Friday, October 20, 2017

Other places, other words

The allusion to Joseph K I got; the JOKE ("Joe K") I missed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner: Dare To Compare, Part 2

**Spoilers Galore, people.**

Scott's version of the Pinocchio Story is by now very familiar.
"Run it by me one more time..."
Whether or not Deckard is a Replicant (an open, and to my mind pointless, question) he very much is: 1) a dim-wit, low on charisma; 2) an inept killer; 3) a rapist. He is thoroughly pathetic, if not repugnant -- reviewers who coo over what a welcome sight Deckard is in the new movie have completely lost touch with what a shit-heel he was in the earlier one.
"Stop! There's a sequel!"
It is the "villain" Roy Batty who brings life abundant to the characters he encounters -- just before he kills them, more often than not.
Batty meets his Maker.
Batty is the Angel of Death, or Flannery O'Connor's "The Misfit," bringing the heightened recognition that comes to those on the cusp of shedding their mortal coil.
I once was blind, but now I see...
Scott breaks script, however, in the final act, when Batty brings physical salvation and enlightened self-awareness to the hapless and undeserving Deckard -- then gives up the ghost. Deckard returns to Rachel, a Replicant whose life he is now determined to protect. If there is a hero in Blade Runner, it is Batty -- a tragic figure.
Rescuing with nail-pierced hand.
Blade Runner 2049 is also a Pinocchio Story, but it takes its time getting there.

The first two-thirds of the film masquerades as an Annointing Of The Chosen One story, and devotes the time to fleshing out exactly what the Chosen One will need to rescue humanity from -- a stratified and misery-inducing caste system, basically.

This time there is no doubt whatsoever about whether or not this story's Blade Runner is a Replicant -- his name is KD9-3.7, or "K" for short.
That's "K" for Kafka, or PKD, etc.
K's human boss (he calls her "Madam") assigns him to find and eliminate the Chosen One. While K sniffs out the trail, the audience takes in a grocery list of what the caste system has wrought -- a defoliated Earth, the universal acceptance of child labour, cramped living conditions, festering resentment among all classes, materialist discontent ramped up to a cosmic scale. The Chosen One has a lot of work to do.

It becomes increasingly apparent to the viewer that K has internalized and accommodated himself to this class-structure to a degree he is not aware of. He behaves imperiously toward technology designed to serve him, including not just his faithful drone but fellow Replicants offering sexual favours. When his human boss pointedly suggests she too might be up for a shag, he politely declines and returns to his job. In what passes for his private life, he's managed to do one better than Madam -- he has a compliant virtual helpmate and intimate he has purchased, to whom he slowly grants an incremental form of agency.
As events unfurl, K is persuaded that he is the Chosen One, and his carefully ordered world falls to pieces.
An unhappy moment: the Blue Fairy revealed as hoax.
He tracks down and confronts his Maker -- in the reality-frame K has come to accept, that would be Deckard.
Fortunately for K, Deckard is still crap at killing Replicants.
In the 30 years that have taken place in the Blade Runner universe, Deckard has come to look and behave a great deal like Harrison Ford does in this universe -- taking a breather from grumpily punching Replicants in the face to savour the pleasures of Elvis singing "Can't Help Falling In Love." Over a post-beating cocktail, Deckard sets K straight -- K is just another Replicant, albeit one who has in fact met the actual Chosen One, but was too thick to recognize it.

The scales fall from K's eyes, and he willingly sacrifices himself in the cause of reuniting the Creator with the Created Chosen One. If Batty was Milton's Lucifer, K is the ode-writer who reassures, "They also serve who stand and wait."
Or shoot, depending.
2049's final act is laudable in construction but lamentable in execution, as it relies on Villains Who Are Villainous And Nothing But. The final confrontation is a scene that does not penetrate nearly as deeply as Batty murdering his Creator, never mind Batty's final confrontation with Deckard.
"I'm so glad we had this time together."
Most would suggest this is due to the absence of Rutger Hauer, but I thought Sylvia Hoeks (Replicant "Luv") showed considerable promise as the new Unhinged Super-Athletic Dutch Heavy. She did an admirable job of flexing what she could, but the script kept her hamstrung, alas.
Luv, in action.
Hopefully this is not my final word on the film, as there are other subtleties and complexities to mull over. But I would perhaps assert what Roger Ebert* did about the earlier film2049 fails on a fundamental level, while delivering on levels this viewer did not anticipate -- surely a fitting achievement for a sequel to a 35-year-old oddity that wound up changing everything.

*Mistakenly, to my mind.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blade Runner: Dare To Compare, Part 1

This weekend I joined the stalwart few and went to see Blade Runner 2049.
"Let me show you to your seat."
Some stats indicate the audience tilted toward older males, by up to 71%. In our theatre, the women outnumbered the men by a ratio of two-to-one. Mind you, my wife, daughter and I were the only ones there. (I jest, but only just.)

Denis Villeneuve's movie was, as I expected, very much its own thing -- focused on his particular concerns and obsessions, utilizing and subverting stock-and-trade narratives in a manner that has become peculiar to Villeneuve, and recognizably so. While watching I thought it somewhat unfair to compare and contrast his film with Ridley Scott's from 35 years ago -- a film that subsequently dictated the visual grammar of Western cinema and became, for many, passionately loved not just despite its narrative flaws but because of them.

