Books

The Walrus Reads

Seven new spring books

by and Rachel Giese and Steven W. Beattie and Nicholas Hune-Brown and Karen Luscombe and Jeet Heer and Jeremy Keehn
Illustration by Paul Kim

• 3,817 words

Illustration by Paul Kim

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
Hamish Hamilton Canada (2010)

Crispin Salvador, among the brightest lights in contemporary Filipino letters, is best known for Dahil Sa’Yo (Because of You), his epic novel about the Marcos dictatorship, which was translated into twelve languages and made him a legitimate contender for the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also holds a certain degree of fame for his crime fiction, most notably 1990’s Manila Noir. He’s celebrated, too, for his short stories, of which “Matador,” published in the March 12, 1973, edition of The New Yorker, is an important early example, and his essays, including his regular weekly Manila Times column, War & Piss. Bridging all of these is Autoplagiarist, his 2,572-page memoir/cultural history, which takes aim at his family and his country in equal measure. Despite his prodigious output, Salvador’s reputation in the Philippines will be forever troubled by his decision to work in exile from his homeland.

But perhaps more problematic is the fact that Crispin Salvador does not exist. He is the creation of Miguel Syjuco, an almost impossibly young Filipino writer who now calls Montreal home, and his life and work are the focus of Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript. Ilustrado is many things—a skewed history of the Philippines’ past 150 years, an account of the rise and sputtering decline of a family, a sharply fanged indictment of the country’s lazy, coke-fuelled ruling-class youth—but above all it operates as an enormously accomplished bricolage memoir of the efforts of our narrator, also named Miguel Syjuco, to piece together the life of Salvador, his recently deceased teacher and mentor, by sifting through Salvador’s writing and personal history. Presenting itself in myriad fragments, the book drifts in and out of Salvador’s work, including portions of essays, novels, interviews, short stories, articles, poems, and jokes, while exploring Miguel’s biography-in-progress, his life in New York, and his investigations upon returning to the Philippines.

While it sounds—and is—conceptually ambitious, at its core the novel is interested in a very traditional question: how does one measure a life? And, more specifically, how does one measure a life once one accounts for the fact that any particular life is but a single thread at a single moment in the ungainly fabric of any particular society, sustaining and sustained by its unknown brethren, the fabric itself stretching ever thinner as nations exist in increasingly diffuse diasporic realities?

Ian McEwan prefaced his 2005 novel, Saturday, with a quote to this effect from Saul Bellow’s Herzog: “Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition.” But whereas McEwan seeks to untangle the knot of a contemporary identity by turning inward—the story operates within its protagonist, Henry Perowne, and his rarefied London privilege—Syjuco’s structural acrobatics make a convincing argument that the best way of exploring such impossibly complicated terrain is through an appropriately complex framework. The book’s formal innovation, its ceaseless flood of snippets and quotes and chapters and isolated scenes, is incredibly successful because it allows for contradiction, for complication, for the unknown—it allows, in other words, a life to be like life.

And while Ilustrado’s sprawling pastiche proves a satisfying means of existential contemplation, it also mimics how we consume literature itself. In dredging up Salvador’s best bons mots, his most charmingly hackneyed noir patter, his most vicious vitriol, the novel mirrors how our consciousnesses interact with the legacies of others’ consciousnesses—with the books, essays, and poems we read. We rarely recall these works in their entirety, but their best moments live with us in phrases we can’t shake, or images lodged in our minds. (While I’m forever hazy on Lolita’s meandering final third, I’ll never forget the freak accident—“(picnic, lightning)”—by which Humbert Humbert’s “very photogenic mother” is said to have died.) Thus Syjuco’s formalist play is doubly satisfying, an almost paradoxical encapsulation of contemporary existence. It gives us a mode of understanding not only the way we live, but also the way we live within art that mirrors our lives.

In his introduction to the book, the narrator incarnation of Miguel Syjuco recalls Crispin Salvador’s first true novel, The Enlightened, which “won prizes before it was published but could not live up to the fairy-tale hype.” It’s the sort of joke this book loves, one that echoes within chambers it has built, one that makes a sly yet somehow heartbreaking nod toward the reader—“enlightened” is the literal translation of “Ilustrado.” Fortunately, Syjuco’s exceptional novel exceeds its heightened expectations, serving notice that a brilliant new talent has arrived, somehow fully formed.

Jared Bland

Illustration by Paul Kim

The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates
Random House Canada (2010)

Judy Fong Bates’s new memoir begins with a dramatic ending: the revelation that her elderly father hanged himself in the basement of his home in 1972, when Bates was in her early 20s. The event has haunted her since; it was an uncharacteristically assertive act for a man cowed by the deprivations of his early life in China and the racism he experienced as a laundryman in rural Ontario. What’s more, his suicide was considered too shameful to discuss in Bates’s traditional family, which further shrouded both his life and his death in mystery.

In 2006 and 2007, Bates, a happily married grandmother and author of the acclaimed 2004 novel Midnight at the Dragon Café, took two fact-finding missions to China: the first with an entourage of half-siblings and other assorted relations; the second alone with her good-natured Caucasian husband, whose six-foot-plus frame and fair skin cause a rock star sensation in the small villages they visit. Bates is “looking for the China that had belonged to my parents.” But as she tours the countryside, she discovers a nation transformed—in many cases despoiled—by the Japanese occupation, the Cultural Revolution, and, most recently, rampant industrialization.

Bates is a fine observer of details. She meticulously catalogues the landscape and architecture of her birthplace (she emigrated as a young child), as well as the elaborate meals her relatives serve. And yet, even as family secrets are slowly bared, the story never gains an emotional purchase. Her parents remain ciphers, and Bates’s own occasionally canned reactions make her equally, maddeningly, elusive.

Much more illuminating are her unflinching flashbacks to her childhood, where her parents’ misery in their adopted country is recounted with vivid power. Recalling their loneliness, their poverty, and their humiliations at the hands of xenophobic locals, Bates writes, “I felt their helplessness in the marrow of my bones and I hated it.” In the end, though, she remains “a good Chinese daughter” who wants to honour her parents’ memory. If only that laudable, adult compassion came with the compelling insight she brings to her own childhood.

Rachel Giese

Illustration by Paul Kim

Girl Crazy by Russell Smith
HarperCollins Canada (2010)

Justin Harrison, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s latest novel, is a thirty-two-year-old contract professor in the communications studies department at Constitution College Polytechnical Institute in suburban Toronto, where he teaches classes with names like Business Communications and E-Mail Etiquette. When he isn’t teaching, Justin attends meetings run by his boss, Mike, a Type A personality who drives a red Thunderbird with a vanity plate that reads WNDRKD; and wrangles with “Annette the PR idiot,” who is involved with the college’s fundraising campaign (its “capital initiative”) and who uses terms like “optics” and “brand” and “grassroots level.” At night, Justin occupies himself by playing a first-person shooter video game called Sandstorm III (Sheik Assassin); engaging in torturous phone conversations with his ex-girlfriend, Genevieve; and masturbating.

Into this life of quiet desperation comes Jenna, a twenty-year-old woman who fulfills Justin’s every sexual fantasy in exchange for him supplying her friend Deenie with sleeping pills, which he purchases over the Internet. Justin’s first encounter with Jenna is as a good Samaritan, but he is instantly attracted to her. That attraction quickly turns into lust and obsession, and Justin’s frenzied sexual odyssey blinds him to the warning signs in Jenna’s life, such as a hulking thug named Tee who begins to stalk the teacher.

A simple description of Girl Crazy’s plot makes it sound like a heterogeneous mess: Lolita meets a David Lodge academic satire by way of Elmore Leonard. Indeed, for the first two-thirds, Justin’s deepening obsession with Jenna—and the increasingly dark places to which that obsession drives him—is so potent that the satire of a corporate-run education system appears to be fifth business, an unnecessary distraction from the novel’s central concerns. But this belies the canny subtlety of Smith’s structure. As the book progresses, Jenna becomes less and less of a physical presence; her last appearance is as a voice on the phone. As Justin moves through the novel’s final stretch, the various elements coalesce into a darkly comic study of fractured masculinity.

