Saturday, April 29, 2006

Type Cast 15

When interviewing Emily Schultz, it’s hard not to compare Tammy Lane, the befuddled hero of Schultz’s gorgeous debut novel Joyland, to Schultz herself – both author and creation are small, big-eyed creatures, both come from small towns (in Schultz’s case, the hamlet of Wallaceburg, Ontario), and both are prone to moments of deep silence that are either signs of equally deep thought or a paralysing shyness, or both. The major difference, of course, is that Schultz is about 20 years older than her already world wary heroine.

Canadians produce coming-of-age novels at about the same pace and with the same reliability as the French produce mid-life sex romps. Alice Munro wrote one, Mordecai Richler wrote one, W.O. Mitchell’s classic Who Has Seen The Wind is taught in schools (well, public schools at least, and sometimes with the dirty words blacked out), Camilla Gibb got rich and famous from hers, and Derek McCormack’s was made into an acclaimed short film. Even I wrote one, but the less said on that subject the better.

So, I must admit I approached Joyland with mixed feelings. Already familiar with Schultz’s writing from Black Coffee Night, her blunt and darkly hilarious collection of short stories, as well as from her tenures as editor of Broken Pencil magazine, This Magazine, and the Pocket Cannon project (a collection of naughty stories written by famous writers under the cloak of anonymity), I knew that Joyland would be well written, but … another puberty novel?

Happily, Joyland is far from “another” anything. Set in a fictional small Ontario town in the early 1980s, the novel follows the lost wanderings of tween aged Tammy and her very confused brother Chris, a video game junky. When the titular video arcade Joyland closes down, Chris spends his summer tumbling, like a player caught in an endless video game loop, from one discomforting, pre-sexual adventure to the next. Tammy watches her brother and begins to understand that the world she inhabits is far more complex, and menacing, than she has ever understood – and it is Tammy’s laser beam observations that move the narrative.

Unlike many similar heroes, however, Tammy is not a precocious, all-seeing wise child. Schultz gives Tammy exactly the right amount of brain power for her age, and Joyland revels in the half-understood world Tammy witnesses. Because I hate coming-of-age novels wherein the central kid is smarter than the reader and sounds more like Woody Allen talking to his shrink than an actual child, I loved Joyland. Tammy Lane is the most convincing child protagonist I’ve encountered in years – a cross between Lynda Barry’s innocent smart ass Marlys and Judy Blume’s truth-seeking missile Margaret. Schultz leaves the editorializing to the reader, letting us fill in the blank spots in Tammy’s knowledge with our own experience.

On a quiet Sunday evening in the dark back corner of the Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar, the reluctant interviewee, dressed in an innocuous black cotton dress (the better to hide with), admits she wrote Joyland in an understated style she calls “impressionistic”.

“I want to get the feel of things, not explain them. I want to write down what it feels like to do simple things, like put a cup on a table or open the microwave door, and then see if I can make that sensation match the moment in the story. I’m more like a telegrapher, and that style, that pixelization, works with the theme of videogames, with the way early videogames looked, like assembled fragments and bits of colour.”

“It’s also how the kids in the book relate to the world, from videogames – they break everything down into small moments, to better understand their world, because the bigger view is too complicated. “

“Also”, Schultz adds with a shy shrug, “I’m kind of a failed poet, so I pay attention to the way words sound next to each other, in really short sections.”

As we talk, I try to resist the temptation to ask the cheesiest question in the book – how much is Joyland an autobiography? But the novel is so achingly accurate in its depiction of early pubescence, I finally crack and let my inner hack run free. Schultz is saintly in her patience.

“I chose to make Tammy that age, 11 and a half, because at that age you are living between childhood and early adulthood. Tammy is not me, but I did go back and read my diaries from that age, and what surprised me was how in a matter of months my depth of knowledge changed. The world just sort of hits you at some point, and you have to adapt. And I was a videogame kid, part of the first generation of videogame players, but I didn’t hang out at the arcades – that was boy territory.”

“I didn’t think I was trying to write another “Canadian family book”, but I guess I did, because Joyland is so much a book about place, which is very Canadian, and about wanting to escape from a small place, which is archetypically Canadian. So, I’m fine with the label now.”

Schultz has become something of a media event in the last while – a major newspaper labelled her one of the “Best Writers under 30”, or some such thing, a few years back – but Schultz isn’t having any of that fluff. Before I even complete my question to her about the hazards of peaking young, of being called a best-of anything while one is still in one’s basement apartment years, Schultz cuts me off with her first uninhibited laugh of the night.

