Teenage Dirtbag

Mansfield Press imprint, A Stuart Ross Book, kindly sent me a review copy of Mongrel after my post about author Marko Sijan's piece in CNQ. As I said in the comments to that post, I was honestly curious to see what the author of "The Gutter Years" would do with a longer, fictional format (which, of course, was the point of "The Gutter Years": get attention for the long-delayed novel). So thanks, Stuart.

Mongrel follows the lives of five teenagers, and their circles, who attend the same high-school in Windsor, Ontario. Each part of the novel is narrated by one of the five, and traces their interactions with each other. The Windsor of Mongrel is a dark, dirty, and depressing place. I've never been to Windsor, so I can't say for sure if this is accurate or not, though Alexander McLeod's Light Lifting seems a more realistic record of the place. Still, if you're stuck in a place of unhappiness as a teenager, things do tend to seem more apocalyptic than they actually are. The teens in Mongrel are very, very messed up. Several come from abusive or neglectful homes. School is ultra-violent, with no intervention from faculty.

I couldn't help but think of (the truly wonderful) Lemon while reading Mongrel and comparing their versions of desperately downtrodden teendom. In Lemon, though, you had someone to root for. Lemon faced a world much like the one in Mongrel, under constant threat of violence, amidst poverty and suspect parenting, but she was also a character you wanted to succeed. Lemon is a novel with real heart, and compassion. Mongrel feels more like pushing buttons and acting out, less from rebellion than implacable aggression.

Sijan is very adept at writing first person teenage narrative. The language through most of Mongrel is very juvenile, and veers often into needless "gross out" territory. But, that's fine. Actually, it works very well, for what Sijan is—I think —trying to do here. Teenage boys really are pretty gross, and they are very convincingly rendered here. There are also a couple chapters dedicated to female characters. The first, Sera, is pretty far up her own ass, which I totally buy. There are always plenty of those people in high-school who think they've got it all figured out already*. It's the hubris of youth. The other, Sophie, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, self-hating and anorexic. This, too, is convincing. The female teens in the book, by the way, are portrayed no better or worse than the males. Everyone is equally fucked up in high-school. Of course, they're all equally unlikeable too, and the reader is left without anyone to care about (again, unlike Lemon). That's not really a problem in itself; I'm sure plenty of successful novels are filled with jackasses. For this reader, however, an anchor for empathy is helpful. Least well-treated is Sophie's mother, who is depicted as taking home random men, and teen-aged boys (Sophie's classmates), for the purposes of anal-only sex. It's suggested this is a result of the trauma of her husband being not-secretly in love with her not-gay father. There's something really off about this characterization, though most of the parents in Mongrel are better written, and in some cases are the only locus of compassion and decency.

There's supposed to be some subtext in Mongrel about culture and class clash, and fitting in, but it gets drowned out by passages like
[...]she always had ten to fifteen zits on her forehead and chin, ripe whiteheads filled with pus, which I'd rub my face against when we were humping. When they'd pop, I'd lick them up.
She's all possessed with her left eye twitching and she wraps her hand around mine, and starts jerking me off. She pulls her eyebrows in like bat's wings and speeds up and it feels wicked so I tilt my head back against the wall and close my eyes and keep playing with her Zulu tits[.]
The message I get in the end, is that everyone is horrible, and will continue to be horrible through the generations. Parents fuck you up, no matter how good or bad they are to you, and you will propagate more fucked up kids in turn. As the books ends we learn Gunther, the pus-licker above, has impregnated Sophie. He discovers Sophie's condition after having anal-only sex with her Mom, then stealing into Sophie's room to find her barely alive, reading her suicide note... oh, come on. I'm trying here, but some things are just a bit ridiculous.

It will probably come as no surprise that I didn't like Mongrel. This book isn't for me, I am not its audience. I'm not sure who the audience would be, precisely.

*Surely, there are people of every age like this, and no one person has everything figured out. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that teenagers aren't too young to start on this game, though there is something about the teenage ego that still finds it hard to see past their own nose. HI, I AM AN OLD LADY. GET OFF MY LAWN.

RIP Jack Layton

I've been trying to write something about Jack Layton for a day now. I could never do him justice, so this is just a small thing inspired by this stunning panorama of the messages of love and respect at Toronto City Hall.

