Thursday, August 31, 2006

Coupland part II

It occurred to me, after reading my Coupland counter-rant, that if Douglas feels so strongly about the current direction of CanLit, he might want to present his concerns to one of our large, multinational publishers. His own, say.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Joe Versus the Tornado

Since the days of his food column in Montreal’s Hour weekly, right up to the city column he now writes for the Star, Joe Fiorito has shown an impressive ability to aestheticize anything. Death, poverty, crime, drug addiction – whatever it is, Joe will come along with his gourmand’s touch and add a little sprig of literary parsley.

In today’s column, the second of a two-parter, we get the aftermath of the tornado that tore through Combermere, Ontario, where Joe and his “dearest” were cottaging. Surely Fiorito can suppress his bourgeois instincts with all the destruction around him?

But no:

“With no power, we had no light, no fridge, and no water except some from a jug. And I can tell you that coffee brewed over charcoal loses its charm after a cup.”

Fiorito is so annoyed, he doesn’t even tell us about the charming shop where he bought the coffee – no flavourless Loblaws crap for him, no sir – hand-ground into a small, brown paper bag that he carried back to the cottage as if it were a rare tropical fish.

Later on, Fiorito gets miffed that the people who built and who run this city didn’t think to keep it as clean and as soul-refreshing as a rural, lakeside cottage. He indulges his inner eco-warrior:

“As you know, town stinks and is hot and rude and loud and dirty and the air is bad. I wonder why all those kids who go to camp in the summer don't come back to town as militant environmentalists.

Fresh air is a right. Fresh air ought not to belong just to those who can afford to go and get it. Fresh air ought to be available all year long, not just for a couple of weeks for a few people.”

To the barricades! Fiorito then gives us a vision of his ideal, cleaned-up Toronto:

“On our return, we strolled along Queens' Quay. It occurs to me that a fellow ought to be able to get a plate of fresh local fish and a glass of wine in a little resto by the water's edge. Oh, sorry. I guess I'm thinking of some other country.”

You know, that country where you can eat fish caught right in the harbour of a major urban centre….

I’m also not sure whether there has ever been a revolution predicated on the need for more lakeside restos. “Good taste and charm” seem like a fairly thin ideological base for a movement.

Fiorito saves the best for last, however:

“Home sweet home.

There may be a man sleeping in our back lane. I have not seen him in person, but I have seen the grass flattened by his form, and also I have picked up his empty bottles.

He needs a vacation.

Me, too.”

Yes, he did just equate living through a tornado while staying at a rural cottage up north with being a homeless wino. Note too, how Fiorito lets us know that it’s up to him to clean up after the guy. Given that the man's living in Joe’s alley rent-free, would it kill him to drop his empty bottles of cooking wine in a recycling bin? (The blue one, please?)


Combermere is disturbing close to where I grew up, and is where my wife used to spend her summers, babysitting and teaching swimming at a deranged hippy commune. We’ll be driving through there this weekend on the way to our own rural oasis. Perhaps I’ll drop by Joe’s house before we go to pick up some some smoked salmon, capers, and mineral water for all the Combermerians left homeless by the storm. They can pick up their own damn bottles, though.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Coupland

Penniless, woefully obscure Douglas Coupland went on a tear last week in the New York Times’ subscriber-only online thing:

"Can/Lit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigrant experience," the man writes. "There is a grimness around CanLit — the same sort of grimness that occurs when beautiful young adults are forbidden to leave home and are forced to tend to aging and dying family members, when they are forbidden to lead their own lives."

The idea that there is a fading, irrelevant older generation holding back an army of youthful and exuberant and ambitious authors is one I used to rant about myself, before I actually started working in publishing and realized that it's only partly true.

Yes, there is a generation or two of CanLitistes who got their mouths on the teat of grants funding back in the Trudeau era and will not be pried from it . But, their tenacity in defending their own entitlement is a lesson that has been learned well by subsequent generations of Canadian writers. To continue with Coupland’s metaphor, most of those “beautiful young adults” are quite happily abandoning all their youthful privileges and are acting, dressing, thinking, and writing like their frail elders, with the inevitable loss of vitality that comes with taking up something second-hand.

