Life on Mars

By Lori McNulty

None of the stories in this debut collection from Lori McNulty are set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian influence is never far away, sometimes being felt as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” where a fellow is directed by a squid to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” where the narrator is transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes. Sentences like this keep the reader on their toes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek.” “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

“Metaphor” etymologically refers to a carrying over or across, and in its direct equation of one thing with another it performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme here as metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In the aforementioned “Polymarpussle” story a man becomes a three-eyed god. In “Gindelle of the Abbey” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a new woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery she’s had done in Thailand.

People start off as one thing and end up something else, adding to a pervading sense of alienation and strangeness. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be sure of where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed along with all the other changes going on. There is no “normal” state in play but only dysfunctional families and mid-life crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF” draws its title from an acronym, “Wild Ones Over Forty,” and it deals with a woman of a certain age having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral in an almost supernatural way, as though she’s become a lycanthrope.

Alienated from their significant others, and even to some degree from life on this planet, many of the characters are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2017.


The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Successful collaborations between novelists are rare, as they require a meeting not just of minds but of voices to avoid becoming awkward.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland is one such successful hybrid. It’s also more than the sort of time-travel story you’d expect from the collaboration between an SF author and a writer of historical novels.

Instead of a hybrid, it’s like a variety show: a comic-romance serial with SF, historical, and fantasy elements. Even the time machine – or Chronoton, as it’s styled here – is an incongruous mix of ideas: inspired by the quantum box that Schrödinger’s cat was stuck in, but powered by witchcraft.

Yes, witchcraft. Magic and science are working, if not hand-in-glove, then at least on parallel tracks in a kind of time-travel arms race. How it all works is left deliberately woolly, but the analogy that’s invoked the most is that of time as a bundle of threads representing different streams that can be accessed at certain points, and even disastrously “sheared” if there is a significant disruption. When this happens it’s as though reality turns to Jell-O and a knife is cutting through it.

The main thread of the novel is set in a timeline just slightly off-kilter from our own and tells the story of D.O.D.O., which stands for the Department of Diachronic Operations (it’s a military operation, and their love of acronyms is a running gag). Tristan Lyons is the hunky intelligence officer who gets D.O.D.O. up and running and Melisande Stokes is the brainy student of ancient linguistics who is his first hire. It turns out linguistics is a handy field of study when journeying into the past. As is skill at sword fighting.

The plot is whimsical and chaotic. D.O.D.O. operatives are sent to various points in the past – 17th century New England, Elizabethan London, Constantinople back when it was still called Constantinople – on bizarre missions that have them running afoul of a powerful banking consortium and a coven of witches who might not be the helpful kind.

It’s all mindless fun, but ‘tis the season for beach reads and books for the cottage. Crack the covers and the time will seem to slip away.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 23, 2017.

The Accusation

By Bandi

Fiction in the English-speaking world is mostly post-political, perhaps recognizing that it can’t compete with the spectacle of a reality-TV star as president of the United States, and perhaps just because there are so few meaningful differences between the major parties in our democracies. We have novels that address individual political issues, but few that are interested in exploring the nature and operation of government and the role of the state in our lives.

The fact that The Accusation is the first work of fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea, and had to be published under a pseudonym (“Bandi” means “firefly”), gives some indication of just how different a world North Korea is.

The Accusation takes us across a deep cultural as well as political border. Even the texture of the writing, which has been translated by Deborah Smith – a British translator of Korean fiction who was a co-winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year – gives us a chilly sense of the Cold War era. Bandi is a realistic writer, but from a twenty-first century Western perspective it may seem like he’s describing some dark fantasy set in Mordor, or a futuristic dystopia.

The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, constitute a passionate J’accuse: a political polemic written against North Korea’s communist dictatorship, headed at the time by the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung (grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un).