Still, Scott's is the property Villeneuve agreed to work with, so comparisons aren't just inevitable, I think they are called for. Here are a few of my own -- with NO SPOILERS (yet).

The aesthetic: Scott's Blade Runner aesthetic is arguably the tipping-point for the hesitant fan.
You know it. You LOVE it. Los Angeles, 2019!!
So visually saturated was Scott's Los Angeles of 2019 that cyberpunk godfather William Gibson reportedly fled the theatre within the first ten minutes of the movie.

The rest of us stayed put. Scott's future was vibrant . . .
. . . exotic . . .
. . . recognizable . . .
. . . off-putting . . .
Mezcal, with extra worms.
. . . but comfy. Sure, it never stops raining in Scott's LA, but who didn't want to live in Deckard's bachelor pad?
"Help me with the dishes, will ya?"
Villeneuve's LA some 30 years later is decidedly less shiny and more Brutalist.
At times I felt like I had returned to the halls of the University of Winnipeg.
"Walmart says they need my student transcript..."
The blue/yellow hue imbalance that Scott brought to the screen is turned beyond "11" by Villeneuve, heightening viewer discomfort. Will anybody but the perverse ever get sentimental over this aesthetic? For the rest of us this is a decidedly cold and unwelcoming visual palette -- considering how it serves the narrative, this comparison is a "win" for Villeneuve.

Film score: Vangelis' original score was the stuff of legend, in large part because it was decades before anybody could get a copy to play on the home stereo. 2049's score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfinch can be streamed at your immediate convenience. Odds are you won't play it at the eardrum-shredding volumes we endured in the theatre -- even so, none of the tracks are likely to become ubiquitous at Manhattan Ayahuasca ceremonies. This, too, serves Villeneuve's story well, as Vangelis' did Scott's, so I will declare this comparison a "tie."

Story: both films retell the Pinocchio story. But there are twists, which I hope to get to in the next day or two.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Guillermo del Toro, "At Home With Monsters" at the AGO

Friday we drove downtown, picked up the younger college student at Union Station and checked out the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the AGO.
It was heaps of fun, needless to say. The exhibit is built as a mini-mock-up of del Toro's actual house (or houses, more like, as I gather he divides his time between Toronto and LA) which he has modelled after Forrest J. Ackerman's. From the '70s to the '90s, the "Ackermansion" was something of a tourist destination for (ahem) sentimental nerdy types, chock full of Universal Monsters memorabilia he'd collected over several decades -- gone to the four winds since his passing, alas.
The Ackermansion, before the clutter.
Here we have "Bleak House."
There is indeed an abundance of STUFF: film props . . .
. . . comic book ephemera . . .
. . . wax figures galore . . .
"Tussaud can bite my shiny wax..."
. . . Freaks sits close to the director's heart, as can be expected . . .
. . . plus bundles of weird tchotchkes that have captured del Toro's eye and earned a place in Bleak House.

If you've seen Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone you already know del Toro's taste for the macabre runs a tad deeper than Ackerman's likely did. Many of the pieces on display are unsettling, quite moving, or both. The prime example to my eyes is this Boris Karloff-Frankenstein's Monster bust.
"That's right: Toronto."
Photos don't do it justice, but the size and the articulation are surprisingly affecting -- the eyes are displaced, giving you the impression he is avoiding your gaze.
You feel sorry for the brute -- and so you should!

It's an experience, in other words -- not to be missed. In Toronto until January 7, 2018.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty

Might as well brace yourself -- this'll be all over the place.

First of all, I wasn't a fan. I liked his music well enough, rarely changing the station when one or the other of his 50-or-so hits came on. When I finally took a knee to the Infernal Device and the bloatware that would own it I even shelled out for a few Tom Petty songs. And I've attended to a few of his albums, but never had one in my collection.

I see no reason to get into specifics as to why this is so -- it's not an interesting line of inquiry, and it distracts from the man's remarkable capacity to craft a song that climbs into the deepest caverns of a person's lonely heart. He knew his voice, he knew exactly what he wanted to hear from it -- that's what he brought to the stage and the platter, and that's why people loved him.

Three things, however:

1) Listen to the kids. My takeaway quote from Bill (not the Rolling Stone) Wyman's excellent memorial of Petty:
While Petty’s image was laid-back, almost hippielike, you don’t get to be a star and stay one without some grit. His kids, he told Zollo, know the truth: “They said, ‘The world pictures you as this laid-back laconic person, but you’re really the most intense, neurotic person we’ve ever met!’”
2) Further to 'Point #1 (above): watch Peter Bogdanovitch's Tom Petty doc Runnin' Down A Dream. Think four hours is too much time to devote to the subject matter? Think again. I've watched this doc twice and am queuing it up for a third viewing. And I'm not a fan.

3) This picture, circa Damn The Torpedoes:
Something about this picture -- the public-school slouch who pulled it all together and finally became a force everyone had to acknowledge -- typifies what Petty and his music embodied for me. Summers in my small town, listening to the sort of music he loved and made. Summer. Cigarette smoke and motor oil. Bruises. Childhood, really -- the good, the bad, the ugly of it -- and the fact that one can endure and eventually reflect upon it with some tenderness.

Quite the achievement. Godspeed and God rest, sir.

"Looking for adventure/And whatever comes our way..."

So long as I'm recalling Zen and the artlessness of youthful errors in judgement and enthusiasms, here's a shot from my motorