Girl With A Pearl Earring

A bit of a break from routine with this one, as I discuss both Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring as well as the film adaptation. With subheadings and everything! Fancy.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierVermeer’s World

Unsurprisingly, the film Girl with a Pearl Earring reproduces the rich, vibrant colour and light of Vermeer’s paintings in a way that Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel simply could not.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t come awfully close. In her novel of the same name, upon which the 2003 film was based, Chevalier does a brilliant job crafting lush visual language, evoking the deep colours and dancing light so intrinsic to Vermeer’s style.

I actually find it quite remarkable that this quiet, simple story was ever made into a motion picture. The plot is very light on action and, indeed, even dialogue. And yet, the vivid descriptions of Vermeer’s works and the interior and exterior scenes of 17th century Delft do beg to be translated into a visual experience.

What impressed me most about both the book and film version of this story is that it defies what I would call the general Rule of Adaptations.

The Rule of Adaptations

When a book is adapted into a film, there tends to be a passionate debate among fans of the story. Which is ‘better’: the original text version, or the motion picture adaptation? Did the film do justice to the book? Did the elements changed or left out for the (very necessary) sake of brevity and clarity detract from the story? Did the tone change? Were details changed in such a way as to change the very core of the story? Did the live-action depiction of a story add some level of entertainment lacking in text form? And on a less black and white level: which editorial/directorial decisions to fans of the book agree with, and which do they think could (and perhaps should) have been done differently?

I think this culture has a love-hate relationship with such adaptations. On one side of the issue, we have become so accustomed to the live-action mode of storytelling that perhaps on some level, the simple mechanism of the imagination has suffered. Reading a story allows the scenery and characters to unfold inside the reader’s mind, a process that is far more engaged and intimate than passively receiving a story being presented via flickering light on a screen (or pixels under glass). But at the same time, there does seem to be a societal longing to see ones favourite stories brought to life through the so-called “magic of Hollywood.”

The problem is, once we have engaged with a story, through the very process of consuming it we create our own, internal ‘interpretation’ that is informed by our particular experiences and imaginations. And so, it would seem, what people look for in an adaptation is a creative team that has taken a beloved story and interpreted it into a film – in a way that corresponds with, or at least does not contradict, their individual, personal interpretations.

The idiom “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” would seem to be particularly applicable here.

That said, the overwhelming consensus seems to be this: when a book is adapted into a motion picture, the film will almost always be the inferior version. This might simply be a product of the book coming first, thus forming the original and more lasting impression. Or, it may be because the format of a book allows for much deeper and lengthier exploration of both the tangible and intangible elements of the story, whereas films are very much limited by both time and the audio/visual nature of the medium.

Even an adaptation considered to be generally successful is still the recipient of a somewhat backhanded compliment – it is appreciated because it is at least not actively inaccurate or disappointing, but still acknowledged to be a lighter, abridged and generally less-satisfying version of the original text.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

So how does Girl with a Pearl Earring defy this rule of adaptations? At this point, I may have given you the impression that I’m about to tell you that I felt the film was superior to the book.

However, that is not the case.

As much as I loved this quiet, thoughtful film, full of significant looks and contemplative reveries, set against a vibrant and beautifully-rendered, historical backdrop… I can’t honestly say it was superior to the book upon which it was based.

However.

I also can’t say that the book was inherently superior.

I enjoyed the story as told in both media immensely. And, possibly for the first time ever, I can say without reservation that I enjoyed both equally. But even more than this, what stood out to me in particular about Girl with a Pearl Earring is that I felt that the book and the film complimented each other so perfectly that the only way to fully appreciate the story is to experience both.

The book includes additional characters and details that add to the richness and depth of the story: Griet’s father’s art and his accident, her brother’s apprenticeship, her little sister and the plague/quarantine, and the expanded interaction between Griet and Maria Thins. While the core of the story remains intact with the omission of these details – and including them would likely have detracted from the elegant simplicity of the film – seeing the film without the knowledge of these details would have been a less satisfying experience.

Perhaps more importantly, because the book is written from Griet’s point of view, reading her narrative gives us access to the thoughts and feelings that, although they are brilliantly intimated by Scarlet Johannsen’s nuanced performance, would be impossible to fully transmit through the cinematic medium. 

But the medium of film offers a unique edge in the telling of this story, too. Certainly, a story about a visual artist begs to be told in a visual medium. And in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, it is done brilliantly. The deep chiaroscuro effect of warm light filterning into the lush, dark interiors, the richness of colours and fabrics, the clear, crisp light of the exteriors – the view is truly seeing Vermeer’s world as the artist himself depicted it. This, combined with the excellent, subtle and honest performances by Johanssen, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parfitt, make the film a beautiful and essentially complete experience in its own right.

As someone who read the book and then saw the film immediately afterwards, my most profound reaction was that the two pieces amplified each other in such a way as to take the story to a level neither alone could possibly have achieved. That’s rare, and well worth the investment of a little extra time.

From the archives, written August 4th, 2004 – Happy Robot Pride Day!

