Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

I didn't read DeNiro's Game. It was already too stigmatized for me by multiple award nominations (Giller, GG, Commonwealth, Dublin IMPAC - which it won.) And the excerpts I'd read in reviews turned me off. The prose felt excessive and overcooked, which is generally not to my taste. Turns out, if Cockroach is any indication, I was right, Hage writes overcooked prose. But in this novel it generally works well because the narrator is mad, as in nuts, and morally obtuse. It's a madness born of dire circumstances. He's an Arab emigré to Montreal, a refugee from Lebanon, and the novel is set in the dead of winter, an appropriately dire setting. He's also a lowlife (quite literally), a thief and a teller-of-tales who's just tried to hang himself from a tree, and having failed, has been ordered by the court to undergo a psychological assessment. But back to Hage's prose style which reads like English that has been translated from Arabic. It has that fresh flavour. Descriptions vacilate between overheated and raw, lyrical and blunt, wry and spicy, angry and comical. It's a conflicted energized voice that suits the narrator's state of mind perfectly and moves from refreshing to exhausting at times. The unnamed outsider narrator imagines himself a cockroach, a survivor, a primordial creature guided by instinct subsisting on the underside of existence. He exploits his lowly vantage point to observe and mock the bourgeois society that both repulses and attracts him - like a cockroach he owes his very survival to a wealthy, indulgent, wasteful society. In his sessions with the educated middle-class psychologist Genevieve, rather than reveal himself, he tells stories that titillate and fascinate her. It's a manipulation, the power game of the essentially powerless, but also revealing of his own pathology. This is fiction as portraiture and it's hard not to see this as self-portraiture, (if not literally than figuratively) Hage himself as the exotic, clever storyteller stringing us along. There are rants against religion, politics, the fat-cat bourgeoisie. It's also a portrait of the community of refugees from Arab tyrannies. We meet many familiar types who have been forced to flee; the persecuted gay, the exiled professor, the artist/musician, an activist taxi driver, but don't ever really get to know any of them. And we're never even quite sure how well we can trust the narrator himself, which is both the main strength and the principle weakness of the novel. Not much happens in the book until the last quarter. The narrator tries to collect on a debt, frequents a local café, finds a job at an Iranian restaurant, commits petty crimes, fantasizes, flirts, fucks and falls in love with a woman named Shoreh. As I say, it's life lived below society's bottom rung and one day rolls uneventfully into the next. The prose are what keep the reader interested - the flavourful phrasing, sharp observations and social commentary - for a while, anyway. When, in the book's last quarter, something like a plot begins to emerge, a revenge killing, it feels tacked on. I'd already pretty well lost interest. I'm still on the fence about whether I'll read DeNiro's Game any time soon. I guess I'm looking for a storyline that keeps me engaged with tension, suspense, and makes me trust the narrator, and care.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My summer reading

It's been an odd summer, and not just weatherwise. My reading has been as sporadic as appearances of the sun. I started with one goal. To finish Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land,' a novel I'd started last summer, read half and let it sit on my bedside table all year. I haven't succeeded yet. Ford's novel is a curious reading experience. It's over 500 pages long but reads like 1000. After leaving it to stew for about nine months, I had no trouble picking it up again and remembering exactly where I had left off. It's a rare book, more monument than novel; a character study so detailed, inseparable from a landscape and zeitgeist so richly imagined and uncannily authentic, it seems to transcend the normal boundaries of time and narrative. That having been said, it's also not an easy read and is completely uninterested in plot. It's about loss and a 'Permanent Period,' a stage of life reached in which regrets are few and mortality comes knocking. It's tough going, but so rich and rewarding, with a voice that's so pitch perfect and fully-formed, it's like getting to know an old friend intimately again. In short, it's a novel that demands finishing. I suppose I'll have more to say once that's done.

Instead, of working on Ford, I spent most of the summer getting distracted. I'm almost done with Rawi Hage's latest 'Cockroach' (stay tuned for a review coming soon) but in the interim I picked up a book of short stories by Bruce Jay Friedman called 'Black Angel' that I can't put down. This little gem cost me fifty cents from the charity table at Hanniford's grocery store in the strip mall beside the highway in Saint Albans, Vermont. I've had some luck with that table in the past. Picked up a copy of Elyse Friedman's extremely enjoyable debut novel 'Then Again' last summer from that table. (There appears to be some connection between being an author named Friedman and turning up on the charity table at the Saint Albans Hanniford's). I was curious about Bruce Jay after reading a whatever-happened-to piece about him on Apparently he's still writing, though his name has been established less from literary fiction than screenplays. For a while there he was on the fast track to literary stardom, published in the New Yorker, a critically lauded novel called 'Stern'. Now he's perhaps best known as the guy who wrote the screenplay to the movies Splash and The Heartbreak Kid.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mysteries to me

I don't know what this means but here are the top five searched terms that end up at my blog:

1) "rent excuses"
2) "excuse poems"
3) "b. glen"
4) "Jonathan Garfinkel"
5) "bounced cheques"

Top five events which prove that watching the Olympics is closer to watching a show at Caesar's Palace Hotel & Casino in Vegas than a sporting event.

1) Beach volleyball
2) BMX biking
3) Rythmic gymnastics
4) Synchronized swimming (actually anything with "synchronized" in the title)
5) Trampoline

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

America: The Beautiful

I know everyone is talking about Phelps and Bolt, but thus far, I have another image that has stuck with me from watching these Olympics, US gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin standing next to each other on the podium. A curious sight. Johnson, the compact, thick-thighed, sixteen year old sparkplug with the bunny-faced goofy smile and slightly dazed look in her eye, along side Liukin, the tall, lithe, elegant, cool blond, her gaze burning with arch competitiveness. Their respective parents couldn't have provided a more stark contrast too. Liukin's father/coach was a former Russian Olympic gold medalist himself. The consummate professional, he was on the floor with his daughter during competition, confident and supportive. Liukin's mother was usually nowhere to be found - she couldn't bear the tension of watching her daughter compete (except that she did attend the balance beam final, her daughter's last Olympic event.) Johnson's doughy bespectacled mid-western parents were in the stands the whole time, bubbling with energy, cheering their daughter on and looking utterly out of place, like they couldn't believe their aw-shucks good fortune to have such a marvelous kid who was doing such a wonderful job in front of the crowd. Their joy seemed not unlike the joy of parents watching their six year old playing a candy-cane in the school Christmas play.

Watching the contrast in their appearance and style, it suddenly dawned on me: This is quintessential America, a country whose citizens are per capita perhaps one of the most obese on earth but whose athlete representatives continue to win more medals than any other. They are fat, undisciplined and out of shape as citizens, but disciplined, trained and absolutely committed to achieving world supremacy as athletes. America embodies opposites. Both extreme discipline and extreme sloth, religious fanaticism and radical secularism, theism and atheism, sexuality and puritanism, moral conservatism and libertarianism. Only one thing unites them all, a commitment to freedom, diversity and possibility in the various permutations and combinations which may or may not lead to success. This, of course, is the exact antithesis of the host Chinese approach. When they are successful, the Chinese leave nothing to chance. Their triumph owes everything to authoritarianism, formula, strict regiment, homogeneity and control. Nothing, or as little as possible, is left to chance, hence the substitution of one girl's voice for another's appearance, and the digital manipulation of images at the opening ceremonies. Ironically, for a country that brought us Hollywood and plastic surgery, it is not America but the Chinese that seem fake, less real. America takes its chances, lets the chips fall where they may, and the result, sometimes, are Shawn and Nastia, as real and as different as they come, from both ends of possibility's spectrum.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Two Jews, A Black Guy and a Porpoise

“They did it!” I screamed, before the person on the other end could speak. “They did it, they did it, they did it!”

“I know!” My mother shouted back. “And they’re Jews!”

Rachel Shukert at asks the eternal question, Are Jews to Aquatics What African-Americans are to Basketball?

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Olympic Dream

"Olympism tends to bring together as in a beam of light, all those moral principles which promote human perfection." Pierre de COUBERTIN

Okay, I don't want to seem like a wet rag and I like watching athletic prowess and the drama of victory and defeat as much as the next sod, (I also like to get drunk occasionally, and even watch the finale of So You Think You Can Dance) but let's take a step back for a minute. I've been thinking about it, and in the spirit of the day I have decided that I too have an Olympic dream. I would like to hear a country with the courage to announce that they're not interested in the Olympics, that they never have any intention of participating and don't think participation in the games is a pathway to international peace, but rather a colossal waste of valuable resources that would better be channelled into more productive (and less harmful) programs and efforts (like infrastructure, affordable housing, clean water, affordable medicines, education etc. etc. the list is endless.) We can be dazzled by the spectacle of the event, but what is needed is some perspective. The Olympics is a show. The biggest show on earth. Nothing more. It is political in nature and celebrates nationalism (in 1936 Hitler understood this, he also understood that his own warped philosophy of eugenics, purity and physical beauty dovetailed nicely with the philosophy of "human perfection" espoused by Olympism.)

One aspect I have found compelling about the way activists have attempted to use the Olympic platform (pun intended) to draw attention to the cause of Tibet independence, is that it contrasts weakness, humility, vulnerability and spirituality with hardcore power (embodied by China itself) and the emphasis on physical strength and even, disturbingly, human perfection through physical prowess (as in the motto of the Olympic movement, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" meaning Swifter, Higher, Stronger.) Tibet appears to represent the utter antithesis of Olympism, a pathway to peace that is peace itself, not competition and conflict, and certainly not extravaganza.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jeffrey Mackie reading at Vallum's Cafe/Culture

Jesus has forded the stream
Me, I am thinking I will put in a cassette
To record the 2nd coming
Me, I am watching porn
It is the closest to love
Half the world gets
Me, I am eating roots and berries
It's the closest to food
The rest of the world gets
Me, I am writing advertisements
It is the closest to literacy
The world gets

The lighting's less than optimal but check out this reading by the Montreal poet Jeffrey Mackie. I met Jeffrey when we read together at The Yellow Door a while back. I instantly became an admirer. A writer in the best tradition of the poet engagé, his work has an immediacy and an appealing unpretentiousness about it, not to mention humour, as you'll hear. He doesn't shy away from either the big questions or the most pressing issues of the day. And his voice is unique in the way it melds high and low culture, prosy language with lyrical flourishes, small quotidian experiences and big philosophical, spiritual, political and social concerns. Jeffrey firmly believes poetry matters and I think his does. He's reading here from a work entitled "Truth Among the Obsessions" which first appeared on the poets against the war website and is now available in limited edition chapbook format from Allied Widget. On a weekly basis Jeffrey can be heard on CKUT radio 90.3 FM