Jonathan Safran Foer explains that he came to writing through a back door. (He was interviewed by Mark Medley at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, on September 9, 2106.)
Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016
He didn’t always want to be a writer. ‘Novelist’ is the most ambitious identity for him for it’s also the one which is the most difficult. Even when he was in college, establishing habits and ambitions, and even when he was actually writing a novel, he didn’t feel like he was fully immersed in the process of it.
There are, he explains, so many incentives to stop writing. Everyone can write a good sentence, can create good characters and establish an engaging structure.
But how to maintain the level of care required to complete a book? That’s what separates the 10 people who are still writing out of the creative-writing class of 200 students.
In some ways, Here I Am feels like his first book, he states It may have been the quickest writing process for him yet, but it took a long time getting to the beginning of it. Meantime, there were other projects, which unfolded in the intervening years without filtering directly into the novel.
He discusses feeling more aware, more present for the experience of writing this book, and simultaneously less embedded in all of it, as though he could witness himself living the life of a writer.
At one point, when interviewer Mark Medley poses a question, Foer asks him to make a distinction as to whether the question is directed to the person or to the writer in him.
There is talk of a thinness or a shadowness in identity, and one has the sense that questions often lead to questions in this not-exactly-novelist’s mind.
He wasn’t trying to create meaning or share a voice; that’s not what he imagines writing to be. He tried to suppress – rather than exercise – intention, to allow space for reflexes and intuition.
Writing is about allowing something to move from the inside to the outside; eventually a book does become a vessel of meaning, but it still surprises him whenever a reader ascribes a particular meaning to an event in the novel. He does not seek specificity in story, is not trying to reach a niche reader: “If that’s what books are about, then I’m not interested in books.”
Often there is an unpleasantness to the process. “I don’t want to go back into it, but I have to go back into it,” he explains. There are so many other things one could do. “There’s no way around it, you just have to go through it.”
Things you’re not aware of seeing or thinking, things in the periphery, give writers ideas. It’s like something on the back of a T-shirt that the world is wearing. These are the ideas he is most proud of exploring. It’s important to pursue ideas because you think they might have meaning. They arrive unexpectedly, as in the form of misunderstood lyrics in a song (which are sometimes his favourite parts of music).
The title of the novel comes from the Isaac and Abraham story in the Bible, in which Abraham answers God by declaring himself present, stating an unconditional “yes”: “Here I am.” But he has made the same unconditional statement to his son Isaac. And, of course, he cannot be unconditionally present in both instances, for each of the questioners.
This kind of paradox does not always ruin lives, Foer explains. Often it is simply unnoticed. But in this novel there are two situations like this, very particular but familiar-sounding paradoxes.
In one instance, a cell phone is discovered which leads to knowledge of a spouse’s betrayal. In the other instance, there is an earthquake, which leads to a war in which Jews are instructed to return from homes overseas to their ancestral homeland to fight. In both instances, an individual is pulled in more than one direction. One cannot be wholly and completely faithful in two different places.
Faith is at the heart of the novel, but Foer does not consider himself a religious person. He refers to a scene in the novel in which two characters are whispering beneath the night sky, and it is this kind of humility in the presence of something larger which illuminates his sense of the sacred.
Here I Am is just the kind of novel that one would expect after attending this talk. It’s all about questions and offers no answers. It’s about searching, not ascribing. (More about Here I Am tomorrow.)
Many readers will be looking for the back door in order to make a quick exit. But this talk was sold out; many readers were also trying to sneak in that back door.
Have you read any of Jonathan Safran Foer’s projects, novels or otherwise?
Which author would you sneak through a back door to observe?
Steven Price began as a poet, so the hype surrounding his new novel, By Gaslight, must have been disconcerting. But that’s appropriate, because it is intended to be a disconcerting story.
McClelland & Stewart – PRH, 2016
The majority of readers probably won’t be interested in either the rumours surrounding its acquisition (apparently a six-figure sum) or the fact that this was the final manuscript worked on by renowned author Ellen Seligman anyway.
In fact, readers who have followed Steven Price’s career will probably simply settle into a dark corner somewhere and sink a little further into their seat, content to immerse themselves in a vibrant and eerie tale beneath the weight of this 752-page novel.
