The Man Without a Face

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN
By Masha Gessen

In a 2013 review of the book Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, David Runciman had this to say about the author’s line-up of the four people who changed the world in 1979:

If you had told someone at the start of 1975 that the architects of the new age were going to be the MP for Finchley, the bishop of Krakow, the exiled ayatollah and the ostracised apparatchik, you would have been laughed at. Apart from anything, they looked so powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t yet spot who is going to make the difference this time round.

I was reminded of this in reading Masha Gessen’s account of the “unlikely rise” of Vladimir Putin. Five years before taking power as Russian president Putin was a little-known functionary in the government of Saint Petersburg. Five years before that he’d been a typical KGB loser stationed in East Germany. Like the Soviet Union itself, he seemed to be stuck in a rut going nowhere.

What happened?

That’s a hard question to answer, as much of Putin’s early political career is shrouded in mystery. The final step, however, his selection (one can’t say election) as president, seems to have been the result of the decisions of a group of people who underestimated him. He was seen as someone blank and dutiful: the perfect placeholder to manage the affairs of the new elite. He had other plans.

People don’t underestimate Putin as much these days, though he is still not well understood. In this account we can glean a few points. He hates democracy. He is very cynical about the media, seeing it either as a lying enemy or as a tool to be used to control the masses. He is greedy for the most vulgar material things. He likes to power trip. He is intelligent, but conceals it well behind a surprising vulgarity. Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, would express his admiration for Putin’s strength as a leader, but he probably recognized more familiar qualities as well. As Gessen concludes:

What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book – shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed – was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison. If you had told someone only a year before the American election that the next president would be the much-mocked billionaire host of a reality TV program you would have been laughed at. And yet, here we are.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2017.

Strike Anywhere

STRIKE ANYWHERE: ESSAYS, REVIEWS AND OTHER ARSONS
By Michael Lista

It’s a shame that so much of the little discussion of book reviewing we have in this country gets hung up on the label of whether it should or shouldn’t be “negative.”

The charge of negativity is a hard one to shake. In popular culture the bias toward liking things is deeply ingrained. One thinks, for example, of the long struggle to have Facebook include a “dislike” button (because what sort of a terrible person would dislike something?). We shouldn’t be surprised that the default position for book reviewing is relentlessly and strictly upbeat, and that any contrary opinion is going to stand out.

As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a “negative” critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality, and intelligence that makes the best of them worth re-visiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.

A book like this also raises a pair of questions about literary criticism in Canada today that are worth pondering.

In the first place: why is poetry criticism in particular so active? In the last few years there have been a whole shelf of excellent collections of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry published, but next to nothing addressing the state of our fiction. Why is that?

Second: why is popular literary criticism, the kind addressed to the general reader, being written almost exclusively by freelancers or columnists like Lista? None of the best books of literary essays and reviews written in the last several years has been by an academic. Where are the professionals?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we can at least be happy that the flame of criticism is being kept alive, and likely to strike anywhere.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 21, 2016.

Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991

Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991
Orlando Figes

Historians love defining historical periods, and in the absence of clear markers will happily make up their own. So here we have a history of “Revolutionary Russia” that takes us not from the Russian Revolution in 1917 but rather from 1891, when a famine crisis set the public “for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy,” and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Orlando Figes calls this “a single revolutionary cycle” but I don’t know how cyclical it is, and I don’t buy the starting point at all except as an excuse to make said cycle a neat hundred years.

Matters of periodization aside, this is a decent overview of Russia in the twentieth century, though it’s much stronger on the early days of the Revolution than it is on what happened after Stalin. On the failed reforms of Gorbachev (meaning they failed to achieve what he intended them to achieve), the coverage and analysis is particularly thin, and there is only the briefest of nods to the Revolution’s aftermath. This is disappointing, as we still need to come to grips with what the legacy of Communism was, and what it might yet turn into.

Congratulations on Everything

CONGRATULATIONS ON EVERYTHING
By Nathan Whitlock

“Congratulations on everything,” is a dismissive, sarcastic remark. It means congratulations on nothing. But this is being overly judgmental. A lack of achievement doesn’t necessarily hold anyone back.

