Boldface Names

By Shinan Govani

National Post gossip columnist Shinan Govani follows the time-honored prescript to “write what you know” in his fiction debut, a novel that follows the adventures of a Toronto-based gossip columnist (he prefers the designation “social archivist”) named Ravi who writes for the National Mirror. Without giving too much away, the Roman Holiday-storyline involves Ravi’s squiring around a wannabe pop princess who may in fact be real media royalty. This gives Ravi/Govani plenty of space to do what he does best, which is people-watching and party-hopping, obsessing over chatter, celebrities, and clothes.

There isn’t much more to Ravi’s world than this. It would be trite to call it superficial, but the shoe fits. Ravi himself has no inner or personal life. His wife Rory is only social camouflage, his mother a source of ethnic humour. Dialogue is made to do most of the work throughout, with the prose being a kind of zippy column-ese to fill in the gaps (“sunshine vomited out of her copiously lipsticked mouth”). References to recent movies colourize the self-consciously Old Hollywood plot, with wildly mixed results. The illuminated cross on Montreal’s Mont Royal beams “whiter than Meryl Streep’s hair in The Devil Wears Prada.” Sitting in an airport lobby Ravi tries to affect a “Bill Murray-in-Lost-in-Translation” look but is immediately mistaken for “that dude in the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” Rory under the sheets looks like “Julie Roberts in bed with Hugh Grant in Notting Hill,” but when Ravi gets up two pages later he leaves her “to gum-chew like one of those ballplayers in A League of Their Own.” There is quite a lot of this.

Along the way there are random thoughts offered up on the nature of fame and celebrity, and the business of reporting on the same, lots of star-spotting and name-dropping, some roman-a-clef cuteness (including Lord and Lady Ivory, and the Formidable Authoress herself presiding over an explosive Giller Prize gala), all of which is delivered with a gentleness that never quite rises to the level of satire. A Canadian Glamorama it is not.

What it is, in other words, is exactly the book you would expect it to be – topical, inoffensive, relentlessly glib in a charming sort of way, and light as air. To complain about it not being something more is pointless. In all likelihood much of it will be incomprehensible to readers in a couple of years anyway, when its boldfaced names have faded.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2009.


Blackstrap Hawco

By Kenneth J. Harvey

When Henry James described some nineteenth-century novels as “large loose baggy monsters” for their informal overabundance of life, he wasn’t being entirely disparaging. The charm of some big books, including some very great ones, lies in their shagginess. An attribute possessed in spades by Kenneth J. Harvey’s large loose and baggy epic of Newfoundland working-class life Blackstrap Hawco.

Harvey’s opening paragraph introduces the distinctive Down East tone, one that readers of Alistair Macleod and David Adams Richards, not to mention many lesser lights, will be familiar with. Jacob Hawco is retrieving a rabbit from a wire trap. Attention is given to practical details such as Jacob leaving his mitts on so his sweaty hands won’t stick to the snare wire. Then we learn that this is a trap prohibited “by people who knew nothing of living off the land, of survival through one’s own efforts.” Bloody toffs!

This is the working man as rebel and cultural hero, a figure that Blackstrap Hawco, Jacob’s son, perfectly embodies. Sullen and independent. Contemptuous of outsiders (a category not limited to mainlanders, since he can’t abide townies from St. John’s either). Mistrustful of the media, or indeed anyone with a camera. Illiterate and resentful of university fellers with their brains “all muddled up from being stuffed full ‘a too much heducation.” Strong and silent, hard-drinking and violent. With dirt under his fingernails and muscles and packages of cigarettes bulging beneath his t-shirt.

“Said to be about a Newfoundland family,” Blackstrap Hawco is a historical novel that tosses scraps of fact and fiction from various sources into what Harvey calls a “transcomposite narrative.” The book consists of two main parts followed by a set of epilogues. The first part skips about historically and stylistically, telling the story of the Hawco family from its muddled mythological bloodlines in the nineteenth century up to 1992. Harvey experiments here with different voices ranging from lyrical stream-of-consciousness passages to cutting loose with what has become his signature fragmented grammar (Sentences. That. Read like. This. even when, he doesn’t use, capitals, or periods, only commas). The second part offers a steadier, chronological account of Blackstrap’s life up to the present day (and beyond), re-visiting many of the same characters and events and filling in some of the blanks.

It’s an original approach and one that largely works, setting up interesting echoes and correspondences that make the story seem as though it is taking itself apart and putting itself back together again even while you read it. And it allows Harvey to move quickly among a number of set-piece scenes involving the kind of raw physical action he does best, pitting men against the elements. The climax of the first part in particular, with the crew of a small boat setting off in a storm to salvage barrels of port from the wreck of a Portuguese ship, bears comparison to Faulkner’s famous account of the family crossing the river in As I Lay Dying.

