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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Type Cast 18

Douglas Coupland baffles me.

Oh, I don’t mean the actual person Douglas Coupland, whom I’ve never met, nor do I mean the assorted works of novelist/artist Douglas Coupland, many of which I’ve read and seen and enjoyed.

What I’m talking about, to be perfectly Coupland-esque, is the brand called Douglas Coupland, the multimedia whirlwind that produces everything from institutional art exhibitions to coffee table books to public parks, and, of course, those zeitgeist-catching novels that kick-started the whole enterprise. And here’s the baffling part - how does such a successful brand garner so little respect in Canada’s (admittedly limited and very cranky) media and arts circles?

Everyone I know (and I travel in terribly smart sets) has read at least one Douglas Coupland novel, but few will admit it. Most curators in my acquaintance would love to get a Douglas Coupland art show booked into their humble spaces, because his name alone packs ‘em in – but they won’t say so publicly, or at least not until the deal is done.

Despite boffo sales (and even the occasional positive, but always begrudgingly so, review), Douglas Coupland has never won a large Canadian literary prize, not even for his more mature and less snarky novels, such as Hey Nostradamus!(about a school shooting) or Miss Wyoming (a sexy update of Joan Didion’s classic Play It As It Lays) - novels that have not only far outsold most of the Big Important Books we give prizes to, but also novels which actually attempted to speak of the times we live in, as opposed to, say, 19th century Nova Scotia or the bomb-scarred fields of the First World War. What gives?

This is where Coupland’s transition to a brand comes in. Douglas Coupland the artist has been so successful that his individual works are no longer perceived as singular creations within an artist’s history, but as indistinguishable and interchangeable products in a branded line. A new Coupland novel (or art exhibit, but I’ll leave that problem to an art critic) is rarely assessed on its own merits, as a stand-alone cultural object, but as part of the designated output of a kind of one man corporation – as if he were simply making the latest variations on a sneaker or a ball cap.

Granted, a novelist will return to similar themes over his or her career, and writers do develop a recognizable style, but when one reads assessments by critics of Coupland’s novels today one gets the sense that the reviewer has not read a Coupland novel since the publication of Generation X, Coupland’s first and career-defining novel (and a book that, because it became so closely identified with, and vilified by, the post-Boomer generation, arguably started the whole Coupland brand problem).

Never mind that over the years Coupland has matured into a first rate novelist and observer of the contemporary scene - our Tom Wolfe, minus the Southern-fried misanthropy – some people will not allow Coupland’s reputation to grow with his writing.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Coupland is Canadian and Canadians mistrust success stories. In our studied, anti-populist literary culture, anybody who sells that many books must be a fraud, a low-brow huckster. Furthermore, Coupland has committed a cardinal sin in English Canadian arts – he’s become good at more than one thing.

English Canadian arts circles consider it uppity and crass when artists stray from their humble clay-throwing pits and dare to write poetry, or - gods of tenure forbid! - throw the whole notion of “mastery” and monkish devotion to one discipline into question. No wonder Coupland lives in cheery Vancouver, where the worst thing that can happen is a shop clerk might neglect to wish you, like, a super spiritual day.

Even the characters in Coupland’s latest novel, jPod, get in on the bashing. “Oh, God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel”, says one character in the novel’s opening chapter. “That asshole.”, says another. “Who does he think he is?”

Who indeed? Might I suggest he is, in fact, the most important novelist of his generation?

Coupland is not a master stylist, nor is he overly concerned with the poetics of prose. His stories are often meandering, mirroring the lost, disaffected urbanites he portrays, and he does sometimes appear to be reaching for large messages that his fiction can’t quite carry (there’s that grudging tone I mentioned earlier).

But what separates Coupland from the majority of Canadian fiction writers, and makes his work so important, is his keen desire to experiment with how popular fiction is constructed, even how it looks on the page. Coupland bucks against realist, linear narratives - the dominant and domineering mode of Canadian fiction - and yet he still manages to reach huge audiences. Naturally, this drives the lit establishment insane with jealous rage.