The picture Bandi draws is unrelievedly grim. His stories have been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s revelation of life in the Gulag system, with the main difference being that in The Accusation all of North Korea has been turned into a giant prison labour camp. Fear has to be instilled at birth if one is going to survive (a process we see happening in the most disturbing story, “City of Specters”). It is a state choked by tyranny, “a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter,” “a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!”

As you can tell from this, the political message is not subtle. The stories make it painfully clear how awful life in North Korea is, with grinding poverty and an economy that at times seems little advanced from the Stone Age. Key themes are the family divided against itself, a world turned upside-down, and false appearance (or propaganda) vs. reality.

The word “totalitarian” gets thrown around a lot these days, which makes it worth seeing what living under such a regime looks like from the inside. The essential point is that the party is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the lives of the people that we meet, mainly through the operation of an army of minor officials that make up a petty and at times sadistic bureaucracy. These functionaries are sinister, alien figures, almost impossible for a Western audience to understand. We certainly have our own time-serving bureaucrats and corporate drones, but the party officials in these stories are totally dehumanized creatures of the state. These are people who have lost their souls.

Big Brother is firmly in charge, and black is white, light is dark. This disjunction between truth and lie is hammered home again and again, beginning with a prefatory poem where Bandi talks of communism’s promised “world of light” and how it has resulted in North Korea’s “truly fathomless darkness, black as a moonless night at the year’s end.” In case you miss the point, which won’t be easy, each story usually winds up with a trumpet blast of climactic rhetoric aimed at the cruelty of the regime and the monstrous hypocrisy of its ideology.

There’s a famous satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula at night that shows North Korea as an empty gap sandwiched between a brightly lit South Korea below and China above. It’s as though the country is a black hole from which even information cannot escape. The Accusation is an angry book, composed in “pure indignation,” but it shines a necessary light on what remains one of the darkest places on Earth.

Review first published in the Toronto Star March 12, 2017.

Strangers In Their Own Land

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of people scratching their heads. Here was a figure with no experience, and whose candidacy seemed little more than a bad joke, upending the entire established political system. A number of books rushed to explain what had happened, and in particular what made Trump voters tick. Of these, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, while not providing a complete answer, is the best we have so far.

Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, takes as her test ground the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana, where petrochemical refining is the main industry. This has led to a lot of local problems with pollution, and Hochschild takes the environment as a “keyhole issue” to understand how people with different political points of view and from different social and economic classes respond to something that affects everyone equally (meaning that they all breathe the same poison air, eat fish from the same dirty rivers, and are threatened by the same sinkholes). How do right-wingers square the damage caused by pollution with their resistance to regulating polluters?

In answering that question three concepts become central: the Great Paradox, the empathy wall, and the deep story.

The Great Paradox is that made famous by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do so many people vote against their own clear self-interest? In particular, why do poor, working-class people vote for governments whose policies actually punish them economically, while only benefiting a tiny elite?

The empathy wall is what divides us from understanding how people with different points of view from our own think and feel. It seems from most reports that this wall is becoming higher, and more and more a fixed part of the American political landscape. Hence the need for the kind of immersive reportage that Hochschild undertakes.

The deep story is a myth, of the kind you get in Plato’s dialogues where someone wants to make a point by telling a story. The story isn’t “true” (that is, it never happened) but it nevertheless represents a felt reality or can be used as a thought experiment. As Hochschild puts it, “a deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”

For Hochschild the deep story explaining Trump voters and Tea Party members is of a bunch of people waiting in line for some promised payoff. Hard work and self-reliance will lead to the realization of the American Dream, or at least some fair reward waiting just over the horizon. Unfortunately, people standing in line see others jumping the queue or being unfairly advanced ahead of them. To their horror they feel themselves actually slipping backward, despite doing nothing wrong and playing by the rules. They feel like strangers at home, and that they have lost honour and respect.

The cornerstone of their faith – and the Tea Party is a religion: “not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of feeling about a place and its people” – is hatred of the government. Not distrust, but hatred. The government has betrayed them. It has taken their money and done nothing to protect them or improve their lives. Instead, they’ve only looted the till, feathering their own nests with public money.