The Time Traveler’s Wife

I have this recurring dream. Well, perhaps not a single dream so much as a recurring dream-trope. I’ll be walking down the street where I lived for most of my childhood and young adult life, and I’ll realize that while I am the ‘me’ of today, I am somehow walking down the street from an earlier time in my life. In one such dream, I was watching a Nirvana concert. While I was never a huge Nirvana fan, that band and the rise of the grunge aesthetic was fairly key in shaping my secondary school experience. And in this dream, I remember looking at Kurt Cobain, and feeling particularly sad knowing what was was to come for him. I also remember looking at David Grohl, who I never particularly noticed the first time around, and thinking about how he would ultimately be the one to rise from the ashes of the inevitable tragedy and achieve more longterm, mainstream fame than his former bandmates. But most of all, I remember how haunting, how strange and lonely it felt, to know all this in the wrong place and time. To be homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist… yet.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerIt never occurred to me that this would be one of those universal dream motifs, like showing up at school naked or mysteriously losing your teeth. But after reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, I wonder if perhaps it is.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of books. In fact, I was so impressed by this book that I was completely floored to learn that it was Niffenegger’s first novel. For starters, it’s hugely ambitious. Her plot involves not only an extremely imaginative premise, but also a complex chronology that is executed not only flawlessly, but in a way that is surprisingly easy to follow. And yet, she doesn’t take the easy way out—we don’t follow either of the two protagonists’ story in complete chronological order.

That alone would be impressive, especially from a first-time author, but the success of The Time Traveler’s Wife goes much further. To begin, it’s a beautiful love story — the story of two very real people coming together, albeit in a fantastical way, and building a surprisingly recognizable life and relationship. There is a spark and a life to her characters that is, to me, the hook of successful fiction.

Just a warning, before you read on—while this article doesn’t contain any spoilers related to important plot-points, it does discuss some of the overarching issues and concepts that shape and define the narrative. If you have any interest in reading this book and you want to go in fairly clean, I recommend you read it before continuing on to the rest of this article.

Niffenegger also handles the scientific and philosophical implications of Henry’s time travelling with aplomb. Time travel parodoxes are explained in a simple, organic way that fits neatly into the plot of the story. And, perhaps more importantly, Henry and Clare never really try to test or change any of the facts that Henry knows from his visits to (or from) the future. This is both because of their overwhelming desire to live the future Henry has promised, and the corresponding fear that changing any tiny detail of the past he remembers might somehow preclude that. But the battle between free will and predetermination only really plays out for Henry, who learns when he is still quite young that he cannot change “things that have already happened,” a phrase which has, for him, rather unique implications. Because he understands the impact of knowing the future, he refrains from sharing much of his knowledge with the important people in his life, and thus it is their own free will that allows his seemingly-predetermined future to unfold.

As for the science of Henry’s time travelling, it too is remarkably well-developed. Brought on like epileptic seizures or migraines, Henry’s time-jumps seem to come from an abnormality in his brain, and are triggered by times of stress or high emotion. He also tends to jump to the important times in his life. It’s a completely fantastical premise, a completely fictional condition, and yet it has a self-contained logic that is clear, uncompromised, and feels as though it is tied to some greater purpose. A greater purpose which is, to the benefit of the dreamy, magical realism of the narrative, never nailed down or addressed in any concrete way.

All cleverness and complexity of the concept and narrative aside, the reason I loved this book enough to put it on my personal shortlist of the all-time best novels lies in the way that Neffinegger uses all these elements to successfully play out the natural beats of an authentic-feeling, long-term romantic relationship. She uses her creative and compelling angle to explore what is, in fact, a simple truth of all human existence. The unique premise enhances the magic of the heart of the story, the mundane — yet sublime — transcendence of love. There is also the haunting reminder that — free will or not — there is one inevitable end to every love story. And so what matters is this: what do we do with the time we have? It’s in living the answer to this question, more aware than anyone of the nature of time and fate, that Clare and Henry’s story becomes so powerful, and yet so hearbreakingly familiar.

From the archives, written July 30, 2005.

The Alienist

The first thing I found remarkable about this book is the fact that I picked it up and started reading it in the first place. I’m definitely not a fan of the mystery genre, nor do I tend to read fiction of the crime, horror, thriller or suspense varieties. So for me, reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist involved a jaunt into fairly unfamiliar-genre territory, right from the start. In the end, I think it was the soft, grainy, vintage photograph on the cover, evoking a strong and enticing sense of turn of the century New York city, that compelled me to pick up this book and see if it couldn’t capture my interest.

Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated,” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists.

To give a brief synopsis without giving too much away, this book is set in New York city in 1896. Although the Ripper murders have already occurred in London, the concept of a serial killer is still almost completely foreign in the world of crime investigation. In fact, crime investigation is just on the cusp of moving into the modern era of forensic science, but its not quite there yet. And so, when a male, underage prostitute turns up brutally and ritualistically murdered, the only thing that’s clear is that usual suspects don’t apply. The crimes appear to have no traditional motive, and the killer appears to have no identifiable connection to his victims. Add to this the fact that the city authorities don’t even want to admit that gay/child prostitution even exists, and the plan seems to be to pretend the crime was never committed. However, the head of the newly founded police commission, designed to root out corruption and bring the police force into the 20th century, refuses to bow to political pressure or to ignore a seemlingly unsolveable crime. Side-stepping procedure, he assembles a team of experts and laymen to being an intensive investigation outside the official structure of law enforcement.

The Alienist by Caleb CarrWhat follows is a story that exceeded any expectations I could possibly have had, and by a long shot. I find it necessary to state that the characters are wonderfully realistic and compelling. The fact that they’re fully fleshed-out at all is worth noting, as this is an important element to any story that is too frequently overlooked in pulp and genre fiction. And more than this, the text is so very gripping because of the skillful and complex intertwining of a variety of stories and elements: the personal lives of the characters, the very distinct personality of turn-of-the-century New York city (and the parallel underworld, which is simulataneously seedy and fascinating), the introduction of new scientific methods of forensic crime scene investigation, the development of the fledgling field of psychology, and ultimately what is essentially the invention of the contemporary concept of profiling.

