Friday, January 30, 2009
The Progressive metaphorically sat down with authors of “The Idler's Glossary” Mark Kingwell and Joshua Glenn. Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and regular contributor to magazines such as Harper's who received a PhD from Yale University. He describes himself as a social democrat and “recovering Catholic.” Joshua Glenn is editor and publisher of the “irregularly published” philosophy and pop culture journal, the Hermenaut Magazine. Hermenaut Magazine is commonly described as “a scholarly journal minus the university.”
ROSS RAFFIN: First, the basics. What is an idler? How does the idler fend off boredom?
GLENN: An idler is a person -- historical examples include Socrates and Oscar Wilde -- who, despite the pejorative sense in which we often use the term, is neither lazy nor useless. Nor does she shirk work, duties, or other obligations; nor does she resent bosses and bossy family members who think she should be working. Instead, she has revalued the values of our work-centric culture; she has rid herself of those beliefs, attitudes, and constraints that limit our freedom (by making the 9-to-5 life seem natural, inevitable, and eternal). Far from being bored -- a paralyzing compound of restlessness and apathy that afflicts non-idlers, who dimly sense that they're trapped in an invisible prison -- she is energetic and engaged with life. Not that you can always tell, just by looking at her, you understand.
KINGWELL: It’s interesting how often boredom comes into the issue -- it’s thematized right at the beginning of my introduction, for example. The reason is that boredom is closely linked to the world of work and its norms of occupation, production, and consumption. Boredom is a kind of stall between first- and second-order desires: when I’m bored, I have a wish for a desire but find no particular desire worth desiring. The idler is never bored, because there is perfect attunement between his wishes and his desires.
RR: What is the difference between an idler and a slacker?
KINGWELL: Slackers are not-working -- they define themselves in terms of the work they should be doing. The idler is not working at all, instead making his own projects and interests into an independent, work-free scale of value. That’s why idling can be so lively sometimes, though of course it needn’t be. The slacker, having to oppose the norms of work in sullen slouches and work-to-rule slowness, is actually still beholden to those norms. His resistance is futile because it’s actually a form of capitulation.
GLENN: Good point, Mark! Like the idler, the slacker isn't cut out for the 9-to-5 life. The slacker hates, fears, and resents his work, his duties, his obligations -- think of mid-career Adam Sandler's characters in "Billy Madison" and "Big Daddy." But unlike the idler, the slacker doesn't question, or reject, the working world's value system. (In which, for example, "what you do for a living" equals "who you are.") He'll remain trapped, unhappily, in that value system, forever. Or he'll remain trapped, happily, in that value system -- because he's made peace with it. As Sandler's characters do, come to think of it, in both of those movies.
RR: Assuming everyone suddenly became an idler, how would society function?
KINGWELL: Think of it this way: any market economy is a failed attempt to distribute goods and services exactly where they are needed or desired, as and when they are needed and desired. That’s all markets are, despite the pathological excrescences that nowadays attach to them: derivatives funds, advertising, shopping-as-leisure. If we had a perfect market, idling would be the norm, not the exception, because distribution would be frictionless. Most work is the result of inefficiency, not genuine need. In other words, idling is consistent with capitalism’s own internal logic, which of course implies, even if it never realizes, the end of capitalism.
GLENN: Society would regulate the general production, nobody would have one exclusive sphere of activity, and it would be possible for each and every one of us, as Marx once speculated, "to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as [we feel like it], without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." I mean, as long as we're talking about an imaginary, what-if scenario.
RR: Idling is commonly considered a bad thing in western society, something to be avoided. Why should we strive to idle?
GLENN: Actually, in western society's classical antiquity, idling wasn't considered a bad thing -- quite the opposite. Mark is much better than I am at explaining the difference, for Aristotle, between "aergia" and "skhole," so I'll content myself with quoting a more recent philosopher, Robert Louis Stevenson. "Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing," he writes, "but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself." As for striving to be idle, this of course would be missing the point.
KINGWELL: Case in point from the Glossary itself: the Latin word negotium, which gives us English terms for business and transaction, actually means the negation of otium, which means leisure. But then otium gets annexed into the pejorative word ‘otiose’, which means useless or redundant. The language we use contains the clues the reveral of values that got us here, thinking that work is more important than leisure. The ancient philosophers knew better. Work is mere necessity; leisure is divine.
RR: What is the "Idler's Glossary" and why is it, as the back cover claims, the "The Devil's Dictionary for the idling classes?"
