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Pickle Me This

May 13, 2019

Spring, by Ali Smith

I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next link, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reward would be illumination. I would finally be able to understand not just what was happening but what it meant and what consequences it would have. But there was never a definitive conclusion. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing speculation and mistrust.

Olivia Laing, “I was hooked and my drug was Twitter”

I don’t always love Ali Smith’s work (How to be Both did not do it for me) but I cannot overstate what the books in her seasonal quartet have meant to me since the world descended into Worst Possible Timeline, which I date to June 16, 2016, the day that British MP Jo Cox was murdered outside her constituency office by a man who shouted, “Britain First.”

What is going on here, I remember asking myself in horror (except with more expletives) and then again a week later when the Brexit verdict was delivered, and six months after that when Hillary Clinton did not become the first woman President of the United States, and then basically about every ten minutes ever since then. Clinging to Twitter, as Olivia Laing describes in her essay, to make some kind of sense out of this real time nightmare—but then again if there was any sense to be made of it, Twitter would not deliver, because it’s in their interest to keep me refreshing my timeline, to have me yearning for clarity and illumination but never actually delivering.

But then in the Spring on 2017, Autumn arrived, the first book in Ali Smith quartet, set just six months before I was reading it, which is a remarkable turnaround in the world of publishing. And the books in this series are the closest I’ve ever come to the clarity and illumination that Laing is seeking in her essay, the clarity and illumination that I’ve been craving ever since I started to realize that the world is a vastly different place than I’d supposed it was. Even though it’s not so clear or altogether illuminating, but still—that Smith is fashioning art and story out of these times that we’re living in. I get comfort from that. A lazy kind of comfort, possibly, and her novel Winter—published in January 2018 (I walked through a blizzard to get it)—alludes to this. That turning these events into literature puts then at a distance that makes me feel better, and maybe I don’t deserve to. Look, here’s art. These things are cyclic. It will be fine.

It’s not fine, and I know it’s not fine, but I am still roused at Smith’s ability to articulate our situation in her novels. Spring came out this month and begins with four pages of run-on text that appears to be cribbed from Twitter. “We need the dark web algorithms social media. We need to say we’re doing it for free speech.” And then the story begins with a screenwriter who is mourning the death of an old friend who was briefly his lover and who was also his mentor. (What is going on here?) He’s on a train platform in the north of Scotland, and he’s mostly lost in nostalgia, and the train doesn’t come.

In the next section, more disturbing zeitgeist (“We want you to know how much your face means to us. We want your face and the faces of everyone you photograph and the faces of all your friends and the faces of the people they photograph recorded online for our fun data archive and research…”) and then a young woman called Brittany Hall who works as a guard in a detention facility for asylum seekers and/or illegal immigrants—but something strange is afoot. A young girl who managed to get through the barricades, past the guards, inside locked doors and into an office where she convinced the powers that be to have the facility professionally cleaned. Which is to say that it no longer smells like shit in this place where actual people live anymore, even though Brittany Hall has forgotten these are people, because you have to forget, or else how can you bear it. And Brittany Hall is going to end up with this girl on a train to the north of Scotland where they’re going to cross paths with the screenwriter, and like the other two books in the series, this is a novel about art, and the nature or art, and the purpose of art. About hope (springs eternal), because what is art but hope embodied after all.

April 29, 2019

The Western Alienation Merit Badge, by Nancy Jo Cullen

Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut novel The Western Alienation Merit Badge (which follows her award-winning story collection Canary) begins billions of years ago: “After the inland sea dried up and its beaches turned to sandstone and the plant life turned to coal and gas…” Although by the end of the sentence, we’ve arrived in the 1970s, a small girl emerging from the bushes with her cap-gun loaded, a copy of The Guide Handbook tucked into her waistband. But we will not discover just who the girl is or where she’s come from exactly for about 150 pages or so. And the point is this—that while history stretches long here, it’s never out of sight, and everybody’s looking backward, behind them, time unfolding like a peacock’s tail.

Although there is nothing as extravagant as that in the novel’s first section, which takes place in Calgary, Alberta in the autumn of 1982. Which is why it’s particular hard for Frances to be home again, her European adventure cut short because her stepmother had died and her family needed her. Leaving behind her girlfriend and a certain amount of carefreeness in Portugal to come back to Calgary, which has just lapsed into recession. Her widowed father is taciturn and has taken up needlework as a way to connect with his wife, and Frances’s furious sister has problems of her own. So when Frances reconnects with a woman from her past, and her (Catholic) family begins to understand that she’s a lesbian, things go over just about as well as you might expect.

