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.

Life on Mars

LIFE ON MARS
By Lori McNulty

None of the stories in this debut collection from Lori McNulty are set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian influence is never far away, sometimes being felt as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” where a fellow is directed by a squid to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” where the narrator is transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes. Sentences like this keep the reader on their toes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek.” “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

“Metaphor” etymologically refers to a carrying over or across, and in its direct equation of one thing with another it performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme here as metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In the aforementioned “Polymarpussle” story a man becomes a three-eyed god. In “Gindelle of the Abbey” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a new woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery she’s had done in Thailand.

People start off as one thing and end up something else, adding to a pervading sense of alienation and strangeness. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be sure of where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed along with all the other changes going on. There is no “normal” state in play but only dysfunctional families and mid-life crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF” draws its title from an acronym, “Wild Ones Over Forty,” and it deals with a woman of a certain age having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral in an almost supernatural way, as though she’s become a lycanthrope.

Alienated from their significant others, and even to some degree from life on this planet, many of the characters are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.

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

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O.
By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Successful collaborations between novelists are rare, as they require a meeting not just of minds but of voices to avoid becoming awkward.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland is one such successful hybrid. It’s also more than the sort of time-travel story you’d expect from the collaboration between an SF author and a writer of historical novels.

Instead of a hybrid, it’s like a variety show: a comic-romance serial with SF, historical, and fantasy elements. Even the time machine – or Chronoton, as it’s styled here – is an incongruous mix of ideas: inspired by the quantum box that Schrödinger’s cat was stuck in, but powered by witchcraft.

Yes, witchcraft. Magic and science are working, if not hand-in-glove, then at least on parallel tracks in a kind of time-travel arms race. How it all works is left deliberately woolly, but the analogy that’s invoked the most is that of time as a bundle of threads representing different streams that can be accessed at certain points, and even disastrously “sheared” if there is a significant disruption. When this happens it’s as though reality turns to Jell-O and a knife is cutting through it.

The main thread of the novel is set in a timeline just slightly off-kilter from our own and tells the story of D.O.D.O., which stands for the Department of Diachronic Operations (it’s a military operation, and their love of acronyms is a running gag). Tristan Lyons is the hunky intelligence officer who gets D.O.D.O. up and running and Melisande Stokes is the brainy student of ancient linguistics who is his first hire. It turns out linguistics is a handy field of study when journeying into the past. As is skill at sword fighting.

The plot is whimsical and chaotic. D.O.D.O. operatives are sent to various points in the past – 17th century New England, Elizabethan London, Constantinople back when it was still called Constantinople – on bizarre missions that have them running afoul of a powerful banking consortium and a coven of witches who might not be the helpful kind.

It’s all mindless fun, but ‘tis the season for beach reads and books for the cottage. Crack the covers and the time will seem to slip away.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 23, 2017.

The Accusation

THE ACCUSATION
By Bandi

Fiction in the English-speaking world is mostly post-political, perhaps recognizing that it can’t compete with the spectacle of a reality-TV star as president of the United States, and perhaps just because there are so few meaningful differences between the major parties in our democracies. We have novels that address individual political issues, but few that are interested in exploring the nature and operation of government and the role of the state in our lives.

The fact that The Accusation is the first work of fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea, and had to be published under a pseudonym (“Bandi” means “firefly”), gives some indication of just how different a world North Korea is.

The Accusation takes us across a deep cultural as well as political border. Even the texture of the writing, which has been translated by Deborah Smith – a British translator of Korean fiction who was a co-winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year – gives us a chilly sense of the Cold War era. Bandi is a realistic writer, but from a twenty-first century Western perspective it may seem like he’s describing some dark fantasy set in Mordor, or a futuristic dystopia.

The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, constitute a passionate J’accuse: a political polemic written against North Korea’s communist dictatorship, headed at the time by the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung (grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un).

The picture Bandi draws is unrelievedly grim. His stories have been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s revelation of life in the Gulag system, with the main difference being that in The Accusation all of North Korea has been turned into a giant prison labour camp. Fear has to be instilled at birth if one is going to survive (a process we see happening in the most disturbing story, “City of Specters”). It is a state choked by tyranny, “a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter,” “a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!”

As you can tell from this, the political message is not subtle. The stories make it painfully clear how awful life in North Korea is, with grinding poverty and an economy that at times seems little advanced from the Stone Age. Key themes are the family divided against itself, a world turned upside-down, and false appearance (or propaganda) vs. reality.

The word “totalitarian” gets thrown around a lot these days, which makes it worth seeing what living under such a regime looks like from the inside. The essential point is that the party is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the lives of the people that we meet, mainly through the operation of an army of minor officials that make up a petty and at times sadistic bureaucracy. These functionaries are sinister, alien figures, almost impossible for a Western audience to understand. We certainly have our own time-serving bureaucrats and corporate drones, but the party officials in these stories are totally dehumanized creatures of the state. These are people who have lost their souls.

Big Brother is firmly in charge, and black is white, light is dark. This disjunction between truth and lie is hammered home again and again, beginning with a prefatory poem where Bandi talks of communism’s promised “world of light” and how it has resulted in North Korea’s “truly fathomless darkness, black as a moonless night at the year’s end.” In case you miss the point, which won’t be easy, each story usually winds up with a trumpet blast of climactic rhetoric aimed at the cruelty of the regime and the monstrous hypocrisy of its ideology.

There’s a famous satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula at night that shows North Korea as an empty gap sandwiched between a brightly lit South Korea below and China above. It’s as though the country is a black hole from which even information cannot escape. The Accusation is an angry book, composed in “pure indignation,” but it shines a necessary light on what remains one of the darkest places on Earth.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star March 12, 2017.

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.