There is, in fact, a lot of Faulkner’s Mississippi in Harvey’s introverted outport world. The same defensive pride in an economically depressed region. The same emphasis on family, native rituals of violence and local codes of honour. The same fascination with the perverse and grotesque. The same moral value placed on suffering and endurance.

Blackstrap himself is a larger-than-life character who represents a core duality: the Newfoundlander who is both victim and avenger (not unlike Myrden, hero of Harvey’s previous novel Inside, though on a larger scale). Indeed by the time we get to the end he seems to have turned into an archetypal folk hero, his story the story of his people, bearing scars and injuries that represent all of their lives filled with hard luck and struggle (among other things he is the sole survivor of the Ocean Ranger disaster). But this is also part of the novel’s design. Blackstrap comes out of a world of folktale and myth only to be re-absorbed back into a sea of stories, becoming the narrative ghost of Newfoundland.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 7, 2008.

Black Man

By Richard Morgan

The genre of hard-boiled, noir fiction has always had a retro flavour, but as the popularity of the film Blade Runner proved, its sense of dark brooding style projects just as well onto our imaginings of a dystopic future. It’s somehow comforting to know that a few centuries hence there will still be a criminal underworld filled with tough guys in trench coats engaging in fisticuffs, gunfights, and snappy patter.

Black Man is a book that owes an awful lot to Blade Runner, and even more to that movie’s inspiration, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead of android replicants, bounty hunter Carl Marsalis is tracking down genetically engineered super soldiers. Just to get you up to speed: Some hundred years from now, fed up with the weakness of “feminine” civil society and distressed at the decline of Western manhood (no, really), a race of alpha “hypermales” has been bred to wipe out the jihadis (apparently still a problem). Alas, once this mission has been accomplished the very qualities that make “genetic variant thirteens” such accomplished warriors – “readiness for violent acts and suspension of empathy” – also make them unlikely candidates for entry-level office jobs. And so they are either incarcerated in vast prison tracts or shipped off to our new colonies on Mars.

The twist here is that the hero is himself a “twist,” the derogatory name given to the thirteens. As soon as Marsalis enters a room testosterone alarms start going off. Men feel intimidated and inadequate in the presence of his conspicuous mojo, breaking down under the intensity of his anthracite stare, while women simply melt into puddles of hormonal heat. The addition of special anger management training and proficiency in the Martian martial art of “tanindo” only make him more of a force to be reckoned with.

And then there are the toys. As any good video-gamer knows – and they are clearly a large part of the target audience for this book – it’s all about the hardware. Among the weaponry on display here is the sadistic Haag gun, whose shell miraculously makes a large hole going in and never comes out, while instantly infecting its victim with the lethal Falwell virus. This certainly magnifies its intimidation factor (“Even if you get me, I don’t have to do more than scratch you on the way down. It is over.”). Then there is the “shark punch,” a kind of aquatic shotgun “that punches razor-sharp spinning slivers of alloy through water hard enough to eviscerate a great white shark” and which merely blasts people into ribbons of confetti on dry land.

As befits a traditional noir thriller, the plot never entirely gels. But it is only there anyway to provide a loose structure for Morgan, one of Sci-Fi’s hottest new properties, to showcase his ability to write great action sequences. And to develop the novel’s theme, which is tolerance.

Yes, tolerance. Marsalis is, as the title indicates, a black man. And so he faces prejudice on several levels, from the fundamentalist, racist bigotry of “Jesusland” (the redneck states down south have finally seceded from the union) to the edgy species hatred between the “cudlips” (the normal human herd of “wimps and conformists”) and the archaic “twists.” And this is where the novel starts sending off mixed messages.

The thirteens are genetic descendants of early hunter-gatherers, those fierce individualists who were wiped out by the agricultural revolution and the rise of civilization. In theory they can feel no empathy, love, or even religious feeling. Religion is a tool to rule the cudlips and it can’t be maintained in the face of the thirteens’ Nietzschean will to power. As Marsalis explains, “Even if you could convince a variant thirteen, against all the evidence, that there really was a god? He’d just see him as a threat to be eliminated. If god were demonstrably real? Guys like me would just be looking for ways to find him and burn him down.” You go, superman.