The Western Alienation Merit Badge was a pleasure to read, and in terms of craft is remarkable for two particular features. The first is for its points of view, which move between characters providing vastly different perspectives on the same situation, and while the few times this happened mid-chapter it was a bit jarring, the result of this approach is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is really effective in particular because of how Cullen avoids cliches and sentimentality in creating her characters and their dynamic. There’s no wicked stepmother trope here, as Frances had really loved her stepmother, whose arrival in the household had made their broken unit into a family—and they’re all lost without her. Her father’s grieving process, taking up quilting and knitting and trying to channel his wife through her sewing machine, was unlike anything I’ve ever read in fiction before, and such an incredible way to add an additional dimension to a working class guy, the kind we’ve all read about in fiction before. But will his sensitive side extend to understanding the life of his lesbian daughter?

The other remarkable feature of the novel’s construction is that after a short second section set in 2016, the novel takes us back in time. Not quite as far back as when the inland sea dried up, but instead to 1974, before Frances’s stepmother came into the picture, and here the reader is provided with the solution to much of the puzzle regarding the kind of people who the members of this family would become. Because Alberta is the kind of place, the novel is suggesting, where the answers to questions still lie in the past, which is why this novel set in a recession-era Calgary circa 1983 seems so absolutely timely in 2019, in particular as the province has dominated national headlines lately with their recent election.

If you’re not from Alberta and want to understand why Alberta is the way it is, and the way many people who live there feel about themselves in relation to the rest of Canada, this novel is a good place to start.

April 24, 2019

The Myriad Nature of Maternal Grief

Everything I know about infertility, I’ve come to understand through the analogy of abortion, which is not the opposite of infertility—though some people might have you imagine so. For your information, adoption and miscarriage are not the opposite of abortion either, as the many people who’ve had both abortions and miscarriages can definitely attest, and those women who’ve experienced adoption too. (And pay attention here, to the challenge of going beyond a single story in women’s experiences—a theme. To an insistence in our rhetoric on either/or, and maybe neither if you’re lucky, but never both.)

While I’ve not experienced infertility, I have had an abortion, which means that I’ve spent a lot of the last seventeen years thinking about reproductive choice (which delivered me the rest of my life, after all, so I spend a lot of time saying thank you). And in this thinking it occurred to me that such notions of choice must necessarily include women who want to be pregnant but aren’t, women I feel solidarity with because both experiences (wanting to be pregnant when you’re not and not wanting to be pregnant when you are) have feelings of grief and such abject despair at their core. And similarly do abortion and infertility attract the wrath of patriarchal forces, because there is nothing our society likes less than a woman who exercises agency over her destiny, who refuses to be a passive vessel.

(An additional commonality I’d never considered until reading Alexandra Kimball’s book is that abhorring abortion and dismissing the trauma of infertility both require diminishing the physical labour required to be pregnant and also that to become pregnant through reproductive technology. Abortion and infertility treatments are both considered, by those who don’t know any better, as a matter of simple “convenience,” equivocating women’s labour with, just say, a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks.)

And so Alexandra Kimball’s The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue was always going to one of the books I’ve most been looking forward to this spring. (The first time I read Kimball’s work was a 2015 essay on miscarriage, which was also about her abortion, and I am always interested when abortion/miscarriage/infertility are part of the same conversation; and note: they were also all part of the conversation in the anthology I edited in 2014, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood).

But I will admit that while I was looking forward to The Seed, its thesis (that feminism has failed infertile women) made me uncomfortable—and certainly it’s even supposed to, and it’s provocative. But what I mean is that I didn’t start reading the book completely on board, and I felt its central premise would possibly be a bit overstated. (This is kind of like when you’re white, and a racialized person tells you about their experience of racism, and you suppose they’re just being a bit sensitive.)

But it was by about page 50 and her analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale and infertility in pop culture (after the chapter on infertile women as monstrous in myth and folklore, beginning with a Babylonian epic from 18th century BC, right up to witchcraft trials just a couple of hundred years ago) that Kimball had me convinced that she was not just being sensitive. After discussing pop culture infertility in films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (infertile women literally destroying the everywoman’s life) she turns to The Handmaid’s Tale, and concludes that while it is “unequivocally, a feminist text…in its world, female barrenness is not only…threatening…disgusting… it is outright oppressive, a necessary engine for patriarchy itself.”

Kimball’s analysis from here is about the tension within feminism toward motherhood in general: “an idea of motherhood as conscription into patriarchy remained central to feminist theory and action.” And how feminism’s emphasis on CONTROL in terms of reproduction left little space for those women whose experiences were beyond their control—she quotes Linda Layne on the monumental Our Bodies, Ourselves, which included miscarriage and infertility in a separate (and unillustrated) chapter at end of the book.

And who exactly gets to be in control of their reproductive lives was quite specific from the start in feminist circles—racism and classism have always played a role in this. So that even now, the experiences of racialized, queer and poor people are alienated from conversations about fertility, which itself is alienated from conversations within feminism anyway. Kimball shows numerous examples of people in general and feminists in particular being much more concerned with and disturbed by ideas about people resolving their infertility than the problem of infertility itself.

And why is it so easy for our rhetoric to remain so unconcerned about the experience of the infertile woman? “They ignore the grief,” writes Kimball, who notes that she has never felt as objectified as she did when she was infertile. “It’s difficult to see [an infertile woman] as anything other than a curiosity of capitalism, akin to people who undergo cosmetic surgery.” She writes about “the existential clusterfuck of this trauma,” how the tragedy of infertility is that resolution always seems just close enough at hand to be worth pursuing. “It’s less of a biological impulse than a narrative one, a need for coherence and sense.”

And here, Kimball begins to see the possibilities of sisterhood, of solidarity, for she finds it with a friend who a trans woman whose own experiences have been very different but who understands the extent of Kimball’s grief in a way that few other people do. (Kimball also points out that Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists find women pursuing fertility as challenging to their politics as they do trans women.) She further identifies with the the artworks of Catherine Opie and Frieda Kahlo, how they portray bodily labour and grief. “I looked at Opie’s portrait series and Kahlo’s miscarriage works frequently when I was struggling, not so much because they mirrored my own experience or made me feel less lonely, but because I was heartened by what I felt was the complexity of their stories… They demonstrate the myriad nature of maternal grief.”

That myriad nature is explored in the essay anthology Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, edited by Allison McDonald Ace, Ariel Ng Bourbonnais and Caroline Starr, a work that challenges “the single narrative” that Kimball complicates and writes against in her cultural analysis. In Through, Not Around, the political is made personal again with 22 stories of infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, mostly by women, but with a handful by men. Each writer is telling a story that is far from uncommon, but which was until recently taboo (and even remains so in many cultures). As Kimball writes, society is made uncomfortable by evidence of the effort and labour of motherhood, would prefer it to remain hidden so we can continue to believe it is natural, essential.

My only critique of this collection is the lack of contributor bios, because it would be interesting to see what a range of backgrounds these writers are coming from. (Although I try to think of reasons why contributor bios might be avoided here, and I can think of some answers. What happens when we let the stories speak for themselves?) My sense is that these writers come from a fairly broad spectrum of experience (although, for reasons Kimball has illuminated, racialized, queer and poor women are in the minority here, as they are in conversations about fertility in general) and that most of them are not professional writers. (The anthology was born of the online community The 16 Percent.) And so I was impressed by how excellently written most of these essays were, how they made stories out of experiences that defy the conventions of narrative at every turn. (There is a reason you rarely read a novel where someone ends up having five miscarriages.)

The grief that Kimball writes about is evident in these essays, which are stories of strength and resilience under sometimes unrelenting pressure. The point indeed is getting through, which requires action instead of passiveness. But also questions of when to try a different path forward, when to stop, and all the surprising diversions that happen along the way. Women’s lives, we read in these essays, are fraught and brutal and hard and knit with tragedy, but are also unfailingly interesting.

There are so many ways to be a woman, and to become a mother, or to be infertile, even. I’m grateful to both these books for complicating the narrative in the very best way.

