Sub Divo

By Norm Sibum

You don’t have to be a student of Northrop Frye’s historical system of mythic modes to be aware that we live in an ironic age, one that invokes past glories mainly as a way of commenting on a degraded present. This has been the default setting for our literature at least since Joyce and Eliot sent Odysseus and Agamemnon on brothel crawls. By now we’ve come to expect such inversions, and so when Norm Sibum opens Sub Divo with Odysseus on Circe’s island, the wandering hero’s resistance to the witch’s temptation involves a familiar undercutting of the epic. Instead of enjoying a “pretty beastliness” on the enchanted island Odysseus would rather be home doing doggy things:

My pleasures? They are a swallow of my own vintage,
My cheese, the goodly scent of my wife’s armpit.
The sight of my old father, my hunting dog –
Yes, come to think of it, my hunting dog –

For the goodly scent of an armpit I think we might read snuffling his wife’s crotch, but really it comes to the same thing. Circe counts such a life mere “wretchedness,” but Odysseus is off with a wagging tail after a quick sniff and kiss of the witch’s cheek. We won’t find any scent here of Tennyson’s Ulysses launching himself into the great unknown, or Spenser’s disdain for Grille and his hoggish mind. Better to leave the realm of gods and heroes alone and revel in earthy humanity.

That earthy humanity is, as the Latin tag has it, sub divo, under the heavens or the sky. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of about it. “Let me say it again,” Sibum says (again):

either pitch your verse at the highest
Pitch, or, chaste as a child playing at jacks,
get down and dirty . . .

Either stay with Circe (and Tennyson, and Spenser, and Homer) or get down in the muck. And though Sibum has an eye for the female form, it is a chaste dirtiness: one that can be likened to a child playing but which is closer to the memories of a veteran re-living past loves, the women won and the women lost. You can hear Roth’s Zuckerman in some of these monologues, with Sibum as the professor of desire. It’s not as big a stretch as that may seem, as Roth’s art is grounded in voice and the poems in Sub Divo are conversation pieces both in style (recall that “Yes, come to think of it . . .”) and form.

The conversations orbit around passions recollected in tranquility. Recollections of lust are made in chaste detachment, and that detachment is also the dominant tone in the collection’s political musings. Here the nod to Horace takes on further relevance, as Sibum dives into the increasingly popular question “Are We Rome?” The analogy is inevitable, arriving “as if preordained.” The torch of empire has been passed and America is “the thing once again made new.” And yet America the New is looking old and worn, “down in the mouth, / Snake-bit, war-maddened, its parts / But jailbait for the banks, morally, spiritually, intellectually spent,”

Fortress America an open-air crypt
of crumbling infrastructure
and advanced weapons systems.

Sibum is censorious, but gives the impression that he is past anger. Again there is a feeling of tranquility, with the model here being Tacitus in his garden, “taking the shade” while chronicling the empire’s corruption, decline and fall. Or, closer yet, Horace, who in his Epistles and Satires provided the model for the later English “conversation poem.” That same model and the consistency of mood is what here holds the personal and political together, private words addressed in public. This glue is necessary as the conversation, especially when our poet is in his cups, is often chatty and indirect, making Sibum’s muse seem “addled”:

war, love, lust, Caesar,
the shenanigans of the financial sector.
Why, they’re all over the place – these verses,
As if I were some shorebird, long-legged bundle of nerves
and aversions
Who finds the shore unstable, the tide treacherous, too many
gawking tourists about
looking for spirituality in the flaming sunset
and I can’t settle anywhere on the beach.

Sub Divo is a book that’s set on that beach. The flaming sunset – of years, of empire – is a retirement destination for some, a violent spectacle for others (I think of a synthesis, the apocalyptic end of West’s Day of the Locust, as I read the lines). And while one appreciates Sibum’s nervous uneasiness, it’s hard not to picture him sitting at a bar and enjoying the show while offering his commentary on time’s treacherous tides.

Review first published online February 18, 2013.

Hand Luggage

By P. K. Page

When P. K. Page subtitles this book a “memoir in verse” it signals something a little less ambitious than Wordsworth’s Prelude. That noble brick of a work was autobiography, not memoir; poetry not verse. While Page’s “long colloquial memoir” covers more territory – it stretches over 80 years and is set in various Canadian locations and diplomatic posts around the world – she doesn’t build up any set-piece “spots of time” or make oracular pronouncements about the mind of the poet, or the nature of her art. Indeed she consciously shies away from such Voice of the Bard moments, preferring a self-deprecating and speculative stance. She confesses “What interests me most / is beyond me.” She has no intention of making things cohere or forcing the past into a pattern. Instead, the more she digs the more questions she turns up.