“I was never called Best, I was called Prominent – you know, like a nose. Let’s just say I’ve been lucky. My goals with this book were pretty simple. First, I wanted to see if I could actually do it, actually write 300 pages of text. After that, I wanted to see if the 300 pages were worth reading. And after that, I tried to give them an impact, make them hang together. Anything else will be more good luck.”

If Joyland gets the kind of attention it deserves, maybe Schultz might, just might relax enough to give herself a tentative (but not too hard!) pat on the back.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Type Cast 14

Everything I never needed to know as a kid I learned from books. And then some.

Although neither of my parents pursued a post-secondary education, they hardly let that stop them when it came to dishing out dire warnings about what happened to people who didn’t take up reading. As my mother succinctly put it, “If you don’t read, you end up on the welfare”. This was no idle threat – “the welfare”, a fate somewhere on the calamity scale between prison and “the mental”, was a very real possibility in rural New Brunswick. I went to school with kids who clearly disliked to read, and to bathe, and my parents convinced me that the two disinclinations were interrelated.

By the time I reached reading age, my older brother had already amassed a well-mangled collection of Golden Books and first readers. The Golden Books were singularly unremarkable, and deserved all the punishment he gave them. Fluffy bunnies got lost in the woods (in the middle of the afternoon, the idiots) while plucky puppies chased butterflies down dark, hollow logs. All that frolicking was supposed to be very exciting, but I lived next to the Atlantic ocean - a place where people regularly got into real trouble, usually while drunk.

The first readers were no better. With titles like Helicopters and Gingerbread and Sunflowers and Jellyfish, they were about as titillating as the local United Church’s Dimes For Delhi campaign. I craved books that would take me away from my charm and adventure-starved surroundings.

Luckily, my father spent part of his 1930s childhood in New York City, and he kept a cache of Little Big Books from that era stashed in his desk drawer. The desk drawer was a forbidden zone, so naturally I riffled through it at least once a week.

Little Big Books were compact picture books, about the size of a coffee mug (or a child’s hand), laid out like photo-novellas. On one side of each left/right spread was a line drawing depicting the action described in print on the other side. So, if you didn’t know what the word “keelhauled” meant, you just looked at the picture of the poor pirate being dragged across the bottom of the ship. The drawings were lurid and curvy, in the gleefully horny way many cultural products from that morally lax, impoverished decade were, and never failed to present both male and female protagonists in the most flattering, clinging clothes. Ah, innocence.

Most of the titles in my father’s Big Little Books collection were print versions of popular films and radio shows from the time (such as Buck Rogers and Little Orphan Annie), and were therefore alien to me, but the successful format was adopted by other publishers who focused on classics. Tarzan, Great Expectations, and Moby Dick all got the pictorial treatment, to much lasting effect, but the book that swallowed me was Dracula – a novel I still adore today.

The editors smartly cut out much of Stoker’s original text, especially all of Professor Van Helsing’s boring God-mongering and, for obvious reasons, Dr. Seward’s drug addiction and Lucy Westenra’s sluttiness, thus paring the tale down to one of invader vs. protectors, evil outsider against a family – a compelling narrative when one’s entire existence revolves around the home and the primal fear of losing one’s family is so keen.

Count Dracula was every boogeyman rolled into one red-eyed monster, a creature without remorse or depth. Like a shark, he existed only to kill. I was entranced by this display of undiluted malevolence. All the books and films produced at the time for children paled in comparison. The villains were only mildly evil, and more often just misunderstood, and the heroes were more bumbling than valiant. I grew up in the age of the anti-hero, the ethically grey and forgiving 70s. As an adult, I’m grateful for this useful fuzziness, but as a child I wanted, as all children do, absolutes and rules.

The more I read and re-read Dracula, the more the pictures and the words blended together. My experience of the book became cinematic, literally a moving picture show. And, no matter how often I read the story, I experienced the same overwhelming sense of dread as the narrative built to a climax. I would hypnotize myself with terror, becoming at times Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, or Mina Harker. I could feel the Count at my back, his fangs and claws dripping gore down my neck. I was a melodramatic kid, to say the least.

At some point Dracula was taken away from me. The official reason was that the book was a valuable collectable - but even parents without post-secondary education know a nut case in the making when they see one. To my eternal shame, I tried to recapture the magic and the fright by reading all of Baum’s Oz books. But Dorothy Gale is no Lucy Westenra, and talking trees just aren’t much of a scare once you’ve been held down in the sand and had a half-dead dogfish squished over your face.

After the Oz books, I spent five years wallowing in superhero comics, and then went on to read Stephen King’s anxiety-making masterpieces The Stand and The Shining, followed soon after by Harold Robbin’s The Lonely Lady, during which I experienced all new kinds of horrors.