Coupland seems completely oblivious to the fact that A) the Canada Council and its provincial and municipal counterparts have very little sway over what gets published and read in this country; and B) most big publishers spent the last ten years or so throwing stupid amounts of cash around in order to outdo their competitors in the acquisition of new writers. Look at the head-hunting that went on at the UBC Creative Writing department a few years ago. Did that experiment pan out as well as they'd hoped? Is our literature any less grim because of it? Of course not, because it is insane to look to first-time writers to sutain either a literature or a publishing industry. New writers have to spend time learning their shit, period, or they will find themselves at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns as they struggle to regain what everyone found so “fresh” in their first works, like a child who inadvertently says something that gets a laugh from his parents, then spends the next hour desperately trying less-and-less funny variations on it.

The real problem with Coupland’s rant, and many like it, is that it assumes some kind of systematic cultural conspiracy against fresh, youthfully ambitious writing. The truth is, there is, and has always been, a cultural conspiracy against youthfully ambitious writing. And so what? It’s a fact of life and a fact of culture, here and just about everywhere else in the world. Truly experimental or daring writers (as opposed to self-consciously hip writers like Coupland who fill their work with signifiers borrowed from magazines and cover their stock narratives with a bit of postmodern sauce, as Kingsley Amis would say) will always be marginal and marginalized. There is wiggle room – one or two break through the dry crust or mainstream expectations, or find themselves lionized late in their careers or even posthumously – but for the most part, the weird stay weird, the tough, tough. It's up to readers to do the work, not granting bodies, and up to smart critics to help them. (Not that someone like Coupland would ever see it as worth his precious time and his beautiful mind to actually engage CanLit on a consistent basis, through reviews or essays, rather than the occasional drive-by rant, free of all context.)

What is really lacking in Canadian literature is courage – the courage of writers to pursue a literary vision single-mindedly, oblivious to the potential rewards, financial and otherwise, the whims of arts-grant juries, and false dichotomies like urban vs rural, experimental vs mainstream, or young vs old.




For the morbidly curious, you can read a review I wrote of Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox book here. Coupland’s usual condescending approach to ordinary, unhip lives (“Ooh, look what these charming and unself-conscious Canadians do in their homes!”) bugged me more than I let on in the review, but in the end not even he can smother the effect of seeing things like Fox’s false leg, or handwritten tallies of the kilometres run.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Frye on blogging

More from guest-blogger-from-beyond-the-grave Northrop Frye:

"There has been a very long interval between this note & the last one. I get periodically bored with notebooks, because so much of what I put into them is just a form of masturbation: an empty fantasy life making the scene with beckoning fair charmers who don't exist. However."

Art

from Northrop Frye Unbuttoned:


"One of the major activities of art consists in sharpening the edge of platitudes to make them enter the soul as realities."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

And the pale horse is "death," not "dearth."

See this, appended to Slate.com's story about hip hop in the Middle East:

"Correction, August 18, 2006: This article originally misidentified the meaning of the word "dam" in Hebrew and Arabic. It means blood, not fire."

Clear?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Champ

The lyrics don't give a very good idea of it, but Ghostface Killah's "Shakey Dog" is absolutely draining, almost an athletic performance – albeit a truncated one, severed from the outro/victory lap it deserves. Though the fact that the song just ends, without warning, with only a "To be continued...", is part of why it works. The thing is just one long, unbroken verse – no chorus, no R&B ladies, no nothing, except for some Steve Tyler-ish rock guy yelling "Yeah" in the background and a repetitive string hit that sounds like the violins are acting as back up muscle for the doublecross heist going down in the song and the cellist is on lookout.

The “depiction vs glorification” debate that gets aimed at the more thuggish end of hip hop really isn’t valid here. Ghostface is so far inside this character (of, um, himself) that such a question gets negated. Granted, it’s a nasty little story, but it is a story, told in a very specific voice, with very specific language (though occasionally florid or twisted: “Wintertime bubble goose, goose, clouds of smoke” ??), and with very specific cultural signifiers. (Which is not to even go near the question of “authenticity,” a question I think is pretty irrelevant, anyway, and one that almost always gets reserved for hip hop. At best that’s part of a broader cultural or socio-political debate that has almost nothing to do with the aesthetics of the thing.)