As an example, she describes her discovery of Virginia Woolf as a revelation, opening her eyes to gender in writing – feminine “negative space” vs. the masculine chalice. Looking back, she adds as a postscript that today she inclines to the chalice again. And then a question that deflates the whole debate without resolving anything: “Is it hormones or mind?”

Not all of her shrugs are so deftly handled. One philosophical inquiry ends in a complaint that it “opens a question too big for my mind” and ideas she is unable to clearly formulate. This seems a cop-out. If a poet can’t formulate or express something difficult, at least metaphorically or through the use of imagery, then they’re letting us down. This is what we read poetry for – a fact that Page later sees fit to recognize: “how come I can’t, / as a writer, find words? It is surely my job!” Surely it is!

In Page’s defense, memoir/memory might be trumping poetry here. Art is the representation of feeling, not the reconstruction of identity or personal history. And here the author does have a formulation handy:

     One’s memories stored,
stashed away, who knows where, have a system unique
as a thumbprint – one triggered by tastes,
by weathers, by vague indefinable wants
and other ineffables – ‘humours’, I think,
is the word I am wanting for moistness and warmth
and temperament, too – for that watery self,
that ox-bowing river that rushes, dries out,
and is quickened by freshets and freakish flash floods.

The alliteration we get at the end of this passage is something we hear a lot of in Hand Luggage, suggestive of the Old English line. Poetry back in the days before English was English didn’t rhyme but instead used alliteration as its organizing principle. A typical “line” of Old English poetry (and, like all such rules, this is a generalization that allowed for variation) consisted of four stresses, and was split in the middle with a heavy caesura. (I put “line” in quotation marks, by the way, because the line as a separate unit of text was a later development.) What linked the two half-lines was the alliteration, with at least one of the stressed words in the first half-line beginning with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line. To illustrate, here is the young P. K. getting started in western Canada, among

Remittance men, ranchers – friends of my family –
public school failures, penniless outcasts,
bigoted bachelors with British accents.

The budding poet discovers herself to be a “tightrope talker” – someone capable of walking the “vocal chasm” between these strange tongues and the authentic Canadian voices she hears in her classroom.

I was deceptive, full of disguises
a poet in residence, a private person
masked as a malamute – mutable, moody –

Page goes lighter on this Anglo-Saxon line later, primarily, I think, because she isn’t much interested in the line anyway. Her main poetic unit in this book is not the line but the verse paragraph. That may sound like heresy to some poetry purists – and I have to admit I found it occasionally disturbing myself, especially when confronted with some of her weaker line endings – but it fits with the book’s anecdotal, colloquial temperament.

As memoir, Hand Luggage is free of sensational revelations or startling epiphanies. Page writes without bitterness or scores to settle, and the overall tone is bemused and questioning – not just in her attitude toward what cummings called “matters arty,” but in her effort to make sense of what happened, to take stock of lessons learned, re-learned, and all but forgotten.

Like anyone who has seriously tried to engage with their own past, Page has trouble reconciling the person she was with the person she has become, the ideal with the reality. Typically we don’t notice these changes because they occur unconsciously. Taking up her last diplomatic post in Mexico Page is shocked to find how little she resembles the woman of her youth. “I wasn’t the person who’d gone / abroad in the fifties,” she realizes. She is ashamed and horrified to discover that she has become less independent, “accustomed to privilege”:

     How it occurred
I couldn’t imagine. Seduced, is the word –
a gradual seduction – and I had succumbed.

The diplomat’s wife on the receiving line is now “this middle-aged woman whom I wouldn’t like / had we been introduced.” And then the piercing parenthesis: “Know thyself . . . ? Take the lumps. You are not who you think.”

And how does the critical impulse respond to this wise call for reserving judgment? Perhaps Hand Luggage is not the book you might think. It has some good poetry, but also quite a bit of uninspired leg-work. And the footnotes, I think, were a mistake. But like any successful memoir, it is also something unique – in this case an engaging and wryly observed re-examination, in tranquility, of the ox-bow twists taken by a watery, ceaselessly questioning self.

Review first published online May 3, 2006.

From Sarajevo, With Sorrow and Yesterday’s People

By Goran Simic
By Goran Simic

Both of these books – one a collection of poetry, the other of short stories – were inspired by the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian-born author Goran Simic, who now lives in Toronto, is witness and survivor of the Bosnian war, and his writing is both “epitaph and testimony” to the experience.

It is not reportage. The poems in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow were written in the belief “that when compared with the cold newspaper reports which would be forgotten with the start of a new war elsewhere, only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war.” A true witness would not be cold but hot. Coolness suggests detachment, escape. It’s an attitude of instant forgetfulness that Simic admits to finding seductive. After days full of horror he would

like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?

But as a poet Simic doesn’t want to forget.

