Death and the Penguin

By Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin is a book that hooked me right away – not because I’m a particularly big fan of cartoonish flightless birds but because of the note of sadness that the novel immediately strikes. Aspiring author Viktor Zolotaryov is going nowhere plying the world’s most solitary trade, and has been abandoned by his girlfriend. Feeling lonely, he adopts a penguin named Misha from a bankrupt zoo. This act of charity, however, doesn’t improve his situation, as “Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.”

Single pet owners will instantly relate, especially as Misha the penguin turns out to have a remarkably dog-like personality. But there’s more. Viktor’s loneliness is compounded even further by the grim fact of where he lives. The novel takes place in post-Soviet Kiev, an independent Ukraine being something Viktor has to remind his new girlfriend about when she objects to the customs duty on a package from Moscow “as if it’s from abroad” (“We are abroad,” he gloomily responds). Welcome to a primitive backwater where health care is purchased by bribes, Viktor has to pound out newspaper copy on a typewriter, and dinner seems to mainly consist of things that can be boiled (tea, potatoes, polonies). Modern amenities like computers and microwaves don’t seem to be available, and a colour TV (as if there were any other kind!) is a big deal.

I remind you that this is the mid-1990s.

The Soviet Union has suffered a relationship breakdown as well, and Viktor (raised by his grandmother after his parents split up and went their separate ways) feels divorced from a “recent but already so far distant past of a country that no longer existed.” Approaching a mid-life crisis, the same can be, and is, said of his writing: “His prose was, in fact, all in a distant past – a past so distant as to raise a doubt as to whether it was his past at all.” A faux-family is quickly formed – Viktor, Misha, a little girl who is dropped in Viktor’s lap and a nanny who becomes his lover – but the others just seem to add bricks to the wall of Viktor’s solitude and he confesses to having no genuine feelings for them. Eventually he even winds up indulging the insomniac’s pastime of spying on the lighted windows of the neighbouring apartments to see what the other night owls are up to, and succumbing to the paranoia (here translated as “persecution mania”) of the true solitary.

This all may sound rather downbeat, and there’s no denying Viktor is aware of the thick ugliness surrounding his life. A lot of this stems from an almost surreal fantasy plot where the living obituaries he is writing for the local paper become death warrants signed by mysterious criminal organizations. Still, he is determined to maintain a core integrity in the midst of all this madness, a sacred space of self:

A week had now passed with Viktor hammering away at his typewriter and rejoicing in spring and sunshine. And life seemed easy and carefree, despite painful moments and less frequent scruples over his own part in an ugly business. But what, in an ugly world, was ugly? No more than a tiny part of an unknown evil existing generally, but not personally touching him and his little world. And not to be fully aware of his part in that ugly something was clearly a guarantee of the indestructibility of his world, and its tranquility.

In an ugly world suffused with an unknown evil, perhaps the best that can be achieved is just such a personal oasis of calm. It is, in any event, a necessary myth for someone as divorced from the rest of humanity as Viktor.

It’s typical for a novel that explores themes like these to end by affirming or at least reaching toward a sense of connectedness. I’m not giving too much away when I say that’s not what happens here (and since the book has a sequel it’s not the end of the story anyway). Viktor is a man alone, surrounded by people who seem progressively more unreal as he himself becomes more penguin-like. When the unknown evil begins to intrude into his little world there’s really only one place left to go.

Review first published online August 22, 2011.


Darwin’s Bastards

Ed. by Zsuzsi Gartner

When Edmund in King Lear invokes Nature as his goddess and questions why he should be branded a bastard despite having dimensions as compact, a shape as true, and a mind as generous as “honest madam’s issue” he strikes us as a man ahead of his time. Today we’re more comfortable with the idea of nature as lawgiver and the human race as only the successful end result of a series of genetic accidents, and less concerned about questions of social legitimacy. But the story has also grown more complicated. The goddess Nature has, in Zsuzsi Gartner’s words, mated with “humankind’s aspirations to godlike dominion over all of creation” to produce an alien and threatening new world of “genetic engineering, cosmetic pharmacology, avatar sex, Google-brains, melting ice caps, and everything virtual, nothing private.” And in such an environment, “aren’t we all Darwin’s bastard children?”