Unsympathetic readers will likely find fault with the characterization of Jenna, who remains somewhat underdeveloped throughout. And Justin occasionally teeters on the edge of becoming a caricature of the drooling, leering horndog: in a departmental meeting, he doodles “a series of breast-like blobs,” which he turns into raindrops when he worries a colleague might notice.

But there is an honesty in the portrayal of Justin’s sexual urges that is rare in modern fiction. Novelists who want to appear refined, or those who expect their books to stand as endorsements for their feminist bona fides, will often ignore the tendency for a man’s eyes to roam over a woman’s body and for his mind to occupy itself by wondering what kind of undergarments she might be wearing. Smith, by contrast, freely acknowledges this aspect of the male psyche. The nicely ambiguous conclusion can be seen as either the recognition of a kind of atavistic male impulse, or a cautionary tale about the perils of pursuing desire to its most dangerous extreme.

Steven W. Beattie

Illustration by Paul Kim

The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter
McClelland & Stewart (2010)

In the summer of 2008, a twenty-eight-year-old Frenchman named Florent Lemaçon quit his engineering job and set sail for Zanzibar with his wife and child. What he was looking for, according to Andrew Potter, was authenticity, a life free from the superficialities of modern society. What he found, unfortunately, were pirates. His quest ended abruptly in a gunfight at sea.

In The Authenticity Hoax, Lemaçon’s story serves as both a cautionary tale and a fine metaphor for our contemporary search for authenticity—a fool’s errand with ugly consequences. Jumping through a cultural studies syllabus’s worth of philosophers and theorists, Potter’s latest work argues that this quest—from ecotourism to Oprah’s Book Club to the local food movement—has become our primary vehicle for finding meaning in a world that can feel alienating. His central point is that authenticity is a positional good, only valuable because not everyone can have it. The search for the authentic, then, becomes a status race, where the elite compete to see who can vacation in the most obscure Portuguese village or eat the organic pear grown nearest their backyard.

Over the past few years, Potter, whose previous book was The Rebel Sell, has carved out a career for himself as a contrarian. He takes obvious delight in slaying the left’s sacred cows, and The Authenticity Hoax is filled with ostentatiously counterintuitive statements like “The contemporary struggle for genuine, authentic forms of living cannot be the solution to our problem, because it is the cause.” But though this contrarian streak at times acts as a corrective to sloppy “countercultural” thought (Potter has an excellent section diagnosing much anti-suburban writing as simple lifestyle snobbery, for example), his eagerness to contrast himself with the conventional left sometimes leads him to characterize his adversaries unfairly.

The worst example is probably his suggestion that the “hysteria” over global warming is “almost entirely driven by a ratchet of authenticity-seeking that progressively rejects more and more of the comforts and privileges of modern life.” Instead of engaging with the issue—and he is far too intelligent to actually argue against the science behind climate change—he’s content to simply get in a few shots at the yuppie environmentalists who shop at Whole Foods. In the end, then, while The Authenticity Hoax’s riffs on Obama, David Suzuki, and James Frey are entertaining enough, one begins to get the distinct feeling that Potter is so busy scoring points that he may be missing some of the more important ones.

Nicholas Hune-Brown

Illustration by Paul Kim

Curiosity: A Love Story by Joan Thomas
McClelland & Stewart (2010)

Twelve-year-old Mary Anning is a fatherless, impoversished, and barely literate girl who passes her days hawking mollusc fossils tarted up as lucky charms to genteel tourists. But when she discovers a petrified Jurassic ichthyosaur embedded within a cliff near Lyme Regis, Dorsetshire, her life takes an unexpected turn. In God-fearing Lyme, circa 1812, locals consider all such petrifactions to be satanic detritus dating back to the Flood. Undeterred, Mary continues digging throughout her life, and despite her growing frustration at being denied official recognition for a host of significant geological finds, her famed ichthyosaur (uncovered an impressive half century before Charles Darwin’s 1859 treatise On the Origin of Species) serves to unearth a cataclysmic cultural divide: in contrast to the creationist belief that God’s perfect forms “endured,” life under the geological notion of deep time embraces the virtues of utter transience.

