canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Six Ways to Sunday
by Christian McPherson
Nightwood Editions, 2007

Hope and Other Urban Tales
by Laura Hird
Canongate Books, 2006

Film Club
by David Gilmour
Thomas & Allen, 2007

The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford
Knopf, 2006

Mao II
by Don DeLillo
Penguin, 1991

Sputnik Sweetheart
by Haruki Murakami
Harvill Seeker, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

As I sit down to write this review in late-2007, I ponder the ideal conditions for the writing of book reviews. I imagine a beach, an umbrella, a blanket and a big, fluffy pillow. No, wait! That's my other fantasy. Sleep! Ah, this past year hasn't been an ideal one for me, in terms of providing time for leisurely pondering literature. But it has been deeply rich and rewarding none-the-less. Life/art: it's not so divided, is it? Less so I think now than I once did. In the past six months, I have married, moved twice, started a new job and become a step-father. Among other things. I have also managed to read a few books, and now I am finally getting around to writing about them, some of which I last saw months ago. (What box are they in now?)

Six Ways to Sunday by Christian McPherson and Hope and Other Urban Tales by Laura Hird make a good pair. Both are grit-lit, noir, "urban fiction," or whatever moniker you prefer. These two collections of short stories feature characters on the darker edges of society. Hird writes out of Scotland, and McPherson is Ottawa-based. Yet, these two writers share a common literary topography: sex, drugs and tawdry weariness. There is a tone of complaint and pain in these stories. You know the territory: Bukowski, Firth, Harvey, Bolen, Fante.

Upon reflection, months later, what remains? A curiosity that Scotland and Ottawa could produce such similar writers. But then literature creates its own continents. I also remember Hird's title story best: the ironic play on "Hope," a character with a unique sense of optimism. Hird's diction is clear, her language journalistic: as the genre demands. Similar sentiments could be said of McPherson's prose and narratives. I remember best his story about the girlfriend who wants to be pregnant. That one seemed to transcend the genre; it reached for a bigger sense of hope, while remaining rooted in its origins. Both of these writers "tell it like it is," while also suggesting mysteries remain to uncover.

Film Club by David Gilmour is a memoir that circles around many mysteries: fathers and sons, how to get over a girl, why Marlon Brando was the best movie actor ever. Film Club is also arguably "grit-lit." It is the story of the author's son, who dropped out of school at the age of 16, watched three films a week with his father, broke up with two beautiful girls, suffered heart-ache and youthful confusion, OD'd on cocaine, formed a rap group and worked low-end jobs in Toronto kitchens. In short, it's the story of a father's unconventional attempt to help his son navigate the transition from boy to man. And it's a highly compelling read; I couldn't put it down.

Gilmour's son asks him if he ever gets anxious. Of course he does. Then his son says he used to get anxious that he would fail in school. Now that he's out of school, he gets anxious that he'll fail at life. So he smokes, and he gets anxious that he'll get cancer. What can a father say? Get used to it? The "quality" of your anxiety changes as you get older, Gilmour says. You worry about more important things. The reader can step back and take the broad view: the important things: like how a father helps a son grow up. How is this achieved? There are many strategies, surely. Gilmour's book is remarkable in articulating some of them, including a tremendous honesty and open-heartedness. And, yes, hope.

Incidentally, the subject matter of Film Club casts interesting reflections on Gilmour's 2005 Governor General Award-winning novel, A Perfect Night To Go to China. That novel was about a missing child, a son, who disappeared from the family home one night when he was left alone and was never recovered or returned or found. In Film Club, Gilmour recounts how he once interviewed David Cronenberg and remarked how our children always seem to be leaving us. Cronenberg replies: "But they never do, do they?" Only if something has gone horribly wrong. But there is always the worry. The anxiety of the parent is as persistent as life itself.

Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land (okay, I haven't actually finished this one yet; it's 485 pages in hard cover, and I've been reading it since the beginning of the year--back in the days when my now wife was my then girlfriend, which is a very Richard Ford-like thought and preoccupation). Here's my favourite passage from this novel so far:

If only Clare would just take the plunge (always the realtor's warmest wish for mankind), banish fear, think that instead of having suffered error and loss, he's survived them (but won't survive them indefinitely), that today could be the first day of his new life, then he'd be fine. In other words, accept the Permanent Period as your personal savior and act not as though you're going to die tomorrow but--much scarier--as though you might live.

The Lay of the Land is the third novel in a trilogy that began with The Sportswriter and also includes Independence Day. The protagonist of all three novels is Frank Bascombe, a one-time short-story writer who also wrote about sports. He is now twice married. His most recent wife has left him to re-unite with her former husband. His two grown children have various minor life crises. His first wife is flirting with him. He has recently survived (for now) a diagnosis of prostate cancer. It's Thanksgiving weekend, and he is living in what he calls "the Permanent Period." What others might call the slow slide to death (Frank is only 52), but Frank sees as the time when no major changes are anticipated or sought and so life can seem like a state of stasis, though clearly not of calm. Oh, yeah. The novel also takes place during the period in 2000 when the Gore/Bush election remained unresolved. Big decisions seem to be on hold. Can this situation remain? Probably not. How does it end? I don't know (haven't finished the book yet!).

