Tag Archives: 2000s

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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Winner of the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel

Winner of the 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Book

Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature

I’ve talked on this blog before about how young adult lit isn’t really my thing, unless it is a particularly important or well-known piece. Also on this blog, I’ve also talked about how the graphic novel isn’t a genre I’m especially familiar with. In 2011, when a graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, was chosen for Canada Reads, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. As I said then, I see graphic novels as not a literary form per se, more of a blend of art and literature – a genre in its own right without parallel. The number of graphic novels in my CanLit collection has grown slightly – I’m up to a whole 5 titles now. That number may grow though, I’m going to be starting to collect the winners of the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in the near future now that I’ve gathered all of the fiction, poetry, and drama winners.

Skim fits my aforementioned criteria. It is a young adult graphic novel that is held in high regard in the literary community and was an interesting magnet for some controversy in 2008. No other GG category seems to stir up as much trouble as the Children’s Lit award does (although there was also a snafu in the poetry category this year). This book was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, but only one of the two “creators” were credited in the nomination – Mariko Tamaki; her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, the illustrator of the book, was omitted. There was an outcry in the comics community over the exclusion because of the collaborative approach taken with this genre (funny enough though, not a peep was made when Jillian herself won the illustration GG for This One Summer last year).

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, set in 1993, tells the story of Kimberly Cameron (aka Skim). She is a student at an all-girls high school and is a rather unremarkable average “goth” kid. She goes through the typical crucible of being a teenaged girl – sexuality, shifting friendships, social status, and growing up.

Nothing remarkable happens in this book. If you’ve been to high school, you’ve experienced a lot of what these girls and Skim go through. What is remarkable about this book though, is the way the authors are able to use their particular combination of art and text to build a connection with the title character to the point that you experience her world through her eyes.

The art, from beginning-to-end, is constantly shifting, mirroring the emotional somersaults that take place in the mind of a typical teenager. Jillian Tamaki doesn’t stick to one particular type of illustration – she seamlessly moves from comic strip panels, to full page artwork, to two-page spreads, and to every combination in between. She switches aspects, uses zooming to great effect (I have no other word for it), uses shadows and reflections in interesting ways, and Tamaki is excellent at capturing extremely complex emotion in a single framed facial expression.

In terms of the text, I was interested in the first-person perspective. The text is presented in three different ways – as Skim’s diary entries, her internal stream-of-consciousness, and dialogue. Despite being fairly text heavy compared to the few other literary graphic novels I’ve read, Mariko Tamaki is very efficient with her writing. More importantly though, Tamaki manages to really capture the idioms of teenaged girl without sacrificing the depth and thematic impact of Skim’s story.

So all-in-all, Skim was a very enjoyable read. The primary characters are well developed, the artwork is visually appealing and continually changing, the writing is of a very high quality, and the book deals with themes that will be present as long as teenagers continue to exist. Skim is clear evidence of why Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are powerful forces in the world of the Canadian graphic novel.

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The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth

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Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

David Zieroth is a pretty typical Canadian career poet. He regularly puts out collections, he taught English at the post secondary level, and he adheres to a fairly traditional lyrical style. As a side note, a former English professor and thesis advisor of mine, Richard Lemm ­ another typical Canadian career poet, is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book. In 2009, this career poet published his masterpiece and was awarded the top prize in Canadian Poetry, the Governor General’s Award. The Fly in Autumn is a good example of a satisfying poetry collection ­ accessible, tight in terms of metaphor and symbol, not afraid of humour, and the author doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the wheel in regards to style.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t going to be the most insightful review ever written. I read this book one night in bed when I was very tired, not feeling well and half tripping out on cold and sinus medication.

The strength of this book is the absurdest twist Zieroth takes with a lot of his poems, particularly the closing, and title, sequence, “The Fly in Autumn.” Like in “Insurance”:

Insurance offices are full of fat men
(cramped behind small desks stacked
with forms and notes) willing to act
as agents while chewing on a time when
they were blessed with a full head of hair.
This one’s thinking of lunch, the eclair

As you can see from this stanza as well, Zieroth isn’t afraid to throw a rhyme into the mix here and there. The pattern above, ABBACC, or close enough, is the one which the author continually returns. Zieroth uses this scheme in about a third of the poems but manages to avoid the sing-song feeling that sometimes roars its head with rhyming in contemporary poetry.

I’ve ranted on this blog about how much I am annoyed by collections of poetry that try to find something sublime or transcendent in the minutiae of everyday existence. This book had the potential to go in that direction, but fortunately for all involved, Zieroth took simple subjects and treated them to a quirky re-imagining.

The Door is Open by Bart Campbell

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Finalist for the 2002 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

Finalist for the 2002 City of Vancouver Book Prize

Golf season is winding down so I guess it’s time to start reviewing some books again. I recently moved my bookshelves around and I wanted to read a book from the top shelf of the first case, which happens to be my paperback non-fiction shelf. The book that caught my eye was Bart Campbell’s The Door is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer.

This memoir tells the story of a hospital lab technician who volunteers at a drop in centre in Vancouver’s East Hastings area after he and his wife separate. Across Canada, East Hastings has the reputation of being a very poor, hard, and drug and crime infested area. Images are conjured up of prostitutes, heroin, and destitution. This memoir was published in 2001 so it was before the opening of the safe-injection site InSite, and other focused government efforts, started to make a very small dent in the visible poverty.

This book is very short, with the epilogue it clocks in at only 144 pages, but it is 144 very well used pages. Each of the 10 short chapters pack a very strong punch. The Door is Open is more than simply a memoir filled with anecdotes about the characters he came across while volunteering, of which there are lots; Campbell looks at the nature of poverty and all of the complications that go along with it. In methodical fashion, he explores concepts of poverty and homelessness, crime, addiction, prostitution, mental health and suicide, and survival. Campbell beautifully pieces together cold-hard facts, personal observations, anecdotes, and expert opinions to paint a brutally honest portrait of East Hastings, which is, as he points out, the “poorest forward sortation area of all 7,000 postal prefixes” in Canada.

At the end of each chapter, Campbell has a coda of sorts with excepts from diaries he kept while volunteering. These excerpts act as real human examples of the themes he explored in the preceding pages. Also peppered throughout the book are beautiful black and white photographs of the East Hastings landscape.

I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve never had to stare down the prospect of real poverty. When I was younger I was the stereotypical “poor student,” but this was far from being “poor.” It just meant I had to call my parents to borrow a few bucks. I always had a job, a roof over my head, cable TV and internet, food, a car, and a few books to read. Poverty and desperation on this level is something middle-class Canadians like myself just don’t have to think about, even though, as Campbell mentions, Statistics Canada points out that most Canadians are only a few months away from homelessness. The Door is Open is a hard read because it forces you to face this world. The author pulls no punches and maybe, just maybe, he might change a few minds on the homeless.

Canada is in the midst of a federal election and we recently had a provincial election here in PEI. As I finished this book last night, it actually got me thinking (which was likely a goal Bart Campbell had), about the political approaches that are the typical go-to’s in this country. Over the last few years, it’s been all “affordable housing.” Just last week Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised tax credits to developers to build low income housing. If Trudeau came to my door step right now, I would hand him a copy of this book, and ask him how this would help the people Campbell writes about (answer is, it wouldn’t).

The Door is Open was on the longlist for Canada Reads this year; I hadn’t actually heard of the book prior to this. Even though it is almost 15 years old at this point, it is still, quite sadly, very relevant. In a country with an economy worth over $2,000,000,000,000, there is no need for people to have such a meager existence. This is a fantastic book and a must read

Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

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After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.

In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.

The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.

The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.

Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

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Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama

The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.

This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.

The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2005

Whenever I sit down to read a Margaret Atwood book, I know I’m in for a good time. One of my favorite authors, this literary icon’s skill has developed to the point of being one of the true living masters of English letters. I still remember when Oryx and Crake was released; it was 2003 and was the first year I really started following the Canadian Literature scene. Despite not having read it, it was my pick to win the Giller – it didn’t. This novel was essentially the runner up of the year – it was shortlisted for the Giller, the GG, the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin, and came in second when it was on Canada Reads in 2005. I really wanted to read this book when it hit the shelves, but I was a university student, was poor, and couldn’t afford to shell out $30 for a hardcover book. So two years later when the economical $10.95 mass market paperback was released, I picked it up. But, for some reason, it just sat on the shelf and I never actually read it. This past week, I felt it was finally time to knock this book off the to-read shelf. Oryx and Crake is in the same class as the best work by Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke and is, without a doubt, one of the best sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels I have ever read. This is a novel that could only be written by a master writer like Margaret Atwood; she creates an entirely unique world of the future that answers every detail, down to diet, a reader may be looking for. Additionally, the story is grounded in perfectly plausible scientific principles.

There are really two levels to a good reading of Oryx and Crake, one is the social/environmental level and the other is human level. These two thematic threads are very intertwined and complement each other – one doesn’t work without the other.