Happy to go with the cultural flow, this exotic and up-tempo collection of speculative writing – to give it a nice, amorphous title – interbreeds traditional genres like SF, detective fiction, and dystopian satire for a fun look into twenty-three different bastard futures and alternate realities.

“Fun” is not usually a word we associate with a lot of Canadian literature, but editor Gartner uses it in her introduction as shorthand for “entertaining and provocative, punch-drunk on language, fizzing with ideas.” And so in these pages fetuses talk, robots have sex (and babies), the dead are (frequently) resurrected, stars are drawn from the sky, and celebrity has been made a crime. In terms of technique the storytelling tends to be staggered and disjunctive, frequently slipping in and out of different voices and points of view while shuffling time frames.

In other words, it’s writing that keeps you on your toes.

The line-up Gartner has assembled is pretty much a who’s who of younger Canadian writers (with a bit of a West Coast tilt), including names like Yann Martel, Annabel Lyon, Timothy Taylor, Heather O’Neill, Lee Henderson, Stephen Marche, and Sheila Heti. Among the more established names, William Gibson contributes a new story about disembodied spirits in Kitsilano and Mark Anthony Jarman does what he does best – writing about relationships on the rocks – even if this time it’s on the moon.

But if this book has a father, or at least a spiritual godfather whose influence can be traced through the literary DNA of tone, subject matter, and style, it is that avatar of pop-culture bastardization Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s keynote story “Survivor” has him returning once again to what has been a career-long eschatological obsession as the crew of the eponymous reality show scrambles to outwit, outplay, and outlast the other human remnants left over after a global nuclear conflagration. And there is no mistaking the Couplandesque – the vague religious musings, the mysterious workings of celebrity and fame, the cartoonish violence – in stories like Pasha Malla’s “1999” (which has the artist formally known as Prince as the only man left alive after a millennial plague), Neil Smith’s “Atheists Were Almost Right About Everything” (wherein the victim of a school shooting gets adjusted to life in heaven), and Matthew J. Trafford’s “Divinity Gene” (a story about the Jesus code made flesh).

As interesting as all of this is, and I don’t think there’s a really bad story in the mix, the real treats in Darwin’s Bastards come from some less familiar names. Stories by Buffy Cram, Oliver Kellhammer, and David Whitton stand out as entertaining and provocative speculations on class, the environment, and corporate imperialism – issues that make them seem more contemporary than futuristic. But that is the effect all of the best projective fiction has.

In a new digital world fiction itself is going to have to adapt and evolve, become more of a multimedia mongrel, in order to survive. The key will be its ability to connect with an audience. From the evidence collected here, these bastards seem to have the right genes for that.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 6, 2010.

Daniel O’Thunder

By Ian Weir

The label of “historical novel” has now become sufficient in itself to stand for pretty much everything that is wrong with contemporary literary fiction. Fairly or not, we expect these books to be long-winded, conventional-minded morality tales (that morality reflecting modern norms, of course), composed in an inflated, artificial style thought to be the way people wrote in ye olde days, and, it almost goes without saying, dull beyond endurance. It’s easy to forget that in the days of Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas the historical novel was meant to be a form of popular entertainment and escapist fun. That tradition is still alive today – in one of the best recent examples, Neal Stephenson’s swashbuckling Baroque Cycle, Dumas is even thanked in the acknowledgements – but it is becoming an increasingly rare thing.