So why include it in this review? Because I might not get another chance. Go about your affairs as if you might live!

Those who have read The Sportswriter and Independence Day will likely remember some of the sharp facts of Frank's life. He had a third child, a boy, who died in childhood. This event dunked Frank into a pool of dreaminess and womanizing that ended his first marriage. It also disconnected him from his children, his past ambitions and nearly life in general. In the second book, Frank took a trip to Cooperstown with his other son, in an attempt at father-son bonding, which ended with the son getting a baseball in the head. Accidentally, of course, though also (intentionally) rich in significance. In the new novel, Frank continues his drifting ways, though one should also say that Frank is clearly his life's "decider." He only appears passive because he is so deeply reflective; he is not in denial about what he's done or hasn't.

The narrative of Ford's trilogy is ultimately less the point than the creation of Frank. What I mean is, it's not what happens next that matters. It's how Frank responds to the day-by-day. Who Frank is. How he gets to be that way. What his options are. And the persistence of meaning over time. If it does. The lay of the land, in other words. It's just what's out there and how you deal with it. How we go along for the ride. And Frank provides quite a ride. He's a character as resonant as Updike's Rabbit, as Richler's Kravitz. As Jay Gatz, too.

Pages 326-327, in fact, provide a number of discussion points on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. Frank's car is in need of repair. At the local auto shop, the attendant is reading Fitzgerald's novel. Frank notes "garage mechanics, of course, played a pivotal role in Fitzgerald's denoument:

I'm tempted to poll his views about Jay Gatz. Victim? Ill-starred innocent? Gray-tinged antihero? Or all three at once, vividly registering Fitzgerald's glum assessment of our century's plight--now blessedly at an end. ... It's possible of course that as a modern student, Chris doesn't subscribe to the concept of author per se. I, however, still do.

When a significant American author (Ford) references a significant American novel (The Great Gatsby), readers are free to rush to all kids of conclusions. Gatsby is famously a novel about the failure of the American Dream, as many high school essayists have insisted. A similar theme could be staked for Ford's trilogy. We might also note that "the end of American exceptionalism" is one of the dominant stories of the presidency of George W. Bush, and Ford knew the outcomes of certain events (Iraq) while he presented the pessimistic Frank in the period that ultimately handed Dubya the keys to the White House. Things often don't work out the way we want them to, but we need to keep trying and live our lives looking forward, not back.

Mao II by Don DeLillo is a novel of a different feather. Ford took a jab at post-modernism with his joke about "the concept of author" (while also writing a novel about a writer-turned-realtor who talks about novels). DeLillo wrote a novel about a novelist who has concluded that the best novelists these days are terrorists. Terrorists implement stories that shock us to the depths of our souls; novelists write narratives that get written about in the back pages of newspapers and read by increasingly dwindling numbers of people. Terrorists tell us more about our world today than novelists do--or so says DeLillo's protagonist (circa 1991).

After 9/11, one isn't surprised by Mao II's conceit, though its prescience is remarkable. DeLillo's "novel of ideas" prepared us for a world to come--as novelists are supposed to do. Look forward, not backward. Ironically, one could say terrorists look backward, perpetuating grievances, instead of doing the hard imaginative work of reconciliation and synthesis. In making his point, thus, DeLillo also disproves it. The power of his novel is stronger than any bomb. (Future President's take note).

I end this review with a look at Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, which I read in one sitting, on an airplane traveling east to west over the Atlantic last July. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Sputnik Sweetheart is essentially a three-character novel. Uncharacteristically slim for a Murakami novel, it is the first novel in which Murakami explores lesbianism in depth, though the principal themes are still familiar ones to the Japanese author's faithful following: the effects of prolonged loneliness and alienation, growing up emotionally stunted in a densely populated and overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict between following one's dreams and clamping down on them in order to assimilate into society.

The plot of Sputnik Sweetheart is simple yet strange. The protagonist, a young man, is in love with a young woman, but she doesn't return his feelings. She falls in love with an older woman, whom she work for. Her feelings are a surprise to her because she didn't believe she was gay. She keeps her love for the older woman a secret. They travel internationally together. In Greece, she confesses her feelings, then disappears. She is never found.

Murakami has been compared to Kafka for his persistent attraction to the absurd. He might also be compared to Woody Allen for his wise cracking. Sputnik Sweetheart is a somewhat slight novel, yet I found it deceptively simple. As the Wikipedia entry suggests: the novel contains Murakami's principal themes. The story is slight and peculiar and unresolved at the conclusion. A most contemporary situation! A tightly packed little riddle.

I began this review writing about books that "tell it like it is, while also suggesting mysteries remain to uncover." And ended with books about mysteries so strange one struggles to find any there there. In between was The Lay of the Land, which seemed to point in both directions at once: toward the real and into the void. Literature binds the opposite points of this binary together. Or tries to. This reader, at least, is grateful for the range of work available from which to choose. 

There are many ways to write well. And read.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.






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