Looking In

When Pigeon English was released early this year, we didn't know what would happen in London in August...

The narrative revolves around Harrison — Harri — an 11-year old boy, newly arrived to England from Ghana. He lives with his mother and older sister, while his father and baby sister have stayed behind. Harrison's family, like so many immigrant families, lives in a bad neighbourhood (in London), defined by crime and violence. Through the first-person narrative, Harrison retains an innocence and sense of wonder that seems to belong to someone several years younger. This is at times not exactly plausible, as when he seems to have absolutely no knowledge of human sexual activity. I remember being 11. I wasn't participating in anything, but I certainly knew some of the mechanics (and I can't just blame Jean M. Auel for that). Then again, perhaps the avenues which kids in Europe and North America learn about sex just didn't exist in Ghana; I can't claim to know anything about it. In other ways, the exaggerated innocence seems appropriate, as his class-mates are portrayed socially similar. The games and they way they play them sometimes seem, again, something younger kids would be interested in. (I should note, though, that by "innocent" I don't mean "simple.") The comparison has been made, favorably for Pigeon English, to Emma Donoghue's Room, with Harri judged an easier child narrator to read and accept. Readers often found Room's Jack both too precocious and annoying (I don't agree). Harri remains likeable and for the most part, age-appropriate (as above, if anything, he skews slightly young for his age). The Guardian review says
Kelman has already been much praised for his ability to write from an 11-year-old's perspective, but here, as often in the first half of the novel, Harri's voice feels laboured and faux-naïf.
I think most of this, aside from my issues with innocence, can be chalked up to Harri's difficulty using language in his new context. I think Stephen Kelman's writing is pretty clear on that.

While it's not explicit, one assumes that Harri's family is (in waves) moving to England for a "better life," but his flashbacks to time spent in his home country show that he is now much worse off. (Though this may be some of the troubling white framing of black experience as seen in The Help, or evoking a "noble savage" type.) Comparatively, London is dirty, violent, and crowded. People are selfish, preferring to harm rather than help others. The never-easing class divide in England cuts across colour and and country of origin, keeping a poisonous river between the have-nots and the have-too-much. The origins of the August 2011 London riots, it's been said, erupted from a feeling of absolute hopelessness, from the societal group of which Harri is now a member. Unlike the prevailing "You can be anything" message that American kids grow up with (erroneous or not), England likes to keep its classes separate. Given the historically abysmal record in the way England treats the poor, upward mobility isn't even considered; it's just assumed getting out is not possible. Near the end of the novel, the seniors in Harri's school write goodbye messages on each other's school shirts. Two pages are devoted just to these messages, and they illuminate the matter-of-fact acceptance of the fate of those without means. It doesn't even seem sad or angry, it just is. The messages read like any year-book: some are just names, some are jokes or bawdy quips. They begin*:
DFC [the initials of a local gang]FUCK SCHOOL LEWSEY HILL R. PUSSIES
Then others start, interspersed with the sort above, with a new theme:
repeat after me: DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
Be warned: the future doesn't need you![emphasis mine]
It feels almost prescient that mere months before the London Riots this novel would be published, capturing the soon-to-be-violent malaise of a demographic group so strongly. Harri, while a newcomer, shares a lot with his peers, and neighbours. Like him, most of the people in Pigeon English are essentially, easily good. For example, Terry Takeaway is a thief and a drunk, owner of a pitbull (hallmark of a "bad guy" in many places), but he's also on the lookout for Harri, willing to defend him from older kids for no other reason than it's intrinsically right. (The pitbull, Asbo, is revealed to be a loveable pup, and Harri enjoys playing with him immensely.) There are only a couple essentially bad characters in Pigeon English, and Kelman is careful to make them different as possible, to show that the hard, evil criminals of legend aren't the majority. When things go bad on a large scale, as in the August riots, it's often not because people have substandard ethics or upbringing (fuck you very much, David Cameron), but because they're pulled along, never having been allowed to know another way to be.