There are some brilliant throwaway lines all through the song, but, as stupid as it sounds (or reads, I should say), it is the moment when he says, “I’m on the floor like ‘Holy Shit!’” that sells the whole thing for me. (You really have to hear it – it's all in the delivery.) Hip hop – which I’ve barely stuck my toe into so far – is all about maximum tension and minimum release (like the best dub and reggae, and really just about any groove-based music), and that line is a perfect display of a sudden, exhilarating release that yet doesn’t dispel the tension one bit – if anything, it increases it.

That's the moment when the hairs on the back on my neck stand up and say, "What just happened?"

Friday, August 18, 2006

"HEY KOOLAID"

That's the title of the sermon currently listed out front of Metropolitan United Church at the corner of Church and Queen.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Now is not the time to ask how it all happened*

In a pivotal scene from some imaginary alternate-history movie about racism in America, where Blacks are the Man, the poor, white protagonist would break into the local library (from which his kind are barred during the day) and starts digging through old newspapers on microfilm, trying to figure out how the world got this way. As the music swells, he'd come across this headline, from the height of the white civil-rights movement of the alterna-'60s:

"King Endorses Ethnic Profiling"




Sadly:

"Declaring that airport screeners shouldn't be hampered by "political correctness," House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King has endorsed requiring people of "Middle Eastern and South Asian" descent to undergo additional security checks because of their ethnicity and religion.

Discussing the recent revelation of an alleged plot in England to blow up U.S.-bound airliners, the Seaford Republican said yesterday that, 'if the threat is coming from a particular group, I can understand why it would make sense to single them out for further questioning.'"


(Yes, "political correctness" - the most powerful force in the world, more powerful than organized religion, global commerce, and the Masons combined. Powerful enough to stay the hand of a mighty nation. There are few of us left now who still remember the days before all signs of racism and sexism were violently eradicated by the forces of Euphemism. Those of us who do remember those times have a haunted, hollow look in our eyes. We avoid other people, fearful that our faces will betray our thoughts, and the joke about the armless, legless homo we silently tell ourselves for comfort...)


*

"I would never tell them this, but this is... this is a fad."

RIP Bruno Kirby

Monday, August 14, 2006

Mercy Among the Hobbitsessss

I wrote a squib about David Adams Richards’ newest novel, The Friends of Meager Fortune, for the new issue of Toro magazine. I ended up liking the book a lot, but as with all of the Richards I have read (which is not a lot, admittedly), I often struggled from page to page, not sure whether what I was reading was powerful insight or an eye-roller*. Certainly there is more than enough of both to go round, but by the end I felt that the former had more than overwhelmed the latter. (Though I still think that Richards could stand to emulate more the Tolstoy of the novellas, with their concentrated intensity, as opposed to the Tolstoy of War and Peace.)

One thought I could not get out of my mind as I read the book was what Peter Jackson would make of it if he ever chose to make thing into a movie. Both Richards and Jackson have an obsession with a kind of outsized heroism and nobility that is probably a more natural fit for the screen than the page, but which is getting more and more difficult to represent in either medium without sprouting blooms of parody, self- and otherwise.

Part of this is because this heroic vision is anathema to our relentlessly skeptical minds, fed on humanism and rationality. And partly it is because both Richards and Jackson can get right fucking silly, slipping into a strange form of macho-camp, whereby all good women are true, all good men possess a steely gaze, and all educated, progressive-minded, or articulate men and women are either feckless ditherers or villianous shits. You can almost imagine Bruce Willis and D.H. Lawrence standing together somewhere, nodding approvingly. (Willis pretending not to notice Lawrence’s bloody handkerchief, Lawrence straining not to mention “16 Blocks.”)

Anyway, all I kept thinking of while reading Richards’ book was the sound going silent, but for the haunting, droning, Enya-type singing, as the good men of rural New Brunswick cut into the noble woods of Good Friday mountain in slow-motion.

