Ray Robertson’s Moody Food (2002)

A hundred pages into Moody Food, I was still wondering if this was really The Book for Me.

And, admittedly, that’s the feeling I had right at the start: a football scene is not a cozy welcome for this reader.

But there was also a kinda Almost Famous feel to it, as it ambled along, and I liked that.

And The Making Waves bookstore? Encompassing the entire first floor of “a paint-peeling Victorian house near the corner of Brunswick and Harbord, crammed to the walls” with the owner’s book collection, much of which she blatantly refused to sell?

Well, that got me.

But a hundred pages in, I was still wondering. The bookstore scenes were vastly outnumbered by the studio rehearsal scenes and just as Christine and Bill are wondering if the Duckheads are ever going to get their (proverbial and literal) musical act together, I was wondering if my attentions might be more tightly gripped by one of the new arrivals in that day’s bookish mail.

So I took stock, picked random lines on my morning TTC route:

“Starting up a band or plotting a revolution is always so much easier in the planning stages over a tableful of beer.”

Well, I’ve never done either, but I think almost anything is easier in the planning stages, and almost anything seems easier with lots of beer around. Except things that call for fine motor control, then maybe not so much. And Bill hasn’t, to my knowledge, planned a revolution, but this insight certainly fits with my understanding of the rest of his life experience.

“How was it that they were talking about putting a man on the moon but nobody had made a pill yet that allowed a guy to look at his girlfriend’s ass in the same way he looked at it the very first time?

Full marks, again, for sustaining characterization: this observation suits Bill just fine. And perhaps it’s true that there are a lot of Bills out there who would consult their medical practitioner following such a drug’s invention.

Although Ray Robertson doesn’t take the easy way out of drawing Bill and Christine’s relationship in broad and predictable strokes either: I think he does a good job of capturing the ebb and flow in the distance and intimacy between these young characters.

“We were idling in that part of Queen Street East where the pawnshops and Salvation Armys took over.”

Part of the appeal of the Making Waves bookstore is that I can picture that street corner, can cobble together the shop based on a few different shops within walking distance of it, and I feel I know this spot on Queen as well; I do love the Toronto-ness of this book, unequivocably.

By the time I stepped off the streetcar onto Queen East, just past the point reference above, my Moody Food inventory added up to this: solid setting, consistent characterization, effective use of flashbacks to add dimension to a relatively mysterious character, language and presentation suits the narrator, and the plot is as directed as it can be (cuz, hey, everybody knows the route to a musical career is rarely linear).

And even though I haven’t quoted anything directly that reveals this? The dialogue is truly stand-out. It’s walk-off-the-page good. Not overly clever, just damn straight and believable. That’s uncommon.

But I did spend a lot of time wondering whether or not to finish Moody Food — a hundred, two hundred, three hundred pages in — even though there were some things that I liked about it and some things that I even loved about it.

In contrast, when I read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, I read half of it on a train and then lost track of it for a couple of weeks and started from the beginning again and read straight through. I did wonder whether to simply let that novel sit after those two weeks.

I did wonder whether to simply pick up when I’d left off and let the rift stand. But I didn’t spend much time wondering; ultimately I felt compelled to read it, re-read that half, finish it.

In some ways that’s perhaps not a fair comparison because thematically these are two very different novels, but I make it because (a) I do recall the conscious process of deciding whether to continue; (b) there’s a grit to Moody Food just as there’s a harshness to The Vagrants; and (c) my experience is thousands of miles removed from both characters’. And, yet, my commitment to each novel was noticeably different.

Maybe Ray Robertson’s Moody Food just wasn’t The Book for Me, or maybe I’ve read it out-of-time; maybe I would have enjoyed it more in July (not February), on a park bench (not a subway), with a soundtrack (not irritated and irritating commuter chatter) and with snacks and beer.

I wouldn’t rush to read a sequel to Moody Food, but I would definitely read another of Ray Robertson‘s novels.