Thursday, May 22, 2008

Talking Down to the Dirt

On Monday, I taped an episode of CBC Radio's Talking Books with Ian Brown. I was part of panel discussing Joel Hynes’s first book, Down to the Dirt, which, if you haven’t read, I recommend you go do so.

Now. (I can wait.)

The discussion (which should air either this Saturday or the next – I’ll let y’all know when I know) was breezy and entertaining, etc., but I never got around to making the point I wanted to about Hynes’ book, which is that it is about authenticity, and the fervent search therefor, or rather the desperate attempt to maintain a personal, sexual, cultural, and political sense of authenticity when all the world’s forces seem deadset on destroying all such notions.

That’s what gives the book so much of its life, but it’s also the achilles heel. Books with a laser-focus on preserving authenticity tend to burn themselves out before they’re done, and DTTD is no exception. They also tend to reserve the fight for one character, often the authorial stand-in, which means everyone else in the book is forced to play straight men or blocking characters, which reduces complexity and eventually makes the whole thing start to feel inauthentic. It’s not long before you start to wonder why only it’s only this one privileged person who ever figures out the lie that is modern life, society, etc. It starts to feel like a set-up. It often feels as though the book has to work twice as hard to maintain this "one vs. the world" stance. “Never let them see you sweat” is good advice for fiction, too, and there are moments near the end of DTTD where the book’s armpits start to darken from all the effort made to keep the main character fighting the good fight.

And it has to be said: books about one character’s desperate search for authenticity tend to appeal most to a particular kind of male reader/writer; one who, for better and worse, can’t quite let go of that part of their personality that was forged in adolescence. I’m not condemning it, and it’s not like I’m personally any different. On a personal level, it’s very important to keep in close contact with this part of your personality, the one that refuses all compromise, detests hypocrisy, and cannot understand why reality fall so short of ideals. But it can often have a limiting effect on art, precisely because it is such a self-centred perspective.

Women, for various cultural and biological reasons, tend to discover woefully early on that the ideal of “do whatever you want whenever you want” is either impossible, or sustainable only at the risk of enormous unhappiness, even destruction. “But that’s the point!” is the obvious objection. Live hard, die young, etc. It’s not really the ideal itself I’m arguing against here, it’s the reaction that comes when you finally realize it’s pretty much impossible. And even then, only how that reaction manifests itself in fiction.

As I said, women tend to learn this lesson early on, which is why it’s usually male characters who spend so much time throwing petulant fits at the discovery that their world has limits, that society has expectations, and that other people have needs. I often find myself, when reading these kinds of books, trying to look over the shoulder of such main characters to where someone else is standing, some overburdened, thoroughly comprised, even weak-willed character who may be less fun at parties, but is much richer fictional material, precisely because he or she is so burdened. As Mordecai Richler said (though didn’t always follow), novelists should be the “loser’s advocate.” It’s not about picking the most boring person in the room, but it shouldn’t be about simply picking the most exciting, either.

That all sounds harsh, and I don’t want to suggest at all that DTTD is a failure – even if it were, it’d be a hell of a noble one. In fact, one thing I especially liked about the book is that it provides a more dialectical view of its raging main character than is the usual case. In fact, it's made pretty clear that the main character, Keith Kavanagh, is as much simply vain and emotionally childish as he is heroic. (Mike Leigh did a similar trick with Naked.)

Down to the Dirt spills over with verbal energy – it’s great to see a Canadian work of fiction that gets ridden hard and put away wet. So everything I write above should not be taken as being prescriptive – i.e., the book would have been better if only Hynes had made everyone in it a little more boring/sensible. It wouldn’t have. This is just me playing critic/spoiler.

More Hynes matter here and here.


Anonymous said...

Joel hynes is a moron of the highest degree/ children can write much better.

nathan said...

At least Hynes signs his name to his work.

RW Watkins said...

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