If you read the book, you’ll see there’s already parts in it for half the cast of “Lord of the Rings.”




* I had "trite bullshit" here originally, but that sounded wrong - there's nothing in the book that is actually fraudulent or deceptive. Richards' greatest strength and his greatest weakness, like that of Flannery O'Connor, is that he is writing about something – a certain kind of honour or courage in his case; Christian revelation in hers – that he knows his readership has been primed to be suspicious of, and so he is forced to exaggerate that part of his vision in order to drive the point home. He is always oriented toward Truth, and follows the straightest and most direct path to it, even if that means crashing through the fences of Cliché or Overripe symbol. That sounds like a slight, but I actually really admire him for his willingness to mar his own book in the pursuit of a truthful vision. Most writers back off at the point where Truth and Beauty part company.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dyer Maker

Brava and all that to NOW magazine for starting to run columns by Gwynne Dyer, though I’m not sure why his byline there identifies him as an “Academy Award nominee” first and foremost. Makes you think he played a corrupt, racist mayor with a secret love of Hispanic music in Paul Haggis’s “Crash,” or something.

I was up at my in-laws' Ottawa Valley-area cottage a couple of weeks ago with the wife and kids. About midway through the stay, I ran out of things to read, having finished this, and finding myself not in the mood for either this or this, both of which I brought with me with the assumption that dryly comic British fiction travels best (which it usually does, at least for me).

Not wanting to tuck into the cottage’s collection of fat, historical novel or anthologies of outhouse-themed jokes, and already starting to feel the effects of modernity-withdrawal for being away from a city for so long, I started in on the copies of the Ottawa Citizen lying around the place, waiting to be used to light a fire.

Just depressing. Not because of the uniform rightward slant or the jingoism – both of which I was prepared for, and even prepared to momentarily overlook in exchange for news from the outside world – but because of how reasonable-sounding it all aspired to be. The most laughably hollow rhetoric was being presented as mere common sense. The most specious arguments were set forth as reasoned debate. I found myself actually yearning for some naked hate, for some outright nutjob calling for the immediate nuking of all “sand-niggers” everywhere.*

But no, the mainstream right has long-since learned to disguise itself as the centre. On almost every page, the white sons and daughters of entitlement sadly shook their heads, let out a small sigh and told me that all of this was not complicated at all, that everything happening in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan boils down to one very simple question: do you support the terrorists or do you support freedom?

Boy, that is simple!

Of course, “freedom” was occasionally replaced with “democracy” or “morality” and the like, but the basic question was always the same. Are you in favour of evil or good? Hatred or love? Blood or chocolate?

So it was a great relief (and a surprise) to find Dyer’s face staring out from the local paper, which, being owned by Osprey Media, is among the few places in Canada where his stuff actually gets printed. (He has been banned from all CanWest-owned publications for a decade.) Better yet was his take on the Lebanon crisis – that all Hezbollah has to do to come out of all this is survive, and since Israel has no way of destroying them militarily, its campaign is futile and counterproductive, and it should therefore start laying the ground for real peace. You can’t bomb an idea, just those currently holding it, and there will always be people ready to take their place. Bombing just scatters an idea and helps it multiply.

If you’re interested, go here to read a review I wrote of Dyer’s most recent book, With Every Mistake.



*There was, at least, some laughs to had at the expense of one columnist who, in the process of condemning his university campus bookstore for not stocking any Aristotle in the philosophy section (there may have been some elsewhere, but he didn’t have time to look…), referred to Messrs. Marx and Engels as “communist sympathizers.”

Snakes on the wane

I was very briefly an associate Deadly Snake - just long enough to have the picture taken that accompanies my profile.

I just read that the band, after ten or so years, is calling it quits, coming out of the garage, getting defanged.

Their last show is at the Horseshoe on August 25 (same locale as the aforementioned profile pic).

And so on...

I will get around to putting up some kind of mission statement over the next few days, but for now – welcome.


"So off we go, let the trumpets blow
And hold on, because the driver of the mission is a pro."
- "The Ruler's Back", Jay-Z