Bone by Bone

By Peter Matthiessen

With the publication of Bone by Bone Peter Matthiessen completes an impressive, albeit inconsistent, trilogy. The first volume, Killing Mr. Watson, made use of a medley of narrative voices to tell the turn-of-the-century story of the violent life and death of an Everglades sugar plantation operator named Edgar Watson. The second installment, Lost Man’s River, was a major disappointment, following the attempt of Watson’s son to come to grips with his father’s past. Bone by Bone, the final piece of the historical puzzle that has obsessed Matthiessen for the last twenty years, is the same story as told by the enigmatic Mr. Watson himself.

Watson was a real person, and the trilogy is grounded in the few hard facts that are known about his life. From these simple guideposts Matthiessen has re-imagined a Watson that is set against the lurid Watson gossip that has evolved over eight decades into a local myth. The result is a work that explores the making of an identity, a history, and a nation.

About halfway through the novel, Watson makes a reference to the “frontier thesis” of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. It was Turner’s belief that the American identity was created out of a response to the frontier – a challenge that brought forth a separate American character and distinctly American institutions. But by 1890 the U. S. census had officially declared the frontier closed, thus bringing America’s evolution to a terminus.

By Watson’s reckoning this was premature. “The professor who claimed there was no more frontier had never heard about the Everglades.” After living a semi-outlaw life in the Wild West (there were even rumours that he killed Belle Starr), Watson comes to the Ten Thousand Islands precisely because it is “the last American frontier.” The Everglades are a lawless, violent backwater that is also a land of opportunity for those who have the right stuff.

Matthiessen has always been interested in frontiers, in part because of what they represent as metaphors. The frontier is that fluid line dividing conscious and unconscious, advanced and primitive forces. The way they react makes history.

The frontier is also part of Watson’s split personality. On the one hand he is the progressive, entrepreneurial businessman known to the locals as the Emperor; on the other he is the savage, hard-drinking murderer “Jack” (a name he gives himself). And if it is the frontier that defines America, then Watson’s frontier identity is also symbolic – a man, like America, always starting over from scratch and trying to make himself anew.

The trick to a book like this is to take the raw matter of history and biography and give it artistic shape and narrative drive. And while Bone by Bone does have a few slow sections, it makes up for these in the boldness and size of its conception.

Though not as strong as the first Watson book, Bone by Bone manages to fulfill all of the promise in Matthiessen’s grand design, which stands comparison to Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom. The writing has a fullness as lush as the natural world Matthiessen’s language draws from, and the plot is controlled by a master’s hand. Matthiessen is one of those odd writers who are highly regarded but whose career has never seemed to peak – until now. With its completion, we can see the Watson trilogy as his masterpiece – a large and unforgettably powerful achievement.

Review first published October 2, 1999.

The Body Artist

By Don DeLillo

In a bold move to pre-empt any debate over who will write the worst novel of 2001, Don DeLillo has taken the prize home early. While there’s no way to predict what horrors are yet to come, it’s safe to say there won’t be anything as bad as The Body Artist published in the next ten months.

The sheer awfulness of The Body Artist is even more of a surprise given the talent involved. While Don DeLillo has always been a hit-and-miss author – for every White Noise there has been a Mao II – he has never gone off the tracks like this before.

What went wrong?

The fault is not in the story, though that is weak enough. In outline it deals with a body artist (think “performance piece”) named Lauren who is renting a house with her husband, a film director named Rey. Rey kills himself and Lauren goes on living alone in the house until a strange man shows up. He may be a homeless person, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. In the fashion of the best high literary crossover into pulp romance (think The English Patient), they get involved.

So far, so bad, but what really makes the book a true disaster is the writing. Gone are the satiric wit, cultural engagement and kaleidoscope narrative of DeLillo’s last novel, Underworld. This time out he seems to be struggling under the influence of that greatest of all posh literary introverts, Virginia Woolf. Every small gesture in The Body Artist is presumed to carry Great Significance. Every subtle change in tense and tone is a profound mystery of meaning. Consciousness doesn’t flow in a stream so much as sit at the bottom of a well of self, listening to murky echoes and repetitions of itself thinking.