Congratulations on Everything, Nathan Whitlock’s polished and confident second novel, isn’t about people who are successful at getting things done. It’s about a man with a plan, or at least a dream. But like so many of us, he doesn’t really know what he’s got till he’s got it, and then somehow managed to lose it all.

The setting is a cozy restaurant-bar named the Ice Shack, located in a strip mall. The proprietor of the Ice Shack is Jeremy, a middle-aged bachelor who is essentially decent but in perhaps too self-regarding a way. It’s significant that we never learn Jeremy’s last name, as he is a pure cultural product, his moral compass and sense of self fashioned by the platitudes of bestselling personal-empowerment author Theo Hendra.

The Ice Shack isn’t just Jeremy’s home, it’s his world: being the owner-operator the realization of a lifelong dream. We can infer from this that Jeremy is not a larger-than-life, heroic figure or even someone who has set the bar of his ambition very high. As he realizes at one point, “Most of the big life possibilities he truly cared about could be found within the [Ice Shack’s] four walls.”

Much like Patrick, another small-business owner operating out of a strip mall and hero of Whitlock’s previous novel, A Week of This, Jeremy is someone who has found a level. A level, in his case, that while low might still be a bit too high.

Despite spending his entire professional life in training for the job, Jeremy is often clueless when it comes to running the bar. He doesn’t understand the Internet, makes poor financial decisions generally, and gets romantically involved with a younger, married employee, a waitress named Charlene.

In all of this one senses an inevitable fall, albeit one from no great height. You know all this is going to end in tears, and our hero should as well. There’s a bad moon rising and Jeremy, we are told, “like an animal that sensed changes in the air pressure and took shelter before a storm, could usually tell when these kinds of things were on their way, but this time they completely blindsided him.”

That’s not a spoiler. Whitlock provides an immediate heads-up, looking forward at the end of the first chapter to when “everything fell apart with the Shack and everything else.” We also know that Jeremy, “with this skinny legs and dumb gut,” isn’t cut out to be a tragic figure. His story will not be tragic but only “something close to tragic.” He is an ironic figure: the kind of guy we just have to smile and shake our heads at.

But what Congratulations on Everything is really about is its setting. By this I don’t mean romantic natural vistas. The only nature we catch a glimpse of in the novel is a river running through a ravine behind the bar and a lake in cottage country, neither of which is picturesque or a source of spiritual renewal. Instead they are both seen as dirty and dangerous, while the Ice Shack is imagined as a sanctuary, “an ark that would float away safely with everyone inside when the waters rose again in the world.”

Instead of nature, the setting is the familiar urban, social, and media landscape that defines so much of our lives without our ever being aware of it. Jeremy both comes out of this cultural landscape and is finally absorbed back into it, born of self-help guidebooks and finally becoming a mere human interest story, background noise on TV. But by the time this happens the book’s focus has shifted to Charlene, a more complicated and mysterious character who also balks at tragedy, settling on being sad and resilient.

Despite the sub-optimal outcomes of these limited lives, Congratulations on Everything isn’t a dreary or depressing novel. Whitlock is a smooth, assured writer with a patient comic touch. The scene where Jeremy attempts to get his sister and brother-in-law to invest in his failing business is just one example of the acute subtlety and gentle humour at play. Jeremy evokes our sympathy even as he flounders in pathetic embarrassment. He has a good heart.

What it means to have a good heart is to want to do good. Jeremy has a mission: he wants to help people, to be a mentor and shape lives through constructive, empowering advice. So what if his role model Theo Hendra is exposed as an egregious fraud? Even a fraud can have a positive influence.
The realization that there are limits to how much we can help others even with the best of intentions may be cause for despair, but Jeremy is determined to remain optimistic and soldier on even as he loses faith in his ability to make a difference.

It might not seem like much, but there’s something heroic in that.

Notes:
Review first published online December 29, 2016.

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.