An Open Letter to Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan,
It looks like all this is coming up again. Jodi's smartly staying out of this one, it seems, but Jennifer Weiner is being both logical and hilarious about the whole thing. Of course your name is coming up. Your name is front and centre because you're now the boy everyone loves to hate. Even the boys hate you*, for being so ubiquitous, for being the projected Great American Novelist, for being so successful based on one (in my opinion) really great book. That book, of course, was not Freedom. Maybe your picture is on the dart-board because you failed to deliver?

When I wrote my letter to Jodi Picoult, I said this:
So maybe I just don't know enough of your work. But have you read Franzen? He's really, really good. So is Lethem. Some of the Wonderboys the NYT loves aren't all that, but those two? They kinda are. You are not now and will never be in the same league.
While she is still horrible, I no longer feel like calling you great. You got all the attention and the hype and the Time cover, and I admit, I was really, really excited about Freedom. But boy-o, you sure let me down.

I've steered people away from Freedom. People who only marginally liked The Corrections I've told that they won't see anything better with your follow up. Those who liked The Corrections I've warned that Freedom is a great big comedown. I had a post half-written about it, but it stuck in the queue for a long, long time. Finally, I deleted it. Perhaps I shouldn't have, so I could now expound the ways in which Freedom failed to live up to the hype. All I can say now, is that it's full of stupid awful cliches, and even if that's the point (if given "freedom" people will still fall into predictable habits) it's no good in the overlong trip getting there. The fetishisation of the Oriental Other, the younger woman, the brainy-yet-earthy antidote to the ol' slag wife, was a particularly egregious touch. Perhaps I was hasty saying you and Picoult would never be in the same league.

Freedom fell into that special snowflake area; we gave you all the accolades and magazine covers just for coming out. You were supposed to be the great bespectacled hope, and you fizzled. After the initial rush of "OH THE NEW FRANZEN!" how many people have good things to say about it**? In retrospect, is anyone loaning out their copy of Freedom saying "You have to read this!" like I do with The Corrections? You have your money, like Jennifer Weiner, so you don't need to care, or so the articles say. But you lost me, man, and I'm pissed off I ever stuck up for you.

Further Reading.
Further Reading pt II.
*Text of the relevant bits:
First things first: Murder is wrong, OK? But let's say, hypothetically, that you're considering committing one anyway: how would you do it? Practically everyone wants to murder someone. That jerk that got the job you want. That guy who gets all his books reviewed while your books don’t even get published. That handsome, horrible dude everyone loves when only you know he is a complete fraud who must be exposed. Jonathan Franzen. Maybe you want to murder novelist Jonathan Franzen. Let’s say you do. You want to stand over Jonathan Franzen's wrecked body as it bubbles over with his own blood. You’re laughing and he’s just kind of lying there, gurgling. You beat him to death with an iPad and now there won’t be any more sprawling family angst novels from Mr. Handsome Fake Genius Man. Maybe that is who you want to murder. Maybe you would really enjoy wringing his skinny Brooklyn neck. His skinny, pretentious, overrated, Brooks Brothers neck. Hypothetically. Here are some things to think about while you're totally planning the fake murder you have no intention of actually doing and by reading this sentence you hereby absolve the writer of any complicity in the crimes you will in no way go out and commit here comes the period and Jim is absolved.

**That's a real question. Do you have good things to say about Freedom? Tell me in the comments.
Doing some link jumping, it looks like popular opinion is starting to sour on The Corrections too. It would be worth a reread because it definitely is fashionable to hate on Franzen just now, and that probably colours things.

And maybe some of this...

Personalities

When I was a kid, I remember watching a lot of TV movies with my Mom that dealt with mental illness. I'm not sure if she was drawn to them in a masochistic way — they scared her, and she let me know — or if that was just the flavour of things at the time. It's probable I saw Sybil; I definitely remember seeing When Rabbit Howls*. What I remember most about these movies, was that the "patients," those in therapy or strapped to tables getting electro-shock therapy, were always women.