But those of us who want Canadian fiction to become as adventurous as Canadian art or film owe Coupland a debt for blowing the dust off our literary mantelpiece, because Coupland is a great popularizer of experimental fiction. He’s so good at selling non-traditional, art-damaged novels to audiences raised on the plain speaking of Morley Callaghan and Margaret Laurence that there is now a vast (and potentially reachable) audience of experimental fiction readers – i.e. his readers - who otherwise don’t know Robbe-Grillet from Julia Roberts.

To wit, jPod is classic Coupland.

The novel’s multiple narratives fold in on themselves in loopy tangles. Drug and technology-addicted players slide in and out of focus like targets in a video game. The story, such as it is, revolves around the dead end lives of a pack of youngish people working for a soulless game design company – people driven to self destruction by the circular, snake-eating-its-own-tail knowledge that their creativity is directly contributing to the demise of their own culture. The novel is repeatedly interrupted by long chains of numbers and computer code, Chinese script, anagrams and dingbats, nonsensical Asian-recast English, and inane chat room conversations. There’s even a Douglas Coupland character, who turns out to be a malevolent bastard high on his own fame and money. The Birth House this ain’t.

Decades from now, students will read Coupland’s novels to learn about millennial culture and its anxieties the way students today read Dickens to better understand the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. Children will sit at Coupland’s knee, wiping their surgically altered noses with recycled pages of Giller winners, fully amazed by stories of the good old days of laptops and ecstasy, wi-fi and affordable west coast housing - tales from the last good years before everything went to hell.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Type Cast 19

Every winter, tens of thousands of Canadians pack their carry-on bags with shorts and tee-shirts, saunter down the airless aisles of winged buses, cram their ample, down-vested bodies into seats designed for small children and happily nibble desiccated peanuts until they arrive in beautiful, tropical Cuba.

The sun instantly scorches their vitamin D deprived bodies a cheery pink, smiling servers greet them with fruity rum milkshakes and beach towels, and, for one heavenly week, they do nothing but eat, drink, cultivate melanomas, watch the locals replicate, (with those charming accents!), outdated American pop hits, and forget the name of their chamber maid.

What few of them consider, or even look for, is the other Cuba, the real Cuba - an impoverished island state run by one of the world’s nastiest authoritarian regimes. They don’t witness the regular fuel and medicine shortages, the fetid prisons, the debilitating culture of fear and suspicion, the lack of basic protections from arbitrary government bullying, or, less dramatic but no less worrisome, the daily scrounge for food and clothing. But then, what kind of holiday would that make?

If future visitors to Cuba took along a copy of Jose’ Latour’s ripping good crime caper Havana Best Friends (hidden, of course, in their checked luggage, as Latour’s books are banned in the socialist paradise), they might at least read about the Cuba tourists rarely see, even if they don’t particularly want to visit the mangy streets Latour so vividly describes. Or, they could read it simply because it’s a wildly entertaining, plot-driven page turner that’s as difficult to put down as a cool coconut filled with mango daiquiri.

A Cuban take on the never-fails Maltese Falcon formula – characters discover a fantastic, storied treasure, then many more shady and strange characters turn up and proceed to cheat, lie, and kill to get the treasure – Havana Best Friends (McClelland & Stewart, $22.99) is so jam-packed with crosses, double crosses and back-flipping, sideways reach-around betrayals that it would take a mathematician to sort out the intricacies of the plot. Let’s put it this way: you literally don’t know what to expect from page to page, and that’s what makes the book so entertaining. Readers won’t get lost – Latour is too skilled a writer to let his plot run away from him – but the attentive page hound will be gleefully surprised by the many ways Latour finds to convey baser instincts at work.

I loved this book. Latour combines the cynical, spare and cutting style of Raymond Chandler with P.D. James’s keen interest in human weakness and the psychological roots of crime. Plus, the book is a kind of Rough Guide to the difficulties of life in Cuba for actual Cubans, especially those who scratch out a living in Havana’s cramped, crumbling warren of aging, state-managed apartment blocks. As a crime writer, Latour works the classic angles (because the classic angles still work), but as a novelist with an eye for social realism, Latour reminds me of the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who brought to life the rough streets of Cairo, the alleys and markets teeming with hookahs, hookers and honking cars, by presenting what he saw as plain fact, without editorializing or preaching. And, like Mahfouz, Latour has had plenty of visits from pesky state censors.

