A Turd of Hope, A Steaming Pile

When I first read "The Gutter Years" in the latest issue of CNQ, I just thought "gross," and moved on. Then the Globe and Mail chose to highlight this piece over the weekend, and I felt the need to make a rebuttal. The G&M notes the "refreshing and brutal frankness" of "The Gutter Years." Refreshing is certainly not the word I'd use. Though Marko Sijan's willingness to dirty some names is certainly uncommon in a small industry where everyone knows everyone else, I wouldn't consider that a revolutionary cool breeze. The rest is not exactly brutal honesty. Rather, it's bragging about "bad" behaviour, though it never comes across as the sort of decadent debauching the quoted Oscar Wilde might approve of.

Disclaimer: I do love CNQ for a lot of reasons, not least of which is its dedication to having very diverse pieces on theme in each issue. As a consequence, not everyone is going to love every piece. That's the point. This piece, I did not love, to put it mildly.

My first impression of "The Gutter Years" was that it was a Henry Miller hack (despite Sijan's note that Faulkner was his hero). Upon second reading, the judgment remains. Miller wrote real, intense filth, full of sex and destitute depravity. Sijan tries to be a tough guy that gets a lot of pussy, while admitting that Mommy and Daddy still pay the rent. Tossing in the odd superfluous scatological reference ("he'd given me just enough to float my turd of hope") does not real filth make. Friends, Miller is alright by me; filth in literature is alright by me, great even. Sijan is just posing.
Do me, Henry.
Miller begged for money too, but one never thinks that he's able to just call up the 'rents and have them bust him out of squalor. Sijan's piece reads almost like a Pulp song: "You could call your Dad/He could/Stop it all." There's no real struggle, just the assumption that slumming it might give Sijan some material, and ways to continue to act like a rebellious teenager. Even his one long-term partner is picked to make Mom cringe. The love interest is from Mexico, and he has decided to return to her country to live with her.
My parents tried to dissuade me from moving to Mexico: "A dangerous place," according to Mom, "full of ignorant peasants." When I showed her a picture of Alma, she said, "Oh, she's really Mexican."
He doesn't bother to disagree. Sijan's treatment of Alma, the woman he supposedly loves, is pretty loathsome. In a culture where a woman living unmarried with a man is—by Sijan's account— a pretty big black mark, he tosses her aside when it looks like things will work out with his novel back in Canada. And the only cited reason for not cheating on her is not his "love," but his feeling of being "[s]hamed and castrated for lacking her father's integrity." In the end, it's suggested that she's a bit off. I think. The scenes of their final time together don't really make much sense, but I'll give Sijan a break and assume that he meant to do that, to insinuate that at the time, Alma wasn't making much sense either. Then again, she had to go back to her town with a big strike against her. I wonder what became of her.

The Globe also chose to quote the first bit I found extremely troubling:
I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students.
Now, I don't care if you're heading up a yoga class, or teaching a graduate English course: fucking your students is pretty wrong. There's a power differential there. Those can be sexy, sure. Power games are common role play themes. But taking advantage of that power differential in real life is creepy; bragging about it is douchebaggery. To Sijan, though, women are just there to be used. The women in his life are either fucked, or handy go-betweens that can get his book seen by publishers. The only ones that don't fall into these two categories receive poor treatment: Anne McDermid is slandered with the insinuation ("The rumour was") that she's got a casting couch for young male authors—he accuses her of hitting on him, but he declines because, ew, cougars with fake hair colour and fake eyebrows! Tamara Faith Berger becomes a bad writer based on nothing but her reaction to his sexual invitation.
I tried to hit on her but she took no interest in me. Good. Your book is shit. I hadn't read it.
At this point I need to wonder about Sijan's purported sexual magnetism: if you're so fuckable that all these ESL students are letting you have their way with them, why are none of the four pictures in the article of you? I mean, yes, Russell Smith is pretty, but let's see your face, irresistible one*. Women would die without you, right?

Sijan draws Smith into conversation at a party, telling him of the crazy bitch ex-girlfriend who threatened to kill herself, should they break up. Weirdly, Sijan declines to name this ex-girlfriend (probably because she put out). Smith would like to know the identity of this mystery crazy woman, but Sijan is a cock tease. Really he should know better, since he enjoys Smith's "honest explorations of male sexuality." He thinks. He hasn't actually read any of the books.