Debbie Nathan, in Sybil Exposed hypothesises that particular mental illness narratives, specifically Multiple Personality Disorder, can tell us about the cultural pressures facing women at the time.
The Sybil craze erupted during a fractured moment in history, when women pushed to go forward, even as the culture pulled back in fear. Sybil, with her brilliant and traumatized multiplicity, became a language of our conflict, our idiom of distress.
Of course, women and madness have always been conflated. Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady, should you be interested, is an excellent resource on the topic of not only women and madness, but how women personify madness. A year before Sybil came out, Phyllis Chesler published a study called Women and Madness. Chesler, as quoted by Showalter,
maintains that the women confined to American mental institutions are failed but heroic rebels against the constraints of a narrow femininity, pilgrims "on a doomed search for potency," whose insanity is a label applying to gender norms and violations, a penalty for "being 'female'" as well as for desiring or daring not to be."
Nathan places not only Sybil but her doctor and her biographer**, as women caught in this junction of what femininity was supposed to be, and how each actually expressed themselves as women.

In a middle passage of Sybil Exposed, Nathan talks about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and how the invention of the "non-fiction novel" had an impact on the author of Sybil, Flora Schreiber. Nathan, too, takes a narrative approach to unveiling the real Sybil, Shirley Mason, and how Mason became (pseudonymously) famous for her dysfunction. Nathan follows Schreiber, Mason, and Mason's doctor, Connie Wilbur, from their childhoods through their respective deaths. It's a well-researched tour through the lives of three very different women, each interesting (or at least written in an interesting manner) in her own right. Sybil Exposed does suffer from time to time for being a bit too focused on readability. There are some awkward moments when Nathan tries to write like a novelist, and instead turns a very strange phrase. For example (and I'm sorry this made me laugh out loud): "For Flora and her contemporaries in the 1940s, Madison Avenue was the Wall Street of advertising." As well, there are scenes in which Nathan supposes to know what Flora Schreiber is thinking. Normally, this sort of conjecture wouldn't be much of a problem, but coming off a scene in which Schreiber is shown to falsify scenes in the name of sensation or narrative cohesion, this suddenly rings false.

Of course, the main "fiction" of Sybil Exposed is Shirley Mason's MPD diagnosis. It is truly shocking how Connie Wilbur extracted narratives of systemic abuse from Mason, most of which proved to be false. Under Wilbur's care, Shirley Mason became extremely addicted to several strong medications, derailing her promising scholastic career. Wilbur broke almost all the rules and ethics governing psychiatric care when dealing with Mason, growing too close to her, overdosing her, paying her bills, suggesting narratives, over-riding confessions of fakery, for her own fame. Despite the incredibly serious and permanent harm done to Mason, Wilbur isn't purely evil; since the reader has seen these characters grow up, they know nothing is so easily categorized. It is more that Wilbur's ambition gets the better of her. Nathan makes clear that Wilbur — and Mason and Schreiber — were operating at a time when ambitious women were mostly thwarted, where childless women were unnatural, and bad mothering was becoming the cause of most mental disorders.

Because Shirley Mason is dead, and many of Connie Wilbur's records were destroyed upon her death, there will always be missing pieces of the puzzle. Nathan supposes that pernicious anemia (a condition Mason really did have) was the main cause of most of Shirley Mason's original complaints, the symptoms of which were not fully understood when Mason was a young person. She was diagnosed as a hysteric instead.
Soon, Shirley would not know the difference between the bad feelings in her mind and the malfunctions in her body. All would combine, into a performance that eventually would become one of the most dramatic productions in the world[.]
Mason's life is a real study in tragedy, and not only in the fictionalised account initiated by her psychiatrist and propagated by her (first) biographer. Nathan smartly focuses on the personalities behind Sybil instead of the personalities that were ostensibly the symptoms of her illness.

Wilbur didn't just influence her patient; her work was to inform multitudes of other psychiatrists, and the hunt for ritual abuse reached epidemic and — in hindsight — very strange proportions. The media, owing to the sensation, happily jumped on board. As a child I just accepted that there were Satanists meeting in wooded areas, killing babies for their nefarious rituals. Remember, this wasn't a religious Dungeons & Dragons panic, these were medical practitioners who saw this as the cause of MPD, and they coaxed their patients into false memories of terrifyingly abusive parents, evil daycares, and cannibalistic branches of the KKK. After reading Sybil Exposed and The Psychopath Test I wonder what stage the psychiatric community is in now, and if we'll ever reach a point when we can stop getting it pretty amazingly wrong. We have to trust what's happening in the field now is correct, because there are a lot of people who need help, but it's scary to think about what will be Exposed in another 20 years.