April 4, 2019

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

One of the first essay collections I ever fell in love with back when I was first falling in love with the essay was Pathologies, by Susan Olding, who was later kind enough to write a short piece at 49thShelf about the essay form. Olding wrote, “In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”

It might be the risk, but it’s also the reason, as demonstrated by Alicia Elliott’s remarkable and now-bestselling debut, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground. A collection of essays that examine stories and ideas from all angles, not one side, or even (more importantly in this age of polarization) both sides, but instead acknowledge a myriad of viewpoints, or points of consideration. These are essays that resist certainty, neat conclusions, simple morals. Instead: there is multiplicity, complication, tension, and this is what makes the book so fascinating. “Sontag, in Snapshots” begins with self image and photography; and then photography and colonialism; Black Lives Matter and video recordings of police brutality; on photography and agency, and also community; cultural stigma of “selfies” and misogyny, and imperial beauty standards; and photography as “a family building exercise;” then landscape photography in Banff vs. the Kinder Morgan pipeline and how some mountains are more worthy than others; and torture a Abu Ghraib; revenge porn; and what it means to have one’s pain witnessed, corroborated. It’s an essay that ends with questions instead of answers, ever expansive, “Why do we need our lives to be witnessed? Why do we need to share our experiences, to have this connection to others? Why do we need to control others so badly and so completely that we will even try to control their image? Is it because we’re trying to make ourselves more real? Is it because that power—as expansive or minuscule as it may be—fills a void?”

As Olding writes, “the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go.”

While Elliott’s essays—which portray her experiences growing up in poverty, as an Indigenous woman, as the child of a mother with mental illness, a teenage mother herself, a survivor sexual assault—recall (in the best way) the groundbreaking work of Roxane Gay in her collection Hunger—a collection that also lays bare the experience of trauma—they are also different in tone. While rawness is a feature of Gay’s essays in her collection, Elliott’s are more processed, polished, synthesized in a way I hadn’t entirely been expecting from someone who (admittedly, in addition to winning magazine awards, being awarded the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize, being nominated for the Journey Prize, and appearing in Best American Stories, so we should have seen it coming) has made a name for herself with incisive Twitter threads and having none of your racist bullshit on that particular social media platform.

But with her first book—which is eminently readable, absorbing and hard to put down—Elliott solidifies her reputation as a profound thinker and prose stylist, in addition to being a Twitter powerhouse. Perhaps the tweets are where her rawness is, but readers of her essays will find a voice more cool and discerning, and oh-so-fucking smart. Good luck trying to mess with “Not Your Noble Savage,” a consideration of literary colonialism that is coming at you with receipts (as they say on the Twitter), with Margaret Atwood in an essay claiming that Pauline Johnson (as an Indigenous writer) is not “the real thing,” but Thomas King (“the son of a Cherokee father and a Swiss, German and Greek, ie white, mother”) gets to be. “[L]et’s consider Canada’s history of dictating Native identity,” proposes Elliott, and then this leads to considerations of how Indigenous writers’ work is “policed” by critics, and the charade of reconciliation, and “the fairy tale that keeps Canada’s conscience clear.”

Recalling Olding’s, “We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave.”

Oh, the places where these essays take us. She writes about learning the verdict in the Gerald Stanley case, on trial for the killing of Colten Boushie, while visiting the space centre in Vancouver while on vacation with her family, “dark matter” as a metaphor for racism—”it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable.” I haven’t had lice since February (knock on wood) so was able to read her essay “Scratch” without too much creepy-crawly imaginings. She writes about mental illness, and the Mohawk phrase which describes it, which is where Elliott’s collection gets its name. About being Indigenous while looking white, and her ambivalence about her child receiving the same inheritance; on cultural appropriation and what it meant when she read Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, the first time she’d read the work of another Indigenous woman—she writes, “Every sentence felt like a fingertip strumming a neglected chord in my life, creating the most gorgeous music I’d ever heard.”

I’ve not even touched on her essay about Toronto’s Bloor and Lansdowne neighbourhood, about gentrification; the one about nutrition, poverty and its colonial legacy; about her marriage (“Antiracism is a process. Decolonial love is a process. Our love is a process…”) About attempting to understand and love her complicated and troubled mother. Her essay, “Extraction Mentalities,” which is a “participatory essay,” something I’ve never encountered before, with literal space on the page for the reader to engage with her questions. And throughout the entire book, really, Elliott has created space to engage with her questions, the entire project infused with this characteristic generosity. To be at once fierce and powerful, but also vulnerable and tender—what a gift that is to her reader. And what a gift this whole book is, strumming a neglected chord that the world needs to hear right now.