Maybe it's just me, but isn't this how we should feel about the people we elect to lead us? Shouldn't we trust them with more than our tax bill? Isn't it more important that our leaders believe in all of us, rich and poor, than in separating us by income? I realise it's a bit Pollyanna, but I can't wrap my head around why people accept anything less. Yet they do, and they will. In the meantime, others will continue to do Jack Layton's work, and spread his message that we can always do better than we have before, as Canadians. That's the family he was always talking about; I've never felt it more keenly than now.

The mourning, it seems, has not yet passed.

Patrick Corrigan, The Toronto Star

Someone Wrote a Book About Calgary*

A couple months ago, I was reading Shawn Micallef's tweets about his time in Calgary with a critical and cynical eye. I thought he got it right, most of the time, and though I could be nitpicky about some details in the tweets, I won't. I've always said that Calgary can be fun if you're a visitor.

Of course, I know Calgary in a different way. I lived there for the first 26 years of my life and I return every 1-2 years to visit my Dad, my cat, the house I grew up in, and take the drive to Banff to see my ailing Mother. I went back in early June this year, to a place I recognize less and less. Maybe it's from living in Toronto so long, I've forgotten just how incredibly aggressive the whole vibe is in Calgary. For the first time, I felt uneasy in my hometown. Walking down 17th Ave, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I felt menaced. The quiet at my Dad's house, in an early 70s suburb backed by Nose Hill Park (at right**), was eerie more than comforting. I looked over my shoulder a lot. Driving, as Micallef put it, is "no fun. No fun." I saw some cyclists attempt to ride on these hostile streets, and my hats off to them. If all of those complaining about the lack of bicycle infrastructure in Toronto could see what these bold Calgarians deal with, they'd be amazed at how good we have it.

I did take a bit of issue with the Spacing post that went up later, only in that I felt the reach could have been a bit broader. I lived in one of the neighbourhoods just out of downtown, after moving out of my parents' house. And yes, they can be lovely. In fact, I returned to that neighbourhood several times during my last trip. Micallef mentions Crescent Heights, which was the aspirational housing of kids from the north-western suburbs. Mount Royal was where we wandered, after-bar, Elbow River in the moonlight. But go a little further and things change. Each neighbourhood homogeneously proclaims its decade as you move further away from the core, "mixed" architecture being an anathema. The ability to walk to much of anything is gone. My parents' house is 2km from the nearest grocery store. Try that with a bag-full of canned goods. It's not that the Calgarian suburbs are a nutritional desert; there isn't a convenience store any closer. It's just house, after house, after house. I'd like to see what Micallef would make out of this wasteland. The 'burbs are mandated to look uniform.

It's this sort of environment in which Monoceros takes place. The pressure for uniformity in the Calgary suburbs extends, too, to the people who live there. Calgary is hyper-masculine, and to step out of line is to become extremely vulnerable. There's little support for those who won't fall into place.

What I love about Monoceros, is how Suzette Mayr set a book in Calgary, without using any overt cowboy tropes. Mayr, interestingly, has most of the narrative take place in February. You'd think it would be difficult to write about a prairie winter, or perhaps monotonous to read about one, but Mayr's lucky to have Calgary to work with, with its ever-changing temperature. The Chinooks that roll in and out through Monoceros affect the moods and actions of the characters, like the Santa Ana winds do in a Raymond Chandler story.

If the weather in Calgary is totally unpredictable, the prejudices that run through the populous are easy to call. This is why Max and Walter hide their relationship (which is a marriage in everything but name, right down to the boredom of familiarity) for over a decade, to the point of maintaining separate residences in name only, lest they be fired from their shared Catholic high-school workplace. When Patrick Furey kills himself, it's partially due to the knowledge that navigating this world, when his classmates have begun to clue into his sexuality, will be too difficult. The boy he loves, Ginger, has gone cold, after conducting a secret affair. Ginger, too, knows the risks are too great. Calgary is a city infused with testosterone, and enforces a strict code of conduct. This isn't to say there aren't out people there, but to be out is sometimes a luxury that some can't afford. It's still this way; tall, thin, black-wearing friends of mine still get "fag-rolled" simply for looking like something other.