KINGWELL: Well, like Bierce’s gem, it’s a distillation of many gallons of wisdom into a potent little brew. Unlike Bierce, Josh is not cynical and his intent isn’t satirical. Good thing too, because we need positive vibes right now, not negative ones. (Though there is always room for satire in an idler’s life.)
GLENN: Mark is too kind! And so is our publisher, who made the comparison with Ambrose Bierce's brilliant collection of mordant and cynical definitions. Among other things, I hope that the "Idler's Glossary" is a corrective to thesauri that would have you believe that "slacker" and "idler," for example, or "nap" and "doze," or "sluggishness" and "indolence," and so forth, are interchangeable terms.
RR: The "Idler's Glossary" is pretty small, only 6 inches by 4 inches. Was there any particular reason for making the Idler's Glossary pocket-sized?
KINGWELL: So it would fit in your pocket, of course! And also in Xmas stockings, desk drawers, backpacks, glove compartments, purses, saddlebags, carry-on totes, fishing vests. Especially fishing vests.
GLENN: Our publisher wanted more, more, more! If I'd given in to his demands, perhaps the book would be larger. Aren't you glad it isn't, though? I love its format, and Seth's charming illustrations.
RR: Speaking as a college student, does the Idler's Glossary give any good philosophical justification for procrastination?
GLENN: No, but I do offer a diagnosis: "In the procrastinator, that lamentable failure of body and will that is languor, or torpor, becomes inextricably tangled with artistic perfectionism." So... next time you're procrastinating, ask yourself: "Am I too self-critical? Or am I just enervated?" If it's the former, and especially if you're procrastinating on a written assignment, just remember that "essay" means "necessarily imperfect attempt." If the latter is the problem, a meditative bicycle ride to nowhere in particular and back will always -- always -- make you feel better.
KINGWELL: Procrastination is actually closely akin to boredom: a second-order desire (I wish I wanted to write my essay now) is not lining up with a first-order one (I want to write my essay now). Idlers are not in the business of solving procrastination stalls, but one clearly successful tactic is to fool yourself away from such blocks. There is no limit to the amount of productive activity we’re capable of as long as it’s not what we are supposed to be doing.
RR: Is the glossary meant to be read in a single sitting or spread out over time?
RR: Mark Kingwell's essay defending idling draws from variety of philosophers from Schopenhauer and Bertrand Russel to Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Lao Tzu, and Yoda. What is it about idling that draws so much attention from philosophers?
GLENN: It's been suggested, of Socrates, who was always late to every appointment, that philosophy itself is born of idle curiosity -- that idlers are natural philosophers, or vice versa. Is there anything to this theory, Mark?
KINGWELL: Well obviously I think there is, especially when you factor in the necessary idleness for even beginning to reflect on life’s meaning and possibilities. But the great stroke of really profound philosophers like Lao Tzu is to see that idleness isn’t just a necessary condition of philosophical questions. It is also, in itself, the best answer to them.
RR: The glossary contains the etymology for terms such as "shit-heel," "sluggard," "hittin the sack," "hanging out," and even "doodle." I have to ask, though, when did "Jabbaent" become a word?
KINGWELL: I’m not sure. Sometime after ‘kick back’ and maybe a little before ‘chillax’?
GLENN: The more closely we examine our subjective experiences, the less well our vocabulary serves us when it comes to articulating those experiences. "Jabbaent" -- meaning, as sluggish as Jabba the Hutt -- is an invented slang term. I didn't invent it, but it amuses me.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
By Grant Buday. Biblioasis, 180 pp, $19.95, softcover
Considering the Trojan Horse is such a vibrant and lasting image from Greek history and mythology, it’s a little jarring to realize that almost none of the original references have survived. Chronologically, it falls between the cracks of Homer’sIliad and Odyssey, and all but a few lines of its source poem have been lost. How tempting, then, to try and reconnect these momentous dots: how the ever-crafty Odysseus dreams the contraption up; how he convinces his fellow soldiers to hole up inside, silent, for days on end; and what makes the enemy Trojans bring it inside their city’s walls, rather than do the safe thing and burn it to the ground.
While certainly not the first attempt at such a re-imagining, Dragonflies, the new novel from Mayne Island’s Grant Buday, does an admirable job of it, synthesizing various secondhand accounts (from Virgil, Sophocles, and Homer, to name a few) into one sharp, crisp hybrid.