Daniel O’Thunder, by award-winning screenwriter Ian Weir, is that rare thing. The titular hero is a veteran pugilist in mid-nineteenth century London who also runs a mission house. A rag-tag group of seekers – including a fallen minister, a foul-mouthed child prostitute, a hack journalist, and an old army comrade – are swept into Daniel’s orbit and take turns narrating the story, which builds up to the Hammer of Heaven’s challenging the Devil himself (“with all his Infernal Powers”) to a bare-knuckled bout, London Prize Rules.

Weir makes the plot step smartly, and the language crackles with the first-person immediacy of different voices. Historical background and period mood are less important than the well-paced, character-driven, action-filled narrative. There are murders, rapes, hangings, prize fights, a city-wide riot, and lots of thrilling escapes. “Bangs and whizzes – startling effects – characters who shriek and stab and get on with it,” is how a theatre director explains the way to grab an audience, and one gets the sense it’s a lesson Weir has already learned. He also has more than a few tricks and twists up his sleeve. Identity in particular is at issue throughout, and the reader constantly has to re-assess who Daniel, Jack, Nell, and the Devil really are and the nature of their relations to each other. By the time the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion, which is set in the Klondike during the gold rush, we feel we’re on very shaky ground indeed, drifting between dementia and the supernatural. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories.

All of which makes for a fun trip into the thrilling days of yesteryear. A lot more fun and thrilling than we have come to expect.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2009.

Dance With Snakes

By Horacio Castellanos Moya

“What happened?” the head of DICA asked.
“The snakes,” said Handal, barely stopping.
“What do you mean, the snakes?”
But he was in a rush. He had no time to explain.

Dance With Snakes is a short book in a hurry. Like the assistant police commissioner Handal, it has no time to explain. Everyone we meet seems to be in a rush. They say things like “Let’s go!” and “Do something! The snakes will be here any minute!” One of the main characters is a newspaper reporter, a woman named Rita whose editor is breathing deadlines down her neck. Rita spends a lot of her time running around chasing leads while “feverishly, almost furiously” trying to write her story. That story concerns the surreal adventures of Eduardo Sosa, another man in a hurry, in his case one fueled by rum, cigarettes and cocaine. Along with his serpentine concubines Sosa lays down a trail of murderous, high-speed devastation while fleeing the police. There is violence a-plenty, but rendered in such a way that if you blink you miss it. Moya is the anti-Peckinpah, rushing through carnivalesque scenes of bloody chaos with a haste that paradoxically diminishes their horror:

“Let’s go settle the score with those people,” Carmela [one of the snakes] said decisively. She didn’t want to stop and discuss it and the others were just as riled up.
I got on the stool, took the cardboard off the windshield and took off toward the gas station. I stopped the car at the entrance of the parking lot. I opened the car door and told them the fat guy was with that group over there. I took another swig of rum and lit a cigarette. It was a Friday night and the fun was about to begin. I’d never seen the ladies so furious. Carmela did a somersault and coiled herself around the fat guy’s neck so hard she nearly took his head off. The other three bit him before turning on his friends. The terror spread instantly. Some people were rushing into their cars; others were running to hide in the supermarket. Many didn’t even know what had caused the stampede. I took out my pocketknife and cleaned the dirt out from under my fingernails. In all the confusion, several cars collided trying to escape. A long-haired guy who’d been bitten managed to climb into his brand-new car and tear out at full speed, but lost control and smashed into the gas pumps. First there was a series of small explosions. Then there was a roar so loud I was afraid the explosion would fry the Chevrolet. The ladies scrambled inside, terrified by the fire. I put the car in reverse and managed to get out of the chaos.

This sense of confusion and chaos, with people (and snakes) running and rushing about at “full speed,” infects all aspects of the novel. Here, for example, are the police in hot pursuit . . . of something:

They left headquarters at top speed, tires screeching, the siren blaring as loud as it could go, as if they were on their way to a place where the yellow Chevrolet sat waiting for them. But they were only driving around with no real destination.