Meeting up last week with Latour, I expected to find myself in the company of a serious, burdened man – Latour is, after all, an exile. Instead, I spent a chatty half hour with an energetic, compact fireplug of a man who not only loves to talk about his work, but loves to talk, period. Sulky, slouchy Canadian authors please take note!

Although I tried not to turn the interview into a rehash of Latour’s troubles in his native land, because one supposes he’d rather talk about his work than his political misadventures, Latour was anxious from the start to explain that all the deprivations endured by his characters are based entirely on fact. And that’s also why he now lives in Canada.

“I wrote five books in Spanish, but then I had a problem in Cuba and knew I wasn’t going to be published anymore,” Latour begins, putting it mildly. “Now I have written two books in English. It was extremely difficult at first. It took me three years to write my first book in English.”

A “problem”? Does he care to elaborate?

“Oh, sure! I had several reasons to leave Cuba. For one, I was totally sidelined as a person. In 1994 I wrote a novel called The Fool, based on a corruption scandal that happened in the Cuban military in 1989. Everybody knew that this corruption was going on, so I wrote a fictional book about the problem. And this book was considered counter-revolutionary, even though everybody knew about the situation, and when I protested that the book was based on facts, the authorities said that this bad chapter in our history shouldn’t be used as a source of inspiration for artists. I stood my ground, and that was that.”

“To be sidelined can mean anything from being sent to jail, which happens to journalists and activists, to having your career stopped. If you’re a writer, your books won’t be published, if you’re a painter, your work won’t be exhibited. Nobody will learn that you exist. Cuba is an extremely political society in which obedience is indispensable to achieve results, in any field. If you question the government, you can’t work. It got to the point where I was being followed and visited by officers of the Ministry of the Interior, who wanted me to co-operate with them in certain ways – give information about other artists – and when I said no, they said I would suffer the consequences. And so would my children. So my family and I left.”

Given the climate of intimidation Latour worked under in Cuba, it seems almost natural, even convenient, that he has chosen to write about crime, to create novelistic worlds where characters live clandestine lives marked by anxiety and mistrust.

“I believe in what I call factual fiction. I think that the writer has a responsibility to try to be factual, to have the details correct. And I have always been interested in power, in how power shapes lives and what people will do to get it. So, the crime novel is a good place to explore this.”

“Remember, when I was young I was a revolutionary too. I know the real stories. So, nothing I do in my books is accidental.”

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Type Cast 17

I was raised in a family overshadowed by secrets. At 41, there are still huge chunks of my parents’ history I know nothing about, and now that my father is gone and my mother has become the merriest widow in New Brunswick after Mrs. McCain, I’m unlikely to uncover any more useful material.

This is not an unusual predicament for children born to pre-Me Generation, pre-talk show parents. My parents’ generation believes that talking about the past, especially any nasty or shameful events buried in that past, only causes hurt feelings, useless drama or worse. I still battle an inherited superstition that says if you talk about bad things, bad things will happen. In my family, silence isn’t a golden treasure, it’s insurance.

Reading Bernice Eisenstein’s gripping memoir-cum-comic book I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99), I was surprised to find myself nodding with recognition at Eisenstein’s depiction of her own haunted family and its attempts to shield her young mind from the horrors of the Shoah.

Now, let me be clear: I am not Jewish and do not pretend to understand the Jewish diasporic experience. Furthermore, and far more important, in no way would I ever compare my family’s particular turmoil (juicy as it might be) to the unimaginable suffering and unique evil of the Holocaust. Nobody in my family was ever hauled off and murdered by fascists, so of course whatever commonality I or any other non-survivor reader might feel with Eisenstein’s story must be understood to be, at best, a kind of thematic familiarity, a mere glimmer of understanding – but it’s a damned powerful light.

As Eisenstein’s book unfolds, we learn about everything from the daily domestic rituals practiced by her mother and extended family, to the intricacies of kosher cooking, to her aunt’s love of singing Yiddish songs and on to her own life-long affair with books and movies – and all of this seemingly mundane material, from the bread baking to the bat mitzvahs, the fodder of a hundred such family memoirs, is occluded and darkened by the ever-present shadows of her parent’s terrible experiences during WWII.

