Coureurs de Bois

By Bruce MacDonald

Coureurs de Bois begins with a dream. The dreamer is Cobb, a bad-ass native Canadian (half Mohawk, half Ojibwa) residing in Warkworth Prison after conspiring to defraud the government by selling cigarettes tax-free. The fact that his dream begins with him escaping from prison only to be captured and hanged, then freed by Crow as part of a binding “contract” is significant. When Cobb leaves Warkworth he will no longer be an “idle spirit wanderer” but someone with a job. A job that automatically takes the form of the same criminal career that got him thrown in prison in the first place.

Clearly there is something circular in all of this. One gets the feeling that there is no escape, from the dream or the prison or the grind of having to make a living on the outside. As Cobb understands things, the “whole modern world was a system of enslavement.” That “system” is economic, and, along with student economist Will Tobe (who is also compelled by a dream vision), Cobb is soon involved in all aspects of it. Cobb and Will hook up in Toronto’s Parkdale, itself a desperate product of the system:

The neighbourhood was not nearly as dilapidated as some sections of US cities, but by Toronto standards it was bottom-shelf. The western perimeter of the city centre – ten to fifteen blocks west of the skyscrapers, the bank buildings, the investment houses, Bay Street – consisted mainly of three- and four-storey brick buildings, storefronts, coffee shops, taverns, TV repair shops. The apartments above these were cockroach-infested, under-maintained dwellings owned by the sub-literate thugs who circumvented the Landlord and Tenant Act and took a good portion of their tenants’ welfare cheques from them. The locals were a combination of delusionals, bail recognizance breachers and other voluntary and involuntary seekers of anonymity.

Notice how Parkdale is located by its relationship not just to the downtown core but specifically to the financial district, and that life in Parkdale is based on a system of economic exploitation. MacDonald never strays far from his theme.

Because the essence of that theme is that there is nowhere to stray to. There’s no getting outside the system. There’s always some kind of deal going down, often involving blackmail, the black market, barter, or the banking business. A mental patient attempts to sell his prescription drugs. Kinky sex is pay-to-play. Dreams involve contracts enforceable in the waking world. Original sin and karma are just some of the “evidence of an economy run by God” (and God himself is an economist). “Economics,” Will explains at one point, “is our fundamental communication,” a theory of exchange inherent in language itself. We are reminded that even those icons of the open road, the coureurs de bois, were commercial travelers, “entrepreneurs in the fur trade, ignoring the king’s declared right to the monopoly.”

The business partnership between Cobb and Will is the modern form this historical collaboration takes, and in the character of Will Tobe MacDonald has created one of the odder heroes of our time to represent the European half of it. In keeping with the spirit of a book that begins with matching dream visions, Will seems to spend most of the novel in an almost comatose, sleepwalking state. This is reflected in the flat, understated prose.

Will was a precocious young man. He had skipped two grades and entered university at sixteen and would have a degree before the end of his twenty-first year. When he was first told about the ulcer, he thought for sure that he had placed an inordinate amount of stress on himself.. He had pushed himself too hard. His body was just doing its job. Then the doctor told him that such notions were now seen as medical myths, and that a peptic ulcer was caused by a bacterial infection. This caused Will long hours of research on bacteria. There were good and bad bacteria in the body all the time. Bacteria was needed, and he thought this was fascinating.

This lack of affect is not irony. Nor is it cool. It is a reflection of the shallowness at the core of the not-yet-fully-mature Administrative Man (Will’s father is an economic-lobbyist with a right-wing think tank, his sister a financial analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, his mother does his laundry). Of course he already has an ulcer, though that is in no way related to the fact that he’s the kind of precocious drudge who puts in “long hours of research” into his medical conditions. The kind of person who sets his vision down as a numbered list of significant items. One whose exercises in “deep introspection” are mere etchings on emptiness. The only time Will really comes to life is when in pursuit of some extrapolation of economic theory. When he raises the subject of his vision with a potential romantic attachment the conversation inevitably slops back into the sheer grayness of his identity:

Will didn’t seem delusional to her. He briefly mentioned his vision; he spoke almost entirely about economics and public policy. She had met this kind of boy before. He was a typical Ottawa boy. He wasn’t insane. He was just a little off. She imagined him in the small attic room he had told her about, surrounded by stacks of books he had been meaning to read. She envied the freedom of his life.

