Books

The Walrus Reads

New books of note

The Retreat by David Bergen
McClelland & Stewart (2008), 328 pp.

“You like fishing, Raymond? ” asks Constable Hart, a character of spectacular malice, of the 18-year-old Ojibway boy sitting in the back of his cruiser. “Sure you do. I can see that. You like fishing for white girls.” Then he ushers Raymond Seymour onto a boat, takes him to a secluded island, tells him he never should have touched his niece, and leaves the kid for dead. You like suspense? Sure you do. And in the first thirty pages of his new novel, David Bergen puts on a clinic.

The narrative skips to the following summer, and the rest unfolds during the 1974 Ojibway occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ontario. Norma Byrd—indifferent mother, grade A narcissist—has brought her large family to the Retreat, a haphazard commune she believes holds the key to salvation. There, elder son Everett begins a tentative friendship with Nelson Seymour, who has returned to his brother after the government sent him to live with a white family ten years earlier. Daughter Lizzy pursues a damaged Raymond in the hope that her love might provide him with a little salvation of his own. Of course, Constable Hart hovers in the background, poised to disrupt their budding romance.

He needn’t have bothered. The Retreat isn’t simply a title or the name of a hippie collective—it’s the book’s governing principle. Bergen’s characters try to slip on new identities but are constantly pulled back by the world they inhabit, forced to retreat to their inescapable selves. That’s why a young Nelson, enamoured of his new family and keen to adopt their ways, would still wake “from a dream in which someone was calling him by the wrong name, and he would sit up and say, ‘My name is Nelson Seymour.’”

Although Bergen never quite duplicates the tremendous intensity of his opening section, the novel speeds along in his characteristically exquisite prose. There isn’t an adverb out of place; in fact, there’s hardly an adverb to be found at all. The remarkable feat here is that language this spare can say so much.

Danielle Groen


The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson
Doubleday Canada (2008), 272 pp.

How much is a human skull worth? Hamlet certainly prized poor Yorick’s, and Dr. Mortimer admitted that even a cast of Sherlock Holmes’s noggin “would be an ornament to any anthropological museum.” Pol Pot valued them in his own demented way, enough to use 300 or so to make a map of Cambodia. And for British artist Damien Hirst, a skull is worth $100 million in cash, and not just because it’s encrusted with $30 million worth of diamonds. Most of its value comes from the fact that Hirst dreamt it up and gave it one of his characteristically daring yet silly titles: For the Love of God.

Hirst’s skull is but a small part of a contemporary art market that, to the uninitiated, seems preposterous. But as Toronto’s Don Thompson shows in his comprehensive new account of the world of contemporary art, there’s a reason people are willing to pay $3 million for a cast of Marc Quinn’s head made from nine pints of the artist’s frozen blood. An economics professor first and an art collector second, Thompson is interested in “what makes a particular work of art valuable, and by what alchemy it is seen as worth $12 million or $100 million rather than, say, $250,000.” Over the course of this impeccably researched inquiry, he does a very good job of finding out.

More often than not, Thompson argues, it’s a powerful combination of what he terms branded artists, branded auction houses, branded dealers, and branded collectors acting within a market where “branding can substitute for critical judgment.” (The unbelievable sale price of Hirst’s skull, for instance, resulted from the particularly valuable union of the world’s most branded artist and one of the world’s most branded dealers, White Cube’s Jay Jopling.) But despite the dizzying extravagance of the world he explores, Thompson’s work remains grounded in hard analysis. And in describing a world that seems insane in its fervour, lust, and escalation, his steady, thorough, and even approach is refreshingly cool.

Jared Bland


Once by Rebecca Rosenblum
Biblioasis (2008), 208 pp.

The twentysomethings that populate Rebecca Rosenblum’s dazzling debut collection of stories are lost, searching for a niche and an identity, and marked by a scrappy yet poignant vulnerability. And the Toronto cityscape in which she sets these stories is as indeterminate as her characters: not the Toronto of bustling Queen Street West, but the Toronto of strip malls and ramshackle houses and endless bus routes.

Delivered in prose that is at once compressed, poetic, and precise, these tales do not move forward with a classical narrative arc. Rather, they meander, their conclusions less revelations than uneasy question marks. But there are revelations, and often at unexpected moments. In “Linh Lai,” for instance, a recent Vietnamese immigrant works as a waitress at a Vietnamese restaurant ironically run by an older Jewish man; she becomes obsessed with riding the skateboard of a kid named Jimmy who hangs out near her work. When she finally gets on the board, “She feels each bit of gravel under the wheels, the cool fall wind and exhaust on her skin… feels her weight steady as she flies forward, a wonderful wordless feeling of on and on.” Of course she attempts to jump a gas pump and crashes onto her back, the board slamming into her, but what’s important is the wordless feeling, the brief but immediate contact with the world.

Rosenblum can also register the aching and melancholic, but with a remarkable lack of sentimentality. In one of the collection’s finest stories, “Steal Me,” Aida watches a boyfriend she does not love at a bar with an old high school friend who is about to leave her husband. “White teeth glinting, the loop of silver in his eyebrow, the fall of gold down her back,” she writes. “They were so beautiful, these unloved ones. If she could’ve given them to each other, she would have.” These young characters’ futures are a sea of uncertainties. But what we can be certain of is that Once is a first by a young author of singular talent.

Daniel Baird

Butterfly Mind by Patrick Brown
House of Anansi (2008), 304 pp.

The ink-stained hack, the slovenly drunk, the chain-smoking Tums receptacle, the gruff-mannered amp of rumour and innuendo—that character has long haunted the newsrooms of fiction. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock opens in a bar with the Daily Messenger’s Fred Hale slurping gin and ogling a fellow patron’s breasts, even after realizing he’s the target of a mob hit. In Bonfire of the Vanities, tabloid scribe Peter Fallow can’t crack his eyes in the morning without dread of headache, but wins a Pulitzer regardless.

For many reporters, these tales are more inspirational than cautionary. Launching his career as a foreign correspondent for cbc in the early 1980s, Patrick Brown took up this drink-sodden mantle with gusto. And in Butterfly Mind, a striking study of the eerie parallels between struggles with alcohol and autocrats, Brown admits he entered the trade regarding himself as “an old-school journalist heading toward the sound of gunfire armed with a battered portable typewriter and a bottle of Scotch.” By 1983, he was rousing himself every morning with a stiff screwdriver, followed promptly by a brisk retch. He justified the boozing as a well-deserved escape from the tragedies he had witnessed around the world. But the more he drank, the more he became a hack, until one day during the 1987 trial of Klaus “The Butcher of Lyons” Barbie, he cracked a beer, blacked out, and blew a deadline. His bosses intervened, calling Brown back to Canada for treatment.

Butterfly Mind exposes the vomit and liver rot of life “under a personal dictatorship as ruthless and hard to overthrow as any of the regimes I was covering.” But it is so much more than an ex-drunkard’s mea culpa; it’s also an incisive analysis of the major political convulsions of the past three decades by someone who’s witnessed a good number. Brown weaves his own decline into a larger tale of tyranny and resistance in Lebanon, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Burma, Bulgaria, and, especially, China, where he now lives. As he stumbles toward honesty, openness, and eventual recovery in his personal life, hope mounts that his political characters can do the same.

Patrick White

Danielle Groen (@daniellegroen) has written for Chatelaine, Toronto Life and the Globe and Mail.

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

Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.