I feel sorry for child readers today – their books are so timid and cheerful. Apart from the notable exception of the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman - a genius fantasist Christopher Hitchens has rightly called “the most dangerous author in Britain” - there’s not much out there designed to instil terrified wonder in a young mind.

Dread is a useful emotion, a feeling that should be learned, and mastered, at an early age. Like a vaccine, fictional dread inoculates you against the inevitable anxieties to come. Even in my most worried adult moments, I’ve never been as certain of my impending demise as I was sitting behind the couch with Dracula in my chubby hands and my mother’s rosary wound around my neck.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Type Cast 13

Moral panics over art are few and far between in the post-modern era, and aesthetic panics are non-existent. It’s a blessing and a curse, this complacency.

Of course, a work of art will still upset people and politicians – the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition earned the ire of Mayor Giuliani in 1999, and, just this winter, a handful of cartoons depicting the Prophet sparked violent clashes around the world – but such reactions are prompted by the content of the works, not their artistic value. Nobody complained that the cartoons of the Prophet were poorly drawn.

A new book by the London-based novelist and historian Ross King, a native of Saskatchewan, looks back at a time when the way a work of art was actually constructed, how it looked, caused social eruptions and even death. His fascinating history of the early years of the Impressionist movement, The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, is not only a study of the rise of this now-beloved painting genre, but is also a history of a time when words like “ugly” and “repellent” were used to describe art without relativistic apologies.

The art world is full of people who were widely ridiculed before they became icons – the ravishes to raves story is a cliché. But it’s hard to imagine that paintings that now sell for tens of millions of dollars were once described, as in this 1873 review of an exhibit by Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Cezanne, as “debaucheries … nauseating and revolting”. And that’s just the mild stuff. Cezanne was accused being “no more than a kind of madman, painting while suffering from delirium tremens.” Manet’s work was compared to the work of lunatics in an asylum, and was generally considered ignoble and brutal. Wags in periodicals passed around the story that the new painters were all opium addicts and that they achieved their effects by loading their pistols with tubes of paint and firing the wet bullets at the canvas.

King’s book is peppered with such juicy jibes and misjudgements, but the book never bogs down with he said/he said (all the key players were men). Fast paced and wickedly detailed, King’s figurative and literal blow-by-blow of the scandals, intrigues, and outcries that followed his heroes reads more like a thriller than a history. The emotional core of the book is the compelling Mozart vs. Salieri-like narrative played out between the great Manet and one Ernest Meissonier, a forgotten painter who, in his time, was the toast of Europe. While Manet struggled to find acceptance, Meissonier glided through life, painting one precise but lifeless historical painting after the next.

As if all this drama were not enough, King layers his tale with a precise and politically charged history of Napoleon III’s oppressive Second Empire. While the French were busy modernizing and experimenting with new aesthetic ideals, they did so under the constant and murderous threat of political and legal censure. The art world of the day was a pale mirror of the truly treacherous political climate. Thus, The Judgement of Paris makes a strong case for the argument that Impressionism, like many great experiments, thrived not in spite of the dictatorial government of the day but because of it. Put simply, the stakes are higher for artists when they can go to prison for making unpopular art.

What can be learned from King’s recounting of this pivotal moment in Western art? As someone who makes and writes about art, I must admit that my first impulse after reading this book was to hide under the bed. What things have I written about art and artists that I now regret, or am at least willing to reconsider? Am I going to turn up in one of these books someday, as yet another idiot who didn’t know genius when it bit him on the bum? Critics, be warned.

My own neuroses aside, King’s book is an excellent study in how art can be both damaged and nourished by restrictions. While no-one wants to end up like poor Jules Holtzapffel - a painter who, upon learning that he had been rejected from the 1866 Salon (a government-sponsored exhibition of new art), promptly wrote “I have no talent … I must die”, and shot himself in the head – it is likely that had the Impressionists been fully embraced by the art establishment of the time, they would have disappeared or been co-opted by power. It was only their thwarted conviction that they belonged inside the elite club of artists that drove them to eventually become an elite club of artists (those that survived). Hunger for recognition is a powerful motivator, and nothing motivates artists like an entire social system geared to promote mediocrity and sameness.

Which brings me to the inevitable comparison between the time depicted in The Judgement of Paris and today. Conservative foes of public funding for the arts in this country, and even some decidedly not conservative artists, have been arguing for years that government-funded art leads to art that mimics the aspirations of the government – or, at best, to art that is inoffensive and palatable. I disagree, because I know that bad art gets made no matter who is paying for it.