That last sentence is a good example of MacDonald’s sighing sense of humour, but it also makes a point about Will. By the way most of us measure these things, he is free. That is, at least by the end of the book, he has finally made it (both literally and metaphorically). But is he redeemed? What has his vision quest achieved? Does the larval bureaucrat become a butterfly?

Readers will have to answer that question for themselves. My own sense is that he is not transformed. In a book that frequently mixes the visionary and the mundane, the magical and the mean, Will fails to escape the world of moral ledgers and emotional autarky.

For a first novel, however, Coureurs de Bois makes an impression. MacDonald’s irregular society of Parkdale drifters includes some memorable characters and his writing is both practical and intelligent. Or economical, as the gods of its world would no doubt account it. All adding up to a debut well worth checking out.

Review first published online July 24, 2007. I read this book at the same time as I was reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which I criticized for its description of Edward’s semen drying to a “cracked glaze” instantly upon touching Florence’s skin. In this book, Cobb’s parole officer Paddy Pape falls asleep after eating dinner and masturbating, waking up at midnight to find his issue still wet on his stomach. Which by my reckoning must be at least several hours later. I find neither account credible.


The Commons

By Matthew Hughes

The Commons is introduced by editor Robert J. Sawyer as a “fixup”: a novel knitted together out of a series of previous published short stories which in this case follow the adventures of Guth Bandar in the “noösphere.”

The noösphere (colloquially called the “Commons”) is a place that contains “the distillation of all human experience . . . the composite memory of the species.” It is the collective unconscious imagined as a rather literary sort of virtual reality, one inhabited by archetypes (or “idiomats”) acting out the basic building blocks of our shared human psychodrama. The noösphere is entered by highly-trained noönauts like Bandar through a process of meditation, with special chants protecting them from being absorbed into its mental fabric. Much like the Matrix, the noösphere is a dangerous place where virtual injury can lead to physical consequences, even death, in the real world.

That’s the basic premise, and it’s a good one. The novel moves quickly, with Bandar channel surfing in and out of various mythic events and situations via musically-activated doorways or “nodes.” Depending on his location within the well-mapped geography of the noösphere the genre slips from bawdy comedy to historical costume drama, SF, fantasy, Western, and mash-ups of everything in-between. But then the noösphere starts becoming unstable, and the collective unconscious shows signs of developing consciousness in the face of a dire threat from the great Beyond.

The frantic pace and episodic structure, combined with the virtual reality noösphere interface, make reading The Commons feel a bit like watching someone play a videogame, with Bandar having to complete increasingly difficult levels as he gains experience points on his way to the final showdown. But it all makes for a rollicking fun ride.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2007.

Combat Camera

By A. J. Somerset

A steady professionalism and ability to focus on the job at hand is what saves Conrad’s Marlow from the abysses of the destructive element. Steaming into the heart of darkness, he avoids dangerous reflection through a close attention to his navigational duties:

I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a look-out for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for the next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.

It is a lesson that photojournalist Lucas Zane, hero of A. J. Somerset’s well-crafted debut Combat Camera, has taken to heart. Zane’s mantra is to “stay grounded,” to pay attention only to facts, to become a “creature of routine.” By these means he hopes to keep his mind off both the ghosts of his past and the wreckage of his present. After suffering various physical and mental breakdowns, Zane, a former Pulitzer Prize winner, now shoots stills during ultra-low budget porn movies. Denying himself the oblivion of substance abuse and physically incapable of sexual release (an old war wound that also leaves him unable to digest greasy food), he goes through the motions of his job, becoming lost in habit. Taking pictures, he doesn’t have to think. His “mind is a camera,” only processing light.