That said, I’m not entirely convinced that this book was marketed correctly. In case you, like me, are prone to judging a book by its cover, let’s take a moment to explore (and if necessary, debunk) the blurbs and synposes that adorn the covers of this volume:

A first-rate tale of crime and punishment that will keep readers guessing until the final pages.

I would have to call this inaccurate. It makes it sound like this novel follow the traditional mystery format: a crime is committed, there is a list of suspects, the detectives hunt down clues and narrow down the list until a single suspect can be proven guilty. But what makes this book unique within the genre is that it’s quite the opposite. A series of horrific crimes are being committed, but the team trying to track down the killer have absolutely no suspects. There’s no guessing, because there’s no list of suspects from which to guess. Unlike traditional mystery novels, the reader doesn’t get to try to ‘figure out’ the mystery before the detective — we have to follow the investigative team to the conclusion of their investigation.

You can smell the fear in the air.

What happened here, did someone steal this quote from a Steven King review? This book isn’t scary, unless the very concept of serial killings is your particular panic button. The story is told from the point of view of a narrator who is largely safe, and of course since we are seeing things through his eyes, we are never present for any of those moments of terror whose aftermath our heroes are investigating. Certainly there’s suspense, and depending on your level of desensitization, there may well be horror, but by and large this is not a scary book. If anything, it reminds me of the film Sneakers — it’s about a team of very intelligent, innovative people using their various skills and areas of expertise to solve a seemingly unsolveable mystery, with the added pressure that the longer they take, the higher the body count.

Harrowing, Fastinating… Will please fans of Ragtime and The Silence of the Lambs.

OK, I can see the comparison to Silence of the Lambs (not having read Ragtime), but I think the reason this story transcends that book — which I’ve always felt was highly overrated — is because there is literally no formula or procedure to follow in the course of the investigation. From the forensic crime scene investigation methods to the slow, meticulous creation of an ‘imaginary man’ (what we would now call a profile), the reader is witnessing not only the path to solving this particular crime, but indeed the creation of a blueprint for solving any crime of this particular variety. Add to that the other carefully crafted historical nuances, and the book entertains and fascinates on a much higher level.

Step into another time –

And an unforgettable terror.

The year is 1896. The city is New York.

The hunt is on for a baffling new kind of criminal…

A serial killer.

All in all, that’s a pretty apt teaser for the book. Plays up the terror, downplays the fairly cerebral nature of this book, but it still captures the atmosphere quite nicely in a rather concise five-line precis.

However, if you’re going to judge The Alienist by its cover, I would suggest instead focusing on the photo, which is probably the most accurate indicator of both the atmosphere and the style of the story within. But even more so, I would urge you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself. It’s not revoluntionary fiction, but its consistently entertaining and I would suggest it’s one of the better examples of its type.

From the archives, written way back on November 1st of 2003.

Angela’s Ashes

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourtThere is something particularly odd about finishing off A Million Little Pieces and then delving directly into Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

These books would, after all, appear to have a fair bit in common. Both are (supposed) memoirs and, more importantly, both narratives are pinned on the life-destroying power of addiction as a central and pervasive theme. The key differences, of course, are that Angela’s Ashes is a real memoir, tells a story with a much broader scope, and is extremely well-written. There’s a reason why McCourt received a Pulitzer Prize, while Frey got a spanking from Oprah on national television.

One thing this book isn’t (and again I can’t help but keep contrasting it with A Million Little Pieces), is sensational. This is not the kind of story that builds to a major event or climax of mounting tension. Instead, it much more closely mimics the experience of a real (if often tragic) life: McCourt’s story is the cumulative tone of years of experiences. And unlike Frey, McCourt’s avatar doesn’t indulge in meta-textual navel-gazing or reflection: he shares his experiences without retrospective analysis or commentary. Which is all to say: Angela’s Ashes is a much better book than A Million Little Pieces, in just about every way.

Which may actually be the reason that I have very little to say about it. My lingering response to the story is what is most surprising to me. Overwhelmingly, my fading impression of the story is an emotional reaction: anger and frustration on behalf of young McCourt, his siblings, and the eponymous Angela.

Unlike some of my highschool classmates, I was able to wrap my head around the fact that Tess (of the D’Urbervilles) wasn’t weak or pathetic for resigning herself to the only fate available to a woman in her circumstances and her historical context. And yet, I found it hard to shift into the historical paradigm of Angela’s Ashes.

A Million Little Pieces was, to a large extent, about faux-Frey’s frustration with the contemporary understanding of addiction: the addiction-as-disease context that he contemptuously and superiorly dismisses as an abdication of personal responsibility and accountability. On that flip side, Angela’s Ashes takes the reader back to the Depression, and a cultural atmosphere where there wasn’t really a concept of addiction at all. Dismissed in New York as a typical drunken Irishman and in Limerick as a typical drunken Northerner, people of his time could readily process that Malachy was so helplessly dependent on alcohol that his family was literally starving to death, but couldn’t fathom that anything other than personal weakness was responsible. This contrast between the two books is, perhaps, the hinge-point on which all discussion of addiction is hung: the line between what is and isn’t within an individual’s control.

Another throughline in the story is that people are, more often than not, unredeemable jerks. The rich look down on the poor, the poor look down on the poorer, the poorer look down on the equally-poor-but-for-different-reasons, and apparently in times of overwhelming poverty, not only do the have-nots circle the wagons, but the vast majority of people take a kind of perverse pleasure in the suffering of those around them. Certainly sympathy and empathy are in short stock, power is almost always abused (especially by those with only small amounts of power), and people would rather find a reason to blame the victim than do even the tiniest thing to help.

Is it an unfair assessment of human nature? Probably not entirely. But it certainly gets exhausting.

Before the Depression, both religious and political ideology in the west relied on a belief in providence and meritocracy — the poor were poor because of various inferiorities, and people ultimately get what they “deserve”. Not that these concepts aren’t still pervasive in western cultures, but it probably took something as economically cataclysmic as the Depression to level the playing field and open people to the possibility that things weren’t so cut and dry: that other systems are at play or, at the very least, that perhaps society should attempt to insulate children from the so-called failings of their parents.

None of which is hugely relevant to Angela’s Ashes, which is crafted to transparently depict how McCourt felt about his life and his father growing up: not what he should of felt; or how his family should have been treated; or how he feels about it all in retrospect. Any manipulation of the reader’s empathy is far more subtle than that. And maybe far more successful for that subtlety: The more young McCourt naively accepted the life he had been born into, the more incensed I felt on his behalf. And while it was a good book, I can’t really say I enjoyed reading it: the emotional response it elicited was strong and overwhelmingly negative.

From the archives, written — somewhat aptly, given McCourt’s nigh-idyllic memories of poverty in America in contrast with the nightmare of poverty Ireland –on July 4th of 2006.

A Million Little Pieces

I know I’m heading into tricky territory because for the first time ever, I feel compelled to preface my thoughts about a book with a justification* as to why I read the book in the first place.

But that’s the thing about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, isn’t it? The publicity and the controversy have long since overshadowed any consideration of the relative merit of the book as text. Yes, the author is a filthy liar. Yes, Oprah has way too much influence over what people read and why. But let’s set that whole circus aside for a minute, and look at the actual novel that has sparked all this fervor.

Overall, I suspect that the reasons that publishers rejected the manuscript when it was presented as a work of fiction were entirely valid: quite frankly, the writing isn’t very good. But on the other hand, I can also see why the book caught on like wildfire once Oprah cast her spotlight on it: the simple, relentless rhythm of the prose actually grew on me, the narrative voice occasionally felt like a considered, stylistic choice and, even knowing the story was at best a gross exaggeration, the protagonist felt just real enough that I cared enough to keep reading.

Here’s the other thing about A Million Little Pieces: It’s not a revolutionary story. It’s actually a very simple story, about an addict detoxing and recovering from long-term addiction. It’s a story that’s been told before, and that’s certainly been told better. Frey clearly needed both his unbelievably stoic, self-aware, anti-new-age protagonist to drive the story and, much more importantly, the audience’s belief that this character’s story is autobiographical, to make the book in any way remarkable. Let alone marketable.

And then there is the question of style, and the actual execution of the narrative. Either Frey is a simply a terrible writer (always possible) or, and this is significantly more probable, he has attempted to execute his narrative with very deliberate style: a sort of visceral, honest, unembellished minimalism that may have, at least in terms of tone, been inspired by popular works like Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange.

There are two problems with this:

  1. The style isn’t successful enough. At times, the one-word paragraphs and repetition blur together in a way that evokes nothing so strongly as a three-year-old having a meltdown-scale tantrum. Even when it’s working for him most strongly, there is still an undercurrent of awareness that this narrative style feels skeletal, structural; like an author working out the emotional beats of a scene rather than the final execution of the scene itself.
  2. The style isn’t deliberate enough. The very fact that I can’t decide whether I believe that Frey is a terrible writer or just a mediocre writer attempting a stylistic mode that is beyond him sums the problem up pretty succinctly, I think. If Frey can’t even convince me that his style is a deliberate experiment, maybe it doesn’t matter what he was trying to do, the net result is the same: he’s just not a very good writer.

What I can’t stop thinking about when it comes to the stylistic issues in A Million Little Pieces is how some people will look at a Picasso, or a Matisse, and instinctively comment that it is garbage because their kid could have done it. Now, I’m not a rabid fan of either artist, but I also strongly disagree that said theoretical person’s kid “could have done it”: there’s something to be said for being the one to flout artistic tradition and create a new aesthetic paradigm because its what you see in your mind’s eye (whether or not I enjoy that aesthetic paradigm is really irrelevant), and it ain’t the same as your kid drawing a person with their facial features jumbled up because they haven’t quite worked out spatial relations yet.

And I can’t help but think that if I were to try to apply that scenario to A Million Little Pieces, James Frey is that person’s kid, not a literary Picasso or Matisse.

Before I sum up my final conclusions, I should probably step away from style for a minute and take a quick look at narrative.

In particular, it is the protagonist/author’s persona that sits both at the core of the narrative and at the eye of the storm of controversy. What makes this simple story in any way outstanding is the singular strength and honesty of the protagonist: not just in his actions, but most remarkably in his attitude towards both his addiction and his recovery. Fictional-Frey readily admits to his many faults and refuses to look for excuses or even explanations for his propensity for addiction. He disregards any theories of root causes (from genetics down to childhood trauma) from his therapist, the very tenets of the 12-step process and the warnings from his doctors that it is the only way to beat addiction. Instead, he opts to do it his own way, and manages to turn his life around by sheer force of his own will and uncomplicated, angry self-awareness.

