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March 5, 2010

Can-Reads Indies #5: Moody Food by Ray Robertson

Until yesterday afternoon, I was dreading having to write this review. I was about half way into Moody Food and I just wasn’t getting it. I did like the references to 1960s’ Toronto and the Yorkville I only know from ancient mythology; I liked Thomas’s back-story; I liked the Making Waves Bookshop; I loved certain ways Thomas’s understanding of music was described (in particular, what he heard in the vaccuum cleaner when he was a child). But I found the prose awkward, with strangely-claused sentences that were hard to follow. And my biggest problem was with Bill Hansen.

For the first half of the book, Bill was a cipher. He was a non-character, and I couldn’t figure out why any of the others, with their vivid personalities– his cool girlfriend, Christine, his old hippie boss at the bookstore, the enigmatic Thomas Graham himself– why were they even hanging out with him? Bill took responsibility for nothing, had no real talents of his own (so they made him the drummer), didn’t follow through with anything, all of this for no real reason except to propel the plot. Let’s face it– in reality, Christine would never have dated him, Kelorn would never have hired him (and would have fired him once he stopped showing up for work), and Thomas wouldn’t ever have given him the time of day. Moody Food would never have happened. It all seemed like a construct, and that bothered me.

Thomas Graham himself I also had a hard time with– I didn’t buy his charisma. Though I started to see that the problem here was that we were seeing him through Bill’s eyes, and Bill describes himself as “the first and last disciple of Thomas Graham”, plus Bill was doing a lot of drugs, so probably nobody else really bought the charisma either.

So this disparate group comes together to form The Duckhead Secret Society, hooks themselves up with a steel guitar player called Slippery Bannister, they eventually catch the interest of a record producer with their “interstellar North American music”, and the rest is music history. Music history in the “Almost Famous” sense, the Behind the Music downward spiral that by now is a familiar narrative. And for me, once the spiral started, I finally found the book’s momentum.

Thomas and Bill get into cocaine, and then Thomas starts doing heroin, and instead of focusing on their tour and the album they were contracted to make, Thomas becomes absorbed by his magnum opus “Moody Food”. At one point, he’s got a cow in the studio, and he’s got a certain affinity for bovines anyway since becoming obsessed with vegetarianism. Robertson is throwing out these amazing sentences like, “When he hit the desert earth the crunch of his carrot was the only sound for miles.” Thomas is falling apart on stage, but he doesn’t care, and he and Bill spend their nights strung out on coke and writing new material (for which Bill is essential, because he hears music in colours and matches it with passages from library books they steal from all over North America). And Thomas starts referring to himself in the third person, and throwing liver off balconies, and uttering lines like, “The heart gets all the songs written about it and it’s what everybody talks about, but the liver is the biggest thing in you. So how come you never hear anybody talking about the liver? Where are all the songs written about it?”

When Thomas slips too far over the edge, suddenly Bill Hansen makes sense. We’re not supposed to like the guy, much like how we felt about Max from How Happy to Be. Unlike Max, however, Bill lacks wit and charm, and his perspective is remarkably limited: later, a character says to him, “I knew you weren’t bright, but I never took you for stupid.” But he is, a little bit, because he’s just a kid from Etobicoke who’s caught up in a story that’s too much for him. When the Duckhead Secret Society returns from their tour, Thomas holes up in his hotel room until the RCMP catch on (because he’s dodging the draft, and wanted for drug possession). The whole Yorkville scene has gotten out of control, and as a riot breaks out between protesters and police, Thomas Graham urges his band up on the rooftops for one last show that would have been an overwhelming cliche, but hilariously and tragically isn’t, and all of the sudden our perspective (and Bill’s) is whipped back to something resembling reality. How we’ve been following him so up close all this time, but Thomas Graham from far away can actually blend into a crowd.

I really enjoyed this book in the end, and I’m not sure if my early reservations were my fault or the book’s, but I didn’t have any by the time I was finished. That it took me so long to get into it, however (and this is a 400 page book), would have me counting against it. And here’s where this ranking think is stupid– every single book I’ve read as part of Canada Reads: Independently would probably be the very best book on most reading lists, but this is a particularly superlative reading list. Which means that although Moody Food is taking the bottom spot, it’s only because of its very good company, and also that my heart is breaking. But that this entire book list has been a really incredible reading experience and I’m so pleased to have had it.

Canada Reads: Independently Rankings:

1) Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder

2) Century by Ray Smith

3) How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad

4) Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso

5) Moody Food by Ray Robertson

One thought on “Can-Reads Indies #5: Moody Food by Ray Robertson”

  1. I didn’t respond to this one the way that I’d hoped to either (thoughts here, but in flipping through one more time over the weekend, I spotted this in the acknowledgements, which did make me smile: “This is a work of fiction, and therefore of truth. Certain facts have been modified towards this end.”

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