The book opens in Year 10 of the Trojan War—the last year, as it turns out, though nobody on either side sees an end coming anytime soon. Odysseus’s wit has mostly given way to anger, as his generals Agamemnon and Menelaus oafishly pursue a fight that cannot be won, and a prize (Menelaus’s abducted wife, Helen) that may not even want to be claimed. To console himself, Odysseus indulges in daydreams about his own family back home in Ithaka, which quickly snowball into fantasies of treason: “What reward can compensate for the ten years I’ve lost? Chopping ten years from his [Agamemnon’s] life? Putting a spear up his ass? A futile line of thought, one I indulge too much.”
Climbing inside Odysseus’s head is neat enough—Homer never ventured close to interior monologue—but Buday blocks out the overwhelming clatter and bombast of the war itself long enough to spend time with many of his brothers in arms. Did you know, for example, that the mighty Ajax’s first love is studying bees? That one small detail gives his life more depth, and somehow makes his suicide a little more tragic.
The "Salon des Refusés" joint issue of The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries. These two Canadian literary magazines published a joint alternative to the massive Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, which they saw as inadequately reflecting the best of this genre.
The litmags' choices tend to be rather artsier; the Penguin book is more of a survey of the writers who have been deemed important or popular in the genre. The Penguin criteria seem more aesthetically neutral. I would recommend reading the two magazines (they are still available in many bookstores, or you could go to their respective websites) not as an alternative to the Penguin book, which is historically interesting and has a few gems in it (Munro, Gowdy, Johnston, Lyon, Coady, Lee) but as a complement.
The journals' stories reflect the aesthetic of the small presses: dense, complex prose, oblique or otherwise unusual points of view. Where the Penguin anthology does feel good for you from time to time, earnestly plodding through important Canadian themes, the Salon des Refusés is sheer intellectual and sensual fun. Furthermore, there are very short commentaries on each story, either by the author or by another writer, that give insight into how writers' minds work - both how they construct stories and how they read them.
Monday, January 26, 2009
A Salon des Refuses lead-in to the launch of CNQ 75 -- pictured above, our combined 75th issue and 40th anniversary issue -- will be taking place this Wednesday in Montreal at the Word Bookstore (469 Milton Street). Contributing editor Michael Carbert will be leading a discussion on the CanLit Canon, with panelists Anita Lahey, Robert Lecker, Robyn Sarah and Carmine Starnino. Refreshments provided. Co-sponsored by MacLean's Magazine. 7:30 pm.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Mental illness has always been a difficult subject to relate to. The field is full of myths and common misunderstandings, making diagnosis and treatment both a bit of an art and a science. And so, if nothing else, a memoir of madness gives us a bit of insight into what may be going on.
In The Lily Pond, Toronto writer Mike Barnes offers a series of different perspectives on a life spent dealing with bipolar disorder. The book has four sections (Barnes calls them essays) that are arranged in roughly chronological order.
The first, which is also the shortest and most effective section, tells the story of the author's own early (mis) diagnoses, hospitalization, and search for a cure (including the usual laundry list of drugs and even electroconvulsive therapy). There is, however, no cure -- a point made at the end of the first section with a clever reversal of Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Just as Achilles can never catch the tortoise from behind, neither can he escape him if ahead. You can't shake depression.
And so, the next three sections describe Barnes living with his condition, focusing on his relationships with his family, his psychiatrist, and his wife. The presentation here is less personal, more layered with myth and metaphor and concerned with how experience is turned into the stuff of story.
But it remains compelling. Barnes, the author of highly regarded novels and short story collections whose sales figures (disarmingly documented here) are cause for depression enough in themselves, is a graceful yet economical writer with a knack for imagery you can almost feel.
Seeing his wife becoming cobwebbed in pills, he writes, "the image that comes to mind is of someone (I have done it many times myself) trying to secure a package that contains objects of irregular shapes and sharp edges, winding the plastic tape around it in fierce spirals, around and around, swathing and swathing until it lumpily muffled, sometimes (paranoia and fatigue combining clumsily) passing the dispenser over the name and address accidentally."
This is well observed and rendered, with the sentence itself wrapping round and round those bracketed digressions while suggesting the "fierce spiral" of illness and treatment swallowing the patient's identity seemingly by accident.
But The Lily Pond isn't just a portrait in misery. This is mainly due to the separation Barnes maintains between the autobiographical subject and the autobiographer, "the necessary sliver of space between my skin and what it was I was stitching." In other words, in the best postmodern fashion, this is a book that is also about its own writing, construction and interpretation. A portrait of the middle-aged bipolar man as an artist.