But reading King’s dramatic account of the turmoil caused by Impressionism, of how people once marched down the boulevards of Paris chanting “Assassins! Assassins!” to decry the narrow-minded decisions of Salon jurors, makes me nostalgic for a time I have never actually experienced – a time when art and culture mattered enough to make people march in the streets.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Type Cast 12

When the great Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem passed away in late March, at the well-earned age of 84, I was reminded, for the umpteenth time since turning 40, that my youth is gone.

Lem was my favourite author when I was in university. I wrote papers about his work, studied the (very small) handful of literary essays written about him at the time – science fiction, like popular culture in general, was not well regarded in academic circles back then – and scoured used books stores for pulp anthologies that included his short stories. Lem, who was aptly named after Saint Stanislaw, the Polish patron saint of youth, was, and remains, the perfect author for those first university years, the early 20’s, that buoyant time when one is finally away from home and experimenting with new realities and new ways of seeing the world(s).

Obituaries of Lem have predictably focused on the film adaptations of his work, and not without some good cause. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solyaris, a Russian adaptation of Lem’s novel Solaris, is considered a masterpiece. Personally, I feel the film lacks Lem’s devilish sense of humour - but perhaps Russian humour, like German pop music, is an acquired taste. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh attempted to turn Solaris, a baffling and philosophical novel even in its most lucid passages, into a spooky clockwork thriller starring an appropriately confused looking George Clooney. The results were mixed, to be polite.

But to only remember Lem for his success at the movies is to do a great injustice to a writer who was easily as important to world literature as more name-brand speculative writers, such as the Nobel laureates Jose Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marques, or Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. Like Jules Verne a century before him, Lem predicted a future world that was only a generation away from his own. Unlike Verne, however, Lem did not fixate on the mechanics, on fabulous machines and impossible gadgets – Lem’s predictions dealt with the deeper question of how the human psyche would be changed by the abrupt expansion of knowledge. Yes, people do fly around in zippy space ships in Lem’s fiction, but it’s what happens inside the ships, and inside the minds of the passengers, that matters.

Lem’s Tales of Prix The Pilot, a collection of interlocking short stories, invites the reader to journey through vast, empty oceans of space with a practical-minded but prone to depression astronaut named Prix - a kind of Everyman of space travel. Wandering from galaxy to galaxy with no apparent mission, Prix is a Kafkaesque character, a lonely, lost soul forced to navigate a series of looping time warps, dream like fugues, and universes that inexplicably reverse and turn inward.

Prix’s misadventures, charmingly (and deceptively) recounted in spare, story book language, are now read as a kind of primer for the wild, reality-bending theories of quantum physics that followed decades later – especially chaos theory, which attempts to explain random behavior within determined systems and, the current darling of physics studies, string theory, which proposes that reality is multiple and is made up of highly flexible (and thus unpredictable) strings of energy. In other words, Prix is lost because being lost is, paradoxically, a key part of the natural order.

Lem’s masterpiece Solaris has even more immediate implications for contemporary readers. In the novel, a band of space travelers encounter a huge, nebulous entity that could be a planet or a spectacular creature. The passengers soon learn that the ever-churning planet has the ability to instantly alter their reality, to literally make their dreams and nightmares come true. Of course, their competing desires and attempts to sort the real from the manufactured drive the entire crew mad.

Lem’s dream spinning planet/monster is a perfect metaphor for our desire-driven virtual age. Like the sentient blob that hovers below the ship’s crew, the internet sits beside us every day. It too is an unimaginably large ball of information that can, in a click, satisfy every need. People live entire lives in this separate reality, in everything from chat rooms that allow them to create alternate selves to elaborate game worlds populated by millions of fellow gamers. One can now create a whole other life in these virtual spaces, a detailed and emotionally satisfying life limited only by the creator’s imagination.

The inherent warning in Solaris – the tried but true reminder to be careful what you wish for – has never been more important, especially as youth (at least in the priviledged western world) are increasingly opting out of this familiar reality in favour of more pliable, and more exciting virtual realities.

Hopefully, the brief flurry of interest that always follows an artist’s death will grow into a renewed respect for, and study of, Lem’s work. Half a century after he discovered it, we are finally living in Lem’s world – and we’ll need all the help we can get.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Type Cast 11

Today being April 1st, the real first day of Spring for those of us who can’t tell an equinox from a solstice, I figured I’d do some Spring cleaning and come clean about my less than thorough reading habits.

As someone who writes about books and publishing for a living, and occasionally writes and publishes books that couldn’t provide a living for a cave bound hermit, you’d think I’d be one of those voracious readers, a bespectacled, hump-backed book spelunker who reads everything from great classics to high trash, from Balzac to Bezmozgis to Batman.