The Holocaust is not merely a bad memory, Eisenstein shows us, it is her family’s permanent, default reference point for everything that followed. It’s as if Eisenstein’s parents began life in Technicolor and were abruptly, malevolently forced to forever after live in black and white. Eisenstein’s keenly observed (and gorgeously illustrated) depiction of a family burdened by too many unspoken fears, of a house weighted with remorse and unresolved (indeed, impossible to resolve) traumas, will speak to anyone who has ever grown up in a home papered with secrets and whispers.

In one telling chapter entitled “The Group”, Eisenstein recounts how her parents created a separate social world comprised entirely of fellow survivors, and how, even in the most innocuous social moments, that group always preserved “an air of a reunion being held. They adhered one to the other with the kind of bond that would be hard to duplicate – at times, it felt, even with their own children.”

Therein lies the fundamental disconnect that makes Eisenstein’s narrative so compelling. While everything around her constantly refers, in hundreds of big and little ways, to the evils of the concentration camps, she, as a child of survivors but not a survivor herself, can never fully share the experiences that so profoundly shape her world. It’s a blessing and a curse, to be fortunate enough to have escaped her parents’ fate and yet to be continually living with the consequences of that fate – all the while knowing that no matter how much you learn and listen, you will always be an outsider looking in.

How Eisenstein manages to avoid bitterness is well beyond me. As a bit player in my own parents’ dramas, the silent epics of neuroses and disappointment that I sensed (and overheard) as a child but was never given full access to, I still wonder what I have not been told and still resent being expected to tip-toe around the invisible furniture.

But Eisenstein’s memoir makes it very clear that her parents and their friends not only wanted to protect their children (and were willing to accept the psychological risks of that strategy), but, for practicality’s sake, had either to carry on with their lives or give up entirely. In other words, they had to chose between a calculated silence or a waking nightmare. This heroic determination to simply proceed with ordinary life, to live as fully as possible, fills I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors with luminous moments, with acts of quiet, sensible courage, occasional bouts of melancholy and black humour, and a handful of joyous (but ever-alert) attacks of the sillies.

Eisenstein’s childhood was full of ghosts, but the ghosts never won. “If, over the years,” she writes, “I had a sense of benign parental neglect, eventually I saw it differently. The circumstances of my parents’ lives had taught them to guard their stories … once outside, I would discover my own.”

This sounds like a better solution than any therapist ever offered me: If you can’t get to the bottom of a family secret, go get your own life. Amen to that.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Type Cast 16

I first met playwright-novelist-essayist-activist-filmmaker-madman Darren O’Donnell over a decade ago at one of Sky Gilbert’s raucous, determinedly theatrical parties (yes, I am a namedropper, but, trust me, the context is important here).

Standing out at one of Gilbert’s parties is no mean feat. On one side of the room you’ve got flamboyant sex workers, on the other side gorgeous trannies in festive array, and scattered throughout the house, like bowls of chips and dip, are some of Canada’s loudest actors and artists.

Nevertheless, O’Donnell, who, on the surface at least, looks like an absent minded archivist, caught everyone’s attention with his very serious plans for reviving the (then, and arguably still) moribund Toronto theatre scene. The quickest remedy, he told us, was to blow up Canadian Stage (at the time, a bastion of middle-of-the-road theatre specializing in Broadway and West End imports), preferably during an opening night. We all laughed, of course, until we realized he meant it.

Since then, O’Donnell has written a string of provocative, award-winning plays and one acclaimed novel, acted and toured in many international productions (his own and others), and continued to work in small Canadian films – in other words, he’s now a bona fide part of the very establishment he once considered obliterating.

And yet, he remains apart. For all his success, he’ll never be an Albert Schultz or a Sarah Polly, or even the next Michael Healey; primarily because O’Donnell remains committed to the kinds of activist causes most people, those who stick out their lean, beginners’ years in the arts, give up by their mid-30s, when the real money starts rolling in. At the tenderized age of 40, Darren O’Donnell still wants to change the world.