Monoceros is solidly a book about Calgary, even if it is rarely explicit about it. Mayr understands very well the hetero-normative crush of the suburbs, which take up more than 90-percent of Calgary's area, and at least as much of its collective consciousness.

*See, also: "No One Writes Books About Calgary."
**That photo, by the way, was taken at 8:30 pm in early June. When you leave for a while, it becomes wonderful and confusing how late the light stays.
What Calgary does have, is a lot of off-road trails, which are more recreational in intent, though I suspect some do get used for commutes out of the suburbs.

Stronger Voice

This is yet another Lainey recommendation, but it's likely I would have picked it up anyway: putting Millais' Ophelia on the cover is a good way to get my attention*. And it's not just an allegory. Emma Forrest talks about Ophelia in her introduction to Your Voice in My Head. She was obsessed by the painting as a teen, riding her bike to the Tate to see it every weekend. It's clear early on that Forrest is my kind of gal.

There's something about a story of mental illness that draws me, though I'm often left frustrated and disappointed. Such memoirs often feel congratulatory (about the illness, not the recovery), and indulgent. I suppose it's easy for me to say, because I've comparatively not suffered much from bad brain chemistry, but I'm often left with the feeling that the illness is held up as the redeeming feature of the author's personality. The illness makes them "special," the illness is why we should pay attention, or the illness is why they're an artist in the first place. And maybe all of that's true, but it's also annoying. Not everyone with a mental illness is an artist (though I suppose there's the argument that many artists are mentally ill). Some people with mental illness are just as dull as anyone else. That's another reason I really like Emma Forrest. This book is about a particularly dark time in her life, but it's always extremely self-aware. Forrest is smart, talented, and funny first. It's a neat trick, too, because the book really is about her relationship to mental illness: her cutting, bulimia, mania, and depression. These traits, however, don't define Emma; her bipolar status is simply another part of her, not the sum total of her. This is a hopeful and important message, I think, to anyone struggling through diagnosis and treatment: your illness is not the entirety of you. Other memoirs might fail in this, making the illness the star, and the writer simply the host organism. (To be fair, I'm sure that in the middle of any mental illness it feels—more, probably is—all-consuming.)

Your Voice in My Head has gotten a lot of attention, because Forrest goes into great detail about her relationship with Colin Farrell (whom she does not name, but the world knows). I don't need to say much on that score, other than this is just one more thing that makes Forrest's experience very relateable: we haven't all dated movie stars, but a lot of us dated That Guy. That Guy comes on very strong, feels every emotion full-force, and then one day it's just done. And as all this is happening, Forrest's much treasured therapist, Dr. R, unexpectedly dies.

In a Turkish museum, Forrest has an hallucinogenic/imaginary conversation with the deceased Dr R, about his death, and the death of her relationship. "Losing you both was only the practice pain, wasn't it? For my mum and dad..." Her mind's Dr. R agrees. It's from this conversation the book takes its title. It's appropriate, as it's the most poignant moment, in a memoir full of honesty, intelligence, big emotion, and all-encompassing humour (which never feels out of place, even in the depths of emotional despair).
'When it happens,' he asks me, 'what will get you through?'
'Friends who love me.'
'And if your friends weren't there?'
'Music through headphones.'
'And if the music stopped?'
'A sermon by Rabbi Wolpe.'
'If there was no religion?'
'The mountains and the sky.'
'If you leave California?'
'Numbered streets to keep me walking.'
'If New York falls into the ocean?'
Your voice in my head.

*The Canadian edition has Ophelia on the cover. Other editions don't seem to. Shame. It's a great image, and an important one to the author, that is not only the topic of the introduction, but a totem that Forrest carries through her life and references several times.
**While I haven't mentioned it, this post is tagged "Jewish" because her religion is an important part of Emma Forrest's life, and she does talk about it in Your Voice in My Head. If you've got any inclination in that direction, the description of Rabbi Wolpe's sermon that comprises the entirety of Chapter 36 is a lovely and moving moment.
Or, I suppose, That Girl. Though given cultural norms, a dude who will feel is supposed to be compelling, while a girl that feels is needy, and to be avoided. YMMV, as always.