The conceit of seeing the world as though through a lens is introduced in the arresting opening paragraph:

The most alarming development now confronting Zane was his suddenly frangible reality. Even his routine moments had become fraught with risk. Suppose, for example, a glint of sunlight was to catch the crack traversing his grime-smeared windshield; a disturbance as trivial as this could inexplicably fracture the entire tableau, could set fragments of his past tilting and sliding through his mind like pieces of coloured glass in a broken kaleidoscope. Things finally come to rest in a jagged landscape of unwelcome memories, and then where the hell are you?

It’s worth taking a moment to stop and appreciate this. Aside from the stylish way that the strange and unlikely word “frangible” itself breaks into alliterative shards like fraught, fracture and fragments (a trick that’s repeated in the novel’s final paragraph, with its slick, sliding, and slippery words), it’s nice to see the dated image of the kaleidoscope (does anyone actually remember using these?) doing some real work as it’s paired with the cracked windshield to describe the splintering of light through glass. And note also how a “tableau” is an artistic arrangement, a static presentation of reality or picture, thus making the windshield a frame for the grimy reality of Zane’s life. His mind is a camera, and his car is too.

As a photographer Zane sees everything in terms of framing and light, “the mere incidents of the surface” that Marlow uses to keep himself on an even keel. It is a conscious retreat into superficiality, and so the “comfortable pattern” of “concrete facts” that make up Zane’s life is furnished almost entirely with cliché. The porn films he works on are, of course, pure formula (naughty schoolgirls are a specialty). But even behind the scenes everything is just as conventional. On the set he has to dodge clichés like bullets. He comes in to work looking like death warmed over. His boss explains how the eyes are window to the soul. The male talent (himself an “all dick and no brain” stereo type) complains that his partner has the appearance of a deer caught in the headlights. An aspiring porn star observes that rain is nice weather for a duck. And so it goes.

This is the comfort language of routine, of “have a nice day” and all the rest of it. A taste for inauthentic sentiment is Zane’s response to shell shock. His version of post-traumatic stress disorder even leaves him crying at television commercials for long-distance telephone plans. And while he is very much aware of the presence of so much cliché in his life, he finds it a hard habit to kick. Two instances:

Seeing a colleague die in Afghanistan he can only think of what his Dad “always said,” that “life isn’t fair.”

What a terrible thing to feel at the transcendent moment. How utterly banal.

And on the road, checking into a motel with his “subject” Melissa:

A flicker across the background, perhaps a scratch in the film. Melissa in soft focus. What you need here, friend, is a trench coat and a fedora to go with the motel’s flickering neon sign. Never trust a dame. Especially not a hard-luck dame in cheap sunglasses who speaks in B-movie clichés. Not as long as your film is noir – and, at present, everything is monochrome. It gives everything that dramatic look.

Indeed, while traveling together Lucas and Melissa are inevitably interpreted as a visual cliché: abusive older boyfriend/black-eyed girlfriend in denial. At every stop, to nearly everyone they meet, they have to explain that things are not how they seem. But then nothing is. “Lucas Zane” doesn’t sound like a real name, but is. “Melissa,” on the other hand, is a nom de porn. And appearances, we are reminded, matter. They can get you in a lot of trouble.

The artist, as Amis lectures, is a warrior against cliché. What makes Zane a truly burned out case is his sense that this is all life has left to offer. Like Justin in Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy, he can be described (I am borrowing from Jeet Heer’s review of Girl Crazy in Canadian Notes & Queries) as a “chivalric pornographer.” Unlike Justin, however, he is not transformed by his relationship with a fallen woman. In fact, one of his last lines is the fatalistic “None of us can change anything.” This is the voice of wisdom, which is not the same as saying he is right. With age comes passivity. Justin is, in the end, living a naive player’s fantasy – the drugs, the baggy clothes, the ho’s – whereas Zane is crippled by self-awareness and trapped inside a story he is no longer the author of. Justin and Zane, who are both fringe cultural workers, represent a tragic response to a fundamental part of the modern cultural environment.

