Deliverance

Deliverance
James Dickey

The survivors will be safe because the CSI state (“stupendous filing systems, IBM machines tirelessly sorting punch cards, one thing being checked against another”) isn’t yet fully developed and because nobody talks about fight club (i.e., what happened on the river). Though Ed is telling us the story, which may make us wonder.

In any event, the inspiration for Palahniuk’s novel is hard to miss. Lewis is Tyler Durden, so muscular he has veins even in his gut and obviously a focus of homoerotic attention for the narrator. He offers a kind of violent salvation. The city men are stuck in “the long, declining routine” of their lives. Ed, stricken with apathy and looking for a way out of his professional rut (sliding, or “living by antifriction”), is also an American type, like Thoreau looking to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The canoe trip will be his release, his deliverance from a fake reality.

Does it still resonate nearly fifty years later? I would have thought the men’s movement’s return to the woods (Iron John, etc.) would have dated it more, but I guess given the success of Fight Club we’d have to say part of it very much still works. The river is gone, but it’s like a primitive, submerged stream of unconsciousness even in our digital minds.

Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich
Ann Brocklehurst

What makes a crime of special interest to the wider public? A combination of the unique and the particular. The murder of Tim Bosma by Dellen Millard and Mark Smich struck a chord because of its randomness and the sense that it could have happened to anybody.

Bosma was a target literally pulled off of the online classified ad site Kijiji, where he had posted a truck for sale. Anyone could relate. At the same time, homicides committed by total strangers are very rare. Also very rare are homicides in the commission of a robbery where the killer has no need to steal anything in the first place.

Ann Brocklehurst’s account of the case and subsequent trial is well-paced and informative, though she’s limited both by the need to be first to press (Millard has two trials yet to come, which should fill out the back story considerably), and the still mysterious matter of motivation. No psychological profile is attempted. Presumably Millard — who was clearly the mastermind and instigator, whatever Smich’s culpability — was a wealthy thrill killer, on the Leopold and Loeb model though with less intelligence. We may think of such evil people as falling into two categories: the abused and the enabled. We make a big mistake if we don’t pay equal attention to the bad seeds of privilege.

The View from the Cheap Seats

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author whose interests run to just about everything. He has written journalism and criticism, comics and graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy and horror, children’s books, and screenplays.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a selection of Gaiman’s non-fiction that puts this eclecticism on full display. Included here are essays, public lectures, interviews, forewords and afterwords, introductions and even reportage from the refugee crisis in Syria. The subjects dealt with range from appreciations of individual novelists (classic and contemporary, from Poe and Lovecraft to Douglas Adams and Stephen King), to thoughts on genre fiction, movies, music, and more.

The tone is gentle and genial throughout. Most of these pieces are explanations of why Gaiman likes someone or something so much. So The 13 Clocks by James Thurber “is probably the best book in the world,” The Bride of Frankenstein is “my favorite horror film,” and “Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he’s ever done.”

There are slack moments. It’s a big book and the praise sometimes slides into banality or hyperbole. A few of the more frankly promotional pieces might have been cut.

The core of it, however, offers up a thoughtful consideration of the writing life and an earnest and practical guide on how to live it. Gaiman keeps coming back to the question of what writing is for, and as he goes along he provides a lot of helpful tips – often by way of concrete examples – on how to “make good art.” This is what matters.

The title, which comes from Gaiman’s account of attending the Academy Awards in 2010, points to a nice dual perspective. Sitting in the mezzanine at the Oscars Gaiman is a wry observer of the proceedings, but he’s also gathering material. These are roles he often plays in these essays: performer and audience member, the fan and the man at the podium saying a few words. In either role, however, he is a writer at work, and loving what he does.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 11, 2016.

Zero K

ZERO K
By Don DeLillo

Since the publication of his epic novel Underworld in 1997, Don DeLillo has turned toward writing sparer, more abstract and philosophical works. The characters are isolated, physically and emotionally, from everyone but their immediate family, and they spend a lot of time reflecting on life’s big questions, with the biggest being what the point of it all is.

Zero K is a slim, speculative, humorous novel that sticks to this ground. As it begins, Jeffrey Lockhart arrives at a remote facility located somewhere out in the Central Asian desert. Dubbed the Convergence, it is a repository for people of means who want to skip death and be preserved for later reanimation in “cyberhuman form.” They will get to buy their own personal end of the world.

Jeffrey’s tycoon father Ross (“master market strategist, owner of art collections and island retreats and super-midsize jets”) and step-mother Artis (who is dying) are two candidates for this transubstantiation. Ross’s fantastic wealth means that money is no object, which lets the action take place on a certain level of abstraction, removed from the more mundane matters of existence and the “thinness of contemporary life.” People like the Lockharts are only interested in final things.

Zero K is not a novel with a plot so much as it’s an essay on certain themes. Like most of the people we meet in late DeLillo, Jeffrey is obsessed with semantics, as though trying to hold on to a belief in the significance of words and names as language dissolves around him. Another recurring motif is life, or the body, as a kind of performance art. Even the end of the world as we know it is reality TV. Which means it may not be real at all.

The overarching vision, however, is of the techno-apocalypse. The Convergence is also the Singularity, a digital rapture that will bring about a new heaven and earth. It is a process that has already begun, as we feel ourselves becoming “virtualized” and “unfleshed.” Systems are taking over: “transparent networks that slowly occlude the flow of all those aspects of nature and character that distinguish humans from elevator buttons and doorbells.”