There's a load of films being made where filmmakers go to a council estate and 90 percent of the people there are functional—getting their kids ready for school, paying their taxes, working. And 10 percent are dysfunctional—and they go, "That's what we're going to make a film about."*

*I've attempted to replicate the changes in type on these pages of the novel, which indicate that there are different people writing each message.
**Actor Eddie Marsan, interviewed by Jonathan Romney in The Independent, May 2, 2010. As quoted in Jon Ronson's The Pyschopath Test (210).
***Also, I think I've figured out — for myself anyway — the "talking" pigeon character that seems to have caused so many readers so much trouble. He's supposed to be for Harri, as Harri is for the neighbourhood; an outsider looking in, with a perspective that illuminates the situation. I agree, though, it doesn't really work.

Wild Abandon

My first experience with the work of Joe Dunthorne was watching the movie adaptation of Submarine. The movie is a bit off-kilter, slightly trippy, and seemingly coloured by remembrance. It’s also a bit uneven, and I was left not terrifically impressed. It was, then, with an open mind but a small amount of trepidation I began to read Dunthorne’s new novel, Wild Abandon. What I got was the usual outcome of the book vs movie duel: something much, much better on the page than on the screen.*

Wild Abandon follows the lives of commune, or their preferred term “community,” members in Wales. Don and Freya are a middle-aged married couple, and half of the creating force behind the community. Janet, their school chum, and Patrick, former landlord and provider of startup capital, round out the founders. The community is in decline, after a decade or so or humming along. New members are hard to find, there aren’t many children.

Don, with his degree in film studies, is ever the actor reciting lines. He’s described as often seeming to have rehearsed things is his head, many times, before speaking. “Don preferred himself in front of the lens. In the same way that a miserable holiday, when viewed through its photographs, becomes a stream of joyful moments.” In a flashback sequence, he is away from the community and gets the call his wife is giving birth to their first child, Kate. He relishes the role of the immediately expectant father, racing back, practicing what he’ll say, dramatically, to the cop that pulls him over for speeding (and is saddened when it doesn’t happen). That he doesn’t make it in time to see Kate born is representative of his character. Freya is responsible in birth, as well as in death; she’s been dubbed the community’s “abattoir,” because she’s the only one who can actually kill and butcher animals. The sexual politics between Freya and Don are interesting: it’s the woman who works hard, and gets down to what has to be done, because there’s little choice; the man lives in the mind, making speeches and directing, while doing very little himself. This relationship isn’t atypical in literature or life; I’m thinking of the Great Male Author trope, with his long-suffering wife behind him, making financial and household arrangements while the artist needs his think-time.

Kate has her sights set on going to University elsewhere in the next year, and 11-year old son Albert is too smart yet not socialized enough. Kate escapes the community to the home of her boyfriend’s parents. Like most teenagers, she wants only what she doesn’t have while living with her parents (and this is echoed by boyfriend Geraint moving to the community later on). She seeks what she thinks will be a more interesting sort of discord.
Considering that Kate had never spent any time in a suburban home before, she had a highly developed understanding of what to expect; during her upbringing, her father had encouraged her to make the most of his film collection, which had a lot to say on that subject, including The Graduate, Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, and The Ice Storm. One of the community's well-told stories was of Kate, aged ten, setting an alarm for herself to wake at 3 a.m. so that she could come downstairs and watch Poltergiest, the definitive suburban horror film.
In fact, what she finds is that life is pretty much humdrum no matter where you run to.
The disappointing news from her time in Three Crosses was that, where she had hoped to find suburbia's dark and seething underbelly, she had found its potbelly of contented boredom.
( In this way, Dunthorne reads a bit like a gentler, less satirically-minded Tom Perrota.)

Everyone in Wild Abandon is a bit like Kate, moving and shifting, enjoying the new but eventually searching for a new place that might be just a bit better: Kate eventually gets into Cambridge; her parents leaving London squats for the wilds of Wales; Patrick leaves the commune to once again work a full-time job and have an apartment; Freya wanting to leave Don and get Albert into regular school; Geraint joining the community. It’s reminiscent of the constant ebb and flow of city/suburban populations. Albert, not having the possibility of self-determined mobility at his age, turns to an Apocalypse scenario centered on a black hole for comfort. It’s child’s logic; if he never leaves his known world, the only possible change is for the world to end. Kate is the embodiment of that black hole—as her sphere increases (going to school outside the community, then leaving for the Three Crosses suburb, then going to college) the more Albert feels his world is ending.