If there is one problem with the book, it is the final essay. This appears to have been almost an afterthought, telling the late-breaking story of Barnes' wife Heather's mental illness. The details, however, are sketchy, the imagery and mythic elements seem more forced and the picture we end with isn't as hopeful as it is disturbing.
Instead of mutual support, one has the sense of an unhealthy, mutually reinforcing codependency on a prescription of "twenty-nine pills a day."
On that regimen, the tortoise might even begin to close ground with Achilles.
Despite such final misgivings, The Lily Pond is an insightful look inside the black box of bipolar disorder and an original artistic reinterpretation of the experience of living with mental illness.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Here's the paragraph on the Salon:
Perhaps Scheier should commiserate with Jane Urquhart, who must still be stinging from the cranky reception she received as editor of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Teaming up for two special editions jointly titled the Salon des Refuses, the editors at Canadian Notes and Queries and The New Quarterly published the 20 short stories they considered glaring omissions from Urquhart’s collection, and derided the novelist’s decision to “open up” the definition of a short story by including excerpts from memoirs in her Penguin anthology. The feud did have one upside, in that it inspired some Canadians to start treating the short story genre with the respect it has always deserved.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
There is a fabulous interview with Mike Barnes over at the Danforth Review. The whole thing can be found here.
Here, however, is a taste:
Did you ever feel while writing this that the simple bare bones "non-fiction" element was too close to home? Did you fear it would trigger a negative outcome?
...Actually, it felt more like relief to concentrate on just my own story, understanding and telling it as well as I could, without the need to create characters and invent things for them to say and do.
At the same time, it felt, if anything, more deeply imagined (as opposed to invented) than fiction: there was a need to find the underlying patterns and structures that could link true events. But I guess you're asking more about personal risk. that was something I was not so aware of at the time–when I felt mostly exhilarated to be recovering the past–but have become very aware of since. More aware every day.
I think there have been, and will be, many negative outcomes for me from writing this book. They’re hard to name and harder to quantify, but I feel them, certainly. Writing names things, which can sound like taming them; but in another sense it gives them new substance and power: it bodies them forth. It’s daunting as well as strengthening to take the true dimensions of an enemy you've been battling...especially when there's no sign of an end to the battle.
At one point, when we were discussing the manuscript, my psychiatrist advised me to be cautious in dealing with what I had recalled. I quoted her (as best I remembered) for apiece I wrote about dealing with what I had written: "What you wrote may have unearthed a box. It may have been sealed for a reason...so you could keep functioning. Now it may be time to open it, or at least peek into it. Cautiously." This is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.
by Shane Neilson, from the Canadian Medical Association Journal
Memoirs of madness are now part of a tradition: There's Andrew Solomon's overrated The Noonday Demon; William Styron's excellent little squib Darkness Visible; and for a description of the utter nonsensical terrifying rhythms of psychosis nothing beats Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express.
The best of these books (I have listed but a few) all grapple with similar themes: the urge to kill oneself; the conundrum of whether the illness is in fact an illness or if it is part of one's psychological makeup and whether the illness is wedded to creativity; the journey to diagnosing the illness; and the struggle to find the right drug, the right doctor, the right mate. What distinguishes the best of these books — all rather grim itemizations of what a serious mental illness can do to the body and soul — is the quality of the writing.
Barnes' prose is spare, lyrical: a very mirror to desolation, to erasure. It is as if you are having coffee with a stranger, and he is telling his tale without self-pity or gloom. The teller is compelling not because of his experience of survival (this is emphatically not a self-help, inspirational, or therapy book), but because of his assertion of the illness, his inhabitation of it and his portrayal of madness.
This illness is relentless and although Barnes does not do anything so obvious, it can be likened to an implacable force of nature, pressingly present, incrementally receding, then massing off the coast. This is assuredly a key factor in the value of this memoir: if there were resentment at the cost of illness, we'd have another whine book and the power of the tale would succumb to an undertow.
There is one, and thankfully not fatal, structural mistake. Barnes opens the book with the death scene. This really is the cliché of the genre. It is a kind of lazy shorthand to establish stakes that should be achieved by other means. Death is a subject that such books must be honest about and must mention, but not at the outset. And Barnes stretches it out over an entire long chapter. Things are not aided later by the cliché of all clichés: "Two images occur to me ...[a] candle dwindling down to its final stub. It will soon go out, but for now, the flame around the wick still flickers...." A conventional chapter about his childhood might have better served as an introduction. Instead, we immediately say hello-in-extremis to an eloquent Mr. Death, to a deworded Mr. Zapped (and to complete the unholy trinity, masturbation is also mentioned).
