Thursday, November 28, 2013
Book Review: Cities of the Plain (1998) by Cormac McCarthy
So what explains McCarthy's literary street cred? Let's begin with his prose style, which consists of simple declarative statements linked by a conga line of "ands" to create sentences of surpassing dullness. For example:
"Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table."
If this sentence was presented in a more conventional manner we'd have writing that's as lifeless as most instruction manuals or something by James Patterson, but thanks to all those "ands" McCarthy gives his writing a hollow portentousness and the rhythms of Old Testament prose--And lo, Ephraim begat Ishmael who begat Oatmeal who begat...You get the idea. But is Cormac's affected, but easily digestible, prose enough to explain his success? Nope, there's more. Key sections of dialogue are written entirely in Spanish. Only a truly brilliant writer (or so the critics must think) would dare to be so willfully opaque and challenge his readers. And in-between the flat, metronomic descriptions of characters doing not much of anything, we get mystical, allusive musings on, well, you know, life and horses and the things men must do in a manly way because they're men who are manly. It's the sort of writing that William Faulkner set a high standard in, but when lesser mortals try their hand at it things can go wrong. Very wrong.
Did I mention the plot? No, of course not, because there barely is one. A cowboy in New Mexico falls in love with Mexican prostitute living across the border and things don't go well. It's a tired story and McCarthy barely does anything with it. Most of the novel is taken up with digressive sections on horse training, hunting, riding the range, and a dozen other inconsequential episodes. There's no shame in skim-reading parts of the book.
But what I found most annoying about Cities of the Plain is McCarthy's patronizing view of his cowboy characters. Like many intellectually-lazy middle and upper-middle class writers, he views the working class as being an undifferentiated mass. The four or five cowboy characters who form the backbone of the novel all talk, act and think the same way, and they feel more like stock characters from generic western films than actual flesh and blood people. If a writer created a group of middle-class people who were essentially identical he'd be criticized for weak characterization, but when it's done to working-class characters no one takes any notice. McCarthy writes about his cowboys the same way nineteenth-century writers wrote about the "noble savage." The writer doesn't actually want to be a cowboy or noble savage, but it's fun to go slumming and write about their simple yet endearing lives--the little people have so much to teach us if only we'd listen.
The quickest way to describe McCarthy is to say that he's taken stylistic elements from Hemingway and Faulkner and then made a complete hash of them. I find his success baffling after this sample of writing, so I can only guess that he's being praised by people who haven't read much literary fiction since high school.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Book Review: Fly by Night (2005) by Frances Hardinge
"The path was a troublesome, fretful thing. It worried that it was missing a view of the opposite hills, and insisted on climbing for a better look. Then it found the breeze uncommonly chill and ducked back among the trees. It suddenly thought it had forgotten something and doubled back, then realized it hadn't and turned about again. At last it struggled free of the pines, plumped itself down by the riverside, complained of its aching stones and refused to go any further. A sensible, well-trodden track took over."
That anthropomorphized path has nothing to do with the plot, and objectively speaking it's a superfluous piece of writing, but it's what marks out the divide between the average writer and an exceptional writer. Hardinge is firmly in the latter camp. Fly by Night is an alternate reality yarn set in an English-y country of the 18th century in which a plucky young orphan, Mosca Mye, becomes a Victim of Fate and Circumstance at the hands of Scheming Vagabonds, Rebels and Monarchs. Harsh Words are spoken, Dastardly Plots uncovered, Appalling Crimes committed, and Revolution fills the air. And there's a goose.
Considered as a whole, the novel doesn't break any new ground in YA fiction. Orphans, plucky or otherwise, are a staple of this kind of story, and, just as inevitably, this particular orphan plays a key role in the unraveling of various baroque plots. Hardinge's plotting is top-notch, but what sets her apart is the sheer recklessness of her imagination and her ability to put her creative thought bubbles into prose. I don't read books like this to add to my knowledge of the psychology of female orphans; I read them for fizzy explosions of brilliance like the passage above. Hardinge doesn't stint with the clever, artful prose, and the reason I quoted that section is that it's a good example of her intemperate imagination. It doesn't influence the plot, but it brings joy if you have any taste for witty, clever prose. Hardinge clearly got an idea that paths can seem to have a will of their own and decided that this concept needed to see the light of day on the printed page. Is it necessary? No, but beauty in literature should always trump utility..
