Monday, July 30, 2012

Barbara Paul, Under the Canopy

What the heck kind of book was this?

As near as I can tell, outside of a brief Amazon bleat, there aren't any reviews on the whole Internet of Barbara Paul's Under the Canopy, which is weird for a classic SF novel (if 1980 counts as classic?). There are some very good reasons, though, that Under the Canopy has been nearly forgotten: not that the Amazon "I couldn't finish it" whine is an adequate response, but I sympathized a bit with G. Bird.

Barbara Paul talks a bit on her site (not updated in 12 years) about the basic plot of the novel, which was basically transplanting Somerset Maugham's story "The Outsiders" away from an Asian plantation and onto another planet, and swapping out Maugham's representative Englishmen (one upper-class, one working-class) for women, with similar allegiances. The upper-class woman, Margo Kemperer, has been the only person on Gaea for many years, and she lives an isolated life, dressing formally for dinner and hiring servants. Upsetting her life, Margo receives as an aide a working-class woman, Stephanie Leeds, once in the military forces for the Interplanetary Union (IU), who wants to live as the locals do once she's posted on Gaea. Crises ensue, of all kinds.

It's a bizarrely conservative novel. Margo is a wannabe upper-crust Victorian who refuses to integrate with the native Gaeans on their terms, except for rituals where they appoint her a kind of judge. She carries on handwritten correspondence with heavy-hitters throughout the IU who barely remember her (eschewing for form's sake the more common electronic communication), so she's an easy person to find ridiculous, not unlike an intergalactic Polonius. Stephanie wants to live like the Gaeans, and she wants to see the Gaeans holding power over their own lives. She doesn't want servants, and she'd like to see the Gaeans evolve individually and collectively in whatever form they'd like to follow.

And yet the Gaeans love Margo, because she understands their natural formality, and they loathe Stephanie because she can't let them be themselves. As it turns out, Stephanie wants to turn Gaea into a liberal bastion, but by book's end she's spectacularly humiliated and savagely destroyed: burned by acid, stripped naked, used as bait, corrupted by syphilis, abandoned by the man-whore with whom she ultimately ruins her reputation, and finally stabbed by her own servant.

Conservativism 1, Liberalism 0.

I picked up this volume from Russell Books, incidentally, because the cover pitched the planet itself -- really the jungle that covers the entire planet -- as a character, as an agentive force. It really isn't, but it's clear that Paul thinks that's how she has represented it. The characters all need to be really careful, and the jungle is full of evolutionary impossibilities that can kill: birds spraying acid, multiple humanoid species, an infinite variety of ants, etc. But that doesn't make the jungle a character.

Oh, and form: Stephanie gets lost in the jungle for more than three weeks, most of which she spends naked and hungry, and how do we learn the details? Through a detailed present-tense daily journal. Whatever.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Douglas Coupland, Life After God

Why fight it? Life After God is my favourite Douglas Coupland novel, I confess, and the closing story "1,000 Years (Life After God)" is the clubhouse leader for the best thing he'll ever write. Maybe it isn't for you, and certainly there are readers who think it's self-indulgent at best, but for me? I've read just about everything Coupland has written at this point, and I'll keep reading everything else that he writes, but this one story is pretty much a perfect storm for hooking both my biographical details and my reading preferences.

On the negative side, you'd have a harder time finding a harsher mainstream review than Zoe Heller's in The Independent, with its oddly hostile closing: "will Coupland ever wake up and cry with regret and shame and grief at having written such embarrassing, self-regarding twaddle?" Heller, of course, is very good with more or less unpleasant characters in her fiction, and Coupland's success depends to some extent on your willingness to identify with his narrative voices, so it's unsurprising that they'd have different aesthetics, but still: her review kind of reminds me of Opus' classic of film criticism.

So, what is it about this book that works for me?

Content first: the characters are mostly fragile men shading out of youth and into middle age, either real or imagined, mostly deeply embedded in British Columbia culture and landscape. Even the recollections of childhood are negatively nostalgic, so the child of "The Wrong Sun" remembers his childhood as a series of moments where he genuinely expected nuclear apocalypse -- that's what I mean by an imagined middle age, because the kid is old before he should be. Coupland's characters spend a lot of time looking at place, too, sometimes the Vancouver cityscape but more often non-urban aspects of the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province.

Style: its first-person narrative is about as far as you can go toward sincerity without tipping over into maudlin, though (see Heller, noted above) numerous readers felt like it went too far. Coupland has said that Life After God is the product of what amounted to a breakdown for him, and many of its narrating characters are going through breakdowns of one kind or another. There's a directness to the represented narrative positions that I find really appealing, and ditto the clarity of images.

The closing story, "1,000 Years (Life After God)," is the story of Scout, a man working in sales at a faceless Vancouver-based software company, who has been on anti-depressants for some time. In pursuit of feelings, he goes off them, and winds up experiencing an American presidential inauguration (perhaps the pinnacle of American political life) and running off into the BC wild (one version of Canadian Eden). It's not wilderness where Scout ends up, exactly, but it's uninhabited, and the tension between wild and wilderness matters, to me as well as to Scout (and probably Coupland, but that's only speculation). I'm not going to spoil the plot, because it's too good a story to waste, but suffice it to say that Coupland here writes his very best conclusion. If I'm critical of Coupland's writing, it's usually because I think his books end with whimpers, but not this one.

In the dark ages of the Internet, around 2001, a British amateur filmmaker posted a film version online of this story, and the distinction between British and British Columbian sensibilities were never clearer. (Free book to anyone who can find this video for me!) He loved the story, clearly, but the disjunctions between the two places meant that -- in my opinion, at least -- there's no way to translate the BC story into a British context. This story is fundamentally about BC, about the West Coast, about the North American West, and my goodness is it ever worth reading again and again and again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Norman Mailer, The Fight

With Advertisements for Myself as the title of his 1959 collection of assorted pieces, no one ever accused Norman Mailer of being shy. Really he's the true subject of just about everything he ever wrote, but he was always just off the edge of my radar, and as with Hunter S. Thompson, I felt like I only needed to read bits and pieces to know what to expect from Mailer.

How wrong I was -- even though I was right, too.

The next book club book will be Mailer's The Fight, on the recommendation of Matthew Hooton (buy his novel Deloume Road!), and wow, did it ever remind me why people keep asking if/why I'm slumming it while enjoying pulp fiction lately. Somehow Mailer found himself assigned to cover the 1974 Ali/Foreman championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, occasionally in the company of Hunter S. Thompson and George Foreman, often thinking for some reason about Hemingway's suicide, and constantly questioning his fitness for the task. It's a boxing novel, kind of, but it's also a writer's reflection on process, and The Fight must have felt on its publication like an instant souvenir of the time.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Savage Pellucidar

It was the best of novels, it was the worst of novels, it was a sign of foolishness, it was the proof of wisdom: well, maybe not, but Savage Pellucidar, the seventh and final book in Edgar Rice Burroughs' centre-of-the-earth series, was mighty uneven. Savage Pellucidar is the sixth one I've read from the series, so I must be getting close to some sort of badge by now....

(NOT an image of David Innes)
The thing is, I pretty much hated the opening pages, but I felt an obligation to finish the series, and once I surrendered a little bit more than usual (ie, stopped wondering if the book would be worth my time), it turned out to be fairly enjoyable.

When I talked about the fourth novel in this seriesTarzan at the Earth's Core, I managed to avoid saying just what I was thinking, which was that in many ways, Burroughs' use of Tarzan in itself signified Burroughs' admission that this series had failed imaginatively. This was an author who'd succeeded in imagining a wildly complicated world inside the Earth, ignoring everything we knew by that point about gravity and evolution and other large-scale scientific theories, all in pursuit of a ripping yarn; introducing Tarzan into this imagined world signalled (to me, at least) that Burroughs didn't trust the series enough to let it develop on its own.

The fifth novel, though, Back to the Stone Age, was a throwback that revealed Burroughs working at his best, so I had some hopes that Savage Pellucidar might have accidentally have survived the confidence crash represented by Tarzan. Sadly, it doesn't, and this book is basically a train wreck, but it's not entirely Burroughs' fault. That's just what happens when an "editor" takes four linked short stories written at different times, and knits them together without much of a cover story, or indeed much of a feel for prose. Read this novel at your own risk, I'd say, but if your expectations are low, and if you persist, you just might find yourself enjoying it more than you should.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, At the Earth's Core

From such small acorns, etc.: Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to generate a seven-novel series set in Pellucidar, the world he imagined inside the Earth's hollow centre, and it all started with little At the Earth's Core. Not even 160 pages, and with only about a half-dozen feature characters, At the Earth's Core is an awfully slim volume on which to build a multi-volume superstructure, but you know what? I'm happy with it, because a paradoxical virtue of pulp fiction is that it has to both (a) stay humble and not try too much, and (b) reach for the fricking STARS.

With At the Earth's Core, as he was to do later with Back to the Stone Age, Burroughs showed a real talent at telling a small-scale story inside a large-scale opera. Here, the role of "small-scale story" is played by David Innes' all-American love for Pellucidar's Dian the Beautiful, and the opera-scale story is Innes' discovery (with Abner Perry) that the Earth is hollow rather than solid, as well as filled with plant and animal life, including multiple species that seem to have developed intelligence through separate evolutionary tracks. In Back to the Stone Age, the small story is Von's attempt to survive in Pellucidar (and to shed the rest of his name, Friedrich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst) while earning the love of La-ja, so yeah, there's kind of a formula, but it's something that Burroughs does really well in these two novels (and quite well in Tanar of Pellucidar, too).

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan at the Earth's Core

Pulp fiction is amazing stuff, with its plots spinning barely under control, and its images zipping past in an unnecessary profusion, and word games played seemingly just for the hell of it.

Except when it isn't amazing. And then it's slow, and it staggers along, and the joke's on it rather than on all those people too self-assured to bother with pulp fiction.

So no, I didn't enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan at the Earth's Core nearly as much as I wanted to. It's an amazing concept, the hollow Earth in which Burroughs set his Pellucidar sequence, but eventually, it seems, the only option left was ... Tarzan.
Oh, Edgar. Edgar, Edgar, Edgar.