The awkwardness in all of this is that, even without making Marsalis a sympathetic victim of prejudice, most readers will find it easy to relate to the individualism and lack of empathy of the thirteens. This is the same paradox explored more provocatively in Dick’s book, that the non-humans (or in this case the ur-humans) are more human than the rest of us. We don’t view their unsociability and aggression – which, given the number of common or garden variety thugs and yobbos in this book, has hardly been bred out of existence – as something other but as something inner. The pure products of contemporary corporate civilization are just as often psychopaths as sheep.

As a meditation on intolerance and prejudice Black Man is a well-meaning mess. And as a simple action thriller it is much too long. But it is still an inventive, suspenseful work that will do no damage to Morgan’s growing reputation. While it does have a message worth reflecting on, readers might not want to sort it out and instead just enjoy it as a spectacular summer ride.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 1, 2007.

Bang Crunch

By Neil Smith

Bang Crunch is the debut of Montreal writer Neil Smith, with the mix of good and bad you can expect from a first collection. In the first place he shows a willingness to experiment and take risks in stories that are bursting with an almost careless variety. One story alternates between the voices of a glove and a shoe (the latter falling to Earth after being blown off the foot of an exploding astronaut) while “Bang Crunch” is about a girl with an imaginatively literary disease that causes her to grow old at super-speed and then become young again.

Along with this playful edginess Smith is also capable of surprising psychological intensity. His characters are wired with feeling – vulnerable, anxious, and raw. They fear the consequences of emotional exposure. Relationships are stretched taut to the point of snapping into violence, either in physical aggression or forms of passive abuse. The two best stories, “Green Fluorescent Protein” and “Jaybird” are both concerned with this sort of risk-taking. The former is a sharply honest account of coming out that is forceful and direct without being explicit. “Jaybird” presents the theme of emotional risk and exposure in the form of an experimental amateur theatrical. Even as drama, however, the danger and violence on display are palpable.

The more disappointing aspects of the book can also be attributed to it being a first effort. The writing has some of the smell of a creative writing program about it. This is an easy and increasingly common criticism leveled at new books and needs to be explained. What I mean by it, first of all, is an obvious to the point of being awkward use of imagery. The images here are undigested, straining for attention. A mother watches her baby in an incubator and sees its organs beneath the skin “the way shrimp is visible under the rice paper of a spring roll.” A woman’s dreadlocks are “tied atop her head like a bonsai tree.” A male stripper waggles “his genitals like a clown twisting a dachshund out of party balloons.” Willow trees sway in the breeze “like giant hula dancers.”

Exotic images like these, however true or false, interrupt the rhythm of the story. Which in turn draws attention to the weakness of Smith’s ear. Much of the dialogue has a written feel to it rather than the rough grace of real speech. And the stories themselves are constructed in an obvious, mannered way, tending to round off into the kind of poetically concise faux-epiphanic ending that is now very popular, as well as predictable.

But this is a promising debut. Smith’s insight into human nature and his ability to map the perilous no-man’s-land lying between family, friends, enemies and lovers, is consistent and well rendered. These are strengths that should only develop further as the few wrinkles in his writing get ironed out.

Review first published March 17, 2007.


By Robert Charles Wilson

Axis is the second volume of a projected trilogy whose first installment, Spin, won the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel in 2005. In terms of narrative it makes a substantial break with Spin, beginning some decades after the end of that book and only re-introducing one of its main characters in a marginal role.

The human predicament, however, remains the same. Earth and, after its human settlement, Mars, have been wrapped in a kind of membrane that has taken them out of time, preserving each “down through four billion years of galactic history like a tulip bulb wintering in a dark cellar.” Human destiny, it appears, is being managed by some incredibly ancient and advanced cosmic force referred to as “the Hypotheticals.” But no one has any idea to what purpose.

At the end of Spin an arch appeared linking Earth to a new planet specially created by the Hypotheticals for our colonization. Axis takes place entirely on this “world next door” and follows the adventures of Lise Adams and Turk Findley as a search for Lise’s father gets them involved in the consequences of an attempt by a cult of “Fourths” (humans given an extra long lifespan thanks to Martian genetic technology) to breed a special kind of being who will be able to communicate directly with the Hypotheticals.

Wilson’s theme is the relationship between theology and science, specifically as this plays out with regard to evolution. The Hypotheticals are the ultimate Intelligent Designers, but also a collective, universal, possibly eternal consciousness. Or God, by any other name. A God we may be in the process of joining or becoming.

Axis is a tighter, faster-paced novel than Spin, but also more conventional minded. The mystery of the Hypotheticals is hardly advanced at all, while the plot falls back on such fantasy clichés and Bible scourings as the coming of the Chosen One (Isaac, son of Rebka) to a desert people. One suspects the Hypotheticals were reading the Dune series when they set all this in motion.