On the social/environmental level, which deals with the heavier scientific elements of the story, Atwood delivers a conceptual punch without an overtly didactic tone. As I was reading this novel, what impressed me was just how logical the story’s conclusions were. I’m not an anti-GMO flag waver, for the most part the idea of GMOs is grossly misunderstood, but genetic modifications is only a step away from genetic engineering – which is a much more controversial notion. Oryx and Crake traces genetic engineering to its ultimate conclusion if left unfettered – the creation of a being that will replace humanity.

On the human level, this novel has so much going on. On its most fundamental level, this is a coming-of-age story. We see Jimmy develop from a young overachiever, into a university-aged slacker, and eventually into Snowman, where he sheds his old identity to live up to his ultimate role – guardian of the Crakers and possibly the last remnant of his species. The allegory and metaphor is just staggering. Finally, this book explores other human notions such as personal and scientific ethics, class divisions and social cleavages, and the roots and origins of theological belief.

Genre-wise, Oryx and Crake crosses the boundaries of sci-fi, dystopias, and the post-apocalyptic. There are obvious elements of sci-fi (gene-splicing, genetic engineering, etc); the world of Jimmy’s youth is an unmistakable dystopia (lack of governments, hermetically sealed cities holding in the poor masses, large corporations controlling and manipulating the masses at will); and finally, the post-apocalyptic nature of the novel is self-evident. Atwood clearly demonstrates that a dystopia will almost always eventually lead to an apocalypse like event.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of academic articles have been written on this novel – in fields as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, political science, biomedical ethics, and linguistics. It is an absolute aberration for a novel this young to have this much critical attention. Oryx and Crake along with its two sequels (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam – which I’ll be reading in short order) is being developed into an HBO mini-series by Darren Aronofsky. And, even though it didn’t win any, this novel turned up on the nomination list of pretty much every major award for which it was eligible. So, I think that my assertion that this book is a true masterpiece is not an understatement. Atwood has created a world from scratch and created characters that are unforgettable. Oryx and Crake is an important book and a must read for everyone.

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani

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Selected for Canada Reads 2007

Contemporary CanLit has a large and important sub-group of stars like M.G. Vassanji or Rohinton Mistry who are, in the scope of literature, Canadian only in terms of residency. Typically relocating here as an adult, these writers’ style is informed by the culture and events of their home countries. Stories rarely take place in Canada, and if they do it is often only as a reflection point in the present while the meat of the book is set in Africa, or India, or Pakistan in past times. This category of Canadian writing has been very influential on the literary scene, all of the major literary awards have been won by immigrant writers with non-Canadian settings, several have appeared on Canada Reads, and many find their way on bestseller lists. These writers greatly expand the very definition of CanLit and enrich our literary culture and canon with a variety of perspectives and experiences that the average Canadian could not even imagine.

Anosh Irani is one of those writers. Born in Bombay, India in 1974, Irani moved to Vancouver in 1998 to attend university and has since made a steady name for himself as a fiction writer, playwright, and creative writing professor. His nationwide big-break came in 2007 when Donna Morrissey championed his 2006 novel The Song of Kahunsha on Canada Reads.

Set over three days in 1993 in the midst of the sectarian riots in Bombay, The Song of Kahunsha tells the story of Chamdi, a ten-year-old boy who is forced to leave his orphanage and survive on the mean streets of the city. He befriends two other street-kids, brother and sister Sumdi and Guddi. The pair is trying to scrape enough money to survive after their father was killed and their mother lost her mind. Chamdi reluctantly joins them and subsequently falls under the control of the ring-leader, a vicious sociopath named Anand Bhai. As the city degenerates into violence, Chamdi is dragged further into this underworld, albeit unwillingly, and ultimately makes a horrific choice that will no doubt haunt him for life.

I greatly enjoyed this book. It was a nice change to venture outside of Canada and get a different perspective and set of values. While I really enjoyed it, The Song of Kahumsha is a very sad book with very little hope in it. Themes of slavery and the nature of freewill permeate the novel and, ultimately, it feels like there is no chance of escaping this desperate situation. While this is perfectly realistic, you may need to pop out some Zoloft by the time you get through the book. The one tiny sliver of light in this dark and gritty story is buried deep in Chamdi’s soul. He had a rough ride over the three days we spend with him: he has to leave the orphanage, he finds out his father abandoned him when he was an infant, he must compromise his morals by begging and thieving, he endures physical harm, people close to him die, and he is forced to make a terrible decision that is incomprehensible to anyone let alone a ten-year-old. But, throughout all of these hardships, Chamdi never loses his sense of morality; he knows the difference between good and evil and this is why his choices, even though they’re made under duress, eat at him. Jim Cuddy criticized this novel as being picaresque because Chamdi doesn’t really change significantly as his world collapses. In my reading though, this is the one glimmer of hope – the spirit of this precocious child remains intact.

Overall, this is a great book, a fast read, and powerfully written. It’s definitely worth the read.

Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr

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Winner of the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama

Winner of the 2001 Jessie Richardson Award for Large Theatre: Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Original Script

The Spanish Flu literally ravaged the planet from early 1918 to late 1920. Infections were documented from the remote South Pacific Islands to the northern Arctic of Canada. With a mortality rate of up to 20%, some estimates place the number of infected at 500 million and the death toll to be as high as 100 million people – roughly 5% of the world’s population at the time. The global pandemic was exacerbated by the end of World War I. Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning home around the globe and spreading the illness. The difference between this flu and other strains was the fact that healthy young adults were the ones dying from the virus. According to Wikipedia, “Modern research, using virus taken from the bodies of frozen victims, has concluded that the virus kills through a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system). The strong immune reactions of young adults ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic). Unity (1918) is Kevin Kerr’s Governor General Award winning dramatic retelling of the effects of the pandemic on a generic Canadian small-town – in this case, Unity, Saskatchewan.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working on collecting winners of GG for Drama; this book intrigued me much more than most of the other titles I’ve acquired lately from this list. It seemed like an interesting story idea and I had no prejudices or expectations coming in because I had never even heard of the author, other than GG lists. I was very satisfied with Unity (1918) and how it approached the topic.

The play is told in two acts with a total of thirty-five scenes, most of which are under three pages, with the longest coming in at six. Essentially there are four important plot stages: rumors and fear, panic, outbreak, and aftermath. The story largely unfolds as an ensemble piece; the characters include a trio of sisters, a young undertaker, a blind soldier who just returned from the front, two telephone/telegraph operators, and a few other supporting characters from the town. One of the sisters, Beatrice, is the closest thing to a “main character” but in reality this is the story of a town and Unity, Saskatchewan is the focal point.

What is really stunning about Unity (1918) is how timeless of a story this is, particularly how Kerr deals with the panic and hysteria that goes along with serious public health threats like the Spanish Flu. Unity tries quarantines, banning and canceling public gatherings including church services, people are required to wear masks, and, when the flu finally does arrive, scapegoating and blaming. Almost a century later, all you need to do is Google SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu or Ebola and you will come across the same behaviours today.

Kerr uses an interesting method of writing dialog. He uses directional pointers – asterisks and slashes – to intentionally have characters talking over each other and interrupting. Early in the book I found this very disorienting as it is not something that you come across every day, but, as I got used to it, I felt that it really added to panicked feeling permeating the story. The scenes are very short and the vast majority of lines are only a sentence or two. Additionally, there are very minimal stage directions and the directions that the author does include are free of literary indulgences – so the dialogue tells the story.

All-in-all, Unity (1918) is a great historical drama. It is an ageless story but really shines the light on one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century. Kevin Kerr employs inventive literary techniques but leaves a lot of room for theatrical interpretation and staging. Definitely worth the 2 or 3 hours.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

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Winner of the 2008 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008

Rawi Hage himself is an interesting character; he’s a Lebanese immigrant to Canada, suffered through his home country’s civil war, he’s lived in New York, is an accomplished photographer, drove a cab, and somehow managed to end up and settle in Montreal in 1992. In addition to all of this, he has a dark brooding look that just oozes intensity. He seemed to explode out of nowhere onto the Canadian literary scene in 2006 with the now contemporary classic De Niro’s Game. Hage’s first novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award and won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – one of the world’s richest literary prizes and at the time, one of the only worldwide English language awards. Hage published novel number two, Cockroach, in 2008. The accolades and nominations quickly rolled in further cementing his place in 21st Century Canadian literary culture.

This was my first introduction to Rawi Hage. I haven’t yet read De Niro’s Game or his third novel Carnival. Cockroach is the story of an unnamed narrator making his way through a cold Montreal winter in an unspecified time. The narrator is an Arabian immigrant who lives in utter poverty. He recently tried to kill himself and is forced to have regular sessions with a therapist where he delves into his shady and pragmatic past growing up in his home country. In Montreal, he befriends and falls for Shohreh, a member of the Iranian diaspora into which he has been adopted. All the while, the narrator has recurring fantasies and hallucinations of himself becoming a cockroach, slithering and crawling his way through the underworld and into the homes and lives of those he admires and despises. This unnamed narrator is very gritty and dark but at the same time is very “real.” His pragmatism and survival instincts trump all else – including his better judgment.