Fly by Night is another YA title that cries out to be read by an older audience. Some of the sharpest writing today is being done in the Teen and YA field, but, unfortunately, too many adults would rather be seen reading a James Patterson novel than be caught with a "kids" book in their hand. Go ahead, take a chance on Hardinge, Philip Reeve, Geraldine McCaughrean or Melvin Burgess.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Izzard's standup routines are as funny as you'll find anywhere, but they're also a strange and giddy mix of history lecture and philosophizing. I might be making him sound dry and dull, but rest assured these are not G-rated performances and laughs are always his first goal. He's probably the only comedian who would launch into a routine with a brief discussion of Charles I of England (complete with relevant dates), and therein lies Izzard's difference. Most standups are in the business of making fun of people, whether it's themselves, the audience, or eternal bull's eyes like politicians, celebrities and types of people such as the fat, the stupid or minorities. Izzard lampoons ideas. Big ideas. Topics like nationalism, fascism and religion are passed through the filter of Izzard's absurdist humor to emerge shrunken, naked and exposed to ridicule. Izzard's loosely-observed goal with these routines is to show up the anti-human nature of most ideologies. This is where his comic style complements his humanist outlook perfectly. (FYI: The rest of this paragraph is cribbed from my review of Goblins by Philip Reeve) Izzard specializes in a distinctly British form of humor that revolves around the subversion of anything or anyone that seems overly proud, serious or powerful; with this kind of humor the self-important and mighty find themselves humbled or embarrassed by common sense, the unavoidable facts of life, and bureaucratic inflexibility. Think of it as the revenge of lower-middle-class values. It's a comic philosophy that seems in tune with thoroughly British concepts like "muddling through" and "the Dunkirk spirit." It's also the perfect form of humor for "a nation of shopkeepers." In contrast, American humor shows the high and mighty being flattened by anarchic proletarian violence: think the Three Stooges and Adam Sandler. Izzard's justly-famous Death Star Canteen routine (clip below) is a textbook illustration of his style:
Izzard is quite probably the only comedian working today who frequently tosses around the word "fascist" and regularly references Hitler. For Izzard, the insanity and horror of fascist ideology is like a loose thread that must constantly be pulled at. This seems to tie-in to both his political aspirations (he aims to run for mayor of London one day) and his oft-expressed pride in being a European. Izzard has often spoken in his routines about the positive values of European union, but he seems aware that Europe still can't escape the shadow of fascism thanks to political parties like Greece's Golden Dawn, the EDL of England, the National Front in France, and a half-dozen other similarly jackbooted groups. Izzard doesn't really go after contemporary political entities but he wants to remind his audiences that there are still monsters lurking in the closet.
For his all pro-European outlook, Izzard has an incurable fondness for the popular pleasures of British culture. He references English beauty spots like the South Downs, classic British films such as The Italian Job, and his vocal impressions are solidly RADA. For audiences outside the UK, especially for those of a certain age living in the Commonwealth, Izzard provides a pleasant reminder of a time (not so long ago) when popular culture was synonymous with British culture. He's not, however, some kind of affable purveyor of Brit-themed nostalgia; Izzard's wit and worldview is much too subversive for that. Eddie has a non-mawkish affection for his country that simply can't be repressed.