Aside from their disposability (newspapers wrap sandwiches in another poem), what makes the newspaper reports cold isn’t the style they’re written in – Simic’s poetry is frequently as direct and plainspoken as the daily news – but their generic, abstract, and impersonal quality. Plus the fact that they’ve been tidied up. In the poem “Love Story” Simic writes about a pair of lovers shot on a bridge leading out of Sarajevo. Their deaths became a “major media event” as “newspapers from around the world” took angles like “the Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” and “a romantic love which surpassed political boundaries.”

But then the papers got tired of it. The dead lovers became yesterday’s people, forgotten ghosts. After the major media event had run its course their corpses still remained by the bridge as each day “maggots, flies, and crows finished off their swollen bodies.” The stench got so bad soldiers guarding the bridge had to wear gas masks. Simic concludes: “No newspapers wrote about that.”

Simic’s poetry was tidied up as well in the first translation into English of some of these poems, a collection titled Sprinting from the Graveyard published in 1997. In addition to making Simic’s writing more “poetic” (heightening the language and making it less rough and offensive to “Western sensibilities”), this version became the copyright of the translator, turning the original into what Simic describes as a “ghost book.” From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is a re-translation by Simic’s ex-wife of the original work, with the addition of some unpublished pieces also written in Sarajevo during the siege.

It is a ghost book haunted by ghosts. Sarajevo is an unreal city populated by those forgotten by the newspapers, “last year’s story, people who really died last Fall but don’t know it yet.” Where there is no representation, there is no reality: “The TV’s off. There is no war.” This experience of being de-mediaed is given an odd twist by the fact that during the siege a Bosnian daily newspaper twice published Simic’s name among the list of those killed, effectively turning him into a kind of ghost. In the poem “A Short Lecture on Life” he even gets into an argument with his father over whether he is still alive. His father remains unconvinced.

The poetry in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is at turns anecdotal, hectoring, and coolly visionary. It’s all written in the first person, sometimes in Simic’s own voice and sometimes as dramatic monologue, but there’s nothing introverted about it. Its voice is one of witness rather than confession.

The stories in Yesterday’s People, which are also concerned with the Bosnian war and its aftermath, share a similar interest in the people of Sarajevo. In “Minefield” and “The Game” we are introduced to small casts of characters, identified by nickname but fully imagined as real. Simic puts flesh on the ghosts. The stories are also obsessed with “before” and “after,” locations (Sarajevo and Toronto) that are associated with states of mind. “Before” is the past, the place of ghosts that still dominates the present and that none of the haunted narrators can ever escape, even, as the penultimate story suggests, in death.

It’s the same world as From Sarajevo, With Sorrow, but Simic’s stories are more dramatic, even theatrical constructions than his poems. And so while his handling of the short story form is skilful, the effect is less direct. One has the sense of emotion recollected, of a book less possessed by an immediate horror than controlled by invention.

But this is more a tribute to the unique power of the poetry than anything else. In both books Simic successfully composes epitaph and testimony to a people and a place that the newspapers indeed forgot with the start of a new war elsewhere. His writing is a living bridge negotiating the shadow between now and then, here and there, the experience of war and its expression.

Review first published March 25, 2006.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

By A. F. Moritz

The title of this new collection of poems by A. F. Moritz is taken from a painting by Bernard van Orley depicting a scene from the Gospel of Matthew. In the title poem this background of art and myth helps to bring into focus many of the book’s complex yet beautifully rendered themes.

“Van Orley has shown things/ as they are” the poem tells us, which isn’t at all a nod to realism. Plato banished poets precisely because they do not show things as they are, but rather imitate a phantom show of surface appearances. In defence of poetry it might be said that this mistakes the real poet’s aim, which is the construction of concrete universals and ideal (if minute) particulars. Things as they are get changed upon a blue guitar, which in turn only reveals to us more of what they really are. In other words, poetry is a sort of sur-realism, showing us not what is real so much as what is more than real.

Moritz’s penchant for the surreal is evidenced most clearly by his imagery. The sharply limned otherworldliness and grotesquerie he describes in such poems as “Manifestation” and “Industry” are like scenes from Dali. But the surreal is also very much a part of the collection’s philosophical foundation. Throughout many of the poems we find a three-fold conception of reality. In the middle is “fact”: a reality of desolate autumn landscapes and post-industrial burnout. This fact is, in turn, fashioned by authority into a corrupt vision of reality that is superimposed on things as they are. The authoritative vision of fact is associated with lies and propaganda, a word we are confronted with in the first poem as a General describes his hollow conquest of a border country. Propaganda is also the form reality takes in the self-help manual written by the clerk in “Artisan and Clerk” and the “muffled memories/ of ancient eloquence” indulged in by Kissinger at Nixon’s funeral.