Public servants, they feel, should not get rich for doing their duty. This explains the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s anti-Hillary television ad that asked how she had gotten so “filthy rich” from a lifetime spent in politics. Nor was this the result of a true double standard. One didn’t expect probity or altruism from a reality TV personality and NYC real estate developer, but from a senator and Secretary of State?

In one of the more telling anecdotes in Hochschild’s book she talks to a local man whose idea of public service is modeled on the church, with those doing government work living modestly like nuns. Similarly, tithing is seen as an honour, where taxes are seen as tyranny. As unrealistic as all this may be, it’s a point of view that I think is widely shared.

As for the environment, I’m afraid that message is being lost completely. Pollution, according to Tea Party doctrine, is “the price we pay for capitalism.” Hochschild breaks down one interviewee’s point of view:

Clean air and water; those were good. She wanted them, just as she wanted a beautiful home. But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” An operator job in an oil plant is a passport to houses in Pine Mist. One of those rare engineering job gets you into Autumn Run, and a high management job gets you into Courtland. The Arctic Cat, the SUV, the house: all these, she felt, came indirectly from oil. For its part, the federal government got in the way of both oil and the good life.

This kind of thinking drives progressives crazy, but it isn’t crazy itself. It denies reality (or, in Karl Rove’s deathless words, “the reality-based community”) as well as economic self-interest for what Hochschild calls “emotional self-interest”: “a giddy release from the feelings of being a stranger in one’s own land.” This sense of elation or “high” is what Trump offered, the feeling of “being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” In comparison, what could reality offer? Downward mobility, or moving backward in the line. Of course Trump was only going to make the lives of his followers worse, but you could say the same for any drug.

Review first published online July 19, 2017. Brian Alexander’s Glass House is another excellent work of social reportage on much the same phenomenon. 

The Siege of Mecca

By Yaroslav Trofimov

“Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is today commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible. Thirty years later it is massive, seemingly permanent, and overshadows in importance the American military presence anywhere else in the world.” – Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

Why? Short answer: because of the Carter Doctrine, announced in that president’s State of the Union address in January 1980 where he declared the entire Persian Gulf region to be in the vital interests of the U.S. and therefore under its protection/domination.

Shorter answer: oil.

And why at this time? Because at the end of 1979 there had been an Islamic awakening that had challenged the authority of the Great Powers. On November 4, 1979 the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed. On Christmas Day of the same year the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan. Between these two events, on November 20, a group of fundamentalist terrorists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for almost two weeks.

Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping account of the siege of the mosque tells an important story that I suspect few people today know anything about, and helpfully plugs it into the larger context of militant Islamic radicalism.

Few people even at the time knew what was going on. A news and information blackout, of a kind impossible to imagine today, was enforced by Saudi authorities, to the extent that the different branches of the police and military that were directly involved only had a shaky idea themselves as to what they were up against. This, along with poor training and lack of cooperation, prolonged the siege and led to significant loss of life.

As for the larger political context, in terms of both its geographical and historical importance Trofimov may be guilty of overstating things. While there were foreign elements in the terrorist gang and the Saudi government did need to import some Western talent to advise them on the final assault, the takeover of the mosque was — unlike the Iranian revolution and capture of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a domestic story. Saudi Arabia was then, as it remains today, a mess. The tension between its government and religious establishment, which has been papered over for a century with a free flow of oil dollars, may be unresolvable.

In hindsight, what makes the story of the siege seem so important is the immediate U.S. response: the massive increase in America’s footprint in the Middle East that would in turn lead to ever greater forms of backlash. It’s curious that this is how it played out. Unallied and even antagonistic Islamic groups reacted against foreign (Western and Russian) imperialism, leading to a far greater involvement, or doubling-down of those same foreign powers, which in turn created an even more violent reaction. As Trofimov puts it, “The process leading to massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf – a presence that would motivate droves of jihadis to join al Qaeda in following decades – was set in motion” by the siege. This then became a negative cycle, or spiral of violence, with subsequent generations becoming ever more radical while at the same time being inspired by and borrowing from the rhetoric and political ideas of fringe groups whose earlier apocalyptic imaginings they saw being validated.