His debut novel, Into the Darkness, explored the after-effects of an earthquake on the west coast of North America. By Gaslight, is more than three times its length but, despite its title, also saturated with darkness.
Oh, the fog.
It’s a wonder that the book doesn’t give off clouds of the stuff when you pick it up to read.
By Gaslight isn’t prose-by-a poet like Michael Ondaatje’s or Michael Crummey’s. (For non-Michael examples: Olive Senior or Anne Simpson.) It’s more like Guy Gavriel Kay’s or Jane Urquhart’s.
Whatever seems to have shifted into his prose from his poetry seems to be less about precision or lyric, exactitude or form, and more about style and feeling.
There are no traditional dialogue markers, for instance. (Those readers who find even dashes insufficient as heralds of dialogue, will likely find a novel of this length, in which dialogue is immersed in the story, challenging if not impossible.) Instead, the story rushes on. Readers are pulled into the swell (or, alternatively, left to gasp for breath on the banks).
The story takes its own shape on the page. “And you do not come from wealth, Pinkerton continued. He had removed his gloves to search Foole and had held them in his teeth as he did so and now he pulled them back tightly over his wrists and flexed his fingers as he spoke. He said, You’re too careful in your dress and your manners. You’re too aware.”
Even here, in the renowed detective Pinkerton’s observations of Foole, the overall concern is with impressions and ideas rather than details and facts. This would be a different kind of novel (more like Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, for instance) if there was discussion of the gloves’ materials and their stitching. And if another word, more obviously pulled from vocabulary of the day, was used for ‘aware’.
No, it’s talk of teeth and tension which matters more here. Atmosphere and sensation. Readers are intended to be immersed.
This should be unsurprising. Because the atmosphere is built from the beginning. In the first five pages, readers meet a man with “eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty, as if fixed for strangling”, a city whose “cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn”, a man “[w]ading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles”, and a woman with a “long scar in the shape of a sickle running the length of her face”.
And whenever readers move onto another scene, it is sketched vividly as well. “They came to a halt outside a tall terraced house. It had long since fallen into ruin, the unpainted railings, the smeared brickwork, the ancient wooden door knocker all cracked and gone green with long use in the foul air. Foole knocked twice then stepped back and brushed at his sleeves.”
And the personal relations are just as fraught and ominous. “It didn’t matter that he liked her well enough. In his world if you turned a blind eye you got cracked overhand with a bottle. You turned the other cheek and you woke up with your pockets turned out and your watch chain gone.”
Even the most personal relationships. “Much later he would understand that it was not her fault. Still he should have recognized the con. The mark, the set-up, the art of the glide. Which is what love turns out to be, when you get right down to it.”
The major scene changes are marked clearly (for instance, 1862 Virginia, 1868 Ohio and 1874 South Africa – the bulk of the novel unfolds in 1885 London) but the rest of the novel slips back and forth organically (memory/recollection and the main characters’ present-day London).
By Gaslight has been compared to Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Patrick deWitt’s The Sister Brothers. And, sure, it’s long, the Gold Rush makes an appearance, and the humanity of even the most distasteful characters comes through in matter-of-fact prose. But these comparisons did not speak to me: Faber’s novel is more outwardly lyrical, Catton’s more structurally complex, and deWitt’s spare and action-packed.
On my shelf, Steven Price nestles in with Caleb Carr and Carlos Ruiz Zafon: melodramatic page-turners, immersed in atmosphere, with haunting passions at the core of their stories. “The truth that is found in a story is a different kind of truth, but it is not less real for being so.”
Is By Gaslight on your stack? Have you read another of Steven Price’s books? Has another overwhelmingly moody book been letting off clouds of gloom in your midst?
For a love of birds with wings, especially parrots.
“But what did happen to Adam and Eve? Did they hollow out the Tree of Knowledge, make a canoe and then paddle east to Europe?
Not these Heyerdahls.
But, if there ever were an Adam and Eve, who knows where they went?
Maybe they were Indios—or what came before Indios.
I mean Adam and Eve: maybe they were birds.
I could see my great-great-great-infinitely-great-grand-parrot forebears fressing on apples, learning to name things, being too clever for their own good.
For a love of books with wings.