March 27, 2019

A To the Lighthouse Memoir

“…one of the wonders of Woolf’s novel is its seemingly endless capacity to meet you whenever you happen to be, as if, while you were off getting married and divorced, it had been quietly shifting its shape on the bookshelf” —Katharine Smyth

Lost somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of Instagram is the post (from who? and when?) that prompted me to put Katharine Smyth’s memoir All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf on hold at the library. It might have been the cover that did it, a wonderful retro Hogarthian design, or maybe just the premise itself, a memoir via To the Lighthouse (and you either go in for such things or maybe you don’t—for the record, I was the target audience for Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch Memoirs framed by reading experiences are so up my middlebrow street). To the Lighthouse is a book I’ve returned to again and again since I first read it in a university class 20 years ago—I was rereading it the summer I wrote my first novel, which is part of the reason why my protagonist ends up reading it for her book club. And the other part of the reason why To the Lighthouse turned up in my book is because of the uncanny way that it (like much of Woolf’s oeuvre) ends up seemingly connected to all things, wrapping its way around our own lives like tentacles. It is a book that one only appreciates more upon acquiring some life experience, and then some, a kaleidoscopic novel that contains multitudes: from Katharine Smyth, “To the Lighthouse tells the story of everything.”

I wonder if anyone who loves To the Lighthouse could write a memoir using the book as a framework—but they would probably not do nearly as good a job of it as Katharine Smyth has. Smyth, who studied at Oxford and took classes with Hermione Lee, who knows of what she writes, and whose prose does not read skimpily alongside Woolf’s own. Smyth is a writer with tremendous descriptive powers, a reveller of words and language—she sent me to the dictionary to look up “tenebrous.” And her own story is not a To the Lighthouse redux, but rather she tells the story of her father’s death—and also the story of her parents’ marriage, of her childhood, of her father’s alcoholism and years with cancer, of their waterfront home in Rhode Island—and it maps onto Woolf’s narrative enough to provide glimpses of illumination, just as Woolf’s own biography—her family’s home at St. Ives, the death of her mother, the devastation wrought by the Great War—illuminates her novel.

If it’s true that we tell stories in order to live, I think that we read them for the same reasons, to discover context, evidence, and meaning. After the death of her father, Smyth goes back to Woolf to better understand what happened to her family, to examine their complicated relationship, to bridge a gap between her memories of him and her life without him (ie [Time passes]). Hers would be an interesting story anyway, and she’s a wonderful writer, but it’s all the richer when regarded through Woolf’s literary lens and so is her reader’s connection to it.

March 21, 2019

Crow, by Amy Spurway

It sounds like a book you might have read before—Stacey “Crow” Fortune leaves her flashy Toronto marketing job behind when she’s diagnosed with untreatable brain tumours and flies home to Cape Breton to face her fate, returning to the chaos of her mother’s trailer and grappling with the struggles of the community she thought she’d left behind. There is death, impoverishment, addiction, and long-buried family secrets—same old sad-sack CanLit, right? But wait. Because Crow, Amy Spurway’s debut novel, is a comedy, both larger than and bursting with life. Instead of a “bucket list”, Crow has a “fuck it list,” items she just can’t with anymore, which includes suffering fools or putting up with anybody’s bullshit. She’s calling it as she sees it, even if she isn’t always seeing it right, and she’s my favourite unabashed, fierce and brilliant heroine who has both a way with language and some neurological issues since Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia in the Netflix series Russian Doll.

Part of the joys of Russian Doll was its ensemble cast, and so too it is with Crow. Crow comes home to her two best friends, Allie and Char (who has also just returned home with her baby whose father is a Congolese diamond smuggler, and who is also deaf in one ear and says most words the way she’d always heard them: “F’eyed known there was a bomb fire, ida brung some bleeding’ marchmallows.” Plus there’s Crow’s mother, Effie, a long suffering housekeeper at the Greeting Gale Inn; Effie’s gossiping sister, Peggy; her old flame and pot dealer Willy the Gimp; plus Becky Chickenshit, Shirl Short, Bonnie Bigmouth, Duke the Puke, and the Spensers, Crow’s dead father’s family who ran the mines that kept the locals in employ (and sometimes killed them) for generations.

It’s a meandering plot, but then what journey towards death isn’t? And there were moments where I wondered if Spurway was really going to be able to pull this off, a comedy novel about serious business with a cast of hilarious misfits that could come close to bordering on caricature. The most incredible material but it requires authorial deftness to do it right—but Amy Spurway is the real thing. Her glorious sentences are something to behold in, from the very first few: “I come from a long line of lunatics and criminals. Crazies on one side of the family tree, crooks on the other, although the odd crazy has a touch of crook, and vice versa. I am the weary, bitter fruit—or perhaps the last nut—of this rotten old hybrid, with its twisted roots sunk deep in dysfunctional soil.”