This sort of escalation is an old story, and I think we need to start thinking of better options. Carrying a bigger stick into the region hasn’t helped.

Review first published online July 10, 2017.


By Michael Harris

There seems to be no end to the impact of the digital revolution on our lives and its ongoing transformation of the ways we work, relax, socialize, express ourselves, and even think. Clearly technology is changing everything.

Naturally, it is a subject that has been exercising critics and commentators a great deal, and there have already been a host of books on the subject. One of them, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, won the Governor-General’s Award a couple of years ago. With Solitude Harris is back covering a lot of the same ground. Charitably, we might call it a sequel. With less charity we might think he’s repeating himself.

Even the form the presentation takes will be familiar: personal anecdotes alternating with items drawn from Harris’s eclectic reading and interviews he’s done with various experts in the fields of business and psychology. The basic point he draws from all of this is also nothing new. Modern life, and in particular our always-connected technology, is alienating us from ourselves. We need to recharge and reconnect with absence/solitude in order to regain a sense of personal authenticity.

If this sounds like the sort of felt truism typical of a lot of pop spirituality (think of the mindfulness movement, for example), that may give some clue to the source of Harris’s charm. In his hands what are often banal observations take on an air of profundity (or fail, as when we are told that “not till we are lost can we hope to be found”). But he is always an engaging writer, easy to read and capable of expressing his arguments in what are often memorable and helpful ways. His main thesis, that solitude is a beneficial resource that has to be responsibly managed and saved from being exploited by profiteering tech companies and other agents of distraction, is particularly well imagined. The environmental analogy works nicely, finally presenting us with the dangerous possibility of a clear-cut “Easter Island of the mind” and stressing the need to make the preservation of individual solitude (so as to “safeguard our inner weirdo”) a personal mission.

The comparison of solitude to a threatened environment is extended in various ways, culminating in Harris’s visit to an off-the-network island retreat. Such a retreat, however, can also be seen as symbolic of a withdrawal into an intellectual comfort zone. Harris is not big on raising counterpoints, such as, for example, whether our protective weaving of “stronger weirdo cocoons” might be seen as narcissistic. He also allows his argument to spread a bit thin at times. The chapter on the grand, “final and inviolate solitude” of death seems particularly out of place and doesn’t connect all that well with the rest of the book.

There is, however, a strong takeaway. Solitude has real benefits: leading to enhanced creativity, a better understanding of the self, and the ability to connect more fully with others. It is, however, a psychological and emotional resource that is increasingly under assault. We have to be aware of this, and look for ways to defend the endangered singular life.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2017.

Little Children

Little Children
Tom Perrotta

It’s hard to judge little children. They aren’t as morally developed as adults, and are likely to behave in ways that are selfish and irresponsible. At least that’s the generous way of looking at Sarah and Todd, a couple of young married types, each with kids, but unemployed and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Can we forgive these grown-up yuppie kids, or “grups,” their infidelities? Isn’t it the adult world that has in some way let them down?

I really enjoy Perrotta’s eye for contemporary detail and his ironic adaptation of Madame Bovary to the Boston ‘burbs. The one reservation I have is that while all of Perrotta’s characters are presented in a wry but humane manner – as flawed, humorous, and sympathetic – he doesn’t take their lives seriously. Are there, finally, any consequences to their actions? It can’t be a coincidence that the novel begins and ends on the playground, and we spend more time there (and the pool, and the playing field) than we do at any workplace. This isn’t life in a bubble but a bubble chamber. I don’t think a novel, or the novel, should be such a safe space.