“If only we could have opened the chest, spread wide the books’ wings and let each letter lift from the pages, fly over the distant horizon, a murmuration of words, an escaping sigh. And if only these letters could have raised Sarah, the Doña, the rabbi and the others, lifted them from the deck on their tiny black wings. If only they could have carried them into the sky and beyond the reach of fire, if only they could have left the ship without a single word, without a single living soul.”
For a love of books without wings too.
“For a bird whose only library had been the waves, my world was becoming ongeshtupted with books. Moishe seemed to attract them the way analogies attract fools.”
For a particular love of birds who love books with and without wings.
“As a reader, the parrot Aaron is a polyglot, omnivore and a plunderer, and the complete sources of his learning are obscure. However, certain texts can be noted: Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov; Capt. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates; Mary Johnston, 1492; Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood; Shakespeare, The Tempest; Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast; Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean; Michael Wex, Just Say Nu; and a great variety of books on history, language and seafaring too numerous to mention here.” [This from the acknowledgments. The parrot is not a braggart.]
For a love of love.
“I am Fernández, yes, and cousin to that Sarah who you tried to help. I, too, have spoken with this would-be world-finder Columbus. I will travel with him, through the Pillars of Hercules, across Ocean Sea and beyond history’s vanishing point. With the Doña gone, there are no more rescue ships. And, in truth, this dark tide has already washed my heart to sea, and only habit keeps blood moving through me.”
For a love of language.
“Writing Hebrew, most of the time, you make do without vowels. Of course, when you speak, there are plenty of vowels—no matter how you mumble, you have to open your pisk eventually—unless your strudel-cave has been fully spelunked by cake, when it’s better to wait. When you read, you have to imagine the vowels wheezing between the consonants’ black masts. You know they exist, they’re just not there. Like God to the troubled faithful. Maybe in some other disconsonant world, there are Hebrew books where all the unwritten vowels appear, like the souls of the dead, reunited with their consonant bodies, but in this world, the story goes on without them.”
For a love of “Laverne & Shirley”.
“These four perfectly illustrated two species of Yiddish fool. Shlemiels pass out and find themselves in hot water. Schlimazels pull their friend from the roiling pot only to get their mortal goose cooked into soup.” (Maybe this is just me: was I the only devoted fan who didn’t understand ‘shlemiel’ and ‘schlimazel’, only dutifully sang along?)
For a love of story.
“I did not intend then to give tongue to what intelligence I had gained, but, na, there’s no greater ache than an untold story.”
For a love of laughter.
“As the unicorn said to the griffin when Noah built the Ark, ‘See, I told you there’s nothing to worry about.’”
And for the power that laughter can conceal.
“As we landed on each new island, Columbus seized a few more natives. By this time, he was calling them Indios. Indians.
Bet you can’t capture just one.
Besides, what do you get for a king and queen who have everything?”
That’s a lot of reasons: does any one of them call to you more so than the rest?
It doesn’t happen everyday: a single book resulting in a new reading resolution. Even the idea of it is somehow misleading, isn’t it? Because in the life of a voracious reader, is it possible to isolate a single reading experience and claim it as the genesis of a change in reading habits?
2013. Hispabooks, 2015.
I mean, would I even have been reading The Same City, had I not fallen in love with the writing of Timothy Findley and Margaret Atwood when I was a teenager? So, is the resolution really rooted in Luisgé Martín’s novella?
And, yet, it was while I was taking the bus home on a weekday afternoon, determined to finish reading The Same City, that I resolved to read more novellas.
Normally, I don’t need to take the bus in that leg of my journey; it’s only a few blocks further and I am content to travel on foot. But, the neighbourhood is under construction, and I can’t read while walking, even when I slow my pace. (Because of course I *do* read while walking much of time: don’t you?),
So I had to take the bus so that I could finish this story.
It certainly did not have an auspicious beginning.
“Almost all schools of psychology, from classic psychoanalysis through to Gestalt psychotherapy, concern themselves with that melancholic or despairing state of mind that usually rears its head in people approaching the halfway point in life, that state which in somewhat unscientific vernatcular we are in the habit of calling the ‘midlife crisis’. At approximately forty years old, human beings cast their minds back, recall the dreams they had when they were young, then take stock of their achievements since that time and the possibilities they still have of attaining the wonderful life they had imagined. The result is always distressing.”
