I suppose it's become normal for "setting" (usually a city or a decade) to be a character in novels. What made me realise this, is how background the 80s are in Model Home. I was expecting lots of shout-outs to... well, everything I remember from my childhood. Instead, the references that tie the characters to a time are minimal, and a bit startling when they do appear. Because I'm so used to being bombarded by reminders of where/when a novel is happening, I wondered why the novel had been set in the 80s at all. Why not now? What makes the 80s special and integral to the storyline in a way that, say, the 90s could not have been? As part two of the novel opened, I understood the reason: The Cold War.

I was a kid in the 80s, and I basically accepted nuclear annihilation as fact. We didn't have the "duck and cover" drills of the early 60s (though I'm not sure they ever had those in Canada), but we were hyper-aware of the USA/USSR conflict, and the way it was "fought." We had Red Dawn and "Wild, Wild West"* and "Land of Confusion" and probably about 1000 songs I'm forgetting, telling us we were just a step away from the earth being blown up six times over. Eldest son of the Ziller family, Dustin is also a product of this saturation of nuclear fear. When he awakens in the hospital, half-covered in third-degree burns, his first thought is of nuclear war.
When they told him he'd been burned, his first thought was World War III. The Russians must have attacked. He didn't remember the accident, but when they told him about it--the cigarette, the house exploding into flames--it seemed too ludicrous to be true.
The Ziller family, homeless from the explosion, and bankrupted by father Warren's investment in a non-starter of a desert subdivision, has no choice but to move to a house they own by default. The street is completely devoid of people, stinking from the garbage dump not far away, and full of scalding surfaces. Youngest son Jonas, who is blamed for the explosion in the former home, rides his bike "in a place with only one block [...] there were no pedestrians, the block was utterly, echoingly empty." They may as well be the last people on earth.

It's probably apocryphal, but there's a theory that bugs, roaches, would be the only animals to survive a nuclear holocaust. I began to think about this supposition, and the relationship of Mobile Home to Kafka's Metamorphosis** after a couple mentions of the proliferation of roaches, and of feeling "buglike." The explosion that displaces the Ziller family to the desert also changes the Ziller boys into twin Gregor Samsas; hideous, unlovable, and alienated. Jonas' parents acknowledge that they no longer love their youngest child, who they assume is responsible for physically changing their eldest son into something unrecognizable from the rock 'n' roll, golden boy surfer they knew previous. The family purposely barely recognize Jonas in their midst, in an effort to keep themselves from outright hating him. For his part, Dustin retreats to his room. The life he had pictured for himself is utterly destroyed by the immense change not only in his appearance, but health and mobility.

Model Home does an excellent job of personalizing the cultural anxiety of the West in the final, escalating stages of the Cold War. The Zillers have The Bomb dropped on them, but only them. They are isolated not only within their community of no-one, but within themselves. Technology encroaches, and isolates even further. Dustin remains with his father, in the desert, watching movie after movie on his VCR. Jonas plays Joust for hours, with no possible end, as the game is unwinnable. The future's not so bright.

*This video is as creepy as I remember it.
**Which I'd not read before, but borrowed from the library immediately after finishing Mobile Home so I could make sure I wasn't totally off-base.
I'm not proposing that Model Home is at all a retelling of Metamorphosis. However, there are thematic similarities.

We Meet Again, Booker

Last year I decided to go ahead and read everything on the Booker Prize Short List, though after the prize had been given out. I've consciously read Booker noms before (most memorably Darkmans: amazing), but didn't really make an effort to make a reading list out of the prize nominees.

The 2009 stand-out for me was easily Simon Mawer's The Glass Room. I was completely invested in each character, and the ending, while a bit reliant on Victorian-style contrivance and coincidence, was completely satisfying.

Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Booker, was enjoyable but less moving. It almost felt like a "summer read" to me. I gifted it to my Dad for Christmas, since he loves a good historical novel. I certainly get that from him. It's not often these days that my Dad and I read the same book, so it was nice to have a bookish conversation with him again. He also filled me in on what happens to Cromwell after Wolf Hall ends. As one would expect from the court of Henry VIII, it's not good.

The Little Stranger was more enjoyable for me than Tipping the Velvet, which I found a bit heavy-handed. I'd read The Children's Book a good while before the Booker list was announced, because it's A.S. Byatt, and I am a slobbering fan girl. I don't really get Coetzee, and found myself hating the dreariness of everything in Summertime. I wanted to like The Quickening Maze more than I did, but as in the Coetzee, I found pretty much everyone unlikeable (perhaps I was too put off by the portrayal of Tennyson), and was thus unable to invest much feeling for the outcome of the characters.

