrupt and entitled, greedy, hypocritical, privileged, and vindictive, is unmistakeably fierce, but it’s presented in a reserved manner that allows for subtle moral shadings. Mr. Singh, for example, though he becomes a fierce critic of the establishment, clearly shares many of their values. His is the outrage of the scorned lover, not the revolutionary.

The other layer to the satire that Henighan gives the story comes through his revealing a transfer of cultural power from the creators of culture to its managers. This is a point that has been recently receiving a lot of attention in the news media, most often in the form of criticism of bloated academic administration, so Henighan’s addressing the subject is timely.

Though members of the literary establishment, neither Mr. Singh nor his chief benefactor-turned-adversary Millicent Crowe are writers, or even have any inclinations in that direction. What they aspire to become is board members, directors, teachers, and media spokespeople. It is with no small amount of envy that a once-famous writer remarks of his wife’s rising star that she now “goes to conferences on academic administration” that are far better gigs than the readings he has to perform at.

The ultimate goal is not to become a best-selling, critically-acclaimed author or public intellectual but rather a university president. This is to inhabit an elite sinecure “impervious to the opinions of others . . . above the fray . . . ensconced in the high-salaried establishment.” Welcome to the machine.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives begins and ends with fantasies of wish fulfillment, albeit the wishes have changed in ways that mark Mr. Singh’s own transformation. A conservative seeking stability and security, he is both undone and redeemed by the fluid shiftings of his own identity politics. And though missing out on the Order of Canada, he is adopted into a greater, in every sense of the word, Canadian order.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star April 15, 2017.

American War

AMERICAN WAR
By Omar El Akkad

American War is a thought experiment in the form of a dystopian novel. What if the world’s sole superpower and global hegemon were a failed state and international charity case? Instead of being problems on the other side of the world, what if the states of the Deep South were the equivalent of today’s Syria and Palestine?

The story is set during the years of the Second American Civil War, which takes place between the years 2074 and 2095. The background is only sketched in, but catastrophic climate change leads the U.S. government to ban fossil fuels, which results in a group of southern “red” states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina – attempting to secede from the union. “The planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.”

If you’re wondering why Florida isn’t one of the rebel states, it’s because it’s under water.

Meanwhile, today’s conflict zones and developing economies have risen to the top of a truly new world order. The Muslim world has united into the powerful Bouazizi Empire, which now supplies the rebel American states with aid shipments, while the Red Crescent provides humanitarian relief. Closer to home, a Mexican “protectorate” has expanded deep into the American Southwest, presumably erasing any wall that might have been built. The world has turned upside-down.

Against this political backdrop Omar El Akkad, a former reporter for the Globe and Mail who was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar, tells the story of the embittered rebel Sarat (a contraction of Sara T.) Chestnut. The dramatic narrative takes us through the key events in Sarat’s life, while intercutting excerpts from various documentary sources that give us background and insight into the bigger political picture. A detailed world is constructed, and even if it’s not that convincing as prophecy it provides a solid structure for the point El Akkad wants to make.

The Chestnut family hails from Louisiana, one of the “purple” border states. They are soon caught up in the violence of the civil war, however, and become victims of the tit-for-tat struggle between the forces of union oppression and “free state” terrorism. Sarat, however, leaves victimhood behind, going from being an innocent child playing on the banks of the “Mississippi Sea” to becoming the avenging fury of the South.

There’s no mistaking all the correspondences El Akkad draws between the events he describes and America’s current war on terror and the situation in the Middle East more generally. After being uprooted from their homes the Chestnuts flee to a refugee camp where a young and impressionable Sarat meets a sinister teacher who indoctrinates her into the movement. He also trains suicide bombers. Later, the refugee camp is raided in a manner meant to recall the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Drones fly overhead, now largely out of control but still capable of dropping out of the sky and randomly blowing up civilians. Resistance on the part of the occupied population is met with a “surge” from the North. There is a Guantanamo-like detention camp where rebel prisoners are waterboarded. There is a network of tunnels that the rebels used for getting into the union states. The world’s media looks on in horror.

All of this is familiar stuff, only now it is happening in America, to Americans.

The title is ambiguous, referring both to America’s Second Civil War and the American way of war. There is also a wicked irony in the claim made by an agent of the Bouazizi Empire that “everyone fights an American war.” Foreign agents are seen involving themselves in America’s domestic conflict because fighting Americans over here is better than fighting them over there.

The message to all of this, or “universal slogan of war,” is understood by Sarat to be that everyone caught in a cycle of conflict reacts in much the same way the world over. Put yourself in the shoes of the enemy or Other and you’ll realize that “If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This is not a comforting political message for Americans, whose homeland has largely remained free of the chaos and bloodshed experienced by other nations in the modern age. But comfort is exactly what El Akkad is writing against. Sarat sees safety as “just another kind of violence – a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

What if it happened here? American War asks us to imagine the uncomfortable.

Notes:
Review first published online October 24, 2017.