Lest you think I’m making any of this up, here are a couple of representative passages submitted as evidence:

She climbed the stairs, hearing the sound a person makes who is climbing stairs, and she touched the oak grain of the newel when she reached the landing.
It was okay. She wanted to be here and she’d be okay. All their marriage, all the time they’d lived together they’d lived right here.
Her body felt different to her in ways she did not understand. Tight, framed, she didn’t know exactly. Slightly foreign and unfamiliar. Different, thinner, didn’t matter.

That Lauren hears the sound of a person climbing stairs when she is, in fact, climbing the stairs, gives some indication of the level of self-absorption she has attained – a reverse Nirvana for the artsy set. Certainly her inability to understand what doesn’t matter anyway is a feeling many readers will share.

The second passage is an example of how the dialogue between Lauren and the stranger works:

“Then when it comes to me.”
“A thing of the most. Days yes years.”
“Do you know what that means? A day. A year. Or did you hear me use these words?”
“Say some words.”
“Say some words.”
“In when it comes.”
“In when it comes. What?” she said
“Leave into leaving.”
“Who is leaving?”
“This is when you, yes, you said.”
“What did I say?”

It is possible to find some defence for what DeLillo is doing. Since Lauren’s body is her art it makes a kind of sense that she is so obsessive about herself, so trapped within her own interior world. But making her sensitive to the point of feeling “her aorta recoil to every blood surge” is simply ridiculous. And the constant dwelling upon the minutiae of daily existence becomes a crushing bore even in a book as short as this.

As for the dialogue, DeLillo tries to excuse it by suggesting that Lauren and the stranger communicate “outside language.” He deliberately fashions their conversation so that it has no rhythm, none of the tempo, inflections or intervals that make normal speech comprehensible. That this results in a lot of gibberish is, I think he would argue, his point.

But this does not explain the rest of the dialogue in the book. Here, for example, is Lauren talking to the man who owns the house she has been staying in:

“Has it been satisfactory then?”
“Mostly, I think, yes.”
“Because if there’s anything.”
“No, it’s fine, I think. Rooms.”
“Rooms and rooms.”

What are we to make of this?

Scholars may find something to salvage from The Body Artist. In terms of its theme I assume it is meant as a response to DeLillo’s fascination with the way cultural products, and in particular the signals sent by mass commercial media, have colonized the subconscious. The only rebellion against the tyranny of the media thus becomes an obsessive inwardness that denies the external world entirely. As he says of Lauren, “the world was lost inside her.”

This is all well and good, at least for Lauren, but if this is DeLillo’s point then it is one that is lost in a dull, derivative paste of writing that is almost beyond parody:

He said, “The word for moonlight is moonlight.”
This made her happy. It was logically complex and oddly moving and circularly beautiful and true – or maybe not so circular but straight as straight can be.

My guess is most readers will find this baffling. I’m prepared to grant what the stranger says is “true,” but what is logically complex about it? Or moving? Or beautiful?

There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump,” that reflects on a literature grown heavy with cliché, especially words stale with “beautiful and true” associations like “moonlight.” The moon creeps up on a pile of garbage that includes images of the moon itself, along with the wrapper from a can of pears, a cat in a paper bag, and books, one suspects, like The Body Artist.

Review first published February 3, 2001.


By William Boyd

At a time when the competition is admittedly pretty weak, William Boyd has established a reputation as one of the bright lights of English comic fiction.

Armadillo, which refers here to a “little armed man” and not an edentate mammal, deals with the adventures of Lorimer Black (formerly Milomre Blocj), a loss adjuster for a London insurance company. The plot involves, in no particular order, a hanged man, a dream analysis clinic, an insurance scam, Lorimer’s pursuit of a married woman (Flavia Malinverno), and a comedy of manners starring an upper-class twit named Torquil Helvoir-Jayne. Along the way we are treated to selections from Lorimer’s Book of Transfiguration, a journal filled with quotations from Gerard de Nerval and digressions on the philosophy of insurance.