As befits the second novel of a trilogy, Axis is also very conscious of its state of in-betweenness, with arches opening at either end to new worlds. Wilson plays it close to the chest when it comes to guessing what to expect for a finale, but in the meantime he delivers a thrilling and imaginative romp through the middle future.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2007.

Automatic World

By Struan Sinclair

Mechanism and modernism have always been close traveling companions. At the dawn of the modern age first the cosmos and then man himself (l’homme machine in La Mettrie’s phrase) were transformed into the products of a divine craftsman. Today we consider these truths, and more, to be self evident. What is mind itself but the firing of neurons, an electro-chemical information-processing grid? What is memory but an organic hard drive? And what the products of our imagination but more mechanical constructions? As William Carlos Williams famously declared, even a poem is but a machine made of words.

Winnipeg author Struan Sinclair’s challenging debut novel Automatic World takes this idea of the mechanical universe and runs with it. In the first place the world it describes is automatic: the dominant metaphor being that embodiment of industrialism the railway. The people in this automatic world are, in turn, themselves industrial products, their bodies capable of being dis- and re-assembled in various combinations with prosthetic parts. And finally the book itself is a machine, transparently playing with its own narrative and plot as plastic forms.

It is easy to outline Automatic World thematically like this, but explaining how it works is another question. Its structure is reminiscent of books by Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell – concentric rings of stories, each with a different time signature, revolving around a train crash (or series of crashes). The outer ring belongs to the narrator, a survivor of some kind of accident who may be imagining or remembering everything else. Moving inward, and backward in time, we meet a young man whose father is a serial suicide, a hospice-worker who has been involved in a kind of mercy-killing, and the companion of a batty amateur scientist in the nineteenth century who builds miniature mechanical worlds. Including models of train wrecks.

Needless to say, this is all very complicated. Along with his character’s bodies, Sinclair disassembles the notion of narrative time, exploding the deterministic linearity of railway time that keeps everything on schedule, “story laws, with their distinctive causality and effect.” There are certain recurring elements, leitmotifs, and rhythms, but there is no coherent plot. The mechanical world is provisional. The purpose of the divine craftsman, or author, hides behind the creation.

As with a lot of experimental fiction, the result is a puzzle book that is sometimes cold as well as obscure. And at least one reader will confess to some confusion, even after a second reading, as to just what was going on. There is a real intelligence at work, however, that goes beyond the usual postmodern cleverness, as well as a fresh, inventive eye for detail, rendered in a fittingly abrupt, essentialist style. A novel full of trains that never get where they’re going, it announces that Struan Sinclair has arrived.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 5, 2009.


By Jean-Christophe Valtat

For all the complaining by genre authors about being pigeonholed, the fact is genre fiction likes labels. Fans want to know exactly what it is they are getting. Indeed, dig a little deeper into any genre and you’ll start finding sub-categories strictly marked out. The cozy vs. the hard-boiled mystery, for example, or, in the SF universe, “hard” SF, cyberpunk, slipstream, and steampunk.

The last is a label referring to SF/Fantasy fiction set in an alternative nineteenth century, and it has been applied somewhat freely to Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama (Valtat himself rejects it, in part because the novel doesn’t feature the use of steam power). Steampunk is a curious amalgam of the past and future, a speculative re-imagination of the historical novel that takes us back to the century of that form’s invention. For SF writers the importance of the industrial revolution and the rise of the machine no doubt contribute something to the attraction, but I think that’s only part of the story. Back in 2002 I wrote an essay on historical fiction (you can read it here) that suggested the appeal of this period might also lie in “the re-creation of a world where the novel mattered (note how many historical novels are set in the nineteenth century), [thus enacting] the revenge of the book – a technology currently being written out of history.” Valtat is more eloquent on this score:

the 19th century is a time where extravagant beauty could be enjoyed without guilt or second thought. It is moreover my theory that all writers belong, more or less consciously, to the 19th century, that time when literature was taken (too?) seriously and regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life. Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. After all steampunk writers may not be more nostalgic about the 19th century than people who like to read a novel by Balzac or Dickens, or a poem by Hopkins or Rimbaud. Perhaps it’s a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about.