I first came across mention of Sybil Exposed from Jessa Crispin's article on The Smart Set.

*And would thereafter, and forever more, assume John Updike novels are about MPD.
**On such a continuum, Plath's schizophrenic Ester Greenwood is not just a thinly-veiled portrait of the author, but representative of many women of the day.
She enters a depressive spiral in which non of the alternatives available to educated women seems satisfactory. Career women, like her editor-in-chief or the professors at her college, seem sexless and even freakish. Housewives [...] seem defeated and servile. (Showalter, 216)
Neither Flora (who like Ester was writing in New York in the 50s [and beyond]) nor Shirley ever married and none of the three ever had children.

Missed in '11: Jamrach's Menagerie

The original point of Missed in '11 was to write a lot of small posts about books I read in 2011 and wanted to write about, but for some reason or another never did. The last post in this series was 1800 words. A lot of those words were quotations, but still! I underestimated... something. So, as I begin this post I'm going to hope it's a small one*!

I bought Jamrach's Menagerie in Paris at Shakespeare and Company. This store was very high on my Need to Do list, and it's conveniently located right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Checkcheck! I'm a bookstore supporter, and I didn't just want to go and be a tourist there; I wanted to give them some money. However, as an actual tourist, I didn't want to wander around with a bunch of heavy books all day. They had a mass market of Jamrach's Menagerie which is a perfect size for touristing. It sounded super interesting from the jacket copy and it was on the Booker short-list so I was going to read it anyway. Sold!


Hoo boy. I hadn't read anything about Jamrach's Menagerie other than it was on the shortlist, and that jacket copy. What attracted me to the novel that day was the time period and by the sounds of it there would be just the faintest hint of magical realism. Good reading for Paris! It begins this way: Jaffy Brown is kind of a Dickensian child, living not in horrific squalor, but on (to the modern, removed reader) picturesque hard-scrabble London streets. He's self-sufficient to a degree, he works odd jobs, brings home that small extra money to his single-mum. The action begins when he runs into an escaped tiger, and engages physically with that tiger in a way that shocks bystanders, one of whom is the tiger's owner, the titular Jamrach. Jaffy's life changes completely at that moment and afterwards he is employed by Jamrach. Working in the menagerie, Jaffy meets Tim, and his sister, Ishbel. The London part of this book is great, totally engaging and transportive. I could easily have read 300 pages of Jaffy's adventures in London. However, when Jaffy gets a little older he outgrows the menagerie and his London confines. Jaffy wants something, and in pursuit of the unknown something he gets on a boat.
"So much for Jaffy the child. He didn't last long, did he?"
62 pages, so much for part one.

Jaffy, Tim, and Jamrach's main exotic animal acquirer Dan Rymer, are on the hunt for a Komomdo dragon. The animal at this point in time is only legendary. Capturing and bringing one back to London — alive — will make everyone's fortune. The rest of the novel changes drastically in mood and feel. Everything becomes... I'm not going to mince words here, it gets pretty horrible. No detail of life on board a sailing vessel is missed. They find and capture a Komodo dragon, but not without horrible scenes of how these animals behave. The fate of the ship and its crew gets worse, so so much worse, and I don't want to spoil it but it's a ship, so you can probably guess. I finished the novel, but it was seriously difficult going. Sitting here with the book in my hand, I can't believe it's only 300 pages because at the time it felt like so much more. It's not that I'm squeamish or that everything I read has to be sunny and happy (and if you know me, you'll know that's not really my style anyway). Just, holy shit, this book is seriously grim.

I'm sure that first part of the book is so different from the second to make the contrast more startling, and that works. This is an incredibly well-written book, with strong characters and super-real descriptions (maybe too real). I think the problem is that it's really two books, and they don't mesh well together. If the novel began with everyone getting on the boat, with some flashback exposition, it would have worked better. Unfortunately, the reader is given one book to begin with and then has to completely change gears to understand the second. If my proposal had happened I may not have finished the book because I'd have known right away it was so very much not for me. Sneaky, perhaps, of Birch to get someone like me invested enough in pages one through 61 to hang on for the rest of the ride. Like the sailors, the reader is basically stuck going through it all. In that case, I'm a bit resentful too. I'd have been happier not reading most of this book, to be honest. It's not bad, nor offensive, but the action... ugh. Yes, that's my literary criticism: "ugh."

I'm sending Jamrach's Menagerie to my Dad, because he loves books about big ships, and those that work them. Given that, I'm sure he's read some pretty bleak things, so I'll be interested to hear his take on this book. As for me, I'm actually kind of amazed I finished it.

*Oh, hey, 800ish. I have seriously lost the brevity thread.

Missed in '11: Sense of an Ending

There are pretty major spoilers in here, if you care about that sort of thing. You have been warned!



I'm sitting in my kitchen listening to Carol Off talk to Julian Barnes about The Sense of an Ending on the CBC. I didn't initially fall in love with this book, so sometimes it's good to hear the author talk about things and shed some light on the motivations, because my first reading, as you'll see below, could pretty much be summed up with: “bwah!?” Everyone loved this book on first read, and all I could think about was these streams of wicked, strange, or stupid women that populate the novel. One of the things Barnes said in this interview, is that Tony — the narrator of The Sense of an Ending — isn't a bad guy, he doesn't hate women, he's just confused by them. This really, really shows. Stephen Hawking was interviewed recently, and when asked “What do you think most about during the day?” he replied “Women. They are a complete mystery.”* This tidbit is what made all the headlines, but why was anyone surprised? Freud famously didn't know what women wanted (and he told them what to want instead, didn't he?). Not understanding women is the cheeky default of a certain kind of man who would rather make the joke than try. Tony, according to Barnes-on-the-radio, has mostly lived a life unexamined, and that leads to a terrible characterization of the other half of the population. I suppose I just have to take Barnes on his word that Tony is clueless, not “bad.” Tony is not to be admired, not even in the end. Tony is not redeemed. Tony remains clueless and he's probably too old to care, or to change.**
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? and also — if this isn't too grand a word — our tragedy.

I can't help but notice when men put things onto women that aren't really a thing. (See also "magical sperm phallacy") After Tony has a sexual encounter with ex-girlfriend Veronica, the following conversation takes place:
'You selfish bastard,' she said, the next time we met.
'Yes, well, there it is.'
'That practically makes it rape'
This is after she removed her own “knickers,” handed him a condom from her own stash, and put the thing on him. As one would expect, the word "rape" sticks to Tony. Later, when she gets together with his old school chum, Adrian, Tony is
[i]magining what Veronica might have said to Adrian about me ('He took my virginity and then immediately dumped me. So really, the whole thing felt like rape, do you see?')
This is a pretty weird piece of the narrative, thinking that women are so quick to call "rape" when most of the time we can't call it rape when it really does happen to us. So what's happening here? Is Barnes as clueless about women as Tony? It's this some sort of false memory? Note the second quoted passage: Tony imagines Veronica calling it rape. Is this some sort of fear-based wish-fulfillment? Tony's afraid she's saying these things to other people, so he decides that yes, she actually has said this, and to him. One can't be sure whether it's Tony or Barnes, but it's worth pondering. Tony also subscribes to that the old virgin/whore dichotomy. I have no qualm with this in context of characterization. It works, because Tony is the Everybloke, to every degree.
And did you think her a virgin when she was rolling a condom on to your cock? In a strange way, you know, I did. I thought it might be one of those intuitive female skills I inevitably lacked. Well, perhaps it was.

I know it's possible for men to write really believable women; many succeed. So when shit like this happens, especially in a book that's big award-winner, I wonder what's up. (And of course, I don't notice when women do the same to men, because I am not a man, and I'd happily accept examples where men found women's writing to be very weird and wrong. On the flip-side, there has been universal acclaim for Lynn Coady getting it right in The Antagonist.) As soon as I start wondering, I start looking at the rest of the female characters. Tony's mother is presented as stupid (though all young people feel this way about their parents at some point). Interestingly, Barnes said in the interview I heard today that his father was “wiser” than his mother, so there's something of Barnes in Tony here. His daughter, Susie, is slightly self-absorbed, and distant.
She's practical about emotions, Susie is. Gets that from her mother. So my emotions as they actually are don't concern her.
She spends more time with his ex-wife, who cuckolded him. This is okay though, because she gets what she deserves:
Margaret's second husband turned out to be not quite peaceable enough: he took off with someone who looked rather like her, but was that crucial ten years younger
She and Tony have a "good" relationship, but one gets the sense he feels slightly controlled by her. It's amusing how Margaret and Tony talk of the mysterious woman, how one is or is not that woman, but all women are basically a mystery to him.
Margaret used to say that there were two sorts of women: those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery.
This reductionist categorization seems more in line with how Tony looks at women. Again, I wonder if Tony is putting words in someone's mouth (though women do make judgements about other women all the time, but I'm thinking of how this particular book works). Veronica is dubbed "the fruitcake" later by Margaret, and Tony agrees. Meeting up after 40-odd years, Tony finds the same old, cold Veronica, who gives him the female stereotypical “If you don't know why I'm angry I'm not going to tell you” line so many times. Maybe it's repeated so often, because Barnes knows it's a cliché.
'You just don't get it, do you? But then you never did.'
'You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.'
'If you need to ask the question, then the answer is no.'
The only woman in The Sense of an Ending who seems at all nice or caring winds up — spoiler alert — seducing Adrian and baring his child. The child likely has Down's Syndrome:"'The Mother' — at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as a result." A result of the mother's age, a result of her scheming to take the boyfriend away from her daughter. (Is this why she was so nice to Tony when he visited the family home?) The sins of the mother visited on the child, and Veronica is tasked of caring for him after her mother dies.

With Veronica I moved from blaming her for having failed to save Adrian to pitying her.
Adrian kills himself, young, while — as far as Tony knows — still with Veronica.
The bitch, I thought. If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica
Unlike the ladies of The Sense of an Ending, Adrian is the shining light of the narrative. He is the stand-out, is interesting in ways good and bad, which are all things that Tony will never be. If Adrian is the only thing that gave an ordinary life a narrative, Veronica is the villain of that narrative for taking the novel-worthy away from him.
I did, eventually, find myself thinking straight. That's to say, understanding Adrian's reasons, respecting them, and admiring him.
And that's early on in the novel, before the reflections of age. Later:
I don't envy Adrian his death, but I envy him the clarity of his life.
Adrian remains a shining star for Tony, possibly because he didn't live long enough to be tarnished. He's Tony's dead rock star.

The Sense of an Ending is chock-a-block with ruminate wisdom. Part of me wanted to quote everything, but I had to stop myself from transcribing half the book. When Tony talks about ageing, about the things he's learned, about what it's like to be average and how infernally dull it is to be completely normal, I rather liked the book. These parts certainly speak to a person like me, who feels pretty average in all ways. I wish that would have been more of the content, instead of the paean to male friendship, and how women are just so weird (though isn't Adrian weird, isn't his suicide, and his affair with Veronica's mother very, very weird?). I suppose, though, that would cut an already slim book down to an essay. Like last year's winner The Finkler Question, we have a mild-mannered, white middle-class middle-aged man telling his story in a calm and characteristically English funny way. I laughed out loud at both books, I really liked Finkler and felt that was the right choice that year for the Booker. But following that with The Sense of an Ending seemed a bit... not predictable, but sigh-worthy. Really? Another one of these? Some people feel frustrated about historical fiction taking prizes (I've heard the term "Giller Bait" bandied about, referring to historical fiction in Canada), and this is how I feel about the middle-aged, middle-class white English guy wondering just what it all means. It's a bit, just a little bit, tired. Not enough, yet, to annoy me, but we'll see what happens next year.
You get towards the end of life — no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. [...] I thought of what I couldn't know or understand now, of all that couldn't ever be known or understood. [...] There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is a great unrest.



*My twitter-snark response: “This from a guy who left his wife for his nurse.” ETA: Ouch. Then there's this: For years there have been shocking rumours of violence and abuse against the vulnerable scientist.
**”I will not change and I will not be nice.”