Outside of the first chapter, however, he is less self-absorbed; there are no flourishes, there is just purpose, and Barnes takes interest in all the characters of his life. Memoirs can sometimes lose themselves at the exact location of their navels, and Barnes' self-knowledge prevents that, despite the occasional tinkling piano key, like the too-pregnant set piece at the psychiatrist's office when Barnes is told he can recover: "It was a hard message to hear in some ways. The tears that started to my eyes felt like droplets of rain after a massive drought. Were they harbingers of the real downpour needed, or just a tantalizing sprinkle?"And what of the outcome? Barnes is unsentimental about this when he reflects on the occasion of a birthday party: "Thirty-three years lay between this late afternoon, slowly dimming now, pooling its shadows toward dusk...[u]nvanquishable, he must have seemed — and apparently still does sometimes, uncannily, some core of myth intact despite the more than 3 decades of precipitous falls and long slow climbs, slides and wily scale-backs, according to some persistence of family memory and personal meaning...." It is this mixed feeling, this summation of both bipolar disorder as what he has and what he has lost, that is the mythic core of this book, the dualism, and hence its value.
Barnes is a star gazer, a wanderer of the imagination, and uncompromisingly honest with his own story. This is the real service he offers for those looking for more than self-help: he offers self-definition without romance or servile hope. Barnes considers himself both adaptive and maladaptive. And you root for him as he severs the self-image of illness, the switcheroo of the identity of illness. At some point in all of the madness memoirs, stock must be taken, house cleaned: The Lily Pond is that clearinghouse. One gets the double sense that Barnes, as he works out his own illness' feints and predilections, is free as he never will be free.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
A Modern Take on the Trojan War
reviewed by Alex Good
Northrop Frye's famous historical theory of fictional modes classified stories on the basis of whether the hero's power of action was greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.
At the top of the list are the modes of myth and romance, tales of gods and heroes. At the bottom we have the anti-heroes of the ironic modern novel. Through the plast 15 centuries, fiction "has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list," with the heroes like Odysseus/Ulysses eventually wandering the dirty streets of Dublin.
Vancouver novelist Grant Buday hasn't displaced Odysseus to this degree. His Dragonflies opens with the Achaeans still camped before the walls of Troy, in the 10th year of their siege. But in Frye's system of modes there has nevertheless been a downward shift. The conventions of myth have been replaced by those of the realistic novelist, seeing characters through an ironic lens.
All of the Greek heroes seem to have problems with ear hair. Menelaus is short-sighted, missing all of his lower teeth and twitching with palsy. Agamemnon is a clod. The greasy beard of Palamedes makes Odysseus think of pubic hair. Priam is an ancient wreck.
The soothsayer Calchas ("old Couch Ass") is "an ugly old man whose face looks like it's been carved from an onion." Even Helen herself is "not at all" beautiful, her face "hard, all planes and edges, her forehead too high, her chin too long, her brow too heavy."
The heroic code doesn't fare much better. Odysseus's father, Laertes, is the voice of wisdom, warning his son to avoid getting mixed up with the "Helen business": "all this nobility nonsense, all this glory and war, it's bollocks. Stay home, drink wine, swim in the sea."
As for the gods, Odysseus clearly has his doubts. Even if they do exist, they aren't all they're cracked up to be either. Some are even objects of hate.
Along with his modern, deflationary mock-heroic eye, Buday also exercises the novelist's attention to detail, one that notes the spring grass sprouting in the seams between the stones of the walls of Troy, with the goats standing on their hind legs to reach it, and how soon the air inside the cramped belly of the wooden horse becomes "heavy with the brine of men."
The epic poetry of big speeches and grand gestures is translated into a novel of sharp conversational digs and the manipulation of domestic details.
Of course we know the story – even Homer's audience knew the story – but Buday takes that foreknowledge into account in fashioning a new interpretation that is fast-paced, fresh and even occasionally surprising. Here's proof that there's plenty of life in the oldest archetypes yet.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
"I've never met Sarah, and was previously familiar only with her poems, but i've come to like her through these essays. Conversational in tone, her voice sounds like that of a friend. ... This easy-going style gives the book much of its clarity and approachability, two traits that poetry -- and poetry criticism -- could use more of.
Nest up: Shane Neilson on Patricia Young's Here Come the Moonbathers:
"She's the poet of compression, of no time and small space. ... Young at her best writes a noose around loss ... There is indeed a quiet, firm, almost questing brand of dignity in Young's brand of loss. It has made for an excellent collection ..."