The silly names and overly complex plot indicate that Boyd belongs to the group of writers, sometimes called postmodern, who take a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the novel. The writing itself has its ups and downs. Boyd’s sense of place is surprisingly poor (his London is scarcely more than a city map), but his dialogue has the fast-paced wit typical of the best of his contemporary hipsters. A novel as light as this can be read in an afternoon, and most of the time it will be enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this is as far as it goes. Armadillo is funny, but its attempt to be something more falls flat. The characters, with the exception of Lorimer, are two-dimensional, the symbolism is forced, and nothing about the story is very compelling. Boyd’s talents, which are real, should have been put to a better use than this.

Review first published May 30, 1998.

Angry Young Spaceman

By Jim Munroe

Why is Jim Munroe angry? According to his bio he is only 27 years old, a former managing editor at the high-profile parody magazine Adbusters, and already has one successful novel under his belt (Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask). Things would seem to be going pretty well.

And yet Jim Munroe is a rebel. He has published Angry Young Spaceman under his own imprint, and urges others to do the same on a highly recommended Web-page ( that he has turned into a platform for his crusade against media monopolies. His new novel is an extension of his political creed, being a critique of modern globalization and materialism in the form of a science-fiction comic romance.

The angry young hero is Sam Breen, an Earthling who goes to the liquid planet of Octavia to teach the indigenous squid population English. Octavia is a Third World kind of world, where the locals ape all of the latest Earth fashions right down to the hottest new boy band (Intergalactic Cool Youth). Needless to say, it isn’t long before Sam is fulminating against this one-galaxy monoculture and preparing to “go native” in a big way. “Earth has bullied everyone into being like it,” he complains. Teaching English is like spreading a disease, destroying native ways of life and replacing them with boring and meaningless alien traditions.

As an allegory of Western cultural imperialism all of this works quite well, and the writing itself is very good. The book’s real failure is its hero. Sam Breen, the intergalactic ambassador of sensitivity, white guilt and political correctness, was more than I could take.

What Sam is angry about is never clear. He wears an “aggrometer” on his wrist to warn him when he is going over into the red zone of rage, but the only time he really gets upset is when people are impolite.

Tolerance, acceptance and sensitivity are an obsession with Sam. He is, of course, an environmentalist and radical vegetarian, and even leads a campaign against eating the tiny shrimp-like creatures that live on Octavia. Relationships? Tolerant of difference of course (his mother is a lesbian and his girlfriend is one of the local squid), but also committed to building a responsible, long-term monogamous relationship. Violence? Certainly not the real kind. Even disciplining unruly students is a no-no (“institutionalized violence, always directed against the powerless for ‘their own good'” – sniff!).

Why then is Sam angry? Precisely because he has nothing to be angry about. Sam is a thirtieth-century rebel without a personally felt motive for his cause. Coming from a privileged background (his mother is some kind of corporate planet developer), and only associating with an elite minority while living on Octavia, his political posturing only makes him seem like an ideologically hip prig. He’s the guy who’s got it all, but doesn’t want it.

It is an attitude that’s hard to wear for a full-length novel. The best drama in any fiction comes from the conflict between characters and ideas. A novel without that conflict runs the risk of becoming sentimental or preachy, which is exactly what happens to Angry Young Spaceman. Near the end Sam makes one of his speeches about how bad a thing cultural hegemony is. As he concludes, the person he is talking to (or rather, as usual, talking at) only raises his eyebrows “in a kind of maybe you’re right way.” This leaves Sam feeling unsatisfied. “I’d have preferred he argued,” he decides.

So would we all.

Review first published June 10, 2000. Munro’s next novel, Everyone In Silico, was much better.

The Angel of Darkness and When She Was Bad

By Caleb Carr
By Patricia Pearson

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction has been demonstrated once again in two new books dealing with the evil that women do.

The Angel of Darkness, like its prequel bestseller The Alienist, is a detective story set in turn-of-the-century New York. The detective team from the earlier novel, headed by eminent “alienist” (psychologist) Dr. Kreizler, is here reassembled to investigate the abduction of a Spanish diplomat’s infant daughter.