Missed in '11: The Marriage Plot

The "Missed in '11" exercise is also partially about clearing out the queue of posts I have sitting here, without the guilt of deleting them. Problem is, of course, that the thoughts in these drafts aren't fully formed, and in some cases I don't even have the book anymore (thank you for existing, Toronto Public Library). This post on The Marriage Plot suffers all these conditions, so I'll try to make as much sense of it as possible while trying not to re-hash old ground; this was a much-anticipated book, and has already had a lot written about it!


I loved that The Marriage Plot is partially a book about books. I loved most the passages when the characters are actively engaging with text. Madeline reads Barthes and it directly affects her, differently as her year goes on. She carries it with her like advice guide and Bible in one. That’s the sort of thing that makes theory important. It’s not just dry linguistic wank, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It is beautiful, what Eugenides does with A Lover's Discourse. Mitchell, second-side of the love triangle, takes a wide variety of texts with him when he travels through Europe and India. He, too, is shown to live with and through the books he’s reading. Leonard (the love interest) — despite having met Madeline in the semiotics class that brought Barthes into her life — doesn’t really seem to read. He is Other, he’s a scientist, he’s cold numbers. It’s a set up, and you can’t really root for Madeline and Leonard, even if you’re not a book person (and if you’re not why the heck you’d be reading Eugenides is a mystery).

Now, for the complain-y part…

I can't figure out why two boys would be so in love with this horribly bland girl. I mean, I get that the book isn't really about the girl, it's about the boys, and that might be why she's written so blandly. Mitchell and Leonard are given complexities, rather vicious ups and downs, broad geographical range. Madeline only seems to have one mood: a sort of wandering wide-eyed confusion (oh, but she's "book smart"). She's recognized as the American version of beautiful but that seems to be the only thing to recommend her. She's the sort of girl who just has it so easy, things just come to her. She's privileged, athletic, a scholar who isn't challenged. She's a bit of a narcissist, frankly, with the Madeline wallpaper that she loves as a child remaining in her bedroom . Her interior life, and she does have one, is stunted in this way, stuck a bit in me-me land, the way a child is. She’s not malicious or cruel, she’s just so used to things being at worst mildly unpleasant. She is so coddled and padded. And perhaps that's a lot of it, that she is just a child, and children are not fascinating dinner companions; they're funny and cute but they're not complex and interesting.

I don't know the Regency source material of the marriage plot, I haven't read any Austen, so I’m not sure how this flows with Eugenides plot and characterization. I’m probably not far off to assume that the women in life and literature of the time, were probably talked around and about, instead of to, were treated like large children until the second they got married, and then had to assume the role of an adult immediately. And that may explain why Madeline’s mother brings her older sister Alywn to her, so the two sisters can discuss Alwyn's failing marriage. Madeline, as a newlywed at the point, is supposed to have sage advice to give to an older sibling, who has just had a baby. The only time Madeline interested me was when she to a Victorian Literature conference, where Gilbert or Gubar (I forget which) was speaking (nice touch)*. There, she finds others who share her love of literature, and decides to become a Victorianist, which is a newly emerging field when the book is set.

I don't think she takes care of Leonard when his mental illness becomes too large for him to deal with himself because she loves him; Leonard made her feel validated and adored when he was healthy, and she’s trying to recapture that. She never really had to grow up, but Leonard who comes from a very troubled family had to take responsibility very early. (Mitchell seems like a bit of a child too, when he literally runs away from having to clean up human feces while volunteering in a Hospital in India. Again, they're well suited.) Madeline’s parents have weird family meetings to discuss her life while she sits there; they talk around her, they keep her in that child state. So why do these two boys love this bland, perfect thing so much? Are we supposed to believe that these two, perhaps by extension many others, aren’t so interested in a woman’s interior as they are with her image? It’s a mystery that honestly plagued me through the book, because I’d expected more from Eugenides.

And then on the very last page... he resolves it. Humanely, lovely.

The Marriage Plot doesn't reach the great heights that Middlesex did, and while I spent a fair amount of time being frustrated with the characterization (and I kind of feel like the really great ending is kind of snatching things out of the fire at the last possible moment) I do still recommend people read it, if they've liked his work before. It's not a big disappointment the way Freedom was, after The Corrections. Not every book is an author's best book, and The Marriage Plot is still a very good book.

