Books

The Walrus Reads

Nine fall books of note

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart (2009), 448 pp.

So I would rather be an amoeba. Don’t laugh, but instead consider the essence of amoeba-ness. They’re transparent, & thus hard to find. They change shape by sending out pseudopodia (e.g. conversations, letters like this one & poems etc.) and encounter the universe by flowing around it; when in hostile environment they encyst by forming a hard shell, & hibernate till coming out again is worthwhile.

—Margaret Atwood to Al Purdy, October 4, 1964

Ambition doesn’t come naturally to the amoeba, so it’s safe to say that Margaret Atwood’s personal goals have evolved somewhat in the forty-five years since she wrote that letter: one can’t describe the scope of her current project, a trilogy of books set in a post-apocalyptic future, without mentioning capital-A ambition. The just-released second novel, The Year of the Flood, takes place in a richly imagined, unnervingly futuristic version of our society. It encompasses twenty years; three narrators, each working in a distinct mode; three alternating tenses; and fourteen songs belonging to the oral hymn book of the God’s Gardeners, the vaguely mythical eco-cult at the centre of the story.

But perhaps it’s a mistake to dismiss the lowly amoeba so quickly. After all, in Atwood’s science-obsessed world every gene counts. And despite the obvious Atwoodian quality of much of the novel’s setting and concern—it takes place at the same time and place as its predecessor, Oryx and Crake, so the horrific menagerie of human-pig hybrids, rakunks, liobams, and Mo’Hair sheep returns—the author’s presence, stylistically, at least, is quite “transparent, & thus hard to find.” As is customary in her dystopian novels, Atwood expands her world through the lucid description of its deep strangeness rather than with overwrought prose designed to draw more attention to the hand holding the pen that to what emerges from it.

Yet simple sentences don’t necessarily depict things imagined simply. Thus we find ourselves within the Sticky Zone at Scales and Tails, a high-end strip club owned by SeksMart, where dancers don biofilm bodysuits that grow feathers. We find ourselves in the AnooYoo Spa (“We’re not selling only beauty… We’re selling hope”), where the wealthy wives of HelthWyzer and Rejoove Corp executives flock for treatments such as the Intestinal Whisk. We find ourselves in a climate where one daren’t go outside without the protection of not only SuperD, but SolarNix, too. Atwood is so successful at creating this futuristic world that it nearly defeats itself. Her relentless system of genetic atrocities and corporate sponsorship becomes a clever, shiny simulacrum of the future rather than a credible sci-fi version of it. It’s hard to imagine anyone real living there; the plastic sheen’s so perfect that all texture disappears.

Fortunately we have Toby and Ren, the twin chambers of the novel’s beating heart, two women who are so fully imagined and wonderfully distinct that the didactic excess of the world in which they struggle is forgotten. Like the young Atwood’s amoeba, Toby and Ren survivethe plague thanks to the hard shells of shelter; much of the novel follows them in their separate hibernations, documenting their present-day trials while drifting back into their respective pasts, both within the confines of the God’s Gardeners and in the broader world. The novel’s greatest strength is the quiet picture it offers of their fraught but tender relationship, especially after their paths intertwine. At one point, Ren thinks of the idea of romantic pain, sarcastically wondering “what Toby knows about that? ” Two pages later, Toby wishes she were accompanied by “someone less fragile… A little tougher.” Each woman underestimates the other, and only we as readers, aware of the histories they keep shrouded, can see the full implications of their misunderstanding. Their shared incomprehension becomes a moving reminder of the beautiful, true, and imperfect ways in which we come to know one another as human beings.

Near the book’s end, both women come out of their hibernation, emerging into a very different version of their very different world. And, strangely enough, it is amid the bleakness of that destroyed landscape that one feels a kind of lightness. Though the wasted city is indeed terrifying, a sense of play and possibility rises above the lessons we’re meant to learn. (It is here, finally, that we meet the touchingly naive immortals, full of song and bearing enormous blue penises.) Despite the novel’s assertion that “you can’t live with [the knowledge that the earth is almost gone] and keep on whistling,” that’s precisely what its creator is doing. She continues whistling her wicked tunes—new poems, essays, Massey Lectures, and post-apocalyptic
roller coasters like this one—and as we read her, it is very clear that no one has more fun being deadly serious than Margaret Atwood. Ultimately, that’s essential to her novelistic work, and to her persona as our leading public intellectual; it’s a large part of what makes her so beloved. It’s easier to appreciate a star that bright when it’s cloaked in a smirk-shaped cloud.