But fact itself may only be another kind of vision, something superimposed on a more basic reality that Moritz associates with many favourite Surrealist motifs. Since this reality is imagined as metaphorically “lower” than the one of fact it is evoked through images of roots, night, and dream. It is a world of archetypes that the reader falls into, an earthward urge that ends up evoking a morally neutral primitivism.

“Life’s better now”, but things as they are, which includes injustice, tyranny and oppression, tend to stay the same. The archetype this autumnal world is associated with most frequently is the desert, and so landscapes of desolation frequently recur, presided over by generals, lords, strongmen and upper management.

It is unlikely such a landscape will be redeemed. Christianity seems ambiguously located throughout the collection (including a strangely constructed epigraph from the Gospel of Luke), and is shown in a harsh ironic light in “Artisan and Clerk”:

And we were shaken by a further rumour: of a flaw
in the world, in being itself, and even deeper –

a flaw in salvation. It was said that those ghosts,
even beatified, were eating heaven – that despite
infinity, they would soon consume it all,

have nothing left, and start on their own bodies.
Was this, then, what awaited us? Not likely. We
were condemned.

So much for the “fortunate fall.”

The interpretation offered here may be incorrect but it is at least an attempt at dealing with what are complex poems. Moritz is clearly writing in an intellectual tradition of poetry. (I would say “academic,” but that is too pejorative a term to use.) My own reservations about this direction in poetry I have noted elsewhere, along with my preference for poetry that is more “simple, sensuous and passionate.” This said, it is a relief to find in Moritz a poet capable of maintaining a balance.

He does so mainly through two stylistic decisions. The first is his frequent use of the dramatic monologue form, a useful tool for avoiding the oppressive self-consciousness and therapeutic confession that weighs down so much contemporary verse. The second escape route is his colloquial manner. In terms of their rhythms the poems imitate conversation rather than song. The tone is often understated, and some of the ironies muted as a result but, while quiet, the poetry is not resigned.

As a collection of poems Rest on the Flight into Egypt has highs and lows. Among the former, however, there are some truly excellent poems, including “Manifestation,” “Artisan and Clerk,” “The Little Walls Before China,” “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and “The Lines.” Each of these deserves re-reading, containing much of that hard-to-crack simplicity which is both the essence of poetry and things as they are.

Review first published online November 15, 2000.

The Beauty of the Husband

By Anne Carson

When Boswell asked Johnson to define poetry he received the uncharacteristically unhelpful response that “it is much easier to say what it is not.” Over two hundred years later we still can’t do any better. In the twentieth century free verse rendered rhyme and conventional notions of meter obsolete. The vogue for “prose poems” blurred the line that used to divide prose from verse. One of the simplest definitions of poetry ever offered – writing that doesn’t make it all the way to the right-hand side of the page – was no longer of any use.

It is not surprising then that Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband does not announce itself as poetry at all, but rather “a fictional essay in 29 tangos.” The fiction part is a woman’s story of her husband’s lies and adulteries. The essay is a development of Keats’s ideas that beauty is truth. A tango is described on the dustjacket as something, like a marriage, “you have to dance to the end.”

The reader immediately has the sense of being asked to solve a riddle.

The example of Keats is a big clue. Each of the tangos is introduced by a quotation from Keats, though most of them are from obscure sources and a few remain impenetrable (for example: “She] {Ha?} She D”). It seems, however, as though the pronouncement of Keats’s Grecian urn, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is being treated ironically. For the woman in Carson’s fiction, the beauty of the husband is a lie.

His words are entirely false. His letters are picked apart. His speech is strained through a sieve. And it is found that he has lied “about everything.”

But his skill at artifice also has the poet’s “look of truth” – ironic, layered, elusive. And so the book is obsessed with analysis. Everything we read – passages from Aristotle, the husband’s love letters, lines out of Homer – is material for exegesis. Words are constantly being worried for their meaning. At one point even Fowler’s English Usage gets consulted.

In other words, The Beauty of the Husband really is an essay, but only in the limited sense of an academic exercise. How to read the husband is an analogy for how to read a poem. It is an essay about an essay, and a fiction of self-absorption. The husband folds the poem in upon himself after his wife realizes that she contains the beauty she saw in him.

This excessive inwardness is a hallmark of academic poetry, which is a label The Beauty of the Husband does nothing to avoid. It is difficult, sometimes to the point of being alienating, detached from any of the feeling that might have brought its case study to life, and self-consciously intellectual. As with every scholarly effort, there are endnotes explaining the learned allusions. Poetry is energy and joy. The Beauty of the Husband is just the form.

It is also, for a writer of Carson’s reputation, surprisingly uncertain in tone. A theory of poetry that holds that poetic truth is concealed beneath “strata of irony,” that it is a “two-faced proposition,/ allowing its operator to say one thing and mean another,” becomes annoying in practice. Poets have always written about poetry, but seldom with less confidence.