Lastly, a review of Zach Wells's sonnet anthology Jailbreaks, which Alessandro Porco says "has scope ... As with any anthology, there are a few head-scratchers ... but also some jaw-droppingly good eye- (and ear-) openers."
Monday, January 05, 2009
For a taste, I'll pick one of his footnotes, or "speculative scatterings, the small change of spectral shakedown":
4. i produced "effects." and from the humblest of means: Hilroy notebooks, scraps of paper, pencils, Bic pens, a Smith-Corona manual typewriter that was thiry years old then. the mounting numbers of poems were dispersed around the world. batches of 10, outflow always exceeding inflow. if 7 "browns" (taffy-coloured 9-by-12 envelopes, addressed to me in my own hand) arrived in the morning mail, 8 or more went out that night. remixes of the better--on second look--of the 70 returns, augmented with new ones from the days since. 70 poems back, 80, 90, 100 poems out. those kinds of numbers are what once casued me to estimate, to bemused eyes in a writing classroom, that--crossing 1500-plus poems with the fact that some favourites went out at least ten times before being retired--i might have accounted for 10,000 poems passing in front of the eyes of others. 10,000 poem-perusals, however brief. and they also help to explain how the 125-or-so poems i eventually published in magazines could strike me as a relatively minor--if happy--effect i was producing. ("a Rocky of Verse" i styled myself: a nickname with mauled grandeur in its belittlement.) more immediate and more regular was the scowl my mailman gave me when i caught him loading the browns onto the flimsy wire claws beneath my lobby mailbox or, in protest, letting some of them drop to the floor. Jimi, too, my softheaded super who played ball hockey with his cats, i caught handling the browns, turning them back and forth in befuddlement before casting a (for him) sharply suspicious glance at his attic tenant. these were effects. so were the mailings and returns themselves. matter translated in the world. type on paper in envelopes in a truck or plane: carbon on carbon in carbon by carbon. was it bertrand russell who defined work as moving matter on or near the surface of the earth, or directing such movement? well, i was moving, and directing to be moved, a lot of matter. working from A to Z in the International Directory of Periodicals, i imagined fingers of all kinds handling my pages and responding to them with sighs, chuckles, curses, groans, frowns, smiles and, yes, silent wonder. i expected abuse, hoped for adulation. i received solid examples of the first and mild promises of the second. solid: a letterhead from a little mag with the macho boast: "Honest craft we salute, asswipe we so identify." my rejection was a blank page with "asswipe" circled raggedly. another tough-talking westerner--both of these Californian--scrawled "mostly this is SHIT." mild promises: acceptance, without comment, of a poem, the other 9 returned (i developed an uncanny ability to tell a "light brown" by heft). or (almost better in a way, more intimate): rejection with handwritten encouragement, "these weren't bad...send more." Poetry Australia accepted my poem synchronizing the life of Heinrich Himmler with the flowering of a hawthorn tree outside my window. a mag inEngland found "The Rabbit Screams" to be "hallucinatory, though needs shortening." a mess was being made. people all over the world were dealing with it. i was happy, involved. effects.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
It is not the best of the times and the worst of times for short story writers. It is simply the worst of times. Though for short story readers, hope springs eternal. Regardez Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once (Biblioasis, 2008), a book Beattie called "the most exciting first book of short stories by a Canadian writer since Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades ."
I read this book over the past couple of months. I didn’t want it to end.
Winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, Rosenblum’s debut consists of 17 stories in just over 200 pages. The dominant theme is youth. The stories are quirky, light, intelligent, funny, well-written, absurd, amusing, insightful, clever, urban, urbane, lovely, contemporary, remarkable – in short, they offer much rewarding reading.
The stories made me remember my twenties with something other than bitterness, which is an achievement, believe me. They made me aware of opportunities of youth that I hadn’t thought of before. What I mean is, Rosenblum has a unique vision, powerful enough to make the old seem new again. She achieves what only the first rank of story writers achieve. She makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
Here’s one moment. Trinity, a pretty girl, says to her friends at a party: "You know, certain people in the sixties thought orgies would have become de rigeur by now, replacing parties like this entirely. Isn’t it weird that after all this time, we’re still repressed? This evening doesn’t even have orgiastic elements."
This is a book about coming of age in the 1990s. It may well be the best book about that experience. I say 1990s, because I don’t think this is a post-9/11 book. The young people in this book are too smart and self-aware not to have noticed that the Bush years were different. Darker. Meaner. They tracked a downward trajectory. The outside world, one hopes, is now harder to ignore. We have left our contemporary Jazz Age behind and have long since taken on new challenges.