*And at that moment in the book, I had the weirdest sensation of being jealous of a fictional character.

Missed in '11: The Montreal Poets

I don't read a lot of poetry. This isn't Poetry's fault, I just don't have the tools, perhaps, to give it what it deserves. Both these poets, however, moved me enough to want to share my experience of their work. Dave McGimpsey's Li'l Bastard and Jon Paul Fiorentino's Indexical Elegies are as different as can be, but both are wonderful collections.

Li'l Bastard has a travelling narrative running behind it, that makes the “chubby sonnets” read like a memoir. McGimpsey's sly love of "low" culture — fast food, pop music, and Hollywood — is always conscious, but he doesn't let the world get away with serving up lesser quality even in these experiences. (He would also probably appreciate that I began writing this review with a bit of a hangover and a craving for tacos.) I'd read a couple of the poems in a friend's copy of the book, and they seemed a bit sad, yet wry and pop-culture conscious. Basically the exact qualities I love in Douglas Coupland. When McGimpsey read at the Coach House fall launch, the poems were more alive, felt slightly bawdy, and a lot funnier. McGimpsey's reading persona seems like a better dressed Falstaff, and you could easily imagine him leading a group of youngsters to a cheerful and perfectly legal life of semi-depravity. I kept that in-person voice in my head when I got down to reading Li'l Bastard on the plane ride to and from France. Lovely to read the Versailles poems having been there only days before. I suppose the comparison can be made to Los Angeles — the section of the book I enjoyed the most — but as opulent as the Americans can get, they'll never get close to things that made me exclaim what the Frenchy gilded fuck!?

116. Place Versailles.
Bronze frolickers in copper fountains.
More copper fountains, more bronze frolicking.
Aztec in influence, or perhaps Bauhaus.
It's not really as garish as it sounds.

To assess the artistic merit
of Versailles is to consider the triumph
of two sexy lingerie shops competing
in a mall. Oui! Versailles Pik-Nik Donut.

There's a sound barrier by the highway now
as if the ghosts who live au bout de l'île
need to eat their apples free from the noise
while they consider their office gossip.

The best thing to do to an enemy
is poison their supply of canned bean dip.
'I'm in Anjou!'I tell all my friends
As if light years from dips of any kind. (135).

Edit on that bad boy. He's talking about a mall in Montreal, not a royal residence in France. Which, you know, makes the thing about the lingerie shops make more sense. But there's a highway behind Versailles, too. There's anachronistic statuary, confusions of influence. And hey, there's poetry being whatever you, me, silly person, brings to the table. Though I was all "Why is he in France all of a sudden?" And it makes these lines from earlier in the book become a kind of motif. (Augh, so good!)
I'm not a stylist but I did discover one phrase
that could make anything seem insignificant —
and that phrase was 'Made in Canada.' ("46. Tonight's Episode: Springtime for Schemers" 55)
McGimpsey seems to prefer LA (and so do I). There are a lot of other places to travel to in Li'l Bastard and so many moments that are half-chuckle, half-sigh. Jersey Shore and Schubert in the same line. I dog-eared every tenth page. I loved every second.
86. Oceanside.
Every new-to-Cali knob thinks the sunlands
Will dry out the damp root of their eastern ache;
it’s as ridiculous as movie scenes where men
jump off rooftops and don’t end up in wheelchairs.

There’s a simple logic to L.A.’s values.
People don’t pretend your personality
is of consequence. The wisdom of
prostitution blossoms with magnolias*.

Angelinos live like they believe people
only care about you for your money
or your tits. Life is more relaxed, relieved
of a grad student’s sense of what is fair.