One thinks of the sound and fury that signifies nothing. At least explicitly. There is “no time to explain” Sosa’s strange metamorphosis into the drunk he unexpectedly kills for no reason, or the car he adopts being full of supernatural snakes. One supposes the whole thing is a kind of revenge fantasy of Sosa’s. He is introduced to us as the quintessential loser: overeducated (with a sociology degree) and unemployed, living in an apartment with a married younger sister while being supported financially by an older one. “I spent most of my time in the apartment, watching television and reading the newspaper.” From such auspicious material Sosa’s fantasy transformation into celebrity-killer Jacinto Bustillo (“Look at this! We’re on the front page!”) makes a kind of sense. The exploding gas pumps, body-piled crime scenes, and weird sex (yes, with the snakes) are the over-the-top complement to Sosa’s impotent, humiliating everyday existence. Is he a non-entity? Very well then, his revenge will be that of an invisible man. The rest of society – police, army, media, and government – will be powerless to stop his pseudonymous rampage. He will have his cake and eat it too.

Sosa’s fantasy is immature to be sure, but it doesn’t lack for energy. All that rushing around generates a lot of heat. And while it has less of the cruelty of a book like Hubert Selby, Jr.’s The Room, a close generic cousin, it is also less imaginatively restrained. For Moya violence is swift, impersonal, and as universal as the apocalypse. High and low are gathered together in a pressing of the grapes of wrath. Looking at groups of young people hanging around on the street, even Handal has a Travis Bickle moment, wondering “whether it wouldn’t be a good thing to have a few Jacinto Bustillo’s to get rid of all that stupidity.” Revenge, like a snake swallowing its tail, is self-erasing.

Review first published online October 5, 2009.

The Cube People

By Christian McPherson

The title The Cube People has a double meaning in Ottawa writer Christian McPherson’s first novel. Most obviously it refers to the hero, Colin MacDonald, and his fellow cubicle dwellers who work as code monkeys for the Ministry of Revenue Collection. But The Cube People is also the title of an SF novel Colin has written and is trying to get published. Both this book and a Stephen King-style work in progress named Hungry Hole offer imaginative parallels to the bleak reality of Colin’s de-humanizing, bureaucratic existence.

The life-among-the-bean-counters part of the book is well managed and entertaining, even if office comedy is by now familiar fictional terrain. Colin’s fellow employees are the usual set of eccentrics trying to escape the soul-destroying routine of their jobs, which in this case means coping with the absurdity of a “Paperless Office” directive and trying to avoid serving on the Refrigerator Committee. Not much work seems to be getting done, but Colin seems more interested in his collection of rejection letters from Canadian small presses to really care.

The other part of the novel deals with life on the home front, and Colin and his wife Sarah’s vigorous efforts to procreate. The hungry hole here is a cruder metaphor, and the humour a bit unsettling at times in its frank description of reproductive mechanics, but the comic evocation of domestic routines makes for an interesting counterpoint with the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the sex is funny (if too functional to be much fun for the participants), and Colin’s mother-in-law is, as expected, a horror.

What ties everything together is the character of Colin, a dutiful, well-meaning type who acts as a pivot of sanity for the chaos to swirl around. And despite the raw moments, the conclusion is a good-natured affirmation of his core family values.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2011. This book was a surprising departure from McPherson’s dark debut short story collection, Six Ways to Sunday. I wonder what happened.

