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.