Poetry is not as popular as it once was, which has had the result of making it introspective and unsure of itself. It is a problem that goes deeper than the increasingly fluid definitions of what poetry is. Calling this book a fictional essay written in tangos may be a significant evasion. When the wife asks herself whether her husband was a poet she can only answer “Yes and no.”

And Anne Carson?

Review first published March 3, 2001.


By John Updike

Not all poetry is difficult. One of the biggest trends in contemporary poetry, for example, has been the rise of anecdotal poetry that speaks in plain language about everyday occurrences. It usually presents a slice of life rounded off with a metaphor (this is poetry, after all) that comes in at the end like a punch line. We might call it observational poetry, composed in the spirit of a Seinfeld monologue, but usually not as funny.

The first poem in John Updike’s new collection, Americana, is sub-titled “Poem Begun on Thursday, October 14, 1993, at O’Hare Airport, Terminal 3, around Six O’Clock P.M.” Yes, this is the world of the quotidian. All of the poems in the first section of the book are connected in some way with air travel, but the poetry only gets off the ground in a scattering of images, like the sky above New York City resembling “the unfilled spaces of a crossword puzzle.” In addition, there are some surprisingly angry and misanthropic riffs on topics such as overhead racks (“Like slats of a chicken coop/ overrunning with dung”) and foreign passengers who look like they might be terrorists. You don’t have to listen hard to hear Seinfeld’s voice in the background: “What is it with overhead racks? Don’t you just hate them? And who are these foreigners anyway? Where are they from?”

To be fair, John Updike has been doing this kind of thing for a lot longer than Jerry Seinfeld. His novels have always had an eye for the mundane details of modern life and a sense that these little things really mean a lot. But in his poetry the narrowness of this focus becomes magnified to an unnerving and unpleasant degree. We see Updike scratching a skin cancer on his hand in “One Tough Keratosis” and getting nicked on the finger by the page of a book in “A Wound Posthumously Inflicted.” We may well wonder if a poet so engrossed by picking a scab and getting a paper cut isn’t wasting our time.

One might also get the impression that Updike is more comfortable writing in prose. While he makes extensive use of the notoriously difficult sonnet form throughout this collection, his casual voice has little music in it.

Take the following example: “How many of us still remember when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung at the turning of the stairs in the pre-expansion Museum of Modern Art?” Few people if they were asked this question would think they were hearing poetry, but in fact this is the beginning of the poem “Before the Mirror.” It appears on the page as:

How many of us still remember
when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung
at the turning of the stairs in the pre-
expansion Museum of Modern Art?

Finally, something has to be said about the promotional blurb on the dustjacket, which tells us that Americana contains “sixty-two poems, three of them of considerable length.” According to my calculations, the three longest poems in the collection are six, five and three pages. In other words, for a poem to be of “considerable length” it now only has to be three pages long.

With its narrowing focus on personal trivialities and strict obedience to Poe’s dictum that a long poem is a contradiction in terms, one has the sense that poetry isn’t dying so much as it is shrinking away to nothing. Is the dried scab of Updike’s keratosis, once it has finally fallen from his hand, meant to be a symbol of the fate of poetry? We may wonder:

     Fighting down
an urge to slip it in my jacket pocket
to save among my other souvenirs,
or else to pop it in my mouth and give
those cells another chance, I dropped it to
the dirty taxi floor, to join Manhattan’s
unfathomable trafficking of dust.

Neither a relic nor a souvenir, certainly no longer part of an oral tradition, poetry has simply become an unnecessary part of ourselves.

Review first published June 2, 2001.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

What did it win?

Samuel Johnson Prize 2008

What’s it all about?

A London detective is called in to investigate a murder at an English country house. He suspects the killer, but she proves to be too many for him. Years later she confesses.

Was it really any good?

It’s kind of hard to go wrong with material this good. Mystery and narrative go hand-in-hand, and the appearance of such an archetypal plot in the wild, “the original country-house murder mystery,” makes for an irresistible read. William Roughead recognized the Road Hill House murder as a classic crime eighty years ago, and his lushly ironic opening is hard to forget:

In the palmy days of the sixties, the memory of which is preserved for us in the evergreen pages of Punch; when skirts were wide, minds were narrow, and whiskers did prodigiously abound; when ladies veiled their graces in chignons and crinolines, and gentlemen, inexpressibly peg-topped, fortified their manly bosoms with barricades of beard; when the cultured delighted in wooden woodcuts of gilt-edged table books, and the vulgar worshipped albums of painfully realistic family photographs; when the outside of cup and platter received much attention, and due regard was had to the whitening of sepulchres, and whatever was “respectable” was right; enfin, about that sincere and engaging period, there resided – to employ the appropriate contemporary term – at Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, one Mr. Samuel Kent, gentleman.

