canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Safety of War
by Rob Benvie
Coach House Books, 2004

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

The main character of Rob Benvie’s Safety of War, David, is a meek and feckless, late-twenty-something Haligonian employed at a mind-numblingly tedious advertising agency wherein he spends his days trying to look occupied and fabricating timesheets, futilely arguing with higher-ups about grammatical errors in ad copy, and absently photocopying photocopies:

Many times David ­ in sustained moments of loathing for his co-workers ­ had imagined them as some insectile colony toiling together as a factory manufacturing futility....Work: foray of the subjugated, the tarry crude of imagination’s dearth. David: another envoy of the slow sucking parasitism of proliferation, the packaging of contemptible informations. This was a life, this is a life, someone leads....A life of plopping ass on cushioned seats, adjusting weights, grasping handlebars, drawing handles to chest. Repeat. Inhale exhale, release. Regrasp. Exert. Run distanceless races. (p162)

This is a dreary and bleak reality David inhabits. He does possess enough imagination to wonder why no one else mourns the lack of freedom or meaning in their lives. Wonders why no one else seems to notice that, with each successive (metaphorical) photocopy, their lives and realities lose more and more resolution and clarity until everything and everyone blurs into a homogenous blob. But he doesn’t possess enough ambition or charisma to do anything about it. His solution, such as it is, is to immerse himself in late-night, solitary, semi-drunken viewings of various war movies, particularly George C. Scott’s biopic Patton, a fictionalization of General Patton’s travails in Africa during World War II:

War is dizzy. War is late at night. War thunders in the living rooms of the half-asleep, the semi- alive. In war there is only the arena of sacrifice.…Our spirited drive reimagines Patton at Messina, Hannibal targeting Rome; but in lieu of tusked steed we have the coach bus, the sport utility vehicle.…In war there is no love and no whipped cream and no fizz and no tweezing and no silk panties; there is no love because war is love, and war is shit. (p215)

This is the principle subtext of Safety of War: present society superficial and meaningless; the past meaningful and honourable. There are occasional flashes of humour and absurdity to leaven the bleakness of this reality, but, as one might glean from the two above-quoted passages, Benvie’s prose is quite wordy and lugubrious. Certainly Benvie has a talent for stringing together great sprawling sentences of almost Beat-like text, but this sprawl smothers most attempts at humour. Not to mention the plot...

David has few people in his life, beyond his drone-like co-workers; his remarried mother lives in Europe and his father is dead. When not haunted by the spectre of his drunken, failed father, he spends time with two women: his younger cousin, Lisa, a troubled, pot-smoking, samurai-sword-collecting teenager, and Sarah Promise, a vamped-up, coke-snorting voiceover actress. 

Lisa admires David, for some reason, and there exists between them a sexual tension that seems one of the most authentic and compelling aspects of the book. Their scenes together possess a spark and vitality that brings Benvie’s over-saturated prose to life. Sadly, such scenes are few. Rather, David spends more time with Sarah Promise, in a relationship that teeters on the edge of cliché: a nerdy, inhibited, spineless man taken up by a domineering, beautiful, free-spirited woman who will teach him how to live properly so he can truly appreciate himself and the beauty of life.

Said attempts at proper living begin with a trip to Chaos Farm, a wilderness retreat build over a convergence of tectonic plates and leylines headed by an attention-deficit-disordered guru who alternately spouts bon-mots of wisdom from Krishna, Aleister Crowley, and Tina Turner. Over a bit of late-night conjuring, David raises some sort of demonic-hybrid of his father, General Patton, and George C. Scott, which duly escapes and wreaks havoc. David must traipse across country in order to hunt it down and destroy it. This hunt is, presumably, the central plot of the book. That the plot isn’t really established until partway through the second half of the book illustrates how drawn out Safety of War is; nor does the hunt amount to much more that David miserably hitching rides with profundity-spouting truckers and hanging out with pot-growing Nascar fans.

At the core of Safety of War there is a potentially compelling and entertaining tale. Two, perhaps: David’s literal battle with demons and his near-illicit relationship with his cousin. But the sheer amount of words ­ however imagistic and poetically strung together ­ overwhelm these two tales, making for a cumbersome and tedious read. Pared down, this could be a thoughtful and humourous book.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto musician and writer. Read/listen to his work here: 







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.