The narrator is 13-year-old Stevie Taggart, a (somewhat) reformed street urchin who lives with the doctor. The crime-solving team also includes a pistol-packing proto-feminist, a pair of Jewish police detectives, a fallen aristocrat reporter, and a piano-playing, brass-knuckled manservant. It is a Dickensian oddball club, and their adventures take place in a recognizably Dickensian world of dirty urban streets filled with gangs of street children.

The detail is impressive, as one might expect from an author who is both a historian and a lifelong resident of the New York area. Much of the writing seems done with one eye fixed on selling the film rights, but this simply has to be expected in a bestseller today.

The villain of the piece, the titular Angel of Darkness, is a serial baby-killer (and no, I’m not giving anything away). The very novelty of her crime in a society that idolizes women as maternal and nurturing protects her from suspicion and places her virtually above the law. Frustrated, Dr. Kreizler is driven to exclaim: “The last time we worked together, we studied known laws of psychology. This time, the biases of our society will force us to write new ones.”

The real life Angel of Darkness, whose story Carr admits drawing on, was Marybeth Tinning, a psychopath from New York State who killed eight of her own children. Tinning’s story, along with many others, can be found in Patricia Pearson’s fascinating study of violent women: When She Was Bad.

Reading Pearson, one gets the sense that little has changed in either the laws of psychology or the biases of society since the days of Dr. Kreizler. Drawing on a wealth of research, Pearson shows how violent women today are still seen as special cases, whose brutal crimes are all too often excused by dubious psychology and social denial (the myth of innocence).

Since there is no single kind of violent woman, Pearson breaks the subject down by victim, including women who kill babies, women who abuse and/or kill their spouses, and predator women who kill strangers. It is disturbing reading, and even “true crime” veterans may be in for a shock.

On the dustjacket the books is described as “certain to be controversial, guaranteed to infuriate.” That may be an understatement. Pearson asks feminists to stop trying to incorporate female violence into a “victim-feminist heroic” and start talking about personal responsibility. She is not afraid to question such excuses for women’s violence as hormonal imbalance, postpartum depression, battered woman’s syndrome, and (that catch-all evil) the “patriarchal society.”

In addition, she is severely critical of a justice system that exonerates figures such as Karla Homolka, and a media that makes serial killers like Aileen Wuornos into heroes.

The point When She Was Bad ends up making is the same one made by most common-sense discussions of the subject. Despite social inequality and a culture that continues to exploit differences between the sexes (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, etc.), the fact is that men and women are in most important ways the same. Violence, like love or hate, ambition or greed, is “a human rather than gendered phenomenon.”

That is a conclusion that many of the characters in The Angel of Darkness are afraid to make. As Pearson demonstrates, it is one we have yet to fully deal with.

Review first published October 25, 1997.


By Ian McEwan

I have always had reservations about the Booker Prize. Two years ago I had my doubts confirmed. In 1996 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (a very good novel) took the prize. Scandal followed when it was suggested that Swift had plagiarized William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

If that had been all there was to the charge, then it should have simply been ignored. Swift’s borrowing from Faulkner had, after all, been noticed by many contemporary reviewers, and to call it plagiarism was just absurd.

But then came the response. In a letter by A. N. Wilson, one of the five judges on the prize panel, it was suggested that the committee hadn’t even been aware of the connection between the two books – despite a relationship so patently obvious that any English Lit. undergrad would have recognized it after reading the dustjacket.

Even worse, Wilson confessed that the committee had actually wanted to give the award to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace – not because it was a better book (it wasn’t), but because she was “a more distinguished writer.”

So much for the Booker Prize. Now on to this year’s winner.

Amsterdam is a short novel that plays at the fringes of what most of us expect a novel to be. Like most of McEwan’s work, it is a moral fable, which means it has to be approached in a slightly different spirit than realistic fiction. Things like the symmetry and improbability of the plot are a function of different conventions than we usually see on the best-seller lists.

The story deals, in perfect balance, with events in the lives of two men: Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is the romantic, inner-directed half of the standard McEwan dichotomy – a composer who writes books on esthetics and goes hiking in the Lake District for inspiration. Vernon is his practical, real-world complement – a newspaper editor with few scruples about using his position to promote a personal vision of the public good.

