Monday, January 28, 2013

Grant Buday, Stranger on a Strange Island

How do you understand where YOU live?

In British Columbia, if you're interested in escaping the gravitational pull of Vancouver (and Victoria), there shouldn't be much doubt: we should all be reading the full Transmontanus series of books, edited by the complicated Terry Glavin and published by New Star. Sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes academic, Transmontanus volumes are unpredictable and uneven and essential reading.

My most recent dip into the Transmontanus catalogue brought me Grant Buday's Stranger on a Strange Island by Grant Buday, with the (previous paragraph notwithstanding) Vancouver-centric subtitle From Main Street to Mayne Island. It's an essay collection, and like most entries in the series, it's just long enough to make you want more of it. To some extent, the series is like a print version of the Kindle singles: Wired saw those two years ago as the salvation of long-form journalism, and the New York Times apparently still loves them, though expectations have tempered somewhat in some circles.

If you want an excerpt, you can find one at The Tyee, but honestly, buy the damn book. The separate essays here cover a lot of ground, from chainsaw love as a measure of masculinity, through sanctioned boat theft, to the typically mixed success of whale-watching. What links them, simply, is that BC lives in this book. It's not everything about this province, it's not everyone's BC, but who cares? It's one version of it, a weird and marginal and comforting version, and this province has suffered for a long time from something like a tourist-industry drive for a single organizing narrative. It's a weird place, like every other place is weird, and Grant Buday does a really great job of letting us visit Mayne Island.

Also: I was glad to see the National Post pay this book some attention, but frankly Philip Marchand's review gives away most of the content, but making it sound disjointed (rather than an essay collection) and somehow mocking the book while claiming to appreciate it. No hyperlink for you, Post: it's terrific that you keep giving us the idosyncratic genius of Robert Wiersema's reviews, but this one ain't all that.

If you'd rather, there's always the damning with faint praise option: if you don't know the Transmontanus mode, you'll call all these books "slight." Pay attention, people. They're awesome. (Well, except for the ones that aren't. This one is.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe

I admit it: when this month's book club selection turned out to be a novel, rather than a nonfiction work explaining the vagaries and/or complexities of assorted science fictional realities or gambits, I felt distinctly disappointed. Sure, Charles Yu has won a fistful of acclaim, and not just for How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, though it has found plenty of positive reviews both by amateurs and in Wired and the New York Times, but I was expecting essays, details, quantum mechanics, rather than a comic novel about a depressed, middle-class repairman of time machines.

A comic novel by turns self-reflexively postmodern, and winkingly anti-postmodern. It's about paradoxes, like most stories involving time machines, and memory and guilt and self-recrimination.

And I see myself in the hapless character, see all of us in him but especially myself, as you may see especially yourself, doomed never to figure out his life until after it's too late for the understanding to make a difference. (This may be the Powerful Social Critique that some of the novel's readers appear so keen on, as if science fiction isn't enough on its own.)

Unless I accept the ending as somehow a redemptive rupture.

But I didn't, I don't, I won't. The mechanics and physics and sequentiality of the closing pages didn't make sense to me, not on a first reading nor on a second, and I'm too tired to believe in a reset button that this novel's success depends on my bringing with me into the reading.

And also, Ander Monson, writing in the Times?
"Yu’s sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel’s dense, tragic, all-too-human heart.... The novel’s central, lonely story is wrapped in glittering layers of gorgeous and playful meta-science-fiction.... These pyrotechnics balance the tender moments, creating a complex, brainy, genre-hopping joyride of a story, far more than the sum of its component parts, and smart and tragic enough to engage all regions of the brain and body."
Rewrite this review, right now. Don't leave it like this out in the open, online, where people can just find it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jeyn Roberts, Dark Inside

Jeyn Roberts' Dark Inside was a Christmas gift this year from a colleague and friend, so immediately its gift status had me questioning all sorts of things about what sort of image I'm presenting. The book's video trailer should give some clues about the basis for my self-doubts:


A mammoth 9.5-scale earthquake strikes the West Coast of North America. At the same time, individual humans all over the world turn into "Baggers" -- like zombies, but with important differences related to communications and planning -- and start killing everyone else. The carnage is atrocious, the violence is graphic, and the survival rate of the novel's main characters approaches zero. (I found this especially interesting for the first book of a series, since you kind of need someone to keep the story going.) There isn't much more to Dark Inside, apart from mostly doomed attempts at survival and a certain amount of speculation and crumb-dropping about the roots and trajectory of the crisis. It's an awful, gripping book: "I can't go on, I'll go on," as Beckett wrote in another context, and its fans are seriously fans.

To some extent, it's just another YA apocalypse novel anchored in the North American west, especially British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, but frankly this descriptor makes it exactly the kind of book I'm going to read and review: I'm fascinated by the coming together of these cultural strands.

Plus, if you can inure yourself to all the slaughtering and whatnot, there's some seriously interesting pondering going on here. Jeyn Roberts studied at Bath Spa University, and while I don't know that she had anything to do there with ecocritics Greg Garrard or Richard Kerridge, I did find the connection helpful when I thought about the comments by one character about this particular apocalypse being a judgment about humanity's failings towards the earth. (Roberts raises the same ideas herself, too, in the "Questions for Readers" section at the novel's end, so it's not purely an intellectual exercise to make one of the characters Deep.)

If every other hyper-consuming empire/society or hyper-successful species has collapsed catastrophically, and not always for obvious or even scrutable reasons, and if our current society is essentially globalized, then a coming corrective apocalypse -- assuming (which is an enormous reach, clearly) that past apocalypses have been corrective -- would likely be globalized as well. Hell, feel free to take Roberts' zombies as metaphoric or symbolic, but I find that even scarier. We're all individually destroying our chances for individual and species survival, without thinking about our individual actions and decisions.

We are already zombies, in other words, and Roberts' fictional world has judged us already.

Should you read it? I'm not sure the question makes sense: you should've figured out by now whether you're going to give this book a try.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Anne Simpson, The Marram Grass

And of course it's a lovely book: every Gaspereau Press volume is physically beautiful, you know this, of course, with the laid paper and the heavyweight dust-jacket with the line-art image in a colour barely contrasting against the paper. Usually there's an occasional copy-edit problem with Gaspereau, and this one has a few small ones, but Anne Simpson's prose has been handled with deserving respect in The Marram Grass: Poetry & Otherness.

An odd lead paragraph, that one?

Thing is, as much as I loved some of the essays in Simpson's 2009 collection, it all makes the best sense if you're already plugged into the conversations that she's participating in. The more you know on the way in, the more sense most pieces of serious Canadian literature will make to you. Generally I'm okay with this, because it's always the case that a text has an intended audience and a base vocabulary: concrete poetry, science fiction, suturing instructions, financial prospectuses, so why should literature get blamed for being exclusionary and elitist?