If this were truly a memoir, as many believed when they first read it, that would indeed be fairly remarkable. It still wouldn’t necessarily be a good book, but at least it would contain a unique and inspirational story, and a glimpse at an alternative for those who have been unsuccessful with the traditional approach to addiction and recovery.

But here’s the thing. It’s not truly a memoir, and as The Smoking Gun and other subsequent reports have established, Fictional-Frey is far closer to a fantasy of the author than a representative of his real self and experiences.

Fine. But isn’t all fiction a pastiche of “write what you know” real-world experience, and the artistic vision of the author? Aren’t the facts in most memoirs massaged in some way, to protect the identities of their peers? Well, there are legal and procedural ways of dealing with both issues, but the point is, if Fictional-Frey and his fantastic recovery are being portrayed as real when they are not, it’s not only misrepresentation of a book or a lie about a life: it may actually be dangerous.

Here’s a hint, for anyone hoping to pull off a scam like this in the future: don’t create a protagonist who does it (whatever it is) better than anyone has ever done it before, and who spends the entire story slamming the way everyone else does it. All that’s going to do is make people more determined to prove that you’re a liar, and when you’re pulling a scam, it’s probably best not to incite that kind of reaction.

So, overall, my conclusions about the book are roughly what I anticipated. While the plot and pacing was engaging enough to keep me reading, there was nothing remarkable enough about this book to make it worthy of the bazillion-plus readers Oprah sent Frey’s way, even if it was a true story. And it wasn’t. So… if you’ve been itching to read it but have avoided it due to the controversy, might as well go ahead — who cares what people think? But if you’re wondering if it’s worth giving the book a shot purely on its own merits…? Probably not.

*A bigger person might have resisted that urge, but I am not that person. I read A Million Little Pieces because one of the assignments in the book design course I was taking was for the entire class to redesign the cover of the same book. The book the instructor had selected for the Winter 2006 semester was A Million Little Pieces. Unlike the vast majority of my class, who didn’t even want to be seen with the book, I didn’t want to attempt a cover design without spending at least a little time with the manuscript: not when I had ample time and opportunity to do so.

Here is the real cover for A Million Little Pieces, for the three of you out there who have somehow managed to avoid running into it as it has made its journey from the front of the bookstore to the back, to the discount book section in the drug store, and of course as it splashed its way across the media and internets:

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

And here is my reimagining, based on actually having read the book and realising that it wasn’t, in fact, about a man in the grips of a crippling addiction to rainbow donut sprinkles:

A Million Little Pieces cover redesigned by Chrissy

From the archives, written June 14th, 2006.

The Wars

I’m ashamed to admit that my experience with the works of late, great Canadian author Timothy Findley is woefully limited. Previously, I had read only Pilgrim, his penultimate novel. And I was a little disappointed by it. Which is not to say that it wasn’t a good book, so much as I was hoping for something quite different based on the premise:

It is 1912 and Pilgrim has been admitted to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich, Switzerland, having failed – once again – to commit suicide. Over the next two years, it is up to Carl Jung, self-professed mystical scientist of the mind, to help Pilgrim unlock his unconsciousness, etched as it is with the myriad sufferings and hopes of history. Is Pilgrim mad, or is he condemned to live forever, witness to the terrible tragedy and beauty of the human condition? Both intimate and expansive in its scope, with an absorbing parade of characters – mythic, fictional, and historical – Pilgrim is a fiercely original and powerful story from one of our most distinguished artists.

Not that this description is wholly inaccurate, but in execution both the narrative and characters were so ephemeral that I never felt I quite had a grasp on it. Maybe that was the point.

The Wars by Timothy FindleyRegardless, I picked up The Wars, which is generally considered to be the book that put Findley on the map, and which I have always heard mentioned in connection with his name over the years.

This one worked better for me. Still a somewhat nebulous compared to more traditional narratives, this time the style seems deliberate, considered and necessary. The Wars is a simple story about a Canadian boy, Robert Ross, who went to fight in World War I and was ultimately destroyed by it. But it is told from the very specific and singular perspective of a historian researching Ross, and in that most elusive of voices, the second person. Because of these choices, the books feels like it is as much exploring the limitations of history and biography and the very nature of narrative as it is about the story unfolding.

As for the story unfolding, it’s strong. Simple, but honest and observant of those little oddities of human nature, and those little moments that shape a life.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable and entirely unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It feels like it comes from the same school as M*A*S*H and Slaughterhouse Five (two of my favourites) with a soupçon of Hemingway. It most resembles the former two in its depiction of “war is hell” (though The Wars errs on the side of the tragic rather than the madcap, and the subtle rather than the outwardly preachy), and the latter in its exploration of relationships touched by war. A quiet enough read considering the momentous subject matter it touches on, The Wars has both faded and lingered with me in the way that most solidly good books do.

From the archives, written May 12th, 2006.

Alligator

Alligator by Lisa MooreI picked up Lisa Moore’s Alligator as part of a spontaneous decision to read all of the 2005 Giller Prize nominees (as it stands, I’ve only read two so far: Alligator, and the winner, David Bergen’s The Time In Between). As a graphic designer, I had been drawn to the book long before Giller nomination time, my attention first captured by its vivid green cover shot (an alligator head peeking from algae-saturated waters), and then charmed by the more subtle design elements: the whimsical white and pale blue text, and the dotted interior to the white border. I used to think nothing could be more striking than a full-bleed photo. I stand corrected.

To explain my impressions of Alligator, I have to begin by citing my inintial apprehension about this book, owed pretty much entirely to the jacket synopsis.