A talent, in other words, not unlike a highly evolved version of the amoeba that she told her friend Al Purdy she wanted to be—a deceptively simple, shape-shifting entity sending feelers into the world, flowing about the universe, coming out when it’s worthwhile. Purdy answered Atwood’s letter, of course. But he also responded in verse almost twenty-five years later, in a poem called “Concerning Ms. Atwood.” He imagined his friend Peggy in this same vein, and anticipated the books she would come to write—our fine, wise jester not just visiting the future, but taking names:

There is Margaret Atwood
—sitting in an unmanned spaceship
waiting for blast-off her lovely
eyes slightly dilated from a sleeping
drug administered by flight surgeons
She wakes at the edge of the universe
where someone says “Hello
Pleased to meet you Ms. Atwood
My name is God” She smiles
and writes the name down promptly
in her little notebook to prevent
forgetfulness

Jared Bland

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

Postcard and Other Stories by Anik See
Freehand Books (2009), 200 pp.

The grown-ups in Anik See’s half-dozen stories aren’t an especially admirable lot: they’re adulterous and alcoholic; they disappear and they disappoint. Existing at the narrative margins, they cast a shadow over the lives of their twenty- and thirty something children, who in response seem to cling to a protracted adolescence. These characters hold vague jobs, drift in and out of relationships, and fall back on cultural references—the opening credits of Six Feet Under, Being John Malkovich’s bizarre lounge scene—when their own observations prove wanting. Locked in a perpetual present, they have no problem answering Twitter’s pointed question “What are you doing? ” (I am at a trance club in Toronto. I am living in a cabin on the Rideau Canal, having mediocre sex with a man who may or may not be married. I am stalking Mark Kingwell.) But damned if one of them has a clue what to do next.

These restless protagonists, then, are never moving toward anything in particular; they’re just escaping something else. In “Binary,” which opens the collection, the trance club provides a woman refuge from a troubled visit with her much older brother, a foul-mouthed screw-up given to thinking about little more than “the shortest distance between him and a drink.” In “Ice Out,” a painter must find a way to live within her means “after years of trying to make it as an artist in the city”; she selects the cabin on the Rideau Canal simply by opening a map, closing her eyes, and pointing a finger. And in “Kingwell,” the philosopher-loving narrator trades her downtown Toronto apartment for the rustic Calgary outskirts, mostly “to try [her] hand at hiding for a while, to see how it fit.”

See’s characters may have surfaced in their locations by accident or by default, but once there they’re anchored with precise and vivid prose. Though this is the author’s first fiction collection, two previous books of travel writing have honed her descriptive talents, and she conjures the mosque-scattered landscape of bustling Istanbul and the vast, empty Alberta horizon with equal ease. But See is after a deeper connection than carefully crafted vistas and existential angst, so she quietly and skilfully layers her protagonists with repeated gestures and traits. Two characters lack the confidence to successfully start an outboard; two others are haunted by a postulant’s ghost; two more attempt seduction by licking honey from proffered fingers; still two more confess that their fathers were best met with silence.

In the Toronto trance club, enveloped by pulsing music and violently bobbing heads, the protagonist senses some “collective power greater than all of our own put together, because everyone who is here is thinking the same thing, as individuals.” She seems to approve, but the cumulative effect of See’s connecting patterns is rather unsettling; we don’t much want to be robbed of our individuality or agency. Then, with her final and formally experimental story, the author offers a bit of salvation. Told in parallel narratives (one unfolding across the main page, the other in smaller print along the bottom), “Postcard” follows the long journey of an abandoned girl in search of intimacy. It’s a heartbreaker, but here’s the silver lining: We must decide where our eyes go and how we read this story. We are compelled, thank goodness, to choose what’s next.

Danielle Groen

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

Hot Potatoe by Marc Bell
Drawn & Quarterly (2009), 276 pp.

If you find Canadian artist Marc Bell’s work forbidding, too dense, too busy, flip to plate 102 in Hot Potatoe, the new monograph devoted to his work. “Start here!” the drawing advises in its upper corner, with an arrow pointing to a hand-lettered title that reads, “Not Comics or Video Game.” Then move your eyes down through the composition, past the head of a malformed “tuff guy,” to his epaulet- and Easter egg–clad shoulders, through his patchwork body where critters romp and expostulate, and finally over to his knuckly paw, in which he grips a single rasher plucked from an enormous pile of bacon. Around and across this weird being, Bell scrawls a series of notes-to-self, asides that dwell on fantasies, finances, world events, and the Muppets.