Brandy and plastic cups in the parking lot —
a little impromptu eucharist.
This is your body and this is your body
a good chug for pretending you don’t care. (101)


Indexical Elegies is the first book of poetry that has had me scribbling madly in the margins since my grades depended doing so. It's also a more... I hesitate to say traditional, because Fiorentino has his own voice (obviously, since his writing stood out so much for me) but more what you would expect from poetry. It's more esoteric, softer in tone, more obviously introspective (you have to dig a bit for that in McGimpsey, but it's there). Given all that, it's harder for me to talk about, but here goes!
Suppose you’ve been found out and you find out you
don’t care. Suppose you process this supposition.
(“Cruelty-as-Trend.” 17)
I know Fiorentino from Twitter a little bit, so I know we share a love of the Mozzer. There are stanzas in “I'm pulling for your narrative”
The word lovely wakes
you up at 4 p.m. and says:

It's been a while
it's lost its charm

You sleep too much
you drink too long
(20)
that remind me so much of “Will Never Marry” where Morrissey says
An inbuilt guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place
At 5 A.M.; wakes you up and it laughs in your face.
There are some interesting thoughts about anti-pretension pretension; the tired idea that the creative exists only from a place of relative squalor. “It's easy to look down on you/from this basement suite” (“Grift economy” 18) “Don't let yourself let/everyone know you get paid.” (“Cautiously solipsistic” 24) The smooth and delicate wordplay, and macro-thinking about art, ("Don't have a problem/in writing/Need a/room in which to brood” [“Mentholism” 11]) moves into deeply personal pieces about loss. I made no notes, just felt every sad moment. In the face of such loss, what art means, means nothing. The writer can do nothing but write:
Tied up in theory
so cold on consignment

Dust gathers
librarians dust

He's dead

Too much displacement
not enough condensation (untitled? 50)
To escape the pain, possibly, of loss, Fiorentino moves backwards in time in the third part — Transpraire — to the days before Montreal, back to Winnipeg. His already sparse and concise lines become even more punctuated, move into sharp bullet-point lists. These are thin poems that run you through like killer blades of prairie grass. By way of contrast, lest the reader become to used to the flow, there is one engorged piece of nostalgia, “Famous grey Chevette” (a nod to Famous Blue Raincoat possibly?), shaped like a dense fog or cloud in the middle of the section. Transprarie moves from death back into life, all the ghosts of past/present/future accounted for, ending appropriately with “Dying in Winnipeg.”

I know punctuation and the like are super important to poetry. Therefore, if I've messed anything up in the transcription, I apologize!
*Magnolias showed up in another book I was reading around the same time, and for some reason this just stood out for me. “The magnolia trees hadn’t read Roland Barthes. They didn’t think love was a mental state; the magnolias insisted it was natural, perennial.” Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (65).

New Year's Day 2012

Last year on this date I was in a glorious house in the Hollywood Hills, convalescing from the effects of free-pour gin at a Bootie party. Awesome. Today I'm writing this in rainy Toronto, listening to the CBC with a napping boyfriend beside me. Both have their merits. Okay, full disclosure: I'm a bit hungover today as well. That may explain some run-on thoughts in this post.

I like to do my year-end wrap up stuff on the 1st, because who knows what kind of crazy stuff can happen between Xmas and New Years. Nothing crazy happened. I did finish a couple books over the break though, so those made it onto the Read List.

I wrote things this year that got a little bit of attention, which was pretty great. I was, in a way, long-listed on the Canada Writes True Winter Tales contest* (they called it "featured"). I actually didn't think I had a chance of winning, because I assumed they were looking for a more Vinyl Cafe feel-good kind of story (and indeed they were). It was a lovely surprise to be featured, but of course a let-down not to make the short list. I also wrote a quick blog post for Shameless Magazine that got quite a wide and appreciative response (surprising me quite a bit). This is encouraging stuff. The feedback makes me want to keep trying. I still can't write fiction, but I think maybe I shouldn't even try. Last night a friend said (jokingly, and with wine involved) "fiction is dead." I sure hope not, because I need it! However, her having said that lets me off the hook from this weird idea that I need to write fiction to be a "writer." Negotiating all this self-definition is terrifying for me, probably because the line between that and self-aggrandizement (or full-on delusion) is pretty thin, and stepping over makes you look like an asshole. Let's move on!

I read 64 books this year, which is more than any other year since I've been keeping track. I also counted poetry and plays in there, so maybe that's a bit of a cheat. Today I began to write a post like last year's about books I really enjoyed this year, but instead I think I'll just throw out some mini-reviews through this week on books that didn't get blogged in 2011, but should have. In the meantime, click here for all the books I read this year.

Happy New Year, pals. Thanks, always, for taking the time to read here. It's nice to know I'm not shouting into a void.

*Adapted from the original post here.