Winnipeg writer Joan Thomas’s second novel, Curiosity, is a rueful, grim, and beautifully sensate historical fiction that not only documents Mary Anning’s actual navigations through the trappings of scientific opportunism, fear-addled scripture, heinous colonialism, and sexist conventions, but also explores the exquisite fragility of a love story that turns upon the lovers’ unblinking curiosity before the metaphysical change their work uncovers.

At one point, Mary’s eventual lover, Henry De la Beche, a geologist and accomplished visual artist, wonders, “How do you paint curiosity? ” It’s a telling moment, for while Thomas takes evident pleasure in the generative act of naming (lists vividly abound here for the sheer pleasure of variation, and words like “jommetry,” “wizening” and “downdacious” demand very simply that we dwell), she also transforms her words into sepia-stained canvases of heightened sensuousness. Curiosity is a species of Künstlerroman that traces the artist’s luxuriant descent into visionary immediacy—an embrace, as Mary so gracefully offers, of “life to no purpose except as life.” A beautiful, erudite, and deeply pleasurable work.

Karen Luscombe

Illustration by Paul Kim

Therefore Choose by Keith Oatley
Goose Lane (2010)

In the early twentieth century, the problem of communication haunted Europe. Wittgenstein and Heidegger asked if language wasn’t itself a hurdle to understanding, while psychologists such as Freud wondered whether our outer words and actions hid inner turmoil. On the political front, peace groups and diplomats tried, with heartbreaking futility, to convince nations to talk to each other rather than go to war. In this ambitious and unusually cerebral historical novel, Keith Oatley tells the story of a love triangle that ties all these threads together. Juxtaposing a love story with the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany, he demonstrates that the difficulty of “communication between minds” links personal anguish with philosophical problems and outbursts of international violence.

In 1935, while studying to be a doctor at Cambridge, George Smith, the novel’s bluff and diffident protagonist, meets an intense German philosophy student named Werner Vodn. Over the next decade, their friendship is tested and tattered by the divisions of war and George’s romantic entanglement with Werner’s future wife, the aristocratic literary editor Anna von Kleist.

Oatley is by training a professor of cognitive psychology, and he self-consciously writes in the tradition of such literary medical men as Chekhov, Conan Doyle, and Somerset Maugham; as in a good case study, clinical clarity and precision are the hallmarks of his prose. The ideas of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Freud are deftly alluded to but never swamp the propulsive plot. The novel’s chief concern is the difficulty—perhaps the impossibility—of love and friendship surviving the barriers of nationalism and conflict. In describing the war years, Oatley tries to be exquisitely fair to the experiences of both the English and the Germans: we’re shown glimpses not just of the familiar scenes of the death camps and London in ruins, but also the burnt-out remains of the cities of Deutschland and the mistreatment of German civilians by the victors. It is suggested that Smith is haunted by fire-bombed German towns as much as by the horrors of concentration camps when “images of Bremen’s ruin alternated with images of the barbed wire and corpses of Belsen” run through his mind while he lies in bed.

Such parallels between the crimes of the Nazis and the military tactics of the Allies are a recurring subtext, and as such the novel is in keeping with the recent trend in both literature and history, notably inspired by W.G. Sebald, to focus on German suffering. Herein the novel falters. Although it is unquestionably a literary triumph, Oatley’s glib moral equivalence renders the book politically dubious. However much the Allied bombing of Germany might be criticized in retrospect, it was not in the same league of horrors as the Holocaust. The bombing had a military purpose, whereas the campaign of genocide against the Jews and Gypsies had no such rational endgame. The Holocaust was killing for the sake of killing, killing rooted in pure race hatred. Without the German surrender, this murder spree would only have ended with the extermination of every innocent the Nazis had their hands on.