Oh for the palmy days of style – when even non-fiction sounded like this! Today we just want the facts. Economy, economy! Here is how Kate Summerscale begins the story:

In the early hours of Friday, 29 June 1860 Samuel and Mary Kent were asleep on the first floor of their detached three-storey Georgian house above the village of Road, five miles from Trowbridge. They lay in a four-poster bed carved from Spanish mahogany in a bedroom decked out with crimson damask. He was fifty-nine; she was forty, and eight months pregnant. Their eldest daughter, the five-year-old Mary Amelia, shared their room. Through the door to the nursery, a few feet away, were Elizabeth Gough, twenty-two, the nursemaid, in a painted French bed, and her two youngest charges, Saville (three) and Eveline (one), in cane cots.

Oh well. Such is crime writing in the Information Age.

What made the murder into such an excellent mystery was the genius of its author, then sixteen-year-old Constance Kent. In the real world, most criminals are stupid. And they commit stupid crimes. Constance was the exception. Not only did she manage to pull off a daring and complicated murder (of “Saville (three)”), she quite ingeniously manipulated evidence after the fact (destroying a bloody nightdress, then recovering a clean one from the laundry to later claim it had gone missing), and successfully stonewalled the police throughout their investigation. Mr. Whicher may have had his suspicions, but they didn’t hold up in court.

Like everyone else, he appears to have underestimated the girl. After the fact he was prepared to concede “Miss Constance possesses an extraordinary mind.” Extraordinary for its control and discipline, as well as its concealment behind what was, as pictures and contemporary testimony both indicate, a remarkably dull exterior. Here she is appearing at her second trial:

Her face, judged the Daily Telegraph reporter, was ‘broad, full, uninteresting’, with an ‘expression of stupid dulness’. . . . The News of the World described her as ‘dull and heavy, her forehead low, her eyes small and her figure tending to plumpness, and there being an entire absence of anything like vivacity in her air or countenance’.

Those black eyes deeply recessed into a plain, meaty face never gave anything away, and they didn’t miss anything either.

When no more than three years old I began to observe that my mother held quite a secondary place both as a wife and as a mistress of the house. She [Constance’s governess and future step-mother] it was who really ruled. Many conversations on the subject, which I was considered too young to understand, I heard and remembered in after years. . . .

Sadly, we don’t know very much about Constance’s long life after her sensational trial. What it amounted to was prison, followed by residence in Australia with her brother. Even this much was a mystery until her pseudonymous identity was revealed in the 1970s (Roughead says merely that “history knows nothing further of her fate” after her release from prison). From the beginning she seems to have “had a gift for invisibility.” This doesn’t leave Summerscale much to talk about in the final section of the book, which is rather disappointing. The career of William Saville-Kent, marine biologist, seems irrelevant to everything that has gone before, despite Summerscale’s best efforts to rope it in through strained analogies between biology and detective work (“William Kent had a furious curiosity about little things, a conviction that they held the big secrets”). And why the publisher felt the need to include colour plates of William’s illustrations of coral life is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

While I can understand The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher being the most popular book on a non-fiction shortlist, I suspect most of that has to do with the subject matter, the given. I think I would have been more impressed by an author taking a less handy topic and making something of it. While Summerscale does wrap the story in an interesting social and cultural history of detectives and detective fiction, there isn’t a whole lot here that’s new. The most eye-opening moments for me came when using the “note on money” to translate the wages into today’s dollars. Apparently sub-inspectors of factories and marine biologists were very well paid in Victorian England. Oh for the palmy days of such government largesse!

Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2003

What’s it all about?

A fifteen-year-old Texan boy is suspected of being involved in a mass killing. He runs away to Mexico, but is captured and brought back to face trial.

Was it really any good?

It was certainly a divisive choice. Not for the Man Booker jury – its selection was nearly unanimous and immediate – but in the critical response to the award. People were angry at this book, and even angrier that it won such a prestigious prize. Why?

Because it’s a lousy book? No. There have been any number of lousy books that have won the Booker to no great objection. And while Vernon God Little is not a great book, or even very remarkable as a first novel, it isn’t that bad.

Instead, I have a theory that what really fueled the anti-VGL backlash was politics.

In the first place, the Man Booker Prize has been in the news a lot the last couple of years because of all the debate over whether it should take books by American authors into consideration (for my thoughts at the time, see here). So far it hasn’t happened. And now here’s DBC Pierre, a variously transplanted Australian, winning the big prize for writing a satire on America in a Texan voice!

The critics do have a point: V. G. Little doesn’t sound remotely Texan. He doesn’t even sound like a fifteen-year old. He sounds like an adult British Commonwealth writer trying to sound like a Texan boy. His “fucken” obscenities sprinkle the text like they’ve been thrown in by some kind of random writing program. As Twain, a master of the vernacular, understood, bad language is music first, feeling second. It’s part of the sing-song of the natural spoken word. It’s main function is rhythmical. Vernon’s voice is simply too literate, and not just in the obvious ways. Even Caliban, after all, is a poet. I mean in simple little sentences like “The door stands ajar.” Think about it.

So a poor approximation of Texas speech is made worse by the fact that this is an appropriation of voice! And the Booker still isn’t open to the real thing. Where’s the reciprocity? Sharpen the blades.

As if that weren’t enough, this is a book that is anti-American. Writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail, reviewer Ron Charach “wondered if the [Man Booker] judges had fallen for an orgy of anti-Americanism.” American reviewers expressed concern that Europeans – even their strategic allies! – saw the United States as a nation of gun-toting, ignorant rednecks addicted to junk food, Internet porn, and home shopping. Satire is one thing, but you don’t expect to see this kind of stuff winning literary prizes in the New World Order of Bush and Blair.

Again, the critics have a point. Pierre’s satire is over-the-top, cartoonish, and not even terribly original. But I think the political angle gave the response to VGL a lot of its edge. VGL is no more anti-American than, say, Eric Bogosian’s Mall. But “anti-American” is a label now.

(As a final note on the response to Vernon God Little I should say something about the slack reading skills shown by some of today’s professional book reviewers. While Laura Miller’s review in Salon made a number of excellent observations, I had to wonder who “the vacuous blonde Vernon yearns for” was. Taylor Figueroa is blonde? Then there was Michael Lind calling Pierre out on the Texan hayride: “My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest.” Good point. But Pierre makes it himself when he has Vernon say this a little later: “A hayride, gimme a break. We don’t even have fucken hay around here, they probably had to buy it on the web or something.” Let’s pay closer attention to the text folks.)

But while politics may have given the critical knives some edge, the truth is that this is only a decent first novel. And it is very much a first novel. It took me a while before I realized that the subtitle – “A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death” – really was a subtitle and not just a blurb. Who would give a novel a subtitle like that?

At times the writing is downright clumsy. When Pierre wants to introduce a philosophical problem from Immanuel Kant into the text (and just wanting to bring Kant directly into the text is bad enough), he does it like this:

“Man, remember the Great Thinker we heard about in class last week?” he asks.
“The one that sounded like ‘Manual Cunt’?”
“Yeah, who said nothing really happens unless you see it happen.”

So subtle you hardly notice it at all.

At its best, and the book is not without its moments, Vernon God Little is a book about needs. When he stop to show some sympathy for his characters is when they become most real.

Fate puts Vaine Gurie in the Pizza Hut opposite my bank. She sits by the window, hunched over a wedge of pizza. Sitting by the window ain’t a sharp idea for a diet fugitive, but you can see the place is overflowing with strangers. I stop and fumble in my pack, watching her through the corner of my eye. Strangely, I get a wave of sadness watching her. Fat ole Vaine, stuffing emptiness into her void. Her eating strategy is to take six big bites, until her mouth’s crammed to bursting, then top up the gaps with little bites. Panic eating. Here’s me yearning for Mexico, there’s Vaine hogging herself slim, just another fragile fucken booger-sac of a life. I stare down at my New Jacks. Then back at Vaine; detached, sad, and furtive. I mean, what kind of fucken life is this?

Stuffing emptiness into the void. Aren’t we all? “Learn their needs” is finally revealed as the secret of life, a “learning” Vernon has already received before he enters prison. There are the needs of his mother for love, of Jesus Navarro for understanding, the needs of the novel’s many perverts for sex, and the needs of its other villains for fame. Like Vaine stuffing down her pizza, everyone in the novel is hungry, yearning for something to fill the void.

We feel these needs in the novel’s quietest moments. More than once I found myself wondering why Pierre even bothered with the Columbine plot. The book would have been better if it had only been the story of a boy and his mom. Most of the slapstick is comic buckshot, only hitting a fraction of its target, and the stereotypes are narrative lead.

For such a colorful character, DBC Pierre (a pseudonym for Peter Finlay) has the briefest bio-line I’ve seen in quite a while: “DBC Pierre is in the process of writing his second novel.” On the strength of Vernon God Little, I’ll probably read it. But I hope he’ll take some learnings from the first.

The New Industrial Art

“What man, worthy of the name of artist, what genuine lover of art, has ever confused industry with art?” – Charles Baudelaire

When Baudelaire asked that question he was making a rhetorical point. In the twentieth century our attitude has become less certain. Complaints about the industrialization of the arts and their dissemination by global media corporations have taken on a political dimension. In addition to being soft-hearted and fuzzy-minded in a William Morris kind of way, they are also viewed as elitist. Didn’t Walter Benjamin think the loss of art’s “aura” through mechanical mass production was going to be a good thing? Wouldn’t it help bring the experience of art closer to the people? At least the idea seemed credible, even as the debate itself was becoming moot. Finally, as the century came to a close, we had to ask, pace Baudelaire, whether any man (or woman) was able to distinguish between industry and art. Where were we going to draw the line, even if we wanted to?

In my essay “What Has Changed” I looked at some of the features that I think define the spirit of our literary age. As I pointed out in conclusion however, these were really best thought of as ongoing trends. In the present essay I thought it would be worth finishing what I started and consider where those trends are taking us. In doing so, I think it will also be possible to broaden the discussion and consider the likely fate of the arts in general.

Continue reading “The New Industrial Art”

The Gathering

The Gathering by Anne Enright

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2007

What’s it all about?

Her brother’s suicide leads an Irish woman to reflect upon her life.

Was it really any good?

Well-written, but in the end rather weightless. One thinks of Enright’s own description of the book as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy.” Essentially it tells the tale of an upper middle-class woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Liam’s death is the trigger, but Veronica’s memories of him are as vague and indistinct as his ghostly apparitions. One suspects that what’s really getting her down is the fact that she’s getting old. The kids are growing up, sex with her terribly-decent-but-boring husband isn’t happening, and even shopping no longer provides a thrill (when she goes to the mall she just starts to cry). Booze helps, but mostly what she needs is to get in a car and drive, get in a plane and fly – find some time alone. Though solitude itself can become a drug.

One of the consequences of getting older is that we become more aware of our bodies. And it is an unpleasant awareness. Veronica’s distaste for the body (her body, any body) is reflected in her choice of language, which emphasizes gross physicality. Typical is the description of her mother – one of a generation of parents who “bred as naturally as they might shit” – as a “piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room.” Now in her seventies, her hands are “a tangle of strings and knobs and bones, like ship’s rigging.” But at least dear mammy’s breeding days are over, which inoculates her from the worst of Veronica’s imaginings. These tend to be fixated on a spot just below the waistline, occupied by threatening erections (the so-unlikely spawn of “a purple thing on the verge of decay”) and Arcimboldish vulvae (“her pubis like the breast of an underfed chicken,” “the meaty flower of my cunt”).

Yes, I think it’s fair to say, this is a woman with body issues. Ones that even infect her sense of loss:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling – somewhere between diarrhoea and sex – this grief that is almost genital.

I like this for its disorienting effect, though I have to admit I’m not sure I fully get it. That may be a function of my male perspective. On the other hand, I pulled a total blank on Nugent’s feeling something “stir in the deep root of his penis.” What, or where, is that? His prostate?

The book’s structure has its work cut out trying to overcome the terrible “I have a secret” opening sentence: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.” You can be damn sure from this that you won’t be finding out what might have happened in her grandmother’s house anytime soon (the revelation, for those of you wanting to skip ahead, starts on page 142 of the paperback). And while such an opening alerts us to the fact that this will be an unreliable narrative, the reasons for this are, in my opinion, a bit dodgy. Apparently what happened in grandmother’s house has become a repressed memory, revolving around some experience of child sexual abuse – “probably” of Liam, possibly of Veronica herself. Which would explain her attitude toward erections.

The key to it all is Veronica’s belief that “History is only biological . . . What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.” As I read it, this does not mean that we are all genetically determined. Instead, we somehow create our own biological past and future destiny through a process of selective memory: “We pick and choose the facts about ourselves – where we came from and what it means.” Which means that perhaps the threatening penis is something from a later period in her life (she tells the story of one ambulatory erection chasing her into a church) that she has projected into her past.

Then again, maybe she means something else entirely.

What I found most disappointing about the book was Enright’s inability to create any memorable or even interesting characters around Veronica. Liam is left a blank. The siblings all blur together. Husband Tom is a boring professional type and daughters Rebecca and Emily a pair of names. Even Ada failed to stick in my head.

At least one reason for this is the lack of dialogue. The entire third chapter is built around the notion of nothing being said. Action is interior, conversation something felt and understood. This is a shame, since Enright can fashion realistic dialogue. Realistic, however, doesn’t always mean gripping. The things we say rarely are. Like a fight over cleaning the dishes:

“What are you doing?” says Bea to her.
“Clearing up,” says Kitty.
“Oh. No, please do. Please do clear up.”
“Fuck off.”
“No, there’s always a first time.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Well, scrape them first, would you? Scrape it, would you? Scrape it, and stack it over there.”

This is the background music of the gathering. Which may be why, for melancholy, withdrawn Veronica, it remains a gathering of one.