We first meet Clive and Vernon standing off by themselves at the funeral of an ex-lover. Things are going well for both. Clive has been commissioned to write a “millennium symphony” and Vernon’s newspaper is beginning to show signs of a turnaround.

Then, as always in McEwan, there is a moment of crisis (or two moments, one for each). Put to the test, both Clive and Vernon make poor moral judgments that come back to haunt them. As a result of a strange pact, each becomes the other’s keeper, and learns at some cost to judge not lest ye be judged.

While it is instantly recognizable, it is not easy to define the McEwanesque. Although the writing is incredibly economical – there is a lot of plot in Amsterdam for such a short book – it can’t really be called minimalist. The descriptive writing throughout Clive’s hiking trip, for example, is quite fully imagined and developed. Instead, the word “clinical” comes to mind, describing both the choice of subject matter and the sharp-edged quality of the prose. His last novel (Enduring Love) ended with the presentation of a scientific case-study, and I have a feeling that is an association he would not resist.

Amsterdam is not McEwan’s best work (Enduring Love was more substantial), but it is a welcome change of pace and thoroughly well-crafted entertainment. Readers coming to McEwan for the first time will find it an enjoyable introduction, while longtime fans are in for an elegant surprise.

Review first published December 12, 1998.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

By William Gibson

It’s not often that science-fiction novels get a major hardcover release. Like most other genre fiction, SF has paperback blood running in its veins. So even if you don’t follow SF all that closely, you might still suspect that this new book by Vancouver’s William Gibson is a big event.

Gibson, who first attracted a lot of notice with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, is already something of an SF legend. As the man who coined the phrase “cyberspace,” he is seen as the guru of a whole sub-genre of SF dealing with digital cowboys surfing visionary landscapes of data. And although cyberpunk itself may have run its course, Gibson’s fan base has remained secure.

While it can be read and enjoyed on its own, All Tomorrow’s Parties is meant to be the third part of a trilogy (or what Gibson has misleadingly called a “triptych”). Its cast will be familiar to those who have read the earlier novels Virtual Light and Idoru. The main characters are Colin Laney, the cyber-stalker living in a cardboard box in Tokyo; Rydell, the taciturn hero; and Chevette, Rydell’s feisty ex-girlfriend.

The time is the future, but one so close to our own as to be immediately recognizable. Most of the action takes place on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which is now home to a Bohemian community of squatters. The bridge itself is a metaphor for the great shift in history that is about to take place and that only a select few are able to sense coming. Colin Laney and his nemesis Cody Harwood, a super-media magnate, are two such readers of the radiant gist. The stakes they are playing for are more than a little vague, but whatever is going on is big.

Overlaying all of this is a kind of techno-New Age spiritualism, the main ideas of which are common to a lot of contemporary SF. There is, for example, the notion that we are evolving into a potentially immortal human-technology hybrid form, and the presentation of cyberspace as a code for the mystical order behind the chaos of modern reality.

That may sound heavy, but it’s really just a backdrop for Gibson’s uncanny knack for projecting trends in consumer culture. It is in his preoccupation with the strange domestic details of the wired global mall that we find what is essentially Gibson. Rydell’s “absolutely authentic fake” jeans read like a signature: “the denim woven in Japan on ancient, lovingly maintained American looms and then finished in Tunisia to the specifications of a team of Dutch designers and garment historians.”

It’s clever stuff, but All Tomorrow’s Parties doesn’t measure up to Gibson’s earlier work. What made Neuromancer a great book was its adaptation of popular story-telling forms, especially classic American detective fiction, into an exciting, freshly imagined context. Unfortunately, this work has a far less compelling story to tell. The great node of history, which has something to do with a courier service between 7-11s, is anticlimactic to say the least. In addition there are a number of missteps in tone, including an unfortunate scene near the end that plays the villain for comic relief.

There are a lot of great SF novels that deserve the prestige that comes with a hardcover release and some of them have been written by William Gibson. But in the case of All Tomorrow’s Parties you might want to wait for the paperback.

Review first published December 4, 1999.