Therefore Choose raises a large and pressing question: how can we communicate across personal, linguistic, psychological, and international barriers? But, unintentionally, it also illustrates the existence of another barrier, between literature and politics. Despite its strength as a work of fiction, this is no guide for understanding the dilemmas of twentieth-century history.

Jeet Heer

Illustration by Paul Kim

Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland
Penguin Group (2010)

In the vast network of humankind, Marshall McLuhan and Douglas Coupland occupy a highly interconnected cluster, as patron saint and patron scribe, respectively, of Modern Multimedia Man. But where both are also often mistakenly cast as advocates for their respective technological eras, Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan for Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series makes clear that both writer and subject, guided as they are by humanistic concerns, are wary prophets at best.

To understand how misperceptions have arisen about the two men, consider just a few of the latter-day McLuhanisms that litter Coupland’s treatment: anagrams of key names and terms; a roster of online-generated pseudonyms for “Marshall McLuhan”; an Autism-Spectrum Quotient test; Internet map directions; YouTube comments; online bookseller listings and reviews; a dramatis personae of McLuhan’s University of Toronto colleagues (a “Muppet Kremlin,” Coupland calls them, delightfully); pseudo-anagrams reflecting the degeneration of McLuhan’s brain; and a series of interpretive meditations coupled with jumbled copies of same.

If McLuhan is indeed “the man who broke the shackles of linear communications,” as series editor John Ralston Saul puts it, Coupland might then be thought of as the man lashing readers with its flailing chains. But never mind that the technique of streaming hyper-modern bric-a-brac onto plain old paper has been stale since roughly 1991—the approach is apt and knowing here, in a biography whose central themes are the omnipresent technological world and our individual inability to cope with it, and whose subject was often obscure to the point of incomprehensibility. (McLuhan’s philosophy, Coupland notes, could be “a glorious stew of diamonds and rhine-stones and Fabergé eggs and merde.”)

The best sections of the book are nevertheless those where Coupland, always a storyteller at heart, adopts the role of traditional biographer, simply inviting readers to gather around the fire and setting out with something akin to “Once upon a time… ” So embarked, he traces his subject’s life and legacy, emphasizing a few key themes: Marshall’s desire to please his rhetoric-teaching, fame-courting mother; his poor social skills; his unique brain physiology; his adaptation of New Criticism techniques and literary arcana to the technological world; his intellectual ambition and magnetism; his Catholic religion; and his catholic writing style. These themes, however briefly explored, lend the sense of a complex human being singularly suited to spotting the patterns of his time.

Key to Coupland’s analysis is that McLuhan was determinedly not of the world Ralston Saul over-generously credits him with unleashing. He was, in Coupland’s excellent phrase, “the kid with an intellectual peanut allergy who alerts us to a tainted world.” McLuhan saw evidence everywhere that modern man had created a world modern men had not evolved to inhabit, and though he delighted in explaining that evidence, he personally resisted its implications. Coupland’s empathy for this aspect of McLuhan’s character fairly radiates off the page.

But then, sensitivity to the world has always been a hallmark of Coupland’s life and work as well. The two excerpts he somewhat shamelessly includes from his most recent novel, Generation A, speak to his McLuhanesque concern for the dehumanizing effects of evolutions in language and technology. This sense of common qualm ennobles the biography, self-promotion and all, and highlights the central irony uniting both men: if either McLuhan or Coupland really were interested in proselytizing for the post-literature age, surely neither would have chosen to do so in books. The medium, you will almost certainly have heard, is the message.

Jeremy Keehn

This appeared in the May 2010 issue.

Jared Bland, a former Walrus editor, is books editor of the Globe and Mail.

Rachel Giese is a Toronto journalist and a former Walrus senior editor.

Steven W. Beattie is Quill & Quire magazine’s review editor.

Nicholas Hune-Brown (@nickhunebrown) has written for Toronto Life, Hazlitt, and The Believer.

Jeet Heer will publish Sweet Lechery, a collection of political and cultural essays, in December 2014.

Jeremy Keehn is an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a former senior editor at The Walrus.

Paul Kim is deputy art director of The Walrus.