With its jaunty self-references (“a real turning point in my career”) and catalogue of Bellian tropes (did I mention the bathtub full of wieners?), the piece is, in a sense, a primer for the artist’s other “fine ahtwerks” from the past eight years. Hot Potatoe collects many of them, frothing mishmashes of portraiture, topography, cutaway diagrams, automatic writing, and athletic socks. Bell’s most visible works have long been his comics, and while some strong examples anchor this volume, Hot Potatoe’s main virtue lies in teaching us how best to peruse not just his strips, but all the man’s creations. Like his sequential art, Bell’s other “werks” (prints, watercolours, mixed media concoctions) benefit from a thorough read, rather than the old gallery wall once-over.

Sean Rogers

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for his Disabled Son by Ian Brown
Random House Canada (2009), 304 pp.

In his affecting new book, Globe and Mail journalist Ian Brown sets himself the awesome task of measuring the value of human life—specifically that of his profoundly disabled thirteen-year-old son, Walker. The boy was born with a genetic mutation called cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, referred to by experts as an “orphan syndrome” because its occurrence is so random and rare. Walker is small—he weighs just sixty-five pounds—and globally delayed. He can’t feed himself, he barely communicates, and he functions at the level of a two-year-old.

There are no ribbon campaigns or telethons for sufferers of CFC and very little medical knowledge about the condition; it’s only since the arrival of the Internet that a small support network of families has coalesced. Brown and his wife, journalist Johanna Schneller, muddle through—epically sleep deprived and battle scarred from Walker’s vicious tantrums—with the help of a miracle-worker nanny and a series of doctors, therapists, and support caregivers, none of whom offer much hope that their son’s situation will ever improve.

Brown expanded the story from a series of articles first published in the Globe. Even with the most intimate material, he maintains his reporter’s discipline and impartiality, a rigour that makes the storytelling still more intimate. His accounts of his attempts to connect with Walker, and to be a good father, are at once tender and resolutely unsentimental. “Walker had given my life shape, possibly
even meaning,” he writes. “But Walker had also made our lives hell.”

The boy’s needs strain Brown’s finances and his marriage. (“The grit of resentment lay like a fine dust over everything,” he writes of his relationship with Schneller.) And in the zero-sum game of contemporary child rearing, he is beset by guilt for not being enough of a “disability warrior” for his son, and by fears
that other parents view him as a failure.

Yet raising Walker also offers Brown extraordinary moments of grace: the visceral pleasure of sharing a bath or holding hands; the wisdom of a kind-hearted doctor who likens Walker’s condition to the Buddhist idea of “pure being”; and the heartbreaking decency of friends who “tried to reach down into our darkness and hold us.”

Given the current glut of smug daddy blogs and cutesy mommy memoirs, it’s bracing to read a story about parenthood in which there is something so extraordinary at stake. Here, Brown and Schneller grapple with whether to place Walker in a group home. It feels like a betrayal to send him away, but the level of care he requires is simply too much for them to manage. To sort out his feelings, Brown embarks on a journey to meet other families of children with CFC—a narrative device that at times feels forced. And after a visit to a Christian community of disabled people in France, he finds something like peace. It doesn’t come from the group’s beliefs, which he respects but does not share. Rather, it lies in himself: “I have begun simply to love [Walker] as he is, because I’ve discovered I can.”

Rachel Giese

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis
House of Anansi Press (2009), 240 pp.

We live in an age of disintegration,” writes anthropologist Wade Davis in The Wayfinders, the 2009 edition of CBC’s annual Massey Lectures. While the world’s population has ballooned since the latter half of the twentieth century, this proliferation has occurred alongside a paradoxical contraction of what Davis calls the “ethnosphere”—the agglomeration of cultures, religions, and ways of life that exist around the globe, many of which are at risk of disappearing in our lifetime.

He addresses this issue by juxtaposing our technologically advanced, capitalistic Western lifestyle with a handful of cultures that this lifestyle threatens: the Penan of Borneo, for example, or the Aborigines of Australia, who are losing their languages at the rate of one or more per year. Throughout, he does a solid job of debunking the notion that Western rationalism, espoused from the Enlightenment through to the present, is the only—or even the best—model for humanity. The Western ideology of industrial progress, Davis points out, has brought us two devastating world wars and the emergent threat of global climate change; by contrast, many ostensibly “primitive,” non-resource-based cultures have developed much more sustainable ways of life.