It seems that at some point in the near future we're going to lose Eddie Izzard the comedian to politics, which is wonderful if you're living in London, but a disaster for the rest of us. If you're new to Izzard he has a fair-sized back catalogue of performances available on DVD, and unlike the vast majority of standups his routines bear up to multiple viewings.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
A Field Guide to Ford Supporters
|A voter rethinking her choice of Rob Ford.|
For some people a political philosophy built entirely around lowering taxes, bashing unions, and slashing spending forgives any and all crimes. From millionaire property developers to penny-pinching pensioners, there's an intractable core of people who will always vote with their wallets held over their hearts. Pointing out that Ford's lemonade stand economic theories are harming Toronto's long-term economic health does no good with these voters; they only see that Ford will put a few extra dollars in their pockets. The shortsightedness of all involved was very much on display when Ford scrapped a $60 vehicle registration charge. Yay! said Ford's base. And then he raised parking meter rates. There goes the $60 saving. But the most acute definition of greed in regard to Ford goes to the Sun News TV channel, which is best described as FOX News' short, asthmatic, pimply little brother. Rob and Doug Ford have been hired by Sun News to host their own show starting this Monday. So in an effort to boost dismal ratings and profits, this "news outlet" will hire a criminal and his thuggish brother and give them a bully pulpit.
By ignorant I don't mean stupid. Lots of people, from the brightest to the dullest, pay no attention to politics, especially of the municipal variety. If you could do a psychic brain scan of the average Torontonian during an average day their thoughts would probably look like this:
"I can't believe they're putting up a condo there."
"I wish the TTC would get some of those people pushers from the Tokyo subway."
"The Leafs should trade Phaneuf."
"I wonder when Roll Up The Rim starts again?"
Civic politics doesn't enter the picture. Voter turnout has always been abysmally low in municipal elections, and the election of Rob Ford is an unfortunate side effect of that. When people pay scant attention to politics it's easy for someone like Ford to get his loud, simple message across. In the last mayoral election, George Smitherman, Ford's main opponent, had no clear message for voters. Ford's was crystal clear and managed to filter through the disinterest most people have for municipal issues. In addition to the people who don't care, there are a large number of Torontonians who don't speak English as a first language, and barely as a second. For these people politics can be an opaque process. Our local media is, not surprisingly, entirely English-speaking, which leaves a big group of people at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating policies and candidates. Ford's bare bones, shouty message manages to push through the language barrier. And neither of these groups are well-served by the mainstream media in Toronto. Like anywhere else in North America, most people here get their news from TV and radio. That's not good. Talk radio in Toronto has been solidly behind Ford, and even after the past week's horror show the Fords can still find sympathy on the airwaves. TV is no better. Local news shows on Global, City and CFTO try so hard to be "fair" and "restrained" when reporting on Ford that they end up muting the sheer awfulness of the man. A case in point: this past summer, in the midst of the crack video crisis, Ford went on a photo-op salmon fishing trip with Hazel McCallion, the nonagenarian, apple doll mayor of neighboring Mississauga. Hazel (no stranger to scandal herself) hooked a fish that "almost pulled her overboard," according to the media present, but Ford jumped up and "saved" her from a watery grave. It was, of course, nothing like that (as the video footage showed), but the TV talking heads couldn't have been more charmed and bubbly over the chance to show Ford in a sympathetic light. It was as though they'd been praying for an opportunity to show Ford supporters that they like him too.
Over the past forty years Toronto has gone from a WASPy bastion of Anglocentric culture to one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. No news there. But not everyone was happy about that, and they find Rob Ford's porcine whiteness and casual racism a pleasant blast from the past. These voters have dim memories of a Toronto that was a quiet small town in which there was no such thing as Pride parades, ethnic festivals, foreign accents or feta cheese. All these changes are terribly frightening for this Ford-friendly demographic, and for them a vote for Ford is a vote for nostalgia.
Well, yes, some people are just dumber than a bag of hammers, and there's no way of sugarcoating it. These voters, like Ford, are intimidated by the complexity of civic governance. They're also intimidated by search-a-word puzzles. They, like Ford, want to believe that "regular guys" who have common sense and gumption can survive and thrive in a big city. For people lacking in education and smarts, Ford is their knight in shining armour who proves that one of their own can rise to the top of the heap and show those smartypants with their university degrees and proper grammar a thing or two. This key demographic is also deeply suspicious of unions, who, they feel, are overpaid (a whiff of jealousy here) and "getting away with stuff." The "stuff" being fighting a rearguard action for a decent standard of living and preserving essential city services. Never underestimate the loyalty of the lumpenproletariat vote.
And so there you have it; the people who put Ford in power and now lurk in the wings, eager for a reason to love him again. At this point Ford is probably well past his sell-by date, even with his most diehard fans. However, he does have nearly a year in which to rehabilitate his image before the next election, and this could come to pass. If Rob were to go away and spend a month in rehab, even if it was some kind of faux addiction treatment, he could come back and claim he was "cured." That would be all it would take for a lot of his supporters to come back into the fold, and once they start trickling back Ford's media lackeys at the Toronto Sun and on talk radio would be leading the choir in praising the "new" Rob Ford. We're not out of the woods yet with Rob, but at least we can be confident that after a quiet 48 hours he's overdue for another scandal of biblical proportions. Watch out, Justin.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Post-Remembrance Day Reading
|The Battle of Vimy Ridge.|
Life and Fate (1959) by Vasily Grossman
This massive Russian novel is the War and Peace of the Second World War. It has a huge cast of characters, with most of the action centred around the Battle of Stalingrad. It's a brilliant novel but what makes it absolutely unforgettable is a section describing the rounding up of Jews in a small town and their transportation to a death camp. It's probably the most harrowing fictional description of the Holocaust that's ever been written. Grossman certainly had the credentials to write this passage: he was the first journalist to get inside a liberated Nazi concentration camp.
The Naked Island (1952) by Russell Braddon
Braddon was a POW in Japanese hands during World War Two, which means he saw and experienced cruelty and living conditions that were only rivaled by what the Germans were doing in places like Auschwitz. Braddon wrote his memoir in a white hot rage at what had been done to him, and that fury makes this book startling and horrifying.
Fortunes of War (1960-80) by Olivia Manning
Fortunes of War is the name given to a sextet of novels about Harriet and Guy Pringle, a married couple who find themselves in Romania at the beginning of World War Two. Over the course of the six novels they're buffeted from Romania to Greece and then Alexandria, always one step ahead of the advancing Germans. These novels are superb simply as character studies; what makes them classics is their look at the chaos and uncertainty of civilian life as it was lived near the cutting edge of the war.
Journey Into Fear (1940) by Eric Ambler
It's a great spy thriller, but it's also adept at capturing the mood of Europe standing on the brink of another bloody cataclysm. The action takes place mostly on a ship traveling from Turkey to Italy, and along the way Ambler touches on European attitudes to the past world war and the one that's looming. Ambler is also notable for being one of the few left-wing thriller writers; most of his pre-war novels feature Communists or Socialists as the good guys.
Ivan's War (2006) by Catherine Merridale
We call it World War Two, the Soviets called it the The Great Patriotic War, and who's to say their name shouldn't take precedence. The Russians paid a higher price in blood, by miles, than any of the other Allied Powers, and it was the war in Russia that eventually broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Ivan's War is a study of what life and war was like for the average Russian soldier. It wasn't pretty. Soviet soldiers lived short, brutal lives, and their suffering is one of the great, untold stories of the war.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) by Siegfried Sassoon
This autobiographical novel follows George Sherkston as he goes from a loyal British soldier in the trenches in France, to his sojourn in a convalescent hospital in Scotland where he decides to become an anti-war protestor. There are lots of well-written memoirs about both world wars, but this one stands out because it shows someone acting on their hatred of war. In real-life Sassoon was an exceptionally brave soldier who risked court martial and even the death penalty for his anti-war stand. Incredibly, he eventually went back to the trenches, rose in rank, and was wounded again.