It’s hard to tell how optimistically, or even seriously, DeLillo views these developments. Throughout most of Zero K his tongue seems pretty close to his cheek. But however you choose to read him, he has laid claim to a unique perspective on the zeitgeist and its dreams of things to come.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 8, 2016.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Alan Schom

Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.

Hamburger

HAMBURGER
By Daniel Perry

The stories in Daniel Perry’s debut collection Hamburger are arranged in three sections: coarse, medium, and fine. These are three methods of grinding hamburger meat, so there’s a link to the book’s title (which is also that of the first story) as well as a very rough breakdown of the forms the stories take. The “coarse” stories are quite short – one consisting of a single sentence and most of the others only running for a few pages. The “medium” stories average around ten pages each, and the final section, “fine,” consists of a single story divided into three parts.

Tastes in hamburger vary, but Perry’s shorter pieces are the most successful: narrow slices of contemporary life dealing with characters who seem to have just missed epiphanic moments, as though being late for a bus. Relationships slide apart, and often appear not to have been based on anything concrete in the first place. In several cases, people aren’t even sure who it is they’re not quite connecting with.

The first story sets the tone, with its Updikean wannabe-writer hero reading Updike in a hamburger joint while connecting on some imaginary romantic level with a teenage counter girl. We are in a landscape of fast food and garbage, with the two often being equated (the story begins with an image of dumpsters that “serve hungry truck mouths”). Junk food continues to be a leitmotif in a number of the stories, both through characters working in the fast food industry or, on a metaphorical level, standing in for our disposable culture. Junk news, for example, finds its way into a local newspaper in the story “Gleaner,” disrupting lives in the process. Even junk news, it seems, can reveal truths. Even a “crappy, point-and-shoot” picture reveals beauty.

In the longer pieces Perry seems less at ease. The writing continues to be brief and discontinuous, more grounded in revealing moments and impressions than in conventional narrative. In a couple of pieces – “Vaporetto” and “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” – a self-regarding note enters that suggests discomfort with such conventions. Hamburger is a book with flavour, but it’s best enjoyed in small bites.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, June 2016.

Napoleon

NAPOLEON
By Paul Johnson

The format of the “brief life” invites simplification, and with it overstatement and error. Paul Johnson begins this condensed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by remarking that the French Revolution was an “accident” “because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means.” This is a crazy assertion, if only because there is no historical parallel between what happened in Britain, over hundreds of years and in a very different context, and what happened in France during the Revolution. Nor is there any grounds for Johnson’s “what-if” speculation that if Napoleon hadn’t sold Louisiana, for a song, to the United States he might have built an empire of French liberty in America. France couldn’t even settle Quebec, so they certainly weren’t going to build a new nation west of the Mississippi.

Later, in the same paragraph (and we’re still in the Introduction) Johnson goes on to say that “It does not seem to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law.” Again, this is to draw a comparison to two vastly different historical contexts, and in the end doesn’t really tell us much aside from the fact that Washington and Napoleon were working towards very different ends, with very different routes available to them for achieving their goals. As Robespierre had put it, “America’s example, as an argument for our success, is worthless, because the circumstances are different.”

Finally (we haven’t left the Introduction yet) we are told that France’s “inevitable” “slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status . . . was Bonaparte’s true legacy to the country he adopted.” While admittedly the Napoleonic era was France’s last turn at dominating Europe, to say that its subsequent decline was Naploeon’s doing is hard to credit. One can think of other factors that may have played a part. Was German unification under Bismarck Napoleon’s legacy Napoleon’s fault? Well, some of his harsher critics have said as much. But the rise of the United States? The First World War? Indochina and Algeria? The Cold War? At one point can we let Napoleon off the hook?

Just from these few examples you will be able to tell that in the endless debate among historians between the Good and Bad Napoleon, Johnson is going the latter way. In this he follows Alan Schom, the Napoleon biographer he is most temperamentally akin to (but who doesn’t get a mention in the list of Further Reading). What the Bad Napoleon usually means, and what it means here, is drawing a line between Napoleon’s example and the horrors of more recent history. In short, that the state he invented and dominated was “the prototype of totalitarianism in its twentieth-century manifestations.” The Revolution that Napoleon embodied “created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.”

Did Napoleon have his contemporary apologists, even worshipers? Certainly, but there have always been such useful idiots:

In the twentieth century, this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Staline image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshiping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps. Similarly, the cult of Bonaparte was originally wide, but it did not last.

That final point may be chalked up to wishful thinking on Johnson’s part. Napoleon still has many admirers, and indeed the Bad Napoleon, at least of this black a stripe, is probably the minority view among historians. The thing is, most historians know that few people are all bad, and when penning a hatchet job on a political leader it’s always worth remembering that there must have been some qualities that propelled them to eminence in the first place. This is a problem Ian Kershaw had in his biography of Hitler, where he was left throwing his hands up at how such a man without qualities or “empty shell,” in his analysis, had risen to power. A more extreme example can be seen in Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. As I said at the end of my review of that book:

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

How much more important is a fuller portrait in the case of a figure like Napoleon, who was a genuinely popular leader?

Of course a biography of Napoleon that comes in under 200 pages is always going to be incomplete. In this case, however, it is also unnecessary because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a good read, but should be taken as more of a conservative essay on its subject than a life.

Notes:
Review first published online October 10, 2016.