And, he’s got a plan. O’Donnell’s eye-opening new book, Social Acupuncture (Coach House Books, $17.95), began as a straight forward printing of his hit play A Suicide-Site Guide to the City - itself a rambling treatise about everything from 9/11 to dream therapy to the inherent artificiality of theatre - but grew into a collection of related essays and a how-to on the re-invigoration of the arts via “social engagement”.

O’Donnell’s core argument, that art must save itself from becoming an irrelevant academic pursuit by finding new ways to connect with larger issues and social justice concerns, stems from a puzzling paradox he discovered while doing research on the rise of the so-called “creative class”. Since the late 1990s, urban planners and civic revitalization experts have argued that cities need a healthy amount of “creatives” to fully bloom, and that artists, designers, writers, etc create an urban climate conducive to economic and social well being.

Why then, O’Donnell wonders, are artists completely left out of any real political loops? If we’re so valuable, why aren’t we more powerful?

As he notes in his essay “My Life is a Conference”, “making everyday life creative … has played directly into capital’s slippery ability to sweep things up and put them to work. The city becomes a place of constant culture, where the cultural workers are only barely compensated for their labour … in the civic-boosterism talk of the creative city, the grateful participation of the artist is taken for granted … Artistic production for the sake of one’s own career is initially exciting, until one begins to understand that all this work tends to benefit others who are higher up on the economic scale.”

Higher up than O’Donnell, for sure. In the kitchen of his ramshackle, book-strewn apartment at Lansdowne and College, O’Donnell puts his frustrations on the table.

“If I’m this great maker of cities, I want in on the decision making. I want in on the ground level - in on discussions about immigration, transit, public spaces, urban growth, etc. Otherwise, I’m just decoration for the tourists.”

Social Acupuncture takes its name from O’Donnell’s belief that, like medicinal acupuncture, art can create “small interventions at key junctures (that will) affect larger (social) organs.” Because, he argues, artists are unlikely ever to be let into the real spheres of power, artists interested in social change must reconfigure their work to act as a kind of “healing needle” on the public body. As he puts it during our conversation, it’s not enough anymore to be worried about, for instance, beached whales and then create a painting of a beached whale or make a play about a whale who loses her way. Simply representing a problem no longer solves the problem, if it ever did. What one must do is make art with the people who coax the whales back into the water.

“Artists,” O’Donnell explains in his usual feverish pitch, “have gone from mirrors of society to hammers smashing society to nothing at all. We’ve become irrelevant, and it’s mostly our fault. A small way to re-start the process of making art socially engaged is to redefine what is art. I’m not talking about creating more “community art” initiatives, because those are always regarded as second class, or at best kind of cute – you know, painting murals with kids in gangs, that sort of thing – but about creating a kind of art that is just as rigorous as “serious art” but is also fully engaged socially.”

And how do you do that?

“By using the problem you’re addressing in the art work. Identify who benefits from an inequality and who holds the power, then find a creative way to call attention to that imbalance and correct it – even if you only fix the problem for an hour.”

This all sounds good, but the sceptic in me wonders how this formula differs from the misguided, traditional liberal view of art as a vehicle for social and moral improvement?

“I’m not advocating do-goodery, because do-goodery is ultimately charity, and charity replicates and re-articulates power imbalances. I want to find out instead if there are ways to engage communities and materials in a way that’s useful for them and interesting to me. If I do something that benefits us both, I’m not replacing one power imbalance with another. It’s not about artists making sacrifices for the greater good, it’s about artists making work that satisfies them too.”

“What I’m advocating is an aesthetic of and for civic engagement, something that people might not readily, at first, be even able to identify as art – socially engaged art that is just as rigorous, considered and well-crafted as abstracted, personal art.”

I conclude our talk by reminding O’Donnell of his blow-‘em-up years, and suggest that maybe he’s a more considered and well-crafted piece of work himself these days. He scoffs, sits back, and shrugs.

“I don’t fool myself that I have any means to effect anything. What I’m advocating here is a very nascent practice, an exploration. But even if it fails, at least I’ve tried to do something more than provide a distraction. I mean, I hope I have.”