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.”

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.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Type Cast 10

If, as the saying goes, politics is show business for ugly people (who said that, Sheila Copps?), than fiction writing, in Canada at least, is show business for invisible people.

For the last several months - ever since the fall book sales figures came slouching in - the publishing world has been full of stories, some apocryphal, some verifiable, about the Great Sales Slump of 2005. Fiction, we are told, is moving off the shelves at about the same pace as Nsync re-issues.

Like the alleged Hollywood slump of 2005 (isn’t it heartbreaking to hear people complain about only making 100 million dollars instead of 150 million dollars?), the fiction slump has bred any number of theories, almost all of them from people who do not actually write fiction.

To find out if the sales slump is real or imagined, and, far more fun, to give writers an outlet for their always amusing anxieties, I solicited views from fiction writers (and one editor) from across the country. Not surprisingly, there are lots of opinions and no hard facts. These people aren’t novelists for nothing, and facts are for sports writers.

Jason Anderson, a Toronto arts journalist whose first novel, the very funny entertainment-world satire Showbiz, came out last fall, wonders if any artist should ever expect an audience.

“I have no illusions. Whenever I see those Nobody Buys Novels stories, I’m always amazed that people ever bought novels in the first place, the novel is really commercial. If you’ve written a difficult literary novel, why is it strange that nobody has bought it?”

“For my own book, I was happy to have acquaintances buy it, the ring beyond family and friends. Just because you created something, it’s egotistical to think there’s an audience for whatever you do – you have to constantly create an audience. Sometimes people in the arts in Canada think that they are owed an audience, but I think you should be happy with whatever audience you can find.”

Sally Cooper, the Hamilton-based author of the critically-acclaimed novel Love Object, is wary of all the doom-saying and, like Anderson, flips the question back to the audience.

“Nobody I know who loves fiction has suddenly switched to non-fiction. People like a balance, sure, but lovers of fiction will always buy it and read it. I'm always wary of trends, anyway. Fiction's not going anywhere; neither are its readers.”

Sabine Campbell, Fredericton-based editor of the legendary literary journal The Fiddlehead, and the Montreal novelist Peter Dube, author of Hovering World, both cite economics as a factor in the overall decline in book sales.

“I can say that a) our subscription rates seem to be down a bit this year and b) that our fiction contest isn't drawing as many writers as it used to”, Campbell admits.

“And I know that I'm buying fewer books myself. I tend to lend and borrow among friends and go to the library more often. Books cost so damn much.”

“So am I saying prices are to blame? Not entirely - perhaps the ever increasing number of books is a problem too.”

Dube echoes the supply-demand argument, and questions the marketing strategies employed by Canadian publishers.

“I suspect the problem – as usual – is the business model. Publishers put out more and more books, looking for the next big thing – which makes it hard for any title to stand out. They then stack up their marketing behind a very, very few books compared to what they actually print. And the marketing budgets get allocated on the principle of it being easier to sell more of what is already selling than to sell something new and different – all in the interests of maximizing short term profit in an increasingly competitive arena, versus audience (and author’s career) development.”

“So, if memoirs are selling, flog more of them until they stop selling. People tend to buy books they’ve heard of (especially in a market where unit prices have been raised to the roof in order to offset the cost of all those books printed that didn’t sell). More titles with higher prices, with less attention given to any of them must necessarily equal a tiny handful of books in a handful of genres being the only ones to move.”

See how the Hollywood model is never very far away when one talks about selling cultural products, be they ballet or books? As Dube notes, if one thing sells, publishers will find five more of the same thing – kind of like those Hollywood executives who keep turning old television shows (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard) into stinky movies (ditto), just because Mission: Impossible was a huge hit.

As you read this, I guarantee you some Canadian editor is primping a memoir of drug addiction set in Saskatoon and an ecclesiastical mystery based on Krieghoff’s painting of Montreal’s Notre Dame cathedral.

Warren Dunford, author of a trilogy of hilarious murder mysteries – his latest, The Scene Stealer, is out in paperback - echoes my cynicism, and has a few choice words for the nation’s editors.

“If fiction sales are in a slump, it may be because many of the new Canadian books feel like old Canadian books. Publishers keep putting out subtle domestic dramas and tales of historical angst. Obviously that's led to some very fine literature, but not many people want to step into those dire worlds over and over again.”

“Books have to hold their own as entertainment in today's culture. People want to feel excited about reading a new book, not just dutiful. That means that books need to offer really compelling stories, not only character portraits. Unfortunately, the idea of a 'Canadian page-turner' still feels like an oxymoron."

To end on a more philosophical note, I’ll leave the last word to Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith, author of the award-winning novel Cumberland. Although Smith leads a double life as a notorious drag queen, he’s no Silly Sally when it comes to the bigger picture.

“I think a lot of the decline in fiction has to do with the current political climate. With the war in Iraq, and post-911, I suspect we're a lot more interested in current affairs and politics. People are hungry for facts, and truth. We're not getting much truth nor much analysis in the media. Fiction is often seen as escapist, because it concerns itself with the construction of alternate worlds. “

“Perhaps if there were more books being written like Handmaid's Tale, Canadian books with politics, social commentary, criticism, satire even, rather than domestic dramas of middle class angst, we'd see more fiction flying off the shelves.”

Hear, hear!