The truth is, I have been avoiding the single most popular form of literature to emerge since the invention of food labels, the sure-fire seller that keeps publishers afloat in every land where women are allowed to read. Of course, I’m talking about Chick Lit.

Call me a snob, call me a misogynist, but books about shoe shopping and pillow fights and crying jags in fancy department store tea rooms just don’t hold my attention. And I’m gay, so I at least understand the designer references. And I’m a drag queen, so I even get the makeup tips.

But all these books about chipper young women (many of whom, suspiciously, work in media or publishing) finding love amidst the dark, beery forests of urban sports bars – in between bouts of daydreaming about French neuro-surgeons in Prada slacks and whining about their ass size - strike me as nothing more than updated Nancy Drew serials with husbands as the end goal, not the capture of swarthy thieves, and weddings in Martinique, not malteds with Dad, as Nancy’s reward for good behaviour.

Well, colour me a hep-less schlep. There’s a whole subgenre of Chick Lit out there I knew nothing about until A.H. Varmung’s debut novel Shy Heels landed like a leather bustier on my innocent, tartan slippered feet. It’s called Slut Lit, and Varmung is already its reigning queen.

Originally from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, Varmung grew up in a family of earnest United Church ministers but, as she puts it, “I learned real fast”. At the already-tenderized age of 17, Varmung fled to Calgary, where she made a small fortune walking on oilmen’s backs – “the slut’s primer”, she calls it.

When the first oil boom went bust in the 1980s, Varmung packed up her studded sandals and moved to Victoria, where, under the pen name Peggy Bruin-Vole, she wrote a very popular gardening column, “Potting Shed Pickup”, for the Vancouver Sun. However, life among the rhizomes and shade shrubs left her unfilled, and Varmung began an online career as a webcam “exotic manicurist” (“There’s a market for everything”, she reminds me). Things were going nail polish smooth until some snoop at the Sun discovered Varmung’s secret second career and ended her lucrative love affair with muck and mulch.

“After I got sh*t-canned from the Sun, I figured it was slink or swim for me, so I started writing porn. At the time, porn stories in magazines paid really well, but now with blogging everybody’s an artiste erotique , there’s a million Anais Nin wannabees, and the market has totally collapsed. But I had a good thing going for about five years. My specialty was transparent-rain-coats-and-no-underpants. Very big with the British.”

Varmung’s progression from columnist to porn near-star to first time novelist is, according to the woman who lived it, “the logical outcome of a life spent exploring myself,” (and that’s putting it mildly).

Shy Heels is a simple enough story, with a plot line borrowed from Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine – well, mostly not the magazine). Young, fair-haired Lindy MacFarlane leaves her humble, southern Ontario town of Aurora Gulch to become assistant photo editor at New York’s glossy Flaunt magazine. She settles into an apartment with a lesbian ceramics artist, a Caribbean-American legal aide named Hortencia, and Martin, a gay activist with a taste for vinyl short shorts. Hijinks ensue!

Lindy, it turns out, is a calculating minx, and she quickly duvet surfs her way into the publisher’s chair, proving that Sharon Stone was wrong when she famously claimed that one can only screw one’s way to the middle. But when Martin contracts AIDS and Hortencia’s mother dies and the lesbian ceramics artist (who, curiously, never seems to get a name in the novel) loses both thumbs in a tragic public transit incident, Lindy rallies to their sides - providing love, patience and succour, and, most important, opening the warm heart she never knew she had.

It embarrasses me to admit that when the whole gang assembles around Martin’s death bed and the lesbian ceramics artist models a lopsided heart pendant for Martin out of a dried up block of mauve Sculpey, I cried harder than I did when Nancy Drew’s dog was kidnapped by a mysterious, swarthy man in The Case of the Locked Medicine Cabinet.

“Yeah, the ending really gets people,” Varmung admits, “especially after all the raunch and roll, I guess you need a little healing, or at least an anti-fungal. But, you know, I knew from the minute I decided that Martin was originally from Wyoming that he had to go. I mean, those boys are innocence itself, and if I killed off Lindy, well, there goes the sequel.”

“The movie people (Varmung sold the rights to Shy Heels to Reese Witherspoon’s production company before it was even published) are thinking one of the guys from Brokeback Mountain should play Martin. I forget which one dies in that show - the blonde? Well, they’ll work it out.”

Lindy fans won’t have to wait long for the sequel. Guy Heels, wherein Lindy marries a hunky billionaire transvestite, is due in time for the Christmas market.