The synopsis:

Lisa Moore’s stirring first novel moves with the confident swiftness of a gator in attack mode: Meet Colleen, a seventeen-year-old would-be eco-terrorist, who barrels down the rocky road of adolescence while her mother, Beverly, is cloaked in grief after the death of her husband. Beverly’s sister, Madeleine, is a driven, aging filmmaker who obsesses over completing her magnum opus before she dies. Frank, a benevolent young man without a family, believes that his success will come from his hot-dog stand – a business he’s desperate to protect from sociopathic Russian sailor Valentin. Meanwhile, Iosbel, a weak, self-absorbed actress, has fallen under the spell of the sailor, who threatens everyone he encounters. All of Moore’s brilliantly rendered characters orbit through contemporary St. John’s, Newfoundland, where they jostle each other in uneasy arabesques of desire, greed, lust, and ambition. Alligator is a remarkable book, a story that examines the ruthlessly reptilian and the painfully human sides of all of us.

To be clear, whoever wrote this had their facts straight. This is, indeed, the skeleton and framework of the story. However, both the tone of the synopsis and the compression of so much zany detail into such a lean precis gives — or, at least, gave me — the wrong impression of this novel entirely. To read this synopsis, one might (reasonably) expect the text to be a wild romp; an over-the-top tale jam-packed with quirky characters and contrived, fantastical happenings.

To be fair, I would probably give that book a try, too.

However, this book? Is not that book.

Instead, this little piece of marketing belies that at its core Alligator is a truly simple story about extremely familiar people. Both the narrative style and the pacing of Alligator dwell deeply on the minute intricacies of almost ultra-normal human experience and relationship: the small moments and cumulative realizations that comprise what is (at times disparagingly) referred to as an “ordinary” life.

The amalgum of pat descriptions that comprises the synopsis not only misrepresents the quiet complexity of the narrative, but also the transcendent humanity of the seemingly caricatured characters. I would describe them thusly (probably to the horror of Anansi’s marketing department):

Meet Colleen, an impulsive teenager grasping for something to care about, denied the traditional mode of teenage rebellion by the untimely death of her beloved stepfather. Her mother, Beverly, vaguely but lovingly parents her through a vast fog of grief, contradictory emotions, and weariness. Beverly’s sister Madeleine never stopped loving her ex-husband, but compulsively, consciously drove him away to erode herself against her singular obsession with filmmaking. Frank is a young man who seeks not successw, but merely to live a simple, stable life, struggling for nothing more than control, a need born from a strikingly common and devastating childhood of loss. His palpatable vulnerability makes him a natural target for sociopathic Russian sailor Valentin, whose stark childhood in a country turned sideways has left him cruel, hard and hungry: trying to take by force something that that turns out to be not only intangible, but ultimately unattainable. Isobel is an actress who is ready to stop drifting through life, if she can disentangle herself from the destruction she has allowed to entrap her through years of passively allowing her life to be something that happens to her.

Although the tone and style varies between characters (each character’s narrative voice being subtly but fundamentally different), the simple, rythmic pacing of the narrative gives equal weight and detail to both small, universal moments and to those huge, story-defining events that carry the plot forward and throw Moore’s characters into actualization.

In this way, the style — a mix of rythym, extremely conscious naturalism, repetition, contradiction, and breathless strings of loosely-joined clauses rushing towards dozens of tiny epiphanies — transcends the content, and the book becomes a very soft, quiet, and thoughtful exploration of simply being. Which isn’t to say that the plot doesn’t have direction, or a climax, or consequences for the characters… but, rather, that this isn’t where Alligator‘s greatest achievement lies. The quirks of the characters and the twists of the narrative are what makes the book an interesting read. The way in which Moore gets to the core, fleeting, contradictory nature of her characters and reveals that despite all else, this story (every story) is about people struggling to find their place in the world, to live their lives and to simply survive: that is what makes Alligator more than just an interesting story. That she allows larger than life themes like desperation, desire, tragedy and redemption unfold in such a soft-sold, understated way is what separates this book from both its quirkier-than-thou postmodern peers and its ponderous, depth-plundering ancestors.

Interestingly enough (and I’m sure this is no coincidence), the book’s turn from drama to minutae is intrinsic to the resounding conclusion of the story. While the larger-than-life characters burn up and destroy themselves, it is the characters content to lead quiet, simple existences who survive and flourish beyond the narrative. In the final chapters, the character Isobel escapes turmoil and settles into a life that does not need to end with her own destruction. She teaches an acting class, and gives the following advice:

Watch a person get on a bus or peel the paper lining away from a muffin. See how lost and present they are. Emulate this. That is acting: the alchemy of absence and presence. Embody the character, agree there is no character; there’s only a series of linked gestures, fudged acts, reprieves.

 From the archives, written April 24th, 2006.

The Way the Crow Flies

The Way The Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonaldAnn-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is the first book I’ve read this year* that has earned a spot on the coveted (well, in my own mind) list of “favourite books I’ve read: ever” list. It is not a coincidence that although this is the longest book I’ve read so far this year (the trade paperback version boasting a hefty 740 pages of densely-set text), it is also the book I read most quickly. Once you get into it, which happens almost instantaneously, it’s a damn hard book to put down, even for pesky “necessites,” like work, and sleep.

For those reluctant to delve into another Ann-Marie MacDonald tome after having had a traumatic experience with her previous novel (Fall On Your Knees), you might appreciate that MacDonald has lightened up significantly. Many people I’ve spoken to had difficulty with MacDonald’s first novel. A family epic rife with paedophilia, incest, suicide and every flavour of misery you can imagine, the extreme darkness and dysfunctionality of all the relationships in Fall On Your Knees funtioned to drag the otherwise beautifully written and brutally, emotionally honest story to a place a lot of people just aren’t willing to go, especially when reading for entertainment.