This novel is equal parts psychological, psychedelic and Kafkaesque. Frankly, other than the flashbacks during the therapy sessions, very little happens in terms of plot in this novel. We are taken on a journey through the narrator’s exploration of the mundane and every word of it is riveting. We see the plight of the impoverished immigrant, the closed-in nature of the a diaspora in a large city, the baggage that a newcomer brings with him from his homeland, and just how far someone can go to survive and how the very definition of “survival” is entirely subjective. We join our storyteller as he collects welfare cheques, works as a busboy, smokes hash and snorts coke with his Iranian friends, and talks out his past with his therapist; we then join him through kaleidoscopic fantasies and delusions of becoming the cockroach.

The highlight of Cockroach was the quality of the writing. Rawi Hage uses a poetic language that is free of pretension that is so hard to find in contemporary fiction; it exudes elevated prose but doesn’t reek of MFA syndrome.  He uses highly imaginative metaphors and spares no graphic detail.

Rawi Hage is at the forefront and very representative of the current generation of future CanLit icons: born outside our borders, a working class background (i.e. he’s not an English professor), highly original stories that are rooted in literary tradition, and willing to take risks in his writing. That being said, Cockroach is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. This is a novel for anyone that wants to delve into the dark nether-regions of the human soul with the possibility of never coming out.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Winner of the 2004 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work

Nominated for the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award

New York Times Notable Book ~ 2003

Los Angeles Times “Best of the Best” ~ 2003

Economist Best Book of the Year ~ 2003

Newsday Favorite Book of the Year ~ 2003

William Gibson is a very important writer; he is a pioneer of contemporary sci-fi sub-genres steampunk and cyber-punk, he has coined many terms in popular culture – most notably “cyberspace”, and he was one of the first writers to really integrate our current techno-society into science-fiction, if not fiction in general. Gibson immigrated to Canada in his youth to avoid the Vietnam War draft, although he admits it had more to do with living the 60s counter-culture lifestyle as he wasn’t actually drafted. Gibson is one of those writers who is required reading for those interested in variety of literary topics: sci-fi, contemporary CanLit, and the literature of draft-dodgers. Pattern Recognition is my first William Gibson novel and it was also his first novel to gain mainstream attention and climb up the big bestseller lists. This particular title landed on my shelf because it was on the longlist for Canada Reads 2011.

This is the story of Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an unusual sensitivity to trademarks and logos. She removes all labels and identifying corporate symbols from her clothes and avoids direct contact with them. As the novel progresses, we are drawn into her hunt for the “footage,” a series of mysterious film clips posted online that represent the absolute pinnacle of artistic beauty. Cayce’s employer, Hubertus Bigend, offers her the full use of his company’s unlimited resources to find the “maker” of these clips for an unspecified purpose. This journey takes her and the supporting cast to London, Paris, Tokyo, Russia and, most importantly, deep into the online world.

Pattern Recognition is not a sci-fi novel per se, but it certainly has a sci-fi feel to it. The movement of the story, tone, and characters are very reminiscent of sci-fi, but, really, there is nothing in this book that is implausible for its time. I would argue though, that this is sci-fi, but it is soft, rather than hard sci-fi. It’s steeped in the social sciences rather than hard sciences like physics and engineering. This story plays with psychology, psychiatry, human behavior, sociology, and even criminology.

It’s been two days since I’ve finished this novel and I still can’t really give a definitive answer as to what I thought of it. There were parts and elements that I greatly enjoyed and others that almost made me put the book away. The quality of writing is very literary and the characters are well developed; as I thought about it, I would have to say pacing was the biggest frustration. I have the pocket paperback edition and it clocks in at 367 pages – so it is not a huge book. As I read it though I would alternate feeling like the book was way too long and other points where I felt too much was happening too fast and details were being lost. This is very apparent in the last 15% or so of the novel; it felt like Gibson was about to default on his deadline and needed to wrap things up quick. The book’s concluding chapters left you felling like you had just spent the last week trying to untangle a ball of yarn, then you got frustrated and asked your wife to do it, she then untangles it in about 10 seconds and says “you saw how I did that right?.” The last 35 pages were way too much story in too short a time.

Pattern Recognition, despite my criticisms, was an interesting read. It’s ahead of its time (2003) in many ways by looking at the concept of viral videos, exploring living in a post-9/11 world, examining online personas and virtual lives, and the seemingly never ending push of global corporatism. Overall though, Pattern Recognition just gets a “meh.”

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