There's a lot of casual racism in "The Gutter Years" as well. While Sijan is living in Mexico, he refuses to learn the language, which is high irony for an ESL instructor. He finds work teaching English to Mexican kids that he dares call "spoiled and arrogant" while still getting a stipend from his parents. Everything in Mexico is dirty, but not the fun kind, and is whittled down to the presence of roaches, Alma included. In a ridiculously sloppy passage, he compares to the clicking of a mouse to the sound of a cockroach twice within a few lines. Best of all, that cockroach of memory "scuttled between [Alma's] legs." Subtle! On another note, if your friend from Pakistan calls himself a "Paki" that does not give you license to use the term "Paki food" a few paragraphs later. No 'hood pass for you, kiddo.

But so what, right? He treats women like shit. He also hasn't got anything nice to say about Sam Hiyate or Ed Sluga, the two men who are really the focus of this piece. These are the guys who hold Sijan's first novel in their hands. These are the guys who can't get it published, and are the source of frustration for years. There's real venom for them in "The Gutter Years" and understandably so. Sijan is caught is a terrifically frustrating situation, in limbo forever, with the only piece of work he's completed.
I saw myself as a victim whose drive to succeed had been crushed by publishing industry charlatans.
Despite the description of this feeling as one of "epic delusion," I'd argue given the tone and content of "The Gutter Years," he's still feeling this way. Yet in the end, they're forgiven.
It took me a long time to understand that Sam didn't betray me. He was a friend and mentor who introduced me to an exciting world and facilitated many happy memories. [...] As for Ed, his "personal crisis" could have involved any number of issues, and he may have been powerless against the juggernaut of his own dysfunction
Hey man, it's okay, I understand. Buds? I'm still wondering what happened to Alma.
* * *

I hesitated to write this post, because inevitably I'll be told I've missed the point. I've tried to find one, really, I have. Unlike the G&M writer, I didn't find anything new and interesting here; it's the same tired Entitled Dude** attitude I've been exposed to time and time again. The piece isn't shocking or ground-breaking, or even that well-written. It's just, to reiterate, gross. I get that Sijan's looking at the audience with big eyes saying, "I've been a vewy baaaad boy!" But so what?

Why do I give someone like Henry Miller a pass, when Marko Sijan just makes me feel slimed? I think part of it is authenticity. Marko's just slumming it. There's no artistic integrity here, he's just a filth tourist, and worse, he's no good at it. Telling me you fuck isn't dirty; everyone fucks—and everyone poops. (Hopefully, "we had sex in the manner of dogs" was meant to be hilarious.) Smoking pot isn't depraved, it's the Canadian national pass-time (and pretty benign at that). Slagging random CanLit names is just sour grapes. The rest is just sexist, classist, racist bullshit.

Sijan does note throughout the piece that he's aware his ego is large, and that he acts in ways that feed it. However, "The Gutter Years" is no mea culpa. There's absolutely no indication that Sijan is any less of a dick (and showing some sympathy for the dudes that fucked your career over doesn't save your soul when everyone else is still under the bus), and he doesn't apologise. He doesn't have to, of course. But if not, then why does this piece exist at all? One can argue that it's one man's look back at his attempts to create that decadent life, to be in the "gutter but looking at the stars," and failing in that pursuit. Why else mention his inability to provide for himself, his ego, his acknowledgment he was a liar? If this is the brutal honestly I'm supposed to admire, I'm not buying it. Admitting you're an asshole doesn't automatically make you interesting. You need to be interesting, asshole.

This character is at once so vile and so boring, that the admissions don't mitigate judgment, like I assume they're supposed to. Again, it just seems like he's bragging, rather than acknowledging his shortcomings. Worst, in the end, I just don't give a shit. (I don't give a shit enough to write 1500 words, right?) Probably, the piece exists mostly to promote the fact that his book is finally being published. Because as we all know, sensation gets attention, and I've played right into it.

*Oh, there you are. "Marko’s two specialties are in helping students develop proficiency in oral and written communication." IYKWIM!
**Note this is a specific Dude Type. I'm not saying all men have the same entitlement issues. However, this Entitled Dude is not an uncommon worldview.

19 comments:

the-axel said...

showing some sympathy for the dudes that fucked his career over doesn't save your soul

Especially if they're the same sort of Entitled Dudes as the author, which is the impression that I got from your review.

In fact sympathizing with them when he finally gets what he wants (his book published) is a total non-event 'cos now they can be dicks together.

Grief, that book sounds depressing.

Anonymous said...

I've known Marko very well for so many years, and I can only say that you are totally right. For your information, some of the things he says are complete lies, they are picks from movies and books, just to make himself look interesting, to fulfill his lack of a real life.
Good diagnosis of him.

Panic said...

Woah, where did all the Facebook hits come from? Not anyone on my friends list!

Anonymous said...

It's been posted to the Mansfield Press page.

Panic said...

Well, I've got no fight with Mansfield Press. They put out Imagining Toronto! <3

Razovsky said...

I'm proud to say that Marko's novel, Mongrel, will be released by Mansfield Press next month.

And the link to this blog entry first appeared on Marko's own FB page, incidentally.

Cheers.

Panic said...

Hey Stuart,
Thanks for coming by, and for the info! I will admit to being curious to see how this all works (or doesn't) in a (more?) fictional way. Though I'm not sure I want the ensuing migraine of rage. Mission accomplished, I suppose!

Anonymous said...

Wow. You are one angry person. Perhaps you should smoke some pot...

Anonymous said...

Dear Panic,

I am one of Marko's closest friends. I also happen to be a woman. Criticizing his writing is one thing (most self-aware writers are wary of the shitstorm of good and bad that comes with putting yourself out there). But attacking his person, when you know nothing about him, is easy and boring at best. Your comment about his relationship to women ("To Sijan...women are just there to be used. The women in his life are either fucked, or handy go-betweens that can get his book seen by publishers") is horrific, as is the suggestion that he is racist. For someone who feels that their blog is worth reading, it's sad to see that you can't manage to do it without calling people names. Your writing reminds me of a whiny teenage girl bitching and moaning to her diary. I suggest you take a good look at your own demons and next time you visit your therapist, ask her why you're so angry.

Yours, Julia

Panic said...

Hi Julia,

You're making a lot of assumptions about me based on one blog post. Pot. Kettle. Black?

Take care.

Anonymous said...

Julia, I have a feeling yours is a fair assessment. It seems that this is a blog to act out anger issues on people the author perceives to be more (undeservedly) successful than she, a sentiment that echoes down her other posts which read like a constant scream of IT'S NOT FAAAAAAIR.

As they say, those that can, do. Those who can't, criticize.

Panic said...

a sentiment that echoes down her other posts which read like a constant scream of IT'S NOT FAAAAAAIR. Yeah, that post on how much I like pre-Raphaelite art was pretty whiny!

Look, y'all can get butthurt at weekly intervals all you like. Fact is, this is a piece about acting like a giant scumbag. I wrote a post agreeing that, yes, the guy portrayed is a giant scumbag. It's memoir; he had every opportunity not to portray himself like that. This is what he chose instead.

Anonymous said...

The author unabashedly presented himself as a racist, sexist asshole in the piece. This persona, and not your friend, is what Panic is attacking. I sincerely hope, for your sake, that the persona and your friend are not one and the same. Also, I really don't think Marko Sijan counts as successful, so I don't think that sour grapes are the culprit here. His piece was depressing and strange (as well as boring), and I think we're entitled to engage with the ways in which some of us found it incredibly offensive. And yes, would have been preferable to ignore it altogether, but that's the same as saying what he wrote is acceptable, and it wasn't.
-Kerry C.

Anonymous said...

Dear Julia

You may want to ask your friend whether the persona and him are one and the same (He claims his piece is a memoir though). The desition to befriend him is totally yours.

Personally speaking, the world is not in need of more crap.

Anonymous said...

Dear Julia,

You may want to ask your friend whether the persona and him are one and the same (He claims his piece is a memoir though). The desition to befriend him is totally yours.

Personally, the world is not in need of more crap.

Razovsky said...

Fascinating thread, where one person even judges whether a piece of writing is "acceptable."

Anyways, if the anonymous blogger here would like a review copy of Mongrel, please write me at stuart [at] mansfieldpress [dot] net. We'll get it to you when the mail starts moving again.

Cheers.

Jenny Five said...

Hiyate is a pretty big piece of shit, and its a good thing leaches like him will be out of business with the digital publishing revolution.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you need to suspend your judgements while reading a little more, than evaluate afterwards.

Anonymous said...

"Just sexist, classist, racist bullshit". I will add misogynist in a full extent of the word, perhaps homosexual (no offense to the gay community), just saying he might be a repressed homosexual and definitely a fake writer all at once. (How somebody who has been dedicated to writing the last 20 years and has only written one tinny book can call himself a writer?). Posing.