The adjective “brave” gets thrown around all too often in regards to literature, but I’m going to pitch it here, because it’s right for a variety of reasons. First of all, a book about death—and mental illness, and disability, and abortion, and spousal abuse, and class, and poverty—and the narrative takes no shortcuts or shies away from the hard stuff. I kept waiting for the part where it veered off course or fell into the saccharine, but that point never happened. Crow delighted me and amazed me the further I read, with its freshness, its daring, its refusal to conform (and the projectile vomiting). The bulbs that Crow finds in her mother’s trailer, and what comes up in the spring—it’s all just perfect (but no spoilers). And oh my gosh, the ending—it was literally stunning. The narrative entire is a veritable tightrope walk, a feat that’s performed with style and verve, and it’s absolutely dazzling.

“And then there’s the bigger, more grandiose questions about will happen when I’m gone,” Crow considers. “Where am I going? Anywhere? Nowhere? Somewhere? Somewhere good? Will there be tea and squares and laughing and crying and swearing there, because if there isn’t, well then I don’t want to go.” And you really can’t blame her. After 300 pages in this incredible novel, I wasn’t ready to be finished either.

February 13, 2019

Mini Reviews: Three Books on Family

The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin: The summary on the jacket flap of Tara Conklin’s new novel The Last Romantics tells you that this is a story that begins in a yellow house, with a funeral, an iron poker…”a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town.” And while all this is true, it doesn’t begin to tell the reader what this book is about, a book that takes place over a century and actually begins in an auditorium in a dystopian future, a world wracked by climate chaos, where 102-year-old Fiona Skinner is asked to explain the story behind her most famous poem. And I’m amused by the challenge this novel must have created for marketers, who prefer novels to ones that can summed up in a sentence, and this one definitely isn’t one of those. A clue to what’s actually going on here lies in a blurb on the back by Meg Wolitzer, whose two most recent books have been similarly ambitious in their reach, not explicitly about anything either except the story itself, about the characters within and how time changes and complicates their connections. The story is the sweep, and so it is here, although it’s not always completely convincing as it is in Wolitzer’s more masterful work (though I will admit this is a high bar).

There are narrative strands in this novel that don’t go anywhere, and while one could argue that life itself is a bit like that, the reader gets the impression that this novel was once a more larger and more unruly manuscript and much got cut in the taming, and now there are several parts of the novel that don’t know what to do with themselves. There are also a few plot points that hinge on characters doing unfathomable things, which was annoying. But, most fundamentally: this novel was never not interesting, and I found it thoroughly engaging. The shifts between point of view (no small feat with a first-person narrator) was beautiful crafted, and provide moments of real illumination. The Last Romantics is a curious beast, and I can think of worse things for a novel to be.

*

Reproduction, by Ian Williams: This debut novel by award-winning poet Williams is another curious beast, but more deliberately so than with Conklin’s book. Williams brings a poet’s attention to form, always pushing at the novel’s limits, making it hold more, do more, be more—and it mostly absolutely works. Beyond form, this is always a family story like none I’ve ever read before—two people meet in a Toronto hospital room in the late 1970s and their mothers are dying. One is Felicia, a teenage girl from an unnamed Caribbean island, and the other is Edgar, adult son of a wealthy German immigrant family. One thing leads to another, and after a time they end up having a child together, though Edgar leaves the scene, and Felicia ends up raising her son, Armistice, in the basement apartment of a suburban Brampton side-split where Oliver lives, and we find them all next in the 1990s and Oliver’s two children have arrived for the summer from their home with his ex-wife, and one thing leads to another, and another child is born. Which all sounds more straightforward than it really is, because there are tricks with language, details, timelines and lineage. I loved the specificity of the story, it’s strangeness, but its utter plausibility, how it’s not a sensible story, but it makes perfect sense. This is another book that is never not interesting, but it’s also a demanding read—so when I finished Reproduction, I made a point of picking up a novel that was in a different gear. And this is my favourite thing about books, that there’s not just a single kind…

*

Her One Mistake, by Heidi Perks: The opposite of a book that’s unlike any I’ve ever read before is Her One Mistake. a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator Gone Girlish vibeWhich certainly has been overdone in recent years, and has its pale imitators, but I thought Heidi Perks’ novel was really terrific—and reminiscent of the TV series Broadchurch, and not just because of the setting in Dorset, UK. This one starts when Charlotte agrees to take her friend Harriet’s young daughter, Alice, to a school fair, but then Alice goes missing, and Charlotte’s negligence is seemingly to blame. But as always, the real story is more complicated, and there are twists and turns to find out what really happened to Alice. My only criticism would be that Harriet’s husband is way too absolutely evil to be a realistic human character, but then a) if I’ve learned anything in recent years it’s that some men’s capacity for abusiveness is beyond my wildest imaginings and b) none of the novel’s twists hang on the possibility of his character being anything than what he is, so there’s nothing cheap happening here. I really loved this book, and its ending was gripping and explosive and had me shouting at the page.