Dunthorne has just the right descriptive simile or metaphor handy at all times. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you might think; the descriptor has to be contextual, so much so that it gives the reader a perfect idea of the scene at hand, without distraction. Dunthorne has this down to an art, and it’s an integral part of his style. This might be annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, but I only noticed the comparatives so often because of how perfect they were. Early on in the novel, one of the founding members of the community, Patrick, has a paranoid episode after ingesting both marijuana and mushrooms. Fleeing the community on a cold night in just underwear, he tears through the brush, coming out into a suburban street in an empty new development. As he succumbs to hypothermia he falls onto the “road shaped like a thermometer -- a turning circle at one end.” Not only is this an accurate visual, it’s loaded with symbolism. The thermometer, of course, speaks of temperature and Patrick’s loss of body heat. The choice of a cul-de-sac, though, also represents an ending, the bottom of the bag, or in Intervention speak, rock bottom. Patrick quits the community, and gets clean (after a last hurrah of enjoying hospital sponsored morphine drips). Later, Kate takes her university qualifying exams:
There was something enjoyable about the tarot of turning over an exam paper: a whole gymnasium full of people reading their fortunes.
Again, this is perfect on a couple levels. Exam results do tell the future, but on a smaller and more physical level, the turning of the papers is indeed very like turning over tarot cards. It makes the moment slower than I remember when I took my exams, and more lovely. Wild Abandon is like that sometimes, making the reader stop sometimes, over the small moments, looking at the small parts of life in a new way. That’s what good literature does.

Kate’s first memory of cartoons is watching “Steamboat Willie.” She’s struck by the pile of potatoes Willie is tasked to peel, a pile that never seems to end or get any smaller. It gives her nightmares. The petite-bourgeois lives in Wild Abandon are similar in that, not getting ahead, just making lateral movements. (The commune, while at times hardscrabble and always ad-hoc still falls into this category, having been created by a property owner and three holders of liberal arts degrees). Comfortable survival is the same on the commune as in the suburbs. The novel’s title, perhaps, relates to those small moments which stand outside just-living, like the two rave parties depicted (an accidental one in the past, a party for Kate’s birthday that got out of hand, and the one that climaxes the book, which is engineered to generate interest in the community). Perhaps, though, the title is sarcastic, because no matter the location, being middle-class has conformity clauses.

Reviewed from advanced reading copy, courtesy Penguin Books Canada.
*Yeah, I get that they’re different works. **
** And I’m glad I haven’t read Submarine, actually. The Guardian review did that thing that The G&M review did with The O’Briens, talking about how the first book was much better. Sometimes, it’s good to start with the second book?

Making 9/11 All About Me*

In the last ten years I've finished university, been married and divorced, moved cities, traveled across the Pacific twice, got out of retail, got out of publishing, made and lost friends, found a great love, and chose to get sterilised. It's been a big decade.

In 2001 I was 25, living alone and in my last semester of university. My routine was as it had been for years: get up after about five hours sleep, attend one or two classes, race home and change to go to work till 11, study, five hours sleep. I didn't interact with people at school, because I never really had time. Class, work, sleep. So on September 11th I went to school as usual. I had one class that morning, so I likely woke up around 9 am, without listening to the radio or turning on the TV, just racing to school. The professor didn't mention anything. There were no scenes of people crying and being comforted. There weren't TVs in the hallways or classrooms tuned to CNN. Everything was perfectly normal. People were probably talking to each other about it, but I hadn't talked to anyone that day, other than the people serving coffee. They didn't say anything. Maybe they assumed I already knew. I had no idea.

In writing that, I think I've just come to understand the biggest mystery of my whole 9/11 story. People asked "How could you not know? How could people not have said something about it?" I think the answer is timing. By the time I left my house, and got my first coffee of the day, it was 9:30, mountain time. The towers had collapsed an hour before. It was already done, and maybe at that point it was unlikely you'd say to a stranger, "Have you heard?" Because everyone would have heard. Except, I hadn't heard.

I got home from school a little after 1 pm, 3 pm eastern time. That's when I turned on my TV. I remember this part clear as anything. The first thing I saw was some politician or another saying "America is still the greatest nation in the world." My first thought, as a Canadian used to complaining about the cultural imperialism and hubris of the United States, was Oh, these fucking Americans! And then the scene switched to footage of Tower One collapsing, Tower Two just rubble and smoke behind it. Something was very, very wrong.

What everyone already knew, I learned six hours after the fact. Was I the last person to hear about 9/11? I sat on the floor in front of the TV and watched the highlight reel, because that's what it was by that point. The second plane strike, the collapse, the people fleeing in terror. I called my then-boyfriend, later husband, who was living in New Jersey. I hadn't been out there yet, so I didn't know if where he lived was that sort of "across the river from Manhattan" New Jersey, I didn't know how widespread the attacks were, how bad the national damage was. He was fine, he told me not to worry, everything was fine. I don't remember being emotional when I called. I was too confused.

After talking to the boyfriend, I was finally able to start putting things together, and I got online. Livejournal was the preferred social network at that time, and there was a lot of material to get through. People had been posting events as they happened, and the fear and confusion of watching it all go down in real time was a live wire in every word. I had friends in Toronto who'd been evacuated from their workplace. I had Calgary friends stranded in Toronto, because all flights had been grounded. At some point I realised a Calgary friend was in New York City that day, and no one had heard from him. I'm sad to say that this is when I started crying; the possibility of my loved one caught up in it all made it real and human, finally. I suppose it may be possible that's when the shock wore off enough to let in some comprehension of the real scale of what I'd been seeing. I called work, because I was so scared for my friend, told them I couldn't leave until someone had heard from him. Work understood. And so I waited. Around 4 pm Calgary time, I learned he'd been in contact with Toronto people. He drove out of NYC that morning, before rush hour to avoid traffic, and had gotten stuck at the border trying to get back into Canada. The borders, of course, were total chaos. He'd been in the WTC the day before. He still has the ticket stub dated September 10, 2001. They'd gone a day earlier than planned.

I went to work, at the 7-11, shell-shocked, two hours late. My loved ones were accounted for, I could go on. It was a weird night. A special edition of the paper came in around 9 o'clock. Customers were infrequent, and quiet. Everyone, by now, knew. Everything was still up in the air, there were no answers yet. We were so far away from what happened, yet we had tilted a little, and it took a while to stop feeling like every day was going to change us again.

In the past couple weeks I've been obsessed with watching 9/11 coverage. I found a site that has archived the live feeds from CNN, CBC, and the BBC from that entire morning. I still have such a hard time understanding that day, because I missed so much of it. I literally slept through the events of 9/11, and it creates this need in me to fill in the missing pieces. I've seen some people talk of a memorial fatigue this week, and I get that. I, however, don't suffer from it. If anything, I require more information, more pictures, more taped phone calls.

If I remember right, it's 10:28 eastern time that Tower One collapses. I watched the five seconds of that on the CBC feed, over and over. They're saying they don't know what happened to Tower Two, because it's in the background, and then Tower One goes. You hear the entire newsroom make a sound... it's a horror movie sound. It's the sound of a heart and a brain breaking into pieces simultaneously. I wasn't there for it, so I needed to feel it, repeatedly. I don't know what that's about.

I was in NYC last month. The PATH train I took in from Jersey City lets out at WTC. On a day I spent alone, just wandering Manhattan, I spent some time at St. Paul's. Hard to imagine how it escaped damage, let alone total destruction, being just feet from Ground Zero. That whole block, even on that sunny day ten years later, full of tourists and citizens going about their day as normal, is a heavy place. I took pictures of Revolutionary era gravestones, while America's involuntary mass burial ground sat behind construction-boards in front of me. Heavy, yet peaceful. In that place, in those moments, all I could feel was hope that peace had come for all those souls, and the ones who loved them.

I'm sure, though, I'm not alone when I say that I still don't understand any of it.

Photo: James Nachtwey, Time.

*This post isn't about the politics of 9/11, the aftermath, or the reasons why. This is just a personal reflection on that day. It's my answer to "where were you when?"

Easy Reads

This week, the Booker Shortlist and the Giller Longlist were announced. Thus, my library queue got crazy again, and there's going to be a whole lot of Literature up in here pretty soon. It seems appropriate, then, that I just polished off a total snack-book, Emma Forrest's Cherries in the Snow*.

Having read Forrest's memoir, Your Voice in my Head just recently, I was a bit distracted by knowing which details of Cherries were "write what you know," and unavoidably making conjecture as to which other details were true. Forrest's personality is evident in Cherries, which is smart, funny, and just slightly raunchy. The main character, Sadie, is a young, hip English Jewish girl living in New York (as is Forrest). As the novel begins she's in a relationship with an older man, a journalist. I believe Forrest mentioned a long-time relationship with an older playwright in Your Voice. I began to wonder how much of the stilted sex life in the first part of the book was fiction, and how the older man (men?) in her life felt about that.
The novel is a chick-lit romp through makeup and love, with a feisty eight-year old thrown in. No startling new territory here. Kate Carraway's The Globe & Mail review of Your Voice in My Head says of Forrest's earlier fiction
I and other twentysomething disaffecteds read half-sunk in lukewarm bathwater, searching for instruction and connection with her characters, all of them good bad girls, messy and wanting.
This intrigued me, but I probably would have enjoyed this book a lot more in my teens and 20s. For me, it was possible to believe in those years that a man like the love-interest Marley was on the horizon. Marley is a prince-charming composite, perfect for Emma Forrest, BEST LOVAH EVER (really? at 24 you get this? really?) with a dark distant-past, enough cash to go around, who falls in love with our protagonist almost instantly, but not slavishly. Ten years ago I could easily dream that I too would one day have a glamourous job at a cosmetics company in the big city... oh, shit; I do have a job a cosmetics company in the big city. Anyway, what I mean is, this is all delightful fantasy stuff but at this point in my life Cherries is the sort of thing that entertains only while I'm reading it. To really care about a book like this one probably needs to be able to feel like they could put themselves into the main character and I was wholly unable to do so. I really, really loved Forrest's memoir, and I look forward to any forthcoming work. I suspect it will speak to me more than Cherries in the Snow.

Something I never, ever stop loving is a big old multi-generational epic. Peter Behrens' The O'Briens is a good choice if you're in the mood for such. The reviews I've seen mention his first (and, they say, better) novel The Law of Dreams, which won the Governor General's award. Since I haven't read that one I haven't any comparative complaints. The O'Briens begins before WWI and ends in the 1960s, following the fortunes of Joe O'Brien and his extended family. Again, from The Globe and Mail:
We see no consequence more dire than his wife being angry with him, but even then we’re not sure whether she wants to leave him because of his drinking binges or because she has fallen in love with J. Krishnamurti.
That's valid, but I didn't really mind the lack of big drama. Some bad things happen, but everyone's pretty much okay in the end, and I don't have a particular issue with that treatment. The O'Briens is a story, not an opera.
I read a lot of Judith Krantz and Barbara Taylor Bradford novels years ago, and the way The O'Briens deals mostly with the lives of the privileged felt similar. Some might take that comparison as an insult, I don't know, but it's certainly not meant that way. Those books, as with The O'Briens, were easy and engaging, over 500 pages and 50-plus fictional years.
As for quibbles, I do have a couple. The O'Briens is most interesting in its early going, usually when focusing on the matriarch, Iseult, and it does suffer sometimes from possible behavioral anachronisms (for example, I'm not sure how easy it would be for a woman to leave her husband and flee the country with her children in 1931, or if many women would even think of the possibility). As well, there was a stand-out magical sperm phallacy (I coined it that day, yes the "ph" is intentional) early on that had quite a few of my Twitter pals giggling**. Otherwise, it's a fine read, and sometimes just "fine" is exactly what I want.

Okay, awardies and fall lists. Let's do this. *rolls up sleeves*

*That review is a random Google find, and a lovely little review it is!
**My tweet: "Her firm white belly loaded with mystery." Oh bugger off, it's JIZZ not the Arc of the Covenant.