I don’t mean to suggest that Rosenblum should have written a different book – or that she should have changed as much as a word. I just don’t think this is a book about our current moment. It seems to capture the anxieties of the young of a period of our recent past, now gone. It is extremely well-written (and edited and published). Cudos to all who had a hand in it. Many are waiting to see what you will come up with next.
The Calgary Herald’s reviewer probably wouldn’t like it, though. Too many subtle moments. Too many well turned metaphors. Too much humour that’s quirky and not slapstick. Too much emotion that’s suggested, not overt. Too many characters bathed in ambiguity, not drawn to represent moral certainties.
Every once and a while someone shows again that the short story form is not exhausted.
Rebecca Rosenblum has done it. Hooray!
Bruce Jay Friedman's razor-sharp wit and keen observation of the genus American male (from the 1950s to the present) have the power to make men laugh and women weep. He has written highly acclaimed novels ("Stern," "A Mother's Kisses"), hilarious books of nonfiction ("The Lonely Guy," made into a movie starring Steve Martin, and "The Slightly Older Guy,") a hit Broadway play ("Steambath"), two hit movies ("Stir Crazy," "Splash"), and short stories published everywhere from Playboy to The Antioch Review. Many of the stories were published a decade ago in "The Collected Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman," and now a fresh batch has arrived in "Three Balconies."
The title story is Friedman at his best, somehow managing to turn what begins as wry comedy into a searing and painfully credible tale of a man on the brink of suicide. Harry is a 60-year-old writer whose career is on the wane. He is told by a Hollywood agent that his name "no longer comes up on the radar screen." The director of a small theater advises him to "thread a Diane Sawyer type" through the plot of his play about the Siege of Malta - "someone covering the siege for some medieval publication," - and he's desperate enough to give it a shot.
Harry hopes to refresh himself and his work on a trip to Miami Beach. He's happily married but still loves the company of women; when he finds a bevy of attractive young females partying every night at the bar of his hotel, he forgets about his problematic play. He revels in mixing it up with the tanned young beauties in the bar, happy with nothing more than the "pursuit," until the fatal third night, when he meets the most gorgeous one of all and fantasizes about seducing her. She says she has observed him the last two nights and thinks he is "very courageous."
" 'Because I'm old?' said Harry.
" 'No, no, no,' said Miriam Rosen, but the two extra no's were confirmation that he had read her correctly."
Betrayed by his age, Harry slinks off to a remote strip club for a nightmarish lap dance. As he sits on the balcony of his 18th-story hotel suite the next morning, he fears that he might "hop over the railing and bring down the curtain once and for all." The balcony now seems like a ledge, and he realizes, to his horror, that the new condo he has purchased in a not-yet-completed building features three balconies. Harry convinces himself that he should return to his work; he will deal with "one balcony at a time."
Friedman deals in a similar comic-turned-serious manner with another of his frequent themes in "Mr. Wimbledon." The favorite activity of Siegel, a well-off manufacturer who "had achievements in bullet-proof sportswear," is engaging in a "favorite activity - looking for evidence of hostility to the Jews." On a tennis vacation in the Northwest, his WASP girlfriend "found a club for him, one that anyone could join; as a result it had no members." In an argument with a Jewish couple on the next court, an anti-Semitic slang term is shouted. Siegel hears "a word dredged up from his childhood, like a dirty animal in a cellar. He was shocked when he realized the voice was his own, but also gratified that he had finally found the enemy."
Insights often come in these stories when the author deftly reverses the roles assigned by society. An architect's own psychiatrist arrives at his door one morning, looking for therapeutic help in "The Reversal." Dr. Gold explains to his client that "I thought I'd change the game plan and try the unorthodox. It's worked for me before. I once got sound advice from a building superintendent."
Friedman reveals male fantasies in all their embarrassing political incorrectness. Men may have a hilarious shock of recognition over stories like "Kneesocks," when a middle-aged man meets a beautiful woman he had a crush on in college. "The thought of her long slender legs in kneesocks made him dizzy. He wanted to run right off with her and have her put some on for him."
The best (and largely futile) efforts of the middle-class American male who came of age in the 1950s to deal with the current scene is expressed by Harry in "Three Balconies": "Was it possible he just liked to be with women? One of his favorite things was when he met someone he had at one time thought of as a 'pretty young thing,' somebody's assistant, and have her turn out to be a leading neurophysiologist. Or a feared litigator . . . . Harry was delighted by this change in the culture. How could he not be? In his lifetime - as a phenomenon - he ranked it right up there with the overnight collapse of communism."