February 5, 2019

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, by Megan Gail Coles

If you hang a pistol in your novel’s title, law dictates that it’s going to go off before the book is over, even if your gun is a metaphoric one. And if the title of Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is not indication enough that this book is not going to be completely painless, its author, Megan Gail Coles even includes a warning: “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” But yes, be brave. Venture forth into this book, where the weather is extreme and feet are freezing, and nobody is holding your hand. Where the atoms fall like snowflakes in a blizzard, instead of orderly, in a straight line, one thing after another, as you’d expect from a more linear text. There are moments when you’ll find yourself lost in the storm, zero-visibility. But just keep going. Be brave.

There are sentences in Coles’ first book, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, that I have never forgotten, more than four years after I read them first. “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her.” Not a comfort read, you know what I am saying? Unforgettable, dark, slyly humorous, meticulously crafted sentences. I have been looking forward to Megan Gail Coles’ debut novel for a long time, and while it hurt a little, it also did not disappoint.

Ostensibly, Small Game Hunting... is the story of a trendy restaurant in St. John’s over the course of a single day in February while outside a snowstorm is raging. The chef has been sleeping with the hostess who is serving his wife’s father (whose money funds the establishment) as he has lunch with the city’s mayor. The bartender is in love with the hostess. The server is hungover. And the woman who’s been waiting in the doorway, without her boots on and cold and wet and aching feet, has ties to the hostess, as they grew up together in rural Newfoundland, and to one of the restaurant’s customers, who not long ago caused her irreparable harm in an act of violence. And all of these characters have parents and sisters and ex-best friends who now hate them for justifiable reasons. “Sometimes John looks around the restaurant and wonders who is in the most trouble.”

It’s not an easy book. There is violence and there is trauma and there is an attention to language that requires the reader’s full investment, and while that investment pays off big time, the demand might also try some readers’ patience. Because Megan Gail Coles is asking a lot of her readers here, but she more than pays it back—not least of all letting plot be a huge incentive to keep on turning the pages. The tension is enormous in this web of emotions, ties and betrayals, and that proverbial gun is due to go off at any moment. The chef is fucking the hostess in the kitchen as his wife is coming down the street—you get the idea. The novel moving between each character’s point of view to add layer upon layer of meaning, and each character’s section has also its own voice, specific diction, preoccupations. It is a dizzying experience indeed to reside in so many minds at once.

But it’s also so rich, and we gain sympathy for even the most hapless characters, because nearly everyone in this book has done despicable things. And we see too the way that certain characters are imminently more forgivable than others, how they get away with everything, and by “certain characters,” I mean white men. “The defences of their choices would be vicious.”

In a recent profile, Coles described her novel as “a declaration of war on misogyny,” which is such a perfect articulation. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is about the nonchalance with which men do harm to women, which is also a microcosm for an economic and political system that renders certain kinds of people disposable. Characters in the novel are robbed of opportunity, are played by institutions they trusted, are wracked by debt and addiction and systemic oppression. There’s a Gatsbyesque arc to the inevitability of their fates. And the men who cheat? Those reckless, careless characters? The bullet was never going to hit them. One way or another, they’re always going to be fine.

January 21, 2019

Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken

There is a house in Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, that defies all the rules of conventional architecture. It’s got eight sides and a cupola, a spiral staircase up the middle. “The walls were filled with lime and gravel and ground rice, and stuccoed with a combination of plaster and coal dust.” And in terms of narrative architecture, McCracken has similarly tossed out the rulebook for this, her sixth book and third novel. (Her two most recent books are the short story collection Thunderstruck and Other Stories, and a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.)