The sentence is complex, multiple phrases with elaborations and modifiers, and all to introduce something as mundane as a ‘midlife crisis’?
But there is something strangely compelling about the reportage style (the translation from the Spanish is by Tomasz Dukanovich).
Readers quickly understand that they are hearing a man’s story, that he is not telling it himself but the telling is only one step removed; readers imagine that they re hearing a copy of the story as it has been told to the narrator.
Letters, phone calls and conversations: readers have it all laid out for them. The information is shared chronologically, for the most part, although one has the sense that the original listener has ordered it for readers, as if part of the listener’s process of coming to an understanding as well.
And, throughout, there is an awareness that something has happened which has given the original listener occasion to believe that there is something worthwhile about the tale, that it deserves another layer of narration and, furthermore, another layer of listeners (readers).
“The story of Brandon Moy is even more exceptional; in his case there had been no clear threat or dangerous situation, just an indeterminate sadness. At forty, or at other less rocky ages, I had felt, as does almost everyone, a desire to completely change my life, to leave Madrid for a distant, faraway city, to find a new job where I could start to learn different things, or to separate myself from my circle of dependable friends, because although I loved them, they shackled me to tarnished, tiresome customs.”
There is something exceptional about Brandon Moy’s story, but that’s not understood for quite some time. The foundation of the novella is what he represents in a more universal sense.
Yet the details (places, times, frequencies, routes, values, etc.) decorate the story at a suprising rate given the work is only 133 pages long (with generous margins, too). Readers might recall the list of possessions in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. Just as they are meant to accumulate for readers, to portray a sense of weight on a soldier’s back, here the details collect and collide to remind us that our daily lives are stuffed with minutiae, which can also add an unexpected burden to our ordinary existence.
Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like, in a moment of strain and stress, to take the back door and leave it all behind. Which is the temptation which Brandon Moy faces in this seductive story.
But, it’s true, what I said before, that it’s disingenuous to claim that one can trace the influence of a certain book, against the backdrop of a lifetime’s worth of reading.
Because I might not even have invited The Same City onto my reading stack, had I not had such a great reading experience with other novellas periodically over the years (most recently, David Hull’s The Man Who Remembered the Moon).
But The Same City has caught my eye. It’s not a wandering eye, but it is a curious one. And here I am, a midlife-reader. Perhaps I’m just looking for a quick fling on the page. Or, perhaps works like Luisgé Martín’s novella are worth settling down with on a more permanent basis.
What’s interesting about each of these novels is that none fits a traditional model in the suspense genre. Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door is the closest to a conventional thriller. But even her novel spends more time on characterization and atmosphere than many loyal genre readers would tolerate.
Nonetheless, she does rely on tropes to some extent. At the heart of the novel is the stalwart detective, determined to unravel the story which lands in his lap all knotted and twisted. “Rasbach will figure it out. The truth is there. It is always there. It simply needs to be uncovered.”
One of the particularly satisfying elements of the tale is the sense of isolation, not only with the detective’s investigation, but within the couple’s marriage; their loneliness is exacerbated after the disappearance of their infant daughter, but it isn’t new either.
“Anne and Marco are at home alone. The house is empty but for the two of them and their horror and grief and dark imaginings. It would be hard to say who of the two is more damaged… not knowing what has happened to their baby. They each hope desperately that she’s still alive, but there is so little to sustain that hope. Each tries to pretend for the other.”
Ultimately, this novel is about breaking down, literally and metaphorically, as relationships and nervous systems crumble. “If s/he lied abou t this, what else has s/he lied about ? […] But they have reached an uneasy truce. They need each other. Maybe they even still care for each other, in spite of everything.” [I’ve made the pronouns ambiguous to avoid spoilers.] What are good characters to do when the “whole world is built on lies and deceit”?
The bonds of trust are also at the heart of David Bergen’s Giller-longlisted novel, Stranger. Although it is not a thriller, I read it just as quickly as each of the other books discussed here (in two reading sessions, sometimes the same day, other times two back-to-back days).
Íso’s story is undeniably compelling. It begins quietly, with discussion of her work in a clinic on Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala, where she attends to women who have travelled there in hopes of resolving concerns about their fertility.