Girl Crazy and Combat Camera are first-rate novels that come, I think, to the same grim conclusion about how to cope with our own personal hearts of darkness. Though the “incidents of the surface” involve sleazy, underworld happenings, both books are finally concerned with a more insidious form of corruption: the seductive power of illusions.

Review first published online November 1, 2010.

Cherry Electra

By Matt Duggan

Cherry Electra, the first adult novel by Toronto author Matt Duggan, introduces itself as such with a cup of urine being thrown in the narrator’s face. We are also soon made aware of the two novelistic conventions that will inform everything that follows. The first of these is that of the unreliable narrator. The story is told in the form of a series of jailhouse letters written by “e.” to his girlfriend “T.”, attempting to explain what happened during a wild weekend at a cottage owned by the father of e.’s friend Teddy, a weekend that resulted in e. being charged with first-degree murder. In addition to these inherently suspicious circumstances we also quickly learn that e. has a sometimes casual attitude toward the truth, forcing the reader to carefully sift everything he says.

The other convention is that of the big tease. Rest assured, you won’t be finding out what really happened to Teddy’s father, or at least e.’s version of what really happened, until the final pages. The rest is build-up, a seductive undressing that intercuts the main narrative with a series of flashbacks fleshing out the history of e.’s ambiguous (to say the least) relationships with Teddy and T.

The result is a clever and satisfying bit of cottage-country gothic that involves, among other things, a “cherry” Buick Electra that looks “like the wheeled burial sarcophagus for a disco era Aztec king” and a sinister pistol once owned by Hitler, all engagingly rendered in e.’s ingratiatingly articulate voice. It helps that both Teddy and e. are showmen: e. an overeducated, underemployed slacker (a wannabe writer, naturally), and Teddy an artist manqué who sees crime as a sort of performance piece. The action, fuelled exclusively by booze and hard drugs, has a restless, manic energy to it, and the plot is similarly wired. For the most part the two conventions are very well handled, though e.’s delaying tactics start to become obvious near the end (to the point where he has to explicitly forswear them), as does his subterfuge of innocence. But overall Duggan has served up an entertaining psychological thriller that will keep readers, at the cottage or elsewhere, rushing to keep up.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2010.

Carte Blanche and Kiss Her Goodbye

By Jeffrey Deaver
By Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Things were simpler in the mid-twentieth century, a time when action novels starred men who were men, and women who loved them for it. Two heroes in particular – the American private eye Mike Hammer (whose first appearance was in 1947’s I, the Jury), and British secret agent James Bond (his debut was 1953’s Casino Royale) – went on to become immensely successful and long-lived franchises, both on page and screen.

It seems impossible that Hammer and Bond can still be going strong in a world that has gone through the rigours of political correctness and laughed at Austin Powers movies. But here we are in 2011 with both heroes still saving the world, killing bad guys, and (of course) getting the girl.

While surprising, there is really no secret to their success. Genre fiction doesn’t mess with a winning formula. Whoever happens to be writing their books, or whatever actor plays them on the big screen, fans know what to expect from these guys. In the case of a James Bond story this means exotic locations, high-tech toys, monomaniacal supervillains, and sexy girlfriends. Jeffrey Deaver, who is the fifth author to continue where Ian Fleming left off, hits for the cycle with Carte Blanche, a contemporary re-set of the franchise that has a fresh young James Bond jetting about the world trying to stop a sinister waste management tycoon from unleashing Operation Gehenna. Armed for the information age, he gets to play with an impressive array of wireless gadgets while still finding time to flirt with bombshells like Ophelia Maidenstone and (are you ready for this?) Felicity Willing.

It’s a slick, suspenseful story that moves at a rapid pace and won’t disappoint Bond fans. As much attention is given to detailing the tech specs of various weapons as to Bond’s consumption of the best house wines and caviar (“beluga, of course”). Throughout, Deaver is respectful of his source – the book is even dedicated to Fleming, “the man who taught us we could still believe in heroes” – and nicely captures Bond’s essential boyishness: the sense that no matter how high the stakes or how much danger he may be in, he’s still having fun.

If Bond is a Bentley Continental GT coupé with “supple black hide” interior, turbo W12 engine, and a “silken, millisecond-response Quickshift gearbox,” then Mike Hammer is a Sherman tank. While Bond practices the “tradecraft” of international espionage, Hammer likes to take the more direct approach: asking questions first, yes, but definitely shooting later.

Max Allan Collins is Hammer creator Mickey Spillane’s handpicked literary heir, and Kiss Her Goodbye is his fourth novel in the series. It is also a sort of collaboration, constructed partially out of notes for a novel that Spillane left behind. As a result the book is not a modern re-set but rather a throwback, returning us to a dirty, 1970s New York City where the action revolves around discos, drugs, and Nazi diamonds.

Even given the retro setting, Hammer is an anachronism. Walking into one nightspot wearing his trademark porkpie hat people recognize him as a living legend, “a cartoon character come to life.” But though a bit older and feeling his age, he is, emphatically, “still Mike Hammer” and that means finding out who killed his mentor and getting some payback. Along the way the bodies pile up (mainly courtesy of Hammer’s Colt .45 with speedloader), and a host of women – also known as babes, dames, dolls, fillies, and skirts – throw themselves at our hero’s feet. These bimbos are just wallpaper however, since there is only one gal woman enough to satisfy Mike Hammer and that’s his curvaceous former assistant Velda. Now there’s a gal capable of making even the hardest of hard men wax Shakespeherian. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but Velda has “a mouth that fed your hunger even as it encouraged you to sup some more.”

As with Deaver, Collins is thoroughly respectful of his original. It’s more a self-conscious trip down memory lane than the Bond book, with less art in the telling, but that’s not something you can hold against it. The point of franchise fiction, like franchise food, is to give the customer exactly the kind of experience they’ve come to expect. And you have to admit there’s something comforting in seeing these larger-than-life characters from yesteryear serenely cruising into the troubled waters of the twenty-first century novel. How can this be the end of the book if Bond and Hammer are still around?

Review first published August 13, 2011.


Ed. by Richard Rosenbaum

Though its precise origins are unclear, the term CanLit is now culturally enshrined as shorthand for all that is established and orthodox (or boring and stuffy) in Canadian fiction. The anthology Can’tLit sets itself in strong opposition, with editor Richard Rosenbaum leading the charge against “cold, dull, pastoral stuff . . . written by people named Margaret” and championing stories that are sharp, offensive, weird, visceral, punk rock, urban, and uncomfortable (all his adjectives). Unfair to the Margarets? Yes. But perhaps a necessary move if you want to grab some attention in the “mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”

Strip away the rhetoric and you’re left with a slightly different, less revolutionary picture. In fact, the stories here have already reached a wider audience than most CanLit, having first been published in Broken Pencil – a well-known website and print magazine. And the claims to non-conformity and transgression (“stories that taste like blood, that hurt to write, and that hurt to read”) are scarcely borne out by what follows.

Which is not to say the anthology is a disappointment. Many of the stories are very good (particularly enjoyable are pieces by Grant Buday and Esme Keith, though there is enough variety on tap for readers of different tastes to pick others). They just aren’t any more experimental, angry, or revealing than most new fiction being written today. Nor are all of them Canadian. In addition to some American writers the collection even includes two stories by an Israeli author that have been translated from the Hebrew. That these aren’t traditional CanLit is rather obvious.

Some general observations can be made. The stories tend to be quite short, something that is perhaps a function of internet publication and attendant shrinking attention spans. The majority are told in the first person, in the style of colloquial monologues. The characters are mostly young people – yes, living in cities – with the action revolving around their sexual relations and lousy jobs. Occasionally magic realist or fantasy elements come into play. The result is a book that is really more fun and free-spirited than angry and fearless. But be your CanLit affiliation catholic or orthodox, you’ll likely find it’s well worth a browse.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2009.

C and The Canal

By Tom McCarthy
By Lee Rourke

It’s natural for writers of a literary bent to see themselves as revolutionaries, tilting against convention, cliché, and the mindlessness of the reading public. British comrades (and good friends) Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke have, in recent years, taken to railing at some length from the barricades against the bourgeois, realist, “humanist” novel in interviews and manifestoes that attempt to define “a new generation in experimental fiction.” Critics before they were novelists, their revolution is talky, retro, intellectual, and amusingly Gallic in its belief that a more academic approach to literature is what we really need to shake the status quo. The new BritLit is the nouvelle vague reborn.

Their platform is stridently anti-establishment, but hard to pin down after that. The general program calls for a wedding of high modernism and post-structuralist theory. They want novels for people who are bored of novels.

Talk, however, is cheap. How well do these two new books – McCarthy’s Booker-nominated C and Rourke’s Not-the-Booker-nominated The Canal – walk the walk?

The Canal announces itself as being a book about boredom. It tells the story of a man who leaves his job to sit on a bench looking out over a canal all day. The man is joined by a mysterious woman. They have opaque, Pinteresque conversations. A gang of local toughs drop in to provide occasional violent relief. Things come to a tragic end but the narrator finally isn’t sure how real the experience was.

The boredom the man cultivates is a response to repetition, which is something that defines modern life. This is a point driven home by the form a lot of the dialogue takes as well as the way the same events keep happening “over and over.” It is also related thematically to the fusing of the human and the mechanical world. “We are technology,” the narrator’s benchmate explains. Our lives are defined by routine in or out of the workplace, as we cruise along like pre-programmed machines on autopilot. And the future is unimaginable as anything but more of the same.

This has implications for literature as well. Since all art is repetition, a writer shouldn’t bother trying to be original or authentic. And so literary influences are worn proudly on the sleeve, with Rourke clearly owing a big debt to J. G. Ballard, and McCarthy beholden to Thomas Pynchon for everything from his minimalist title to the introduction of silly music-hall numbers and undigested clumps of historical research on silk manufacturing, wireless telegraphy, and Egyptology.

The hero of C is Serge Carrefax, a young man weirdly in tune with new communications technology in the early twentieth century, and someone who has given up the “farcical pretense” that there is anything “new and exciting” in life. In episodes that take him from England to a Eastern European health spa, the skies over First World War battlefields and finally an Egyptian tomb, he experiences how, in solid high modernist fashion, everything mystically “connects.” Taking drugs helps.

Repetition, in the form of recurring images and motifs, helps make the point. A strange, hard-to-interpret background buzz – voices, insects, mechanical devices – runs throughout the book. As in Rourke, people are seen turning into their machines. For Serge this means becoming a passive receiver of ethereal signals from the beyond.

Beyond the grave, that is. As General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (he made it up), McCarthy has always been fascinated with death. The surprise here is just how romantically he imagines the undiscovered country. In fact, reading the lyrical death scenes in C and The Canal, one detects an essential softness and sentiment that the revolutionary rhetoric and theorizing may be trying to conceal.

Theory serves as a defense mechanism in other ways as well. McCarthy’s aesthetic of “flatness,” for example, can be taken as justifying the dryness of his writing. And the emphasis on repetition and rejection of novelty checks any criticism of these avant-garde and experimental books for their lack of originality and inability to “make it new.” Still, it needs to be said: especially when compared to McCarthy’s breakthrough debut novel Remainder, C is a disappointment. While it has fine moments, it is too often dull, pointless, and even conventional-minded. The Canal is a more interesting book, and a good read, but Rourke’s theory of boredom is made to do too much work and in the end doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Perhaps these are books more to be talked about than read. And it’s likely the revolution will not be written anyway. But looking past all the posturing there is at least the spirit of an important movement afoot in both these works, even if it sometimes seems like two steps forward and one step back.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 8, 2010.