The unconventional house is not actually the novel’s central edifice, however, although they’re both commanded by the same character, a woman we meet in Bowlaway’s very first sentence: “They found a body in the Salford Cemetary, but aboveground and alive.” This is Bertha Truitt, of the gapped teeth and enormous bosom, who claims to be the inventor of candlepin bowling and is utterly uninterested in delineating the story of where she came from. (For the most part, so is Bowlaway itself.) Like everything McCracken writes—sentences, paragraphs, characters, action scenes—Bertha Truitt is vivid. The heart and soul of the book, one would think, or at least its foundation or supporting beam, if we’re back to architecture. But forget the rules, remember? Because Bertha Truitt is deceased by page 78 (and no, this is not “a spoiler.” Bowlaway is a book that could not be possibly be spoiled), swept away to her death in the Great Molasses Flood, Boston, 1919.

I will admit that at first I was unsure of my footing as a reader in this narrative, because it really is one in which the bottom can fall out at any time. Because I’d arrived at Bowlaway with fixed ideas about the way a narrative should go, ie the protagonist should not necessarily drown in molasses on page 78. Because this novel isn’t easy, and it’s full of tricks and play, and ghosts, and babies who die before they’re born, and sons who are actually ex-husbands. It’s not an simple read, and the reader has to pay attention, but the rewards of that attention are considerable, immense. Her previous novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, which I loved, was about two vaudeville performers, and Bowlaway is similarly larger than life (McCracken is also author of a novel called The Giant’s House), a spectacle.

But instead of a stage, the setting is a bowling alley, Bertha Truitt’s candlepin alley, Truitt’s, later named Bowlaway two generations following (although the family tree is complicated). Scene of one spontaneous combustion, as well as a murder, and home to a ghost, McCracken follows the alley and its regulars through three-quarters of the twentieth century in a novel that is unlike any other book you’ve read before, as rare as an eight-sided house inhabited by extinct avian species. With sentences and imagery that are shocking in their freshness and perfection—the mother who gives out love in homeopathic doses, say. There is no other writer who writes like Elizabeth McCracken, and I’ve never read a book quite like Bowlaway.

January 14, 2019

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

I’ve been avoiding bookshops lately (except for a trip to Type Books’ new location in The Junction in December!) with a focus on reducing the overwhelming number of books on my to-be-read shelf. Which I’ve been pretty successful at with a huge tower of reading completed over the holidays, and also a clear-out of more than a few books that I decided to finally accept that I would never read. And when I finished reading Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg, on Saturday morning (acquired from a Little Free Library; has been sitting on my shelf for months; is so incredible but also very sad) and we had no further plans for the day, I decided that what I really, really needed was a bookshop venture, and my family was kind enough to accompany me, obviously with the promise of snacks.

And what a wonderful thing, for me at least, although probably not my family, to arrive at the bookshop without an idea of what I was looking for. Something more uplifting than Did You Ever Have a Family, was my premise, though I wasn’t exactly successful on that front, but then a book need not be uplifting when it is brilliant, original and completely affecting. The book was Sarah Moss’s new novel, Ghost Wall, which only just came out (super exciting—I tend to be either six months or decades behind on all the newest things) and I’d read the review in the Toronto Star that morning. Beginning my Sarah Moss discovery, which I’ve been longing to embark upon on reading Rohan Maitzen’s reviews of her other books, which sound as intriguing as they are wide-ranging.

It’s a slim little novel whose design (in Canada, at least) is delicate and exquisite, a book made up of all kinds of competing tensions. Silvie is a teenager from Northern England whose bus driver father is an Iron Age enthusiast in his spare time, and she’s been raised on his rambles and fascinations of ancient Britons, and therefore knows how to forage for bilberries, which makes her an object of fascination for the university students her family is spending her dad’s annual leave with on their experiential archeology course. The professor and Silvie’s dad couple their skills and knowledge, leaving Silvie with the students, just a few years older than she is, worldly in a way she’s never been able to fathom. Her time with them is a brief reprieve from her father’s rigid control, but then she’s defensive around them, knowing they’re judging her parents’ accents and background. She also knows that aligning them too much will provoke her father’s wrath, whose force and dangerousness gradually becomes more apparent as the narrative progresses and underlines the novel’s idyllic setting and celebration of the natural world with something much more sinister.

Unabashedly feminist, Ghost Wall dares to question what people are really reaching for when they’re yearning for a simpler time, for an authentic kind of culture, or whiteness, or Britishness. Just what is fundamental about who we are and where we come from, and who gets to be in charge of that? It’s sharp, fast-paced, and disturbing, an exercise in minimalism and subtly. I loved it.

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