“She had learned that desperation in a woman’s face and body was not a pretty sight. Desperation and sadness and false happiness and hope and wishful thinking and physical ache – all of this was mixed up and thrown into a tempest, and what survived, what fell to the earth, was disappointment.”
She distrusts (or discounts) the advice of family members, who witness the 17-year-old creeping towards her own kind of tempestuous disappointment, which leads to an unexpected journey and hardships. The language is almost painfully spare.
“She sat down. She folded her hands in her lap. The sun fell onto her head. It was very warm. She removed her jacket and laid it across her lap. She folded her hands again. And she wept.”
Between the lines, there is time for a character to fold and refold her hands, to smooth an article of clothing and, yes, to weep. There is an arc to Íso’s story, not one predictable from its beginning, but one which seems clear at the end. “Because if it isn’t finished, it isn’t a story.” But it’s not the events of the story which make you turn the pages, but the reader’s engagement with Íso. “Nothing happens. You are who you are,” her mother states. And this is true. Through her story, readers have the opportunity to play with intersecting incidents revolving around the concept of a “stranger”, but the author leaves the heavy lifting for the readers; the narrative does not provide ready-made insights.
This fits with the kind of engagement which Santiago explains is necessary for Íso to undertake. “Then he said that it was for her to remember who she was. He said that sometimes we forget. That sometimes we come face to face with an object that appears to be quite beautiful, and we are spellbound. And then we find out that the object is not so beautiful. Or it gets lost. Or it changes shape.”
Memory is at the core of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia as well. Also set in the future (as is Stranger, but not glaringly so), the world is near-our-now, but just slightly askew from our contemporary existence.
“I arrived home and, as I often did when Joanie was not around, I headed for the media room to watch XBN News, and the analyses that followed in the program The Daily Goode. In my line of work, I needed to keep up with the world where my patients came from, and returned to, transformed. My work demanded knowledge of past and present, culture and science, and even occasionally esoterica like the classics and the trendy and obscure postmodern. But current news was my addiction. I was drawn to it for a fix, despite my fears of numbing by overexposure and my dislike of sensationalism.”
The prose is as direct as Bergen’s, but not quite as removed. The first-person narration pulls readers into the story and deliberately skews the perspective. Readers can only know what Frank (Dr. Sina) knows.
And what he knows is also deliberately shaped. In an effort to avoid Leaking Memory Syndrome (Nostalgia), medical science has adopted the responsibility of protecting people from their past lives. Untreated, nostalgia can be fatal.
“A thought leads to others, begins a chain reaction until the mind cannot control that other life surging in from the past. The result is an angry storm of mental activity, a total breakdown. I had once seen such a suffering a professional demonstration. The patient was raving, shouting all kinds of nonsense. The condition has been called possession, and has been likened to the superstition of possession by a malicious bodyless entity, a spirit.”
Frank observes this struggle in a patient who seeks his advice in the early stages of Leaking Memory Syndrome, but he, too, has his own questions and concerns. (There are some segments of the story which appear to be offered by a journalist and in the form of a notebook, which seem to offer other perspectives on events in the story, affording readers a peek at an alternate narrative.)
“We who have violated personal history and personal relationships in our bid to become immortal, can we now really know for certain who we are?” (At this, I couldn’t help but think of Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human: I love it when books intersect!)
Personal relationships and history are at the heart of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a slim literary novel designed to make you squirm.
Here, too, readers are rooted in one person’s perspective for the most part, with just enough extraneous material to raise another set of (largely unanswered) questions.
“How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason. At night, when I wake up alone, the memory still terrifies me. It scares me more the older I get. Each time I remember it, it seems worse, more sinister. Maybe each time I remember it, I make it worse than it was. I don’t know.”
This line of uncertainty is deliberate. “‘Maybe we’re not supposed to know all the answers. Questions are good. They’re better than answers. If you want to know more about life, how we work, how we progress, it’s questions that are important. That’s what pushes and stretches our intellect. I think questions make us feel less lonely and more connected. It’s not always about knowing. I appreciate not knowing. Not knowing is human. That’s how it should be, like space. It’s unsolvable, and it’s dark,’ I say, ‘but not entirely.'”
Reid’s novel also considers the importance of (and fragility of) memory. “A memory is its own thing each time it’s recalled. It’s not absolute. Stories based on actual events often share more with fiction than fact. Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality happens only once.”