Storm of Steel (1920) by Ernst Junger
And on the other hand we have Herr Junger. If Sassoon is emblematic of humanity surviving and thriving amid the brutality of war, Junger is a reminder that for some men war is a challenge and a pleasure. Junger's memoir of life as a German soldier in World War One is astonishing because it's the only memoir from that conflict that positively exults in the violence and drama of war. Junger went on to a long and glorious literary career in Europe, and this book certainly offers proof that war is also a blood sport for some of its participants.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Rob Ford and the Bravery of Cowards
|A pair of Toronto Sun columnists strike a pose with Rob Ford.|
That kind of spineless bravado has been on full display here in Toronto in the aftermath of Mayor Rob Ford's Hindenburg-like crash and burn. Right-wing Toronto city councillors such as Frances Nunziata, George Mammoliti, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Norm Kelly, all of whom were enthusiastic, even fanatical, supporters of Ford have finally found that the time is ripe to declare that the Mayor should step aside, enter rehab, and generally get the hell out of Dodge. How brave of them to finally take a moral stand after Ford has done everything possible to besmirch his reputation except kebab some puppies and eat them with kitten sauce. But the councillors aren't the only ones who've made some purchases at Backbones "R" Us. A flock of media people, chiefly from the Toronto Sun and talk radio stations, have also seen the light and are calling for Ford to resign or take a leave of absence. What's so appallingly cowardly about this is that they've all waited until Ford put himself in an utterly indefensible position with his admission of smoking crack. Once Ford stumbled into the open with that confession, he made himself such a soft, easy target there was no way his former allies couldn't take a shot at him. The rightist politicians and media people who are now stroking their metaphorical beards and passing judgment on Ford were purblind when it came to Ford's behavior prior to this past summer's crack video revelation by the Toronto Star.
There have always been compelling reasons to demand Rob Ford's ouster from office. Before becoming mayor he was mostly famous for being a dim-witted city councilor with a fetish for obsessing over the nickel and dime aspects of the city's budget. And of course there was his criminal record. Rob has been pinched for DUI, domestic assault, drug possession and public drunkenness. Once he became mayor the public boozing continued, but what might have been worse, at least from a right-wing point of view, was that he became chief conductor on the city hall "gravy train" he railed against during the election campaign. How so? Thanks to the Toronto Star it was revealed last year that Ford was spending a big chunk of his working hours on his pet high school football team. And now we know he was also gadding about in public parks drinking vodka and taking delivery of mystery packages from Alessandro "I Live In My Mother's Basement" Lisi. In sum, Rob was not doing his job, and if any other city employee had been AWOL like this they would have been fired. Happily for Ford, his Myrmidons in the council chamber and the press gallery found all kinds of fatuous excuses for Rob--he's a man of the people; he's saving the taxpayers' money; he's only human; he's saving the taxpayers' money; he's helping at-risk youth; he's saving taxpayers' money; and so on and so on.
I firmly believe that the rightists in politics and the media who previously supported Ford were perfectly aware that he was nothing more than a sentient cyst. But that's the state of right-wing thinking these days: hitch your political wagon to any beast as long as it's willing to savage social services and claw back taxes. If the people who've been cheering on Ford since he became mayor had had any scruples, the least bit of political bravery, they would have come down hard on him months or years ago. But no. Only when Rob became a naked, shivering, stationary target did they emerge from hiding to massacre him. And I don't think they'll be acknowledging that the beaters at the Toronto Star did all the dirty and dangerous work leading up to the "kill."
An afterthought: it's interesting that what seems to have been the final straw for Ford's backers is that he admitted smoking crack. His semi-regular displays of public drunkenness were passed over or laughed off by the same people. It would seem that when a politician overdoses on the middle-class drug of choice--alcohol--they're given a pass, but when they use crack...well, that's the drug those people use. Yes, there's a faint, very faint, whiff of racism attached to the reaction to this scandal.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Book Review: Sweet Dreams (1973) by Michael Frayn
Yes, this is a fantasy story set in Heaven, which has to earn it marks for audacity alone since I can't think of another author who's taken a crack at a novel with this setting. There are more than a few novels that go to Hell, and of course bits of Milton's Paradise Lost are set in Heaven, but a whole novel? The problems with a Heaven-set novel are fairly obvious: how do you describe ultimate perfection and happiness? Is Heaven a bodiless, Zen-like state of constant bliss? Does it rain puppies and profiteroles? Or, as suggested in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, is it Christmas every day in Heaven? None of these popular options sound like they could be fleshed out into a novel, and the brilliance of Frayn's novel is that it offers a far more subtle and original idea of Heaven.