The Craigslist Murders

By Brenda Cullerton

Near the end of The Craigslist Murders our resourceful anti-hero Charlotte Wolfe, interior decorator, style consultant, and serial killer of Manhattan trophy wives, is having to deal with a number of crises. Chief among these, however, is not her dread at being apprehended for her crimes. In fact, the reader suspects that she might find the media circus of a trial self-validating by making her the target of the paparazzi (earlier she had smiled at one “papp” who had been “polite enough to snap her photo”). Nor is she particularly worried about her mother being taken to the hospital. Again, this might secretly please her. No, what terrifies Charlotte is a market correction leading to clients no longer spending thousands of dollars on flashy toilets and other overpriced furnishings. The next step might be a horrific social descent:

If her clients suddenly tightened their belts, Charlotte would be out of business. Between the anorexic five grand left in the Caymans account that Abe had opened for her and an exhausted credit line, she’d be bankrupt. Then what the hell would she do? Work as a cashier at D’Agostino? A sales clerk at Barnes & Noble? It was surreal, she thought, gazing out at the river traffic on the Hudson where nothing appeared to have changed.

Now this is scary stuff. And I don’t mean that in an ironic way: work defines our lives, and Charlotte probably has a healthy set of priorities. Her mother, after all, was a bitch to her as a child. And as for her victims . . .

Even if she understood it – the loneliness, the frustration in dealing with tyrannical husbands – there was something about the fury that roiled beneath the fa├žade of such grotesquely over-privileged lives that Charlotte found loathsome. That poverty of the spirit – the purposelessness. It was a kind of moral anarchy. Once upon a time, Charlotte imagined that anger might have triggered social change, even revolution. Now all the rage had turned inward. . . .
. . . Charlotte was doing the devil’s work now, because nobody actually lived in the houses that she spent such obscene amounts of money and time decorating. They were designed solely to inspire envy, monstrous amounts of envy. The sterility within these camera-ready homes reflected little more than impotence – the same impotence that prompted the poor to kill.
So Charlotte was cleaning house, so to speak. She was purging herself of that same amorphous, soul-shriveling rage. She was delivering a message, making a point. Greed wasn’t good. And marrying money wasn’t a shortcut. It was a dead end.

It would be easy, but nonetheless accurate, to quickly describe The Craigslist Murders as American Psycho meets Sex in the City, with a distaff Patrick Bateman and updated brand names. This, in turn, may help explain the novel’s disjunctive medley of tones. It is an effective tale of suspense, but satire and social criticism rub shoulders awkwardly with overwrought psychodrama and a rather drippy romance (that has Charlotte melting in the skilful hands of a virile Russian oligarch). The resulting politics are also a bit unclear. If Charlotte is “delivering a message, making a point,” it is one that is compromised by the fact that she so keenly feels the envy she professionally cultivates, wants to marry money herself (and magically overcome its sterility), and is hungry for a taste of that “grotesquely over-privileged” life she so affects to despise.

It’s no wonder the revolution has been a long time coming. Thousands of personal assistants are dreaming, daily, not of killing their employers (as Charlotte supposes), but of marrying them. And the novel itself is a bourgeois form of art that encourages these kinds of daydreams.

If the politics seem muddled, the psychology is opaque. Charlotte sees murder as more than just personally cathartic (though it is all that):

She wasn’t in it for the money, or control or sex and drugs. She was a mercy killer. She was liberating these women; freeing them from their 40-million-dollar, 12,000-square-foot golden cages.

Not an argument you would want to make in front of a judge.

What, finally, is the message then? If you can’t beat them (with a poker, no less), join them? That one’s childhood, or a cruel and unjust economic environment, may excuse all?

There is a point in the book when Charlotte likens New York to Moscow, upsetting her Russian lover. Russian rage, he explains, is directed outward, at something foreign in capitalism itself that unites “the poor man and the rich man” (at least I think this is his point). In the U.S., whose oligarchs are hedge fund operators, such an attitude is tantamount to thoughtcrime. And so the “murderous, suffocating rage” of the people is, like the rage of the trophy wives, transferred, directed inward. Murder, since it cannot be vengeance, finds an outlet as liberation theology.

It’s a conclusion that Cullerton herself seems to want to avoid, slipping Charlotte off the hook by providing her with a repressed childhood trauma. Therapy is always preferable to revolution, even if it doesn’t change anything in the end.

Review first published online May 16, 2011.

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.