For the bulk of the novel, readers can only see what’s immediately in front of the speeding vehicle they’re strapped into; it’s deliberately disorienting and relies upon a certain amount of trust in the storyteller. Trust which is likely to be fractured, because the beams of light cast upon a limited view.
This statement from Iain Reid’s novel could actually have been pulled from any one of these four novels:
“It’s amazing that relationships can form and last under the constraints of never fully knowing. Never knowing for sure what the other person is thinking. Never knowing for sure who a person is.”
We readers might be all smug, thinking we can pin down the answers on a printed page, but those answers are just as slippery as any other, all that ink puddling into stories characterized by confusion and uncertainty.
And, yet, we continue to turn the pages: searching for answers. Have you turned the pages of any of these? Some other compelling story in your stack?
Prizelists make me feel like I do when I watch the Olympics. Because just when I am feeling most thrilled about one person’s winning performance, I am reminded of all the other participants’ losses.
So the prizelists, for me, are as much about what is not listed as what is listed and even when part of me is cheering, another part is lamenting. And whether I am cheering or lamenting, there could be tears: such situations are fraught.
When Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People was listed for this year’s Giller Prize, I actually squealed, because it’s one of my favourite reads this season.
But simultaneously I was disappointed not to see Katherena Vermette’s The Break listed for the prize to start with.
Afterwards, The Break was listed for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in English so then I felt a little better; but that’s not uncomplicated either, because the fact that it was been listed for two of the prizes made me wish that another title had one of those opportunities for a shortlisting.
One of the reasons that I gravitate towards prizelists is that they can introduce new works into my reading stacks and I simultaneously want a good book to get recognition – and its author some accolades and cash and the incentive to continue writing – but also keep company with a bunch of other good books that I haven’t heard of yet.
That leaves me in conflict. And so does the fact that sometimes I can recognize the skill some works take, but they don’t dig into my heart; objectively I appreciate that the recognition is deserved, but subjectively I want to be dragged by the heart into a story.
I’ve either read or begun reading all of the longlisted titles for this year’s Giller. The last is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I began reading yesterday morning.
Some were by authors whose works have repeatedly appeared on my TBR stacks, like Emma Donoghue’s. She has a knack for recreating other times and places, and for introducing serious themes and ideas (like religion and mortality, injustice and power) into page-turning stories. The Wonder didn’t pull me in as strongly as Slammerkin and the prose didn’t seduce me like Kissing the Witch, but I understand why many readers have found it more affecting than I.
Others were by authors whose work was new to my TBR (like Stephen Price’s By Gaslight, which took me awhile to sink into, but now I am engrossed in the story and style, and Susan Perly’s Death Valley, which I found beautifully and unexpectedly poetic).
Another time, I’ll have more to say about Stranger and Yiddish for Pirates, which won’t necessarily make my list of favourite reads for this year, but which were memorable reads all the same. (Unsurprisingly, as I’ve got a thing about parrots, and I’ve enjoyed David Bergen’s fiction before.)
Two of the books on this year’s shortlist are now firmly ensconced on my list of favourites for this reading year: Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People and Catherine LeRoux’s The Party Wall (Trans. Lazer Lederhendler), which I just finished reading last week.
When I began reading Madeleine Thien’s novel yesterday, I realized that my choice for the 2016 Giller Prize might be my most difficult choice yet; because although I am not on the Gillery Jury, I am reading quietly as a jury-of-one, deliberating my own decision as a solitary reader, and I find myself torn between good books.
Mind you, it’s a random exercise because of course I had no input towards the longlist, so selecting a winner from the shortlist is like having to make my own menu when I’ve been brought into the kitchen to stir the soup.
But, still, I remain torn, imagining how difficult it would be to be a juror in this position, to have two or three favourites and an extremely difficult choice. (And, then, of course there is the matter of other jurors not having identical opinions, which would complicate things tremendously. Fortunately, I do not need to persuade anyone.)
At the “Between the Pages” Giller Prize event in Toronto, some of the writers expressed difficulty answering a question posed to them by Albert Schultz, about whether ideas were more firmly rooted in themes or plots or characters: it can be hard to separate those elements in thinking about the creative genesis/power of a literary work. Similarly, I find myself trying to narrow my choice by saying that in one work the structure is phenomenal and in another the characterization; but, in fact, neither element alone would be so impressive if other elements weren’t also outstanding. So the conflict remains.