And what is the capital city of Heaven like? Think about your favorite city and then add more charm, more character, more local colour, but leave in the tawdry and rough bits that make the best bits stand out all the more. The geography of Heaven is only half the story. Frayn has to give his central character something to be joyful about, and instead of puppies and profiteroles (my personal choice) he gives him...career advancement. This Heaven is one designed to stroke and satisfy the ego of Howard Baker, and that means his life in Heaven, complete with his dearly-departed-from family and friends, goes on much the same as his mortal life, only now his wit, talent, charm and intelligence is remarked upon and rewarded, but not in a shouty, showy way; his accolades come in casual, knowing, heartfelt remarks and in one professional and personal success after another until Howard inevitably takes a job as...but that would be telling.
This is where Sweet Dreams soars as a novel of ideas. Frayn has an acute sense of how the small "L" liberal, middle-class mind works and dreams. Howard Baker's ivy-covered ambitions, tasteful fantasies and simplistic moral view of the world are ruthlessly but delicately eviscerated by Frayn with some of the best comic writing you'll ever come across. And what gives the novel an extra punch is that it's impossible not to read it and blush with recognition at the Howard Baker inside all of us. I think that might be why it's fame is muted. Some readers might admire Frayn's skill and imagination, but at the same time not wish to acknowledge the spiky truths he has on offer. Sweet Dreams is now out of print, so dig through your local used bookstore (they do exist) and start talking it up as the next cult classic that everyone in the know is excited about. That would be a very Howard Baker thing to do.
Friday, November 1, 2013
Film Review: Hell Drivers (1957)
Think of this film as the working class, kitchen sink drama version of The Wages of Fear. Stanley Baker plays an ex-con named Tom who's trying to get his life back on the straight and narrow. His prospects are limited so he takes a job driving dump trucks. The job is tough and brutally simple. The drivers truck gravel (called ballast, here) from a pit to a work site and are paid by the load. If they don't haul at least ten loads a day they're fired, and to do that many loads means driving like a maniac. A thug named Red is the semi-official leader of the drivers, and he's promised a reward of a gold cigarette case to anyone who can beat his daily total of runs. This makes each day's work a rally race for the drivers. Over the course of the film Tom and Red butt heads, a romance is ended, a brawl breaks out at a dance, a swindle is uncovered, and the film ends with a truck carrying a major character going over a cliff.
The overall look of Hell Drivers is very raw. The scenery and interiors are bleak, no one dresses well, the drivers take all their meals in a shabby cafe, and even the trucks look like they're one dent away from the junkyard. This is a Britain still recovering from the war and only three years removed from the end of food rationing. The Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, and Carnaby St seem very far away in this universe. Even the scale of the drama is muted. The swindle run by Red and his boss amounts to only a hundred or so pounds a week. And that gold cigarette case? It's worth a measly 200 quid! What the hell could that buy in 1957? Probably one of those small and unreliable British cars like the Morris Marmite or the Vauxhall Skiffle. I think that's what they were called. In sum, this is a film that seems to reflect the convalescent character of a nation recovering from a devastating war.
What makes Hell Drivers of more than passing interest is the cast: Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, Herbert Lom, Sid James, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum and William Hartnell. There you have the future stars of some of the most iconic film and TV franchises of the 1960s. It seems like a dreadful oversight that Patrick Macnee, Michael Caine and Captain Scarlet weren't also given roles. And the cast certainly does it's bit to distract us from an unambitious plot and scenes of trucks driving "fast" that often look like outtakes from a Keystone Kops film. So here's my suggestion for a thematically linked triple bill: start with The Wages of Fear, then Hell Dirvers, and finish with 1969's The Italian Job for a look at what a brash, confident Britain produced the next time it made a film about reckless driving.
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