If you don’t already follow Black Coffee Poet, you should definitely check it out. (You want a cup of coffee now, don’t you? It can’t be helped.)
Black Coffee Poet started his own reading program — an alternative to the typical DWM syllabus — in September 2010 and the posts will continue until September 2012, with each week containing three installments: a review of a work, an interview with the writer, and a video.
That’s how I learned about Jim Nason‘s work (Black Coffee Poet learned about him from Maureen Hynes — the bookish world is delightfully interconnected).
(Black Coffee Poet is better versed in poetry than I, so do read his review of Narcissus Unfolding, and suss out the interview and video, shot on a wintry day in a Toronto alley, a scene I know well.)
Even without investigating, however, you can guess something from simply the titles of Jim Nason’s most recent works, his Narcissus Unfolding volume and his collection of short stories, The Girl on the Escalator.
He is preoccupied by the small details that are too-easily overlooked, by a barely recognizable gradient of change (when is the narcissus unfolding and when is it blooming), by the transitory points of contact in our daily lives. Regardless of the form, this preoccupation holds sway.
The publisher’s description of The Girl on the Escalator calls them “gender- and expectation-bending stories”. And I suppose that’s true.
And, yet, while the stories do contain unexpected elements, they have a startlingly ordinary feel to them. Anyway, what is more bizarre than real life?
These stories were inspired by “everyday people riding the TTC” and as someone who spends a fair bit of time travelling public transit, I am certain that I’ve seen every single person who appears on the pages of these eleven stories.
Some of the subway and streetcar scenes felt so realistic and familiar that I had to remind myself, after a couple of weeks had passed, that I had read them, not lived them.
Even though I am predominantly a prose reader, I found the poems in Narcissus Unfolding to be very accessible, and offered the same sense of familiarity.
Partly this is a Toronto-thing, a Canadian thing. I love scanning the index and seeing “Union Station”, “Montreal, Two in the Morning”, and “Waiting at Chester Station”.
But even more so, it’s a reflection of the poet’s attention to recognizable details and universal emotions.
The collection opens powerfully, with “Huron”, which considers the death of a lover, against a backdrop of ”green-grey rowel of water / and form”, storm and winter, night sky and cloud.
And it ends quietly with “Laneway Home”: “Kitchen light reaches across / the lawn, pale and willing, we enter the house.”
These are scenes and feelings that can reach every reader, even those who are usually more comfortable with stories and novels. And the settings are as often in the natural world (at the cottage, in a canoe, on the lakeside) with trees, frogs and nests, as in the city (in the subway, on a bike, in a lobby) with streetcards, briefcases and khakis.
These works are clearly constructed deliberately and sensitively, and there is a slight hint of formality that rests in a sense of sophistication, but they seem to emerge from someone sitting next to you. Maybe even someone sitting next to you on the subway or in a streetcar.
Gabe, too, is grappling with questions about mortality and universal emotions — also predominantly love and loss, and is puzzled by the accidental, by the way that an entire existence can turn on a single moment.
He, too, is searching and querying and struggling — inwardly and outwardly.
But whereas Jim Nason’s pages are dotted with John Ashbery, Kergan Edwards-Stout’s pages are sprinkled with Katie Couric, Sally Jesse Raphael, Farrah Fawcett, “All About Eve”, Denny’s, Oz, Velveeta, and “The Price is Right”.
Of course it’s not surprisingly that there would be a lot of pop culture references when the novel is named for a Bette Midler song (written by Tom Wait).
And it’s even less surprising that musical references would abound beyond that: Melissa Manchester, Alison Moyet, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Denver, the Partridge Family, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Jimmy Hendrixmand the soundtracks to Cabaret, Oklahoma, and On the Town.
The song reflects the novel’s main preoccupation; Bette Midler begins by singing, “”Well, I’m leavin’ my family, leavin’ all my friends. / My body’s at home, but my heart’s in the wind.”
Songs for the New Depression is a novel, which was twelve years in the making, which chronicles Gabe’s life in the years 1995, 1986, and 1976, moving backwards in time, beginning with a prologue which is really an epilogue, when his heart is in the wind.
In that prologue, he explains: “Were my life a play, it could easily be broken into three acts: before, after, and redemption. But while living, I never was able to step back, untangle myself, peel back the layers, and see things for what they were.”
At this point, the novel’s tone is exceptionally reflective and, despite the narrator’s sharp humour and the novel’s scenic quality (including lots of graphic sex scenes), the bulk of the action is internal, solidly rooted in Gabe.
Gabriel Travers is a fully realized figure, with the kind of personality that might be called ‘spirited’ or ‘irascible’ or flamboyant’, depending on the observer’s relationship to him. Although his voice changes slightly in each of the story’s three parts, he is consistent enough to be believable throughout the novel, even as the challenges he faces escalate. He is not always likeable, but readers don’t need to be friends with him.
“To have HIV is one thing. Almost any gay man can deal with that these days. But to be a diseased, down-trodden, worn-out victim of AIDS, spending my days wrapped in a fringed shawl…”
From the time that he discovers the “Gay Studies” shelves in a local bookstore (with shout-outs to Giovanni’s Room, The Front Runner, and City of Night), Gabe’s identity is, of course, under consideration, but the focus is always on his relationships with others (mothers, lovers, friends) and these folks, too, are believable.
But whether they are successful as characters inhabiting a fiction is debatable; the writing in this work may disappoint those readers who are accustomed to reading literary fiction.
The style incorporates an element of distance in the language and phrasing which seems to stand in contrast to the kind of voice that I would imagine Gabe’s character to have.
(Perhaps I simply have a penchant for a different kind of style, one that feels more organic, as in Brian Francis’ Fruit, or more sharply stylized sentences, as with Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle or April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black.)
Kergan Edwards-Stout’s content is intimate and revealing, but his style feels more journalistic.
For instance, below are two passages, one from the 1995 segment of the book and one from the 1976 segment (I won’t say which is which, and I’ve chosen them deliberately so that you can’t guess which time is which, so that the plot won’t be spoiled).
First: ”Clare was right. But there was something so disquieting about how I felt when they made an attempt, any attempt, at intimacy. Everything about it felt wrong. Whether it was the time or the place or them or me, it always felt scary.”
Next: “You see, Jon and I, though completely enraptured, were still in the first phases of young love. It was tender, passionate, and focused solely on each other. The swift entrance of friends, I feared, no matter how charming, might shatter our fragile coupledom.”
Stylistically, this is the kind of prose that many readers will expect to find in a memoir, and in personal essays rather than in fiction. It is well-written — mechanically-speaking the prose here is more carefully structured than that of many a novel from a mainstream publishing house — but possesses a slightly formalized tone.
I think if I had read Songs for the New Depression marketed as a memoir, I would have had different expectations, and I don’t think I’d've found the writing style jarring. (Alternatively, I think I might have accepted the same style if presented as a series of letters or diary entries; I wonder what kind of a story this would have been, had it been written in another format.)
And perhaps this tendency can be explained. This is taken from the author’s acknowledgements:
“While a work of fiction, Songs for the New Depression was inspired by the life and passions of Shane Michael Sawick…I would not be the writer, father, or person I am without having known him. He changed my life — and me — for the better, and I am forever grateful.”
Clearly Songs for the New Depression is, at least in some ways, a very personal story; for this reader, it would have been a more powerful experience to have read it presented as such, but its determined tenderness and compassion are to be commended, even when viewed from a distance.