Which isn’t to say that The Way The Crow Flies is free of disturbing elements. Similar issues play a pivotal role in this narrative and, if you prefer or need to avoid depictions of child abuse, you’re going to have to stay away from this book.

However, with The Way The Crow Flies, MacDonald has managed to achieve balance in terms of darkness and light. There is darkness, but the relationships that make up the core of the story are healthy. Which is to say: they are dysfunctional to the extent that most family relationships are dysfunctional, not carried to largely unrelatable extremes. And with the strength of these relationships at the core of the story, the tragic and terrible events that do unfold in the course of the narrative do not overwhelm the story, the characters and the reader as did those in Fall On Your Knees.

At its core, The Way The Crow Flies is about the loss of innocence. This motif unfolds simultaneously in the parallel stories of a culture and of an individual. The story is about the inevitable erosion of innocence through the ceaseless march of time: the optimistic baby-boomers face the increasing complexity of the modern world; a child grows up. The story is also about how a single, traumatic event can become a catalyst, a turning point, a fork in the road: the Cuban missle crisis flings an unprepared culture into the Cold War era; abuse and tragedy shake a child’s understanding of the stability and order of her world.

What takes the book to the next level is MacDonald’s extraordinary writing. She has a great talent for creating vivid, multi-dimensional, loveable (or damaged and pathetically, regrettably unloveable), flawed, recognizable and resoundingly unique characters. And she does this without resorting to types, stereotypes or calculated quirk. Even the seemingly minor secondary- and tertiary-characters develop layers of depth, complexity and relevance across the narrative.

MacDonald is also a master of setting a scene, recreating in saturated technicolour the hopeful, hearty, naive-on-the-cusp-of-worldly days of the early 1960s, both through the eyes of young parents and their children. Somehow, she managed to be simultaneously nostalgic and precious about this era, without denying its inherent flaws and contradictions.

In addition to setting the larger stage, The Way The Crow Flies also depicts the less universally relatable, nomadic life of the families of Royal Canadian Air Force servicemen, with their four-year rotations and the related rituals of moving, settling in quickly, making new, interchangable friends and pulling up stakes without regret. MacDonald never tells the reader what it was like: through the eyes of eight year-old Madeline McCarthy and her parents, she shows us exactly what it felt like — physically and emotionally — to live in such a singular way.

MacDonald’s narrative also shares an almost alarmingly apt peek into the social and emotional world of children. It is commonly accepted that children can be cruel, but what is less often explored — let alone understood — are the huge, unspoken ways in which they can be heartbreakingly compassionate and empathetic. And equally importantly: where and how they learn cruelty, and how it can mutate and re-form within them.

But beyond this, MacDonald just has this uncanny ability to convey what it feels like to be a kid: the thought processes, the flights of imagination, the ever-shifting view of the world and core relationships… MacDonald crafts not only an extremely vivid sensual experience of Being a Child, and also Being A Child in the 60s, and also Being a RCAF Family’s Child in the 60s… the emotional implcations of these very specific and yet surprisingly familiar experiences continue to resonate long after the story has concluded.

Suffice it to say, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of why this book is so amazing. I think I’ve kept it fairly vague in terms of spoilers, and to go any further into the intricacies of the plot and the brilliance of MacDonald’s characterizations would definitely require me to be a bit more specific. I’ll conclude with this: great book, nigh-flawless in terms of execution and impact. Highly recommended.

*From the archives, written January 31st, 2006.

The Swallows of Kabul

The Swallows of KabulWeighing in at a lean, airy 208 pages, The Swallows of Kabul feels a bit more like a novella or extended short story than a novel–not just in length, but also in terms of story structure and execution–right down through to its haunting, nebulous conclusion.

The book is credited to Yasmina Khadra, the pseudonym of male author Mohammed Moulessehoul, an officer in the Algerian army who published under a female name to avoid the scrutiny of military censors. Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, the book offers a glimpse of life during the fairly early days of the reign of the Taliban. The story focuses around two couples whose lives and, more disturbingly, whose actual selves have been eroded to almost nothing under the oppressive regime. A well-written but disturbing read, the book takes an unflinching look at the cumulative effect of the constant fear and violence, and in particular the systematic dehumanization of women, perfectly embodied by the self-erasing anonymity of the burqa.

What intrigued me most is that although the suffering of women is a very real focal point of the novel, the net result is a look at how stripping women of their personhood and related agency is also extremely damaging to men: both husbands experience personal crises that end up literally destroying them, and these crises arise largely as a result of an inability to reconcile their relationships with the women in their lives with the single, powerless, ghost-like role that the Taliban allows for women. The cumulative message seems to be that under a regime like this everyone loses, even those in power, because the value of life becomes negligible. One thing Khandra really succeeds at is conveying what it feels like to live without hope, without agency, and consequently, eventually, without empathy.

On a final note, I think it’s kind of telling that despite the complete desolation of the setting, despite the soul-leeching hopelessness of the characters and despite the brutal violence and injustice that pervaded this story, I still enjoyed reading it more than I enjoyed reading The Hatbox Letters.

From the archives, written January 9th, 2006.

The Hatbox Letters

The Hatbox Letters, by Canadian author Beth Powning, was a nice enough book with which to start the year.