The nineteenth century, at least with the benefit of hindsight, was pre- so much. Most notably, I think, it was pre-WWI, a time before Europe committed suicide and America became the undisputed global hegemon. Aurorarama is set in the magical Arctic city of New Venice, a place with a distinctively European flavour (and just a dash of Japanoiserie). But while all Europe seems to have gone into making up New Venice (“the quintessence of what Mankind was all about”), the United States (now placing their dibs on our melting pole, and everything beneath it) is almost entirely absent. Bliss was it in that dusk to be alive! The nineteenth century saw itself as having evolved beyond politics and having experienced its own end of history. And so New Venice is not the town that time forgot so much as the town that wants to forget time. Witnessing a public demonstration, one of the characters is made to feel present during

a piece of history in a city that had always strived to keep out of history, nay, a city whose very aim, as proved by the Seven Sleepers’ decision to reverse Time and impose an “After Backward” calendar, was to avoid it at all costs.

Of course, it couldn’t last. As the reference to the diktat of the Seven Sleepers indicates, New Venice is both a dream state and a model of repressive state control. I don’t recall seeing the bocche dei leoni, but there are sinister Gentlemen of the Night (“dressed to kill in top hats and Inverness coats, their dreaded sword-canes in hand”) keeping tabs on the populace and breaking heads. And of course the army is always on call if the natives start getting restless. It is with some wistfulness that one reads of a time when socialism (and not just “real existing socialism”) was still a Utopian dream, religion (even the fanatic and fundamentalist kind) wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and terrorists – anarchists and suffragettes here – were the good guys.

As for the dreaming part, Valtat constantly works in references to the Arctic being a place not quite real. The pole itself is a fantasy, a hollow point one can never arrive at. The crystal castle and caves of Crocker Land don’t even exist all the time. New Venice, in turn, is the dream city par excellence, appearing blanketed in snow “as if the city were dreaming about itself and crystallizing both that dream and the ethereal unreality of it.” No maritime republic, its real wealth is “imaginal wealth, the generosity of dreams, the ever springing fountain of the inner eye, coming from sensory deprivation in the night and in the snow, a culture of fata morgana and aurora borealis.” Scenes play out under hypnosis, in dream chambers, in drug-induced hallucinatory states, in trances, as visions seen in magic mirrors and mirages beneath the polar sky.

All of this makes New Venice seem, if not the quintessence of what Mankind was all about, perhaps its collective unconscious: “a city made to fulfill all appetites . . . in itself a fulfilled appetite, or a dream come true.” As with any such fantasy, it is a pastiche of weird borrowings and free-range connotations. These go from the costumes (the New Venetian dandy favours “black double-breasted frock coat, floppy cravat, and Regency collar”) to a use of language that emphasizes puns, allusions, and other misdirecting signposts. The other-worldly architecture of New Venice is typical in its eclecticism (and worth quoting at length for the energy, precision, rhythm, and inventiveness of its prose):

They were now entering the centre of the city, an off-white grid of frozen canals and deserted avenues, lined with impressive Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings. In the twilight, their incongruous stuccoed, statue-haunted silhouettes, rising darker against the darkening horizon, gave the eerie impression that they had been cast down from the sky like palaces from another planet. You could not, by any stretch of the mind, imagine an architecture less adapted to its surroundings. An Ideal City punished and banished to the Far North for its marble hubris, it loomed titanic and mad, its boulevards, arches, and palaces a playground for the caterwauling draughts that sharpened their claws on its flaking façades. And as it did almost every day in late winter, that typical moist fog known to the locals as cake was now seeping everywhere, slowly dimming the scene in a way that gave Brentford the impression that, too tired to will themselves further into existence, the very buildings evaporated, fading like the ghosts of their own unlikely splendor.

The Air Architecture of the Arctic defies sense. If there is a logic to the plot of Aurorarama it is the logic of the imagination. At least one reader will confess to having had trouble following what was going on, or what was “really” happening as opposed to what was only being dreamed. Some elements, like the Phantom Patrol (who even do a Pynchon-on-Ice song-and-dance number) and the Macropus Maritimus Maximus or Polar Kangaroo, seem pure polar moonshine. Which doesn’t make them any less real.

If I could supply another label of my own to go with some of the others that have been thrown at it, I would like to call Aurorarama a great Canadian novel. Not just because the hero hails from Nova Scotia, or because New Venice itself seems to be located somewhere in our icy waters, but for the book’s sensibility. The ménage of Old World and native peoples, the “poletics” of British understatement and noblesse cross-bred with French passive aggression, the survivalist/garrison mentality of New Venice, and the various nods to polar explorers (those giants of our own national unconscious), combined with all of the richness of its mythical thinking, give Valtat’s work as much the feel of an imaginative guide to CanLit as an alternative pre-modern history. I think it perfectly fair and justified that we claim this Frenchman writing in English and published in the U.S. as one of our own.

Review first published online January 24, 2011.