The Winter Family

THE WINTER FAMILY
By Clifford Jackman

The de-mythologizing of the Wild West in popular culture began with the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s. These movies eschewed the idealized and heroic Hollywood vision of the West and instead emphasized violence, moral ambiguity, and dirty realism.

The Italian influence continues to this day on both screen and page. In literature it reached a zenith with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the operatic saga of a bunch of brutal outlaws blazing a path of murder and destruction across the nineteenth-century American frontier.

Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family is very much a work in this same vein (Jackman names McCarthy as an important influence), and closely follows Blood Meridian with its story of a gang of psychopaths led by an almost mystical figure named Augustus Winter. Winter, like McCarthy’s Judge, is a Nietzschean superman who represents a brutal natural philosophy beyond good or evil, justice or law. As one early witness to Winter’s nihilistic “force of will” puts it: “What could you do with will like that? Where would it take you? What could stop you? How would it all end?”

Where it takes Winter and his adopted “family” is through an episodic plot that has them first joining together during Sherman’s march through Georgia, resurfacing to play a role in the murderous Chicago ward politics of the 1870s, fighting both natives and settlers in Phoenix and Oklahoma, and finally arriving, at least in some spiritual afterlife, in a California landscape dotted with oil derricks.

Such a broad canvas means that in addition to being a rousing novel full of exciting action sequences, Jackman’s book is also offering an interpretation of American history. His characters can even get rather talky when it comes to presenting their thoughts on the matter. At bottom, however, is the fairly simple notion that the Winter family are the manifest destiny of American culture and Darwinian capitalism in microcosm. They don’t represent the last breath of freedom before the closing of the frontier so much as the germ from which the larger chaos that is “civilization” will follow.

Jackman can’t match McCarthy’s overwrought rhetorical style, but he has nevertheless written a book that stands in that company, which is high praise indeed. It’s a philosophical Spaghetti Western that doesn’t stint on the tomato sauce, served up with flair.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2015.

A Desolate Splendor

A DESOLATE SPLENDOR
By John Jantunen

It may have become too easy now to invoke the name of Cormac McCarthy when discussing a certain strain of contemporary fiction, but when the shoe fits such comparisons are unavoidable.

John Jantunen’s second novel is firmly set in McCarthy country. The time and place are indeterminate, but the social, physical, and linguistic landscape are very much borrowed from the master.

A great war, or some such collapse, has destroyed civilization and thrust humanity several hundred, or even thousand, years back into a preindustrial, indeed barely agricultural, wasteland. It is a reflex American frontier, with the course of empire running in reverse over a burnt-over district of mythic savagery.

The figures in this landscape have degenerated in a similar way. They are not intellectual or spiritual beings, their morality scarcely advanced beyond Bronze Age concepts of loyalty to one’s family or one’s hounds. There is no God in heaven but only “the desolate splendor of the world beyond ours,” meaning the stars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, life has been reduced to the rudiments of survival: gathering food, rutting, and fighting off wild animals (including murderous tribes of other, even further devolved humans).

The language has the poetic twang of McCarthy’s folksy-archaic-Biblical style. It sounds like this: “Above the camp, the moon peered through a haze drift of smoke and the stars were but motes coruscate against the void, indifferent and laggard in their contemplation of the mortal world below.” A man stands beneath these stars in “sullen recompose,” listening to a woman “break into baleful lamentations.” The direct speech – unencumbered, as in McCarthy, with quotation marks – is rendered in a rustic dialect that’s a generation removed from book learnin’. One of the characters complains that “I’ma tryin ta read” when in fact he is only describing pictures in books.

This is the world of A Desolate Splendor, and if it sounds like a McCarthy novel, right down to the archetypal characters – centrally, “the man” and “the boy” – that’s still some achievement.

In addition, however, Jantunen is a talented storyteller in his own right, with a real gift for describing the richness and magical qualities of the natural world. There is something remarkably romantic and pagan in his evocation of the post-Apocalyptic wilderness. Though the characters seem at times to be little advanced from the mud or trees they emerge from, that natural environment is itself a thrilling, animistic place, where even the rocks seem to have a monstrous life of their own and “frogsong trill[s] in a nebulous thunder.”

The story is an odd piece of work, consisting of several different narrative blocks that bump into each other in bloody ways. The main characters are the boy and his father, who are homesteaders. The other groups include a gang of desperadoes, a pair of neo-native warriors, and a gathering of female breed stock. Also in the mix are feral packs of humanity who decorate their bodies with bones and paint. Instead of resolution the novel moves toward an affirmation of continuity, albeit at the lowest level of the continuance of the species. Civilization doesn’t seem likely to experience a rebound.

As familiar as some of this terrain has become, A Desolate Splendor surveys it with bleak confidence: a forceful, visionary novel written in passionate and sensual language.

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

Take Us to Your Chief

TAKE US TO YOUR CHIEF AND OTHER STORIES
By Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor admits that “First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together.” In the popular imagination they tend to occupy different mythic poles, making Native science fiction a “literary oxymoron.”

Taylor, however, is a fan of hybrids and so took up the challenge of wedding the two. As with most mash-ups the tone is mostly comic, playing off of incongruities. The idea that dream catchers might be part of a mind-control conspiracy is just one example. Because let’s face it, there has to be some sinister explanation for their popularity, doesn’t there?

The dream-catcher story has serious undertones though, reflecting Native distrust of government agencies. The best science fiction always hooks into contemporary issues in this way, its vision of the future a commentary on the present. And so Taylor is able to weave familiar SF tropes together with traditional Native narratives throughout, as with the experience of “first contact.” This is a story Natives have heard before, so they’re immediately on their guard when the alien Zxsdcf arrive. Do these visitors want to make treaties with Earth, or just go for genocide?

There may also be a deeper philosophical message involved in Taylor’s hybrids. In several stories the idea of animism is introduced, the belief that everything is alive or has a soul. One young man’s suicide is even derailed by the various objects in his bedroom coming to life, led by an old toy robot named Mr. Gizmo.

Such a world view is very different from that of SF, which is more driven by technology than a spiritual kinship with nature. The story “Lost in Space” plays with this contrast, portraying a Native astronaut named Mitchell who feels out of touch with Native traditions in an environment where everything, even the gravity, is manufactured and artificial.
Like all of us, Mitchell is lost in modernity, drifting alone through space, unattached to anything real. And yet it’s his shipboard Artificial Intelligence that comes to Mitchell’s rescue by providing Aboriginal drum music and old videos of his discussions with his grandfather in order to overcome his sense of rootlessness and isolation.

Finding links to our past in the future will be an important task. And for good or ill, technology will have to be our guide.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2016.

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.