I know, I know: The truth is we ought to be home anyway, it's way past our bedtime. And look what happened to Harry.
Friday, January 02, 2009
A taste of her much longer, and very considered, response:
My relationship with this book is *intense*--I read it pretty steadily, if not quickly, for over a month, sprawling by a day into a second calendar year. The relationship is pretty physical, too; since my reading is done in myriad locales and often in transit, I've been carrying this book on my person quite a bit. Once it's on you, you don't forget about the PBCSS, for though the kitchen scale says it weights only two pounds, I suspect strongly that my kitchen scale is broken and it weighs six or seven.
Oh, it's been epic, the affair of PBCSS and I: I ordered the first copy from the library, got curry on the pages, took it on a Via train, a Greyhound bus, several Go trains and busses, and more TTC subways, streetcars and busses than you can imagine. Then the library recalled the book, I ordered a new copy, got chocolate on the pages, got back on the trains and busses. To impress a writer I admire, I carried the anthology (and many other things) down 22 flights of stairs and across town. I read it in a bar, in bed and at my desk; I told everyone I was reading it (and no one cared). I used it to flatten wrinkles when I was too lazy to iron, to start a conversation and to end one.
And now I win, because I've read it all and I can STOP CARRYING IT AROUND.
Actually, I won by reading. I have no regrets--the PBCSS is not pure pleasure, but the vast majority of the stories contained therein *are* pleasures, and I really enjoyed reading them, even when my wrists were throbbing from holding the damn thing upright.
I can hear the grumblings from the gatekeepers and the mandarins now: This is unconscionable! The lack of appreciation of our shared cultural heritage must not stand. We must do something to redress this situation, before we all devolve into something resembling savage beasts. Blame must be apportioned. Surely the schools are at fault for this distressing ignorance of Canadian writing; we need to advocate for measures such as the one instituted in B.C. last year, which made the study of Canadian authors mandatory in the province’s high schools. And if not the schools, then Facebook is to blame. Or iPods. Or the XBox. If you’re Yann Martel, you’ll rush to blame Stephen Harper. Atwood herself will suggest that things would be better under the Pequistes.
In fact, everybody will be so busy trying to find a culprit that the most salient question implied by the survey results will likely go unasked: Could it be that a significant percentage of Canadians can’t name a Canadian author because they don’t see any relevance in the vast majority of Canadian writing?
Now, before the Canada Council for the Arts burns me in effigy, let me admit that this is both deliberately provocative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I am well aware that our national literature is not monolithic, and that there are writers out there who are producing work that is relevant and interesting to a Canadian reader in 2009. Of course, most of these writers are published by small houses that don’t have the financial clout to compete with the marketing and advertising budgets of multinational branch plants such as Random House and HarperCollins. Without question, readers who were hard pressed to come up with Margaret Atwood when asked to name a Canadian writer would have stared in blank confusion if presented with the names Stacey May Fowles, Daniel Allen Cox, Rebecca Rosenblum, or Pasha Malla. This despite the fact that Fowles, Cox, Rosenblum, and Malla are currently publishing fiction that would probably have an exponentially greater impact on younger readers than would the work of such lauded CanLit mainstays as Michael Ondaatje, M.G. Vassanji, Anne Michaels, or Jane Urquhart.
Though I urge you all to go read the post in its entirety, here's a sample:
There was more, yesterday. I drove to Hamilton, where I grew up, and spent the afternoon with an old friend whom I had not seen in a dozen years. We had tea with her elderly parents. When we left, her father, who is shrunken but still fierce, shook my hand for a long time, his grip still strong. We had more tea at a Tim Hortons--I hadn't drunk so much tea in years--and talked and laughed at length. She, too, worries about her children--especially her son--and as we talked, her cell phone rang: her parents, anxious since they had expected her home sooner. She bought two of my books, for herself and for her brother.
For much of the day--for most of it--I knew myself to be a part of the human web of worry and laughter. I knew myself to be a person of gifts. Artistic and intellectual gifts, yes, but before and beyond these, gifts of connectedness, of linking myself closely to others.
I returned home to Heather and the life we have built together here. And I knew, again, that I loved and was loved in return. And that I belonged. Not just here, or there, but anywhere I am.
I am who you will become. As you have many times before, as you will again. (You will not remember this or believe it. But if you read this you may doubt--for half a second--the nullity you perceive in all directions. And that half second of doubt is what I want to purchase. It is what I am banking on.)