Yesterday, the 2010 long-list was announced, and I've not read anything on it. Which means I'll have plenty of titles to add to my library queue come the announcement of the shortlist. I hope Lisa Moore makes it, because I keep meaning to read her, and keep getting distracted by shiny objects. I hope David Mitchell doesn't make it, because I really disliked Cloud Atlas. Hell, I didn't even finish Cloud Atlas and there are very, very few books I don't finish. I felt like I was reading Tristam Shandy again. Too convoluted and proud of it*. Not my scene, man.

I'm really looking forward to repeating my Booker Shortlist reading series. Not all the 2009 books were in the "win" column for me, but I read books I might not normally pick up, and I suppose that's the whole point of these things in the end: exposure.

*I realise the same could be said for critical theory.

I Think I Got a C- in Critical Theory Class

There's a problem with finishing a book I really, really love: I have a hard time starting anything else. I stopped and started about four different books before I was able to get into Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, which I picked up at the big Ithaca book sale in May. No idea why I bought that particular book there, since it's available in multitudes in every used book store everywhere. I'm odd. And yet, even after that, I was still stuck on I Love Dick.

This is long (for a blog post, but extremely brief for a real analysis), and I'm trying to twist my way through some theory that's new to me. It's probably nonsensical because I'm still trying to grasp so many things. Critical Theory has never been my strong suit, but I'm so intensely fascinated with it, after reading I Love Dick, that I can't help but try.

I love I Love Dick so much that I bought my own copy off Amazon, just so I could re-read and annotate it. I love I Love Dick so much that I tried, and failed, to find an email address for Chris Kraus so I could tell her how much that book meant to me. I Love Dick makes me want to read everything else Kraus has written, go back to school, and write a Master's thesis on her. And I love I Love Dick so much that I felt I had to come back and write more about it, since I basically just used it to introduce my thoughts on Russell Smith in a previous post. Yet writing this post, I know I still can't do it any justice. I really would need so much more space, and time, and education to even get close. What follows is what currently has my brain spinning.

Early on, Kraus writes about herself in the third person:
Chris was not a torture victim, not a peasant. She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was was her specificity. By writing Dick [the person, or the book?] she was offering her life as Case Study.
Throughout, Kraus introduces the reader to other case studies in love, but what these studies really are, and what they become, are introductions to the lives of individuals. Some of these people are artists, and thus possibly recognizable to people -- unlike me -- who know something about the art world. Some are activists, or writers. Some are "regular" people. It's possible, too, that some are entirely fictional. Because I Love Dick is memoir-as-fiction, it's purposely difficult, within the realm of this text only, to guess at the "authenticity" of the accounts, and it's possible that one shouldn't. In writing this book, Kraus brings into existence lives unknown to the reader, including her own. In other words, by writing to Dick, she writes herself into existence.

In the afterword, Joan Hawkins notes:
And while Kraus doesn't quote Guattari until late in the text, his presence is already felt in the first letter. In fact, what's interesting is Chris' idea that you can somehow use Baudillard's notion of the hyper-real, the simulacrum, to get to Delueze and Guattari's notion of intensification. And that perhaps is the theoretical drive behind the entire project, as the letters and the simulacrum of a passion which receives little encouragement emerge as the truest and best way outside the virtual gridlock and into Deleuzian rematerialization of experience.
Simulacrum is a new concept to me, but if my novice (and rusty theoretical) reading is correct, Kraus plays with the notion that "real" lives might not exist until they become a form of hyper-real, lived through life, through the author, then finally reader. The Wikipedia entry on Baudrillard's theory of Simulacra and Simulation states that "today there is no such thing as reality" Our world is one "in which the dominant simulacrum is the model, which by its nature already stands for endless reproducibility, and is itself already reproduced." When Kraus writes about a life, in a fictional way, it is a reproduction of a life lived, which is made more real with every reading, by a stranger, of each or every life. Each printing, or reproduction, of I Love Dick is an affirmation of these lives. While it is Baudrillard's opinion that hyper-reality renders experience meaningless, I feel that in working with a text like I Love Dick, simulacra can create an authentically meaningful experience for a reader who might not have had the opportunity otherwise.

There's an interesting typo that happens repeatedly -- but not consistently -- which I have to think is intentional: Kraus often confuses "it's" and "its." There is, I think, a purposeful mutability between "possessing" and "being" throughout I Love Dick. Dick is angry that he has become part of Chris' story ("I found the situation initially perplexing, then disturbing") but does Chris not own Dick, if she brings him into being (as postulated above)? Only through her authorial ownership, do Dick and the others exist.

* * *

Speaking of ownership, I tweeted the following, which some viewers found disturbing:
"I love cracking a spine so the book can lay flat for me to copy from it."
I get that some people like to keep their books more pristine, but as I said in my next tweet "I live with books. I mark them, I crease them, I use them and they look it. Dog-eared and underlined. LOVED."* I sometimes sleep with books beside me, and they get rolled on. I carry books with me, and they get banged up. It's interesting, the differences in how we treat our books, as book lovers. I don't think one approach is better than any other. The way we love books is as individual as the books we choose to love.

*I do want to note, as I did on Twitter, that I only do this to books in my personal collection; I try very hard to keep library books in the condition in which they were loaned to me.

I Don't Hate Catholics, and Neither Should You

"The Vatican issued a new set of rules Thursday to respond to the worldwide clerical abuse scandal, cracking down on priests who rape and molest minors and the mentally disabled." The document also states that ordaining a woman is a sin on the same level. That's right, anyone who ordains a woman is, to the Catholic Church, as bad as someone who sexually molests children. The actual sin, is ordaining anyone whom a bishop* has not given the okay to ordain, but since that permission will never be granted for a woman (and I use the word "never" consciously, given the context under which the action is described in the aforementioned document), that sin will always be as great as the destruction of a child's life. Of course, women and children always get lumped in together, and the Catholic Church has a pretty bad record with both. This is pretty offensive stuff, but it's unsurprising given that the Church is run by men.

Here's the point of this post, and weirdly, it's not to kvetch about the Catholic Church: I can't post this to Facebook. My first instinct on hearing the news this morning, was to put up a link on Facebook, and say "Oh look, The Dudes in Rome have done it again." I've done so before, when an American nun was excommunicated because she told a pregnant women that she was allowed control over her own body, to save her own life. I framed it as a feminist issue, because it is. I posted a link to an article about the case to my profile.

Catholics don't have a lock on denying women agency over their own bodies. In fact, most of the American anti-choice agitators are Protestant. Moreover, religious people aren't the only ones who openly practice misogyny. My point, when posting about the nun, is that anytime you have a group of (mostly) men running something, women are going to get the short end of the stick. That's the way it works. It could be sexual harassment in publishing, the Catholic Church, or the Canadian government. Of course, with a total lack of female voices in positions of power, the Catholic Church will commit especially egregious crimes against women. This does not mean that religious people are bad. This is one of the responses I got, however, on Facebook.

A dude missing the irony gene decided to tell me what is and is not a feminist issue. "I don't see this as a feminism issue at all," he said. "It's another notch in the RCC's hypocrisy belt. I still say draw the line: You either condemn the entire organization, or you endorse their behaviour." He went on to say "Focusing on the feminist slant only imposes a different form of oppressive discourse." Yep, if I'm interested in how women are treated, I'm imposing an oppressive discourse. The commenter's basic argument was that the Church, not the men who run it, are the source of oppression. Rather obviously, I disagree.

This went back and forth for hours but it's not isolated. I've seen people trash religion all over, even on the pages of people who are deeply committed to their faith. I've read of someone being "disappointed" that a celebrity they liked is an active Catholic. It's en vogue to paint people who believe in God (however you define that god) as stupid and/or evil, in part due to a mindset Terry Eagleton calls "Ditchkins" in his excellent Reason, Faith, and Revolution. The Dawkins/Hitchens school takes dogmatic -- and weirdly evangelical -- atheism as a higher calling. I have seen a form of hate spewed forth from Dogmatic Atheists directed to the religious, that I have not seen from those who are practicing Catholics, Jews, or Muslims (and yes, I count all these among my friends) in the other direction. Frankly, I'm fucking sick of it, and I call it out whenever I see it. Atheism and evil are not mutually exclusive.

I've been everything from a baptized COS Presbyterian, child atheist, LDS church attending friend, atheist again, Wiccan,** possible Jew, to finally agnostic. The thread that runs through my life, is that atheism never lasts long. I always come back to knowing that there's something out there, and I think it's bigger than me. I don't know what "God" is, but I think it's a mistake to discount it because evolution is real. I also think some atheists make a huge mistake in engaging in a form of bigoty because it's fashionable. There are certainly horrible things done in the name of religion, but in the absence of God, a lot of horrible things would still have happened and continue to happen.

So I won't post this to Facebook, because frankly I don't feel like reading all the misdirected hate.

Fight the real enemy.

* Archbishop? Cardinal? I'm not really sure who gets to make these decisions.
**It was the 90s. I was 19. Most of my cohort was Wiccan at some point.


A small note that turned into a larger note...

Lisa Rundle is going back to work at Penguin. For. The. Win.

I can't tell you how happy that makes me. She fought, she won, and she's going back. This outcome is far too rare in any sexual harassment case. I thought she had a boatload of courage to speak out, and to take action. To go back, and take her rightful place, is just a whole new level of amazing. Twitter chatter today had some opinions on how difficult it would be to go back to your employer after this. I don't doubt it will be. I'd like to say I'd do the same, I'd love to do the same, but I'd be scared too. I hope you're not scared, Lisa. You have so many of us behind you.

The coverage (I can find on google) of this has been pretty interesting. Most of the articles mentioning Rundle's return are really about the appointment of Mike Bryan, with a mention of Rundle in a later paragraph. I suppose there aren't many people who are able and willing to go on record about how they feel about Rundle returning to work, so they need the stuff on Bryan to fill the space. I get it, I'm just more interested in her.

Not for nothing, but it turns out that Bryan — Rundle's new boss, yes? — met his now-wife while he was her manager at a bookshop. Thanks to Steven W. Beattie for this little gem:
Some years passed, and books also brought Bryan and his wife, Heather Adams, together. He was working as a manager in a bookstore in the north of England and she was the “Saturday girl” there – which means, he explains, that she came to work only on Saturdays.

Crazy Love

The arteries of the hand & arm that write lead straight into the heart -Chris Kraus

A couple weeks ago, Sady of Tiger Beatdown wrote one of the best (online) things I've ever read, on the nature of internet feminism, and being a bad feminist. The catalyst for that post was a book called I Love Dick, which I felt to be a must-read. Sady wasn't wrong about the power of this book, its honesty, heart, and intelligence. Of course, all readers bring their own baggage to a reading experience, and I got some additional things out of I Love Dick. I found complicated and wonderful musings on the nature of love: how and why we love, how our politics can get in and get pushed out of the way, and how we use and lose our brains, all in pursuit of the object of our desire. One finds, through author Chris Kraus' honesty, that nothing really changes from the all-or-nothing days of adolescence. Love can still make you crazy: you re-think and over-think, write and re-write. It's through the process of writing to Love -- and I feel that the titular personage of Dick is ultimately a stand-in for the emotion itself -- that the political and personal become delineated, detailed, and finally, finely, understood.

I Love Dick also elucidated the book I finished previous to it: Russell Smith's Girl Crazy. In one of the early letters to Dick, the object of Chris' unrequited and inexplicable love, she writes the following:
The "serious" contemporary hetero-male novel is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to "characters." *

In Girl Crazy our hero/anti-hero is Justin. I began reading Girl Crazy a couple days after Smith's weird Globe and Mail piece, though not because of it. It was evident pretty early on that Justin is a stand in for Smith, the wordy nerd** who longs for something Other. He finds that in Jenna, the archetypal wild girl that nerdy boys have always dreamed of, but never seem to get. She's the stripper with the heart of a poet; a girl who offers all orifices and speaks about philosophy, though at a second grade level. She's just slutty enough, and as such, lacks depth (as Zoe Whittall pointed out in her review). Justin's educated female peer group is no less shallow. They're catty when Jenna meets them, and late in the novel Justin's ex-girlfriend refuses any advance into territory that is unfamiliar or slightly risque. All this, of course, leads me to wonder if Smith really does love these PR girls for their brains.

Girl Crazy isn't a bad book. It's a quick, interesting read, with some glimpses of real emotion. However, when Justin walks off into the sunset with the phallic adjunct of a gun in his pants, one might conclude that what really makes the author/character crazy, is his own dick.

*See also, Sady's excellent piece Fond Memories of Vagina: Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow

**There's a Monty Python joke on pg 27. That's high-level nerd.

The virgin/whore dichotomy is alive and well.