And if it sounds to you like I’m damning it with faint praise — well, you’re not wrong. As the book jacket summarizes:

Facing her second winter since the death of her husband, Kate Harding receives an unexpected gift: several old hatboxes filled with letters and other ghostly ephemera from her grandparents’ eighteenth-century Connecticut house. In an unfathomable story of love, grief and renewal, Kate, alone in her semi-rural New Brunswick home, pieces together the hidden tragedy at her family’s heart, and with its discovery, begins to connect the strands of her unravelled life.

Now, I don’t mind a quiet, contemplative story. However, this one is just a little too quiet, especially considering it meanders on for 350 pages and next to nothing actually happens.

The two high points of the book are the simple but movingly-recounted stories about Kate’s grandparents revealed in the hatbox documents, and the very well-articulated and refreshing journey the protagonist takes from crippling grief to a reawakening into her own life.

The Hatbox Letters by Beth PowningUnfortunately, there are times where following her through her journey is sort of a shadow-version of experiencing her soul-deadening grief and agonizingly gradual healing yourself, so even where the book succeeds, it isn’t necessarily a “fun” read.

As for the hatbox documents and the story of Kate’s grandparents, this other successful component of the book requires a bit of narrative gymnastics, too: Kate learns bits and pieces of the story from a collection of journals and letters that she finds, piecing together further details from her own memory of the settings, and from the receipts and other evidential documents included in the hatboxes. You can see where I’m going with this: coaxing an engaging read out of such a bare-bones retelling of the story would be quite a challenge.

Our author gets around this challenge by using Kate’s imagined versions of the events as a narrative voice. Which works well enough, but leaves the reader with the odd impression that we’re either reading about people who exist primarly as fantasy of the protagonist, or that Kate is quite alarmingly intuitive. Or perhaps psychic.

I also felt that the book would have really benefitted from the author lightening up on her writing style where dialogue is concerned — and this includes inner dialogue. Witness a passage which is supposed to be what Kate thinks to herself. To set the scene, it has been about a week since Kate went bird-watching at the beach and ran into an old friend, someone whose family she, her husband and their kids used to go camping with. During their conversation, he revealed to her that his son had died, the result of either suicide or a mountain-climbing accident — something which clearly torments him. He phones, suggesting that he stop by and visit, and this is what she thinks to herself:

Oh God. Such revelations as he made to me should be like a feather studied, carried in one’s hand for an afternoon, then cast back to the sands. He can’t expect what occurred because of context and circumstance–our surprised recognition of one another like wine within the glass of the afternoon’s driftwood, pink-flowered sea rocket, plover cry and sea wind–to be repeated in my kitchen with its fly-specked Audubon calendar and the sad smell of tea.

I’m sorry, but no: just no. It’s one thing for descriptive passages by a disembodied narrative voice to be constructed in this artful, writerly type of prose. But this is supposed to be an actual thought in the mind of a real woman: and not one who happens to be a writer or a poet herself. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever actually read to this:

Here’s a prime example of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” offered by an English professor from the University of Phoenix:

The professor told his class one day: “Today we will experiment with a new form called the tandem story. The process is simple. Each person will pair off with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. As homework tonight, one of you will write the first paragraph of a short story. You will e-mail your partner that paragraph and send another copy to me.

The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story and send it back, also sending another copy to me. The first person will then add a third paragraph, and so on back-and-forth.

Remember to re-read what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent. There is to be absolutely NO talking outside of the e-mails and anything you wish to say must be written in the e-mail. The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.”

The following was actually turned in by two of his English students: Rebecca and Gary.

THE STORY:

(first paragraph by Rebecca)

At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.

—————————————–

(second paragraph by Gary)

Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. “A.S. Harris to Geostation 17,” he said into his transgalactic communicator. “Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far…” But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.

—————————————–

(Rebecca)

He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4. “Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel,” Laurie read in her newspaper one morning. The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth, when the days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no newspaper to read, no television to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things around her. “Why must one lose one’s innocence to become a woman?” she pondered wistfully.

—————————————–

(Gary)

Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the Anu’udrian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles. The dim-witted, wimpy peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace disarmament Treaty through the Congress had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race. Within two hours
after the passage of the treaty, the Anu’udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. With no one to stop them, they swiftly initiated their diabolical plan. The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the inconceivably massive explosion, which vaporized poor, stupid Laurie.

—————————————–

(Rebecca)

This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic semi-literate adolescent.

—————————————

(Gary)

Yeah? Well, my writing partner is a self-centered tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium. “Oh, shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other sort of F–KING TEA??? Oh no, what am I to do? I’m such an air-headed bimbo who reads too many Danielle Steele novels!”

—————————————–

(Rebecca)

Asshole.

—————————————–

(Gary)

Bitch
—————————————–

(Rebecca)

F__K YOU – YOU NEANDERTHAL!

—————————————–

(Gary)

Go drink some tea – whore.

—————————————–

(TEACHER)

A+ – I really liked this one.

It shook me right out of the narrative because you could feel the author’s stamp all over it. I almost suspect that she came up with that passage independently of the rest of the text — either as part of another story, or as a fragment that came to her at some other time — and she was just looking for a way to slip it into the narrative. Because it feels really shoehorned. And in general, this over-stylisation crops up in her dialogue in a few places.

Which isn’t to say that the book is garbage. It was an enjoyable enough read, and I actually felt uplifted when I reached the end. I would probably only recommend it to someone specifically looking for a book that explores concepts like grief and healing, however, and not so much someone just looking for a book recommendation in general.

From the archives, written January 5th, 2006.