I have not, in my mind, awarded my own private Giller Prize for this year. Instead, I am feeling exceedingly grateful that I am a single reader, who can bestow countless prizes to my favourite reads.
Have you been reading from any of the Canadian literary prizelists this season? Here are some of the recent ones, if you’re curious:
Giller Prize 2016: Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates, Andrew Battershill’s Pillow, David Bergen’s Stranger, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, Catherine LeRoux’s The Party Wall (Trans. Lazer Lederhendler), Kathy Page’s The Two of Us, Susan Perly’s Death Valley, Kerry Lee Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People. (The award will be presented this evening.)
Writers’ Trust Award 2016: Michael Helm’s After James, Anosh Irani’s The Parcel, Kerry Lee Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, Yasuko Thanh’s Mysterious Frangrance of the Yellow Mountains and Katherena Vermette’s The Break. (Yasuko Thanh’s Mysterious Frangrance of the Yellow Mountains won the Fiction Prize. I’ve read her collection of stories, so I’m keen to read her novel.)
Governor General’s Literary Award 2016: Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates, Anosh Irani’s The Parcel, Kerry Lee Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Katherena Vermette’s The Break. (Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the English Fiction Award.)
Do you value prizelists or abhor them, or fall somewhere between? Do you enjoying watching/following particular ones?
If you are following this year’s Giller Prize, are you planning to watch/attend? Do you have your own winner in mind?
Conflicted: that describes my first impressions after meeting Pillow in Andrew Battershill’s Giller-nominated novel of the same name,and it also describes his perspective on the world.
It’s hard to be Pillow, to see all the angles which converge and diverge simultaneously on any single thought he has. For instance: “Pillow was of the mind that going to the zoo was just about the best thing a person could do with a day.” But, also, the zoo is “evil”, “a jail for animals who committed no crimes”.Pillow loves it anyway. And it plays an integral role in his life as a drug dealer, with the picnic area behind the Giraffe Park serving as the exchange site every third Wednesday.
He doesn’t actually have friends, only friendly acquaintances, and I count myself – as reader – as one of those. But it’s a challenge being in Pillow’s brain. “The centaurs jaunting around all proud, doing math equations while they galloped. It was the kind of reverie that Pillow often distracted himself with in the long hours he was supposed to be paying attention to dangerous details in the real world.”
But as Pillow’s boss observes: “A full half of this life is a test, the other half a game.” And Pillow’s perspective on things brings this to the forefront of my reading mind: he tests my patience, but he also makes me smile and even when the dangerous details surface, I find myself having a good time in Pillow‘s company.
Madhu, in Anosh Irani’s The Parcel, is also difficult company. Madhu’s job is to prepare the young girls who have been sold into prostitution. Her newest ten-year-old “parcel” is neither more nor less of a challenge than the rest. Madhu has been doing this for more than twenty years; she has acquired considerable expertise. “The parcel needed to be packaged in such a way that it looked like it belonged in Kamathipura. And who better than a hijra to undertake the task of transformation?”
Madhu belongs to the hijra community, a third gender which is neither wholly male nor wholly female and recognised in parts of South Asia. She found a sense of belonging in this community which she could not have had with her family, who sold her for 300 rupees. But this is damaging, devastating work.
“In Kamathipura, a parcel died twice. The first death was the breaking in. The second, more painful, death happened when the parcel realized that she had been discarded by her own family. That was when survival lost all meaning, and compliance became a sensible option.” Madhu has been a parcel and now tends to other parcels: how many deaths has she curated?
“It might be too late for Madhu, but she would teach this parcel how to separate herself from her body. She would teach the parcel how to forget that she was human. The body was the enemy. The more you loved it, the more you thought of it as a part of you, the more it blackmailed you.”
This is a very difficult story, even beyond the complexities of the narrator, who is motivated by something-like-compassion in a system which is devoid of compassion (one which, in fact, depends upon its absence). But Anoshi Irani’s prose is often breathtakingly beautiful. And although one could not say this is a hopeful story, there is something-like-hope, there in the darkness.
Susan Perly’s novel, Death Valley, landed on my stack because of her appearance at this year’s IFOA. Then, it was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Readers are first introduced to the character Vivienne Pink, who is a war photographer. She is spirited and ambitious, determined and intelligent, but sometimes her concern with getting the shot she desires will outweigh all other matters.
She is not as solitary a figure as either Pillow or Madhu. She has a husband, who also has a brother, and she has a friend who is a spy and he understands the compromises that Vivienne makes for the “greater good”. (For instance, sometimes she also has a lover, if that’s what it takes to get the perfect shot.)
Nonetheless, although her character is not as difficult as some, her circumstances are dangerous indeed. “Before there was Chernobyl wind, before there was Three Mile Island rain, there were the Nevada Nagasakis, there were the Nevada Hiroshimas. This was the nuclear valley inside the nuclear ranges. And the iodine waited for your neck, that radiation magnet. The wind sought even the birds of flight.” (If you think you know the extent of the military testing in Nevada, you are likely mistaken.)
Death Valley unfolds in the “high-res desert”, “a still-reverberating concussion”, the “cold empire of wonder”. You might read it for the poetry. Or the feminism. Or the hard-hitting reality of what one wishes were fantasy. ““You see,’ the White Rabbit continued, ‘buying insurance for the nuclear plants encourages the growth of fear. We prefer to grow an economy, right, Alice?’”
George and Rue is also poetic and fervent. And just as Anosh Irani’s tale was inspired by his years growing up next to the Red Light district, George Elliott Clarke’s novel was inspired by his home turf: the historical figures of George and Rue are actually part of his family.
“Though repelled by the Hamiltons’ crime, I embrace them as my kin. They were born where I was born—in the Africadian settlement of Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia—and George Hamilton and I were named for the same gentleman, his grandfather and my great-grandfather, George Johnson. (In naming me as she did, my mother salvaged the memory of that perished cousin—and recuperated the regal name of her grandfather.) Too, the Hamiltons were—like so many of us from Three Mile Plains, Five Mile Plains, Windsor Plains (all the same community, really)—part Mi’kmaq and part African.”
Their crime was brutal, but Clarke’s retelling is lyrical and poignant, so while the layers of eviseration and cruelty are almost overwhelming, readers can sometimes lose themselves in the delights of word selection and imagery. “Then he had to sidestep stringy cats who streaked from shadows to bat about and maul and chew the struggling, gut-splattered rats. He turned and saw a mutt sitting under the Ford’s trunk, lapping at the suddenly brothy snow.”
This is deliberately and undeniably difficult territory. “The dreadfullest sounds was heard in the penal colony on holidays: coughs and cries followed by choking and gurgling. Tears sliding down like falling stars. Suicides by hanging, or by slashing wrists with homemade shivs, razors. Prison made Hell look good.” This is not the prison of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Nor is it Madhu’s kind of prison. Each is flinch-worthy in its own way.
It is a different kind of prison again in Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter. “Do not misunderstand me when I speak of running and escaping. There were places Lily could hide without lifting her feet from the ground. The problem was that when she faded into her illness – the most complete of all her hiding places – it left me out in the open where everyone else could see me. Being a child, I had no defence against this scrutiny. It was hard to bear – and sometimes I hated her for it.”
Lily is not so much a difficult character as she was a difficult mother for the narrator of Findley’s classic novel. And that, it’s true, is laid to rest at the challenging circumstances she herself faced.
“Stop! But he didn’t.
Don’t! But he did.
Nothing. Not one word.”
Overall, Lily is a sympathetic character, ensnared by tragic circumstances. “She had lost, I think, her eagerness to evade whatever restrictions had chased her through those early years – and had given in to their persistence. She was someone’s captive, it seemed – or the captive of a circumstance she could not resist.” Timothy Findley explores many themes familiar to his readers (memory, history, madness, absent parents, romantic disappointment, unrequited love, loneliness) and he affords his narrator the opportunity to rebuild.
And just as Lily’s mother “extrapolated hope from hopeless situations”, we readers face difficulties in fiction in hopes of finding new hope in those hopeless situations. Is it hard? Sometimes. But all we have to do is turn the pages. The stories behind the stories are so much harder to bear, than the act of bearing witness ever is .
How about you: what difficult stories have you been reading?