Of course, the risk here lies in idealizing the alternative cultures addressed, assuming that an adherence to an ancient way of life exempts its practitioners from the darker side of human nature. Davis avoids this pitfall for the most part, although he does occasionally sentimentalize his subjects, as when he claims that the Sinikara in South America, at an elevation of 4,750 metres, “feels warm from the mere presence” of the people there. Still, the central message of these lectures—that the ongoing disintegration of the world’s ancient cultures is something that needs to be curtailed—manages to cut through such bald sentimentality.

Steven W. Beattie

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

Lemon by Cordelia Strube
Coach House Books (2009), 260 pp.

On matters of importance, the world doesn’t give much of an ear to the opinions of teenage girls. But Lemon, the cynical, wry, and world-weary heroine of the new Cordelia Strube novel that bears her name, deserves to be heard.

Working at the mall, she scoops ice cream for ungrateful, oversexed, and stupid strangers. Volunteering at the hospital, she helps soothe the sores and fears of dying children, telling them they will live long, happy lives, and feeling the guilt behind her lie. Hiding in the shadows, she watches the beatings and blow jobs and drug use of high school. And while she should be safe at home, she instead ends up reassuring the broken and anxious adults around her, helping them through their self-indulgent pain while somehow remaining numb to her own. Lemon’s world is unfair, diseased, and violent, and only she, a teenage girl whom no one listens to, is equipped to deal with it.

Her astute, unsettling observations (“‘Sorry’ is one of those meaningless words people toss around before they kick you in the head again”; “You have to wonder how many other dreams will turn rancid once you’re up close to them”) focus on the kinds of things adults have either forgiven or forgotten. What emerges is a stark picture of cruelty and beauty made up of the details grown-ups often ignore.

With Lemon, Strube proves that striking intelligence comes from the mouths of babes; gems of wisdom litter each page, offering insight on everything from historical atrocities to everyday, mind-numbing malaise. While one could say that the novel is light on plot, to do so would be to miss the point: Strube lets the reader crawl inside the head of a girl who sees the world with more clarity than any adult. And the book is better for it.

Stacey May Fowles

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

The Last Woman by John Bemrose
McClelland & Stewart (2009), 323 pp.

Everything that is masterful about The Last Woman, John Bemrose’s follow-up to his 2004 debut novel, The Island Walkers, is on display in the book’s first three chapters—but only, perhaps, on second read. The first time through is certainly pleasurable (“The sun suffers through a cloudless sky,” the author begins, revealing his oft-demonstrated eye for the evocative verb), but it’s only after the novel ends that one can go back and appreciate how much he accomplishes in the eight pages that introduce his three main characters.

First, there is the gauzily poetic chapter depicting a woman at a window—Ann, we later learn—whose lazy day in Ontario’s cottage country is interrupted by entrancing news. Next, there is the arrival of a strangerBilly, is that you? Oh my God, Billy!” an imagined woman (the one we just met?) shrieks near the chapter’s close—who infuses the book with the energy of “the rhythmic scuff of his boots.” And then there is the plain-spoken third chapter—focusing on Richard, the faintly trembling fixed point around whom Ann’s depressive painter’s life will be shown to revolve—which sets up Bemrose’s chief concerns: the love triangle between these three intensely introspective people, and the past that fuels it.

The bulk of The Last Woman alternates between two narratives. Intertwined through the main story of Billy’s re-engagement with Ann and Richard is a history covering Billy and Ann’s teenage romance, Ann and Richard’s courtship, and Richard and Billy’s failed prosecution of a land claim on behalf of the reservation where Billy grew up. Though the novel’s tone is relentlessly downbeat (“Happy people don’t think,” Ann proclaims), and its action pulses in fits and starts, Bemrose’s freighted prose powers the plot onward: “Beauty promised peace and delivered war,” Richard reflects after meeting Ann.

And deliver her beauty does. The Last Woman’s greatest success is its near-Tolstoian unfolding of the psychology of love triangles. It rapidly becomes clear that Billy’s ten-year exile has passed like an instant for both him and Ann, with the absent other remaining a presence even as Ann’s marriage has grown to include a child. With renewal now a possibility, what was a presence becomes an obsession.

Weaving back and forth in time, Bemrose subtly suggests the ways in which people’s pasts can outpace them, guiding them toward destruction. The novel’s title is a reference to the painting Ann crafts as her longing for reconciliation with Billy blazes through her life; her best work, it too is a portent of personal apocalypse.

But Bemrose isn’t leading her to Anna Karenina’s fate here, and when the past finally strikes, its impact is muted, its implications open ended—even hopeful. It’s at that point that a trip back to the first ten pages is advised, to see just how much the author packed into its gestures. “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it,” Nabokov instructed. The Last Woman is the rare novel that makes the counsel worthwhile.

Jeremy Keehn

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

Kanata by Don Gillmor
Penguin Group (Canada) (2009), 456 pp.

As a veteran journalist, children’s author, and memoirist, Don Gillmor has long reserved a novel-shaped space in his eclectic oeuvre. That Kanata, his first long work of fiction, is admirable and almost absurdly ambitious comes, then, as little surprise. A national epic that crosses centuries and continents with sprawling ease, his most recent wrangle with the elusive character of Canada and its people is also his most engrossing.

Yet this is more than a literary companion to Canada: A People’s History, the non-fiction work he produced in conjunction with CBC in 2000. Taking an epigraph (“Longing on a large scale is what makes history”) from one of Don DeLillo’s mad, messy portraits of American life, Kanata reads like a catalogue of unscreened Canadian heritage minutes pulled inside out, thrown into a blender, and then arrayed across some 450 pages—something more provocatively complex, and less aridly affirmative, than one might expect from a project of this sort. Gillmor switches perspective and time period, sometimes surveying Canada’s political scene from the viewpoint of a painfully indecisive John Diefenbaker, elsewhere giving now familiar landscapes their beautiful first traces through the measured view of an eighteenth-century cartographer.

Much of the book centres on Michael Mountain Horse, an Alberta-born historian whose experiences and reflections encapsulate many of the early twentieth century’s landmark moments: the battle of the Somme, the Great Depression, the Regina riots, the first Alberta oil boom, and the Cold War, to name just a few. When channelling Mountain Horse’s sweeping narrative, the story rampages through bar fights and battlefields with all the intensity, tragedy, and scope that define the epic aesthetic. Visceral descriptions and startling imagery dot nearly every page: wolves stand “on their hind legs in a grotesque dance, as if they were in the throes of becoming human”; a gangrenous foot looks as though it “died years ago, a separate death, but [is] still somehow clinging to its host.”

Entwined throughout are chapters demythologizing our major historical figures, one indignity at a time. Macdonald appears as a “bewildered animal” after lighting his bedsheets on fire in a drunken accident, while Mackenzie King’s spiritualism is played for laughs as he pursues communion with his dead dog.

However, for all their welcome humour, these chapters often feel external, muddling the book’s overall structure. Compounding the muddle, other chapters retreat from the compelling guts of the story to let Mountain Horse deliver heavy-handed monologues of historical exposition and theory. These passages can be wincingly self-conscious: musing on a mural of Canada, Mountain Horse surmises that “if the individual elements were irregular in scale, and the artistic sensibility discrepant and crude, there was a naive grandeur… It was huge, for one thing, and who doesn’t admire the epic? ” For all his evident intelligence, Gillmor would do well to let readers admire the grandeur of his novel without so blatantly asking us to do so, for despite the irregularities and discrepancies inherent to its remarkable scale there is without question much to admire.

Rachel Heinrichs

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff

Galore by Michael Crummey
Doubleday Canada (2009), 352 pp.

A pale man falls, lifeless, from the belly of a beached whale. As the colourless body is hauled from the rural Newfoundland seashore to the small parish of Paradise Deep, it unexpectedly springs to life.

So begins Galore, the latest novel from Giller-nominated author Michael Crummey. The unlikely arrival of this pallid, mute stranger marks the beginning of a tale that traces the Sellers and Devine families through six generations of unforgiving coastal livelihood. The story stretches from the Napoleonic era to the First World War, and though years of familial strife have made enemies of the clans, they are bound to one another by countless marriages, love affairs, accidents, and inevitable turns of fate.

Crummey’s poetics are like the landscape he describes: stark and sparse, but punctuated with a wild richness that creates the impression of something carefully controlled yet on the verge of bursting. The historical, almost medieval, Newfoundland setting proves fertile ground for his rich imagination; he describes
early medical procedures and fishing techniques as if he had held the scalpel and lowered the nets himself. And throughout, Newfie folklore is animated, with ghosts and curses as commonplace as the ubiquitous stench of cod.

Galore is an absolute pleasure. In Crummey’s capable hands, the setting breeds magic, and the individuals that populate its rugged terrain are nuanced and real, as gentle as they are harsh, as hateful as they are loving. Each unfolding generation flows into the next in a complex narrative that feels effortless, yet is woven so tightly that the magnificent artistry of its creator cannot be ignored.

Lia Grainger

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

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

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

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

Roxanna Bikadoroff has won numerous National Magazine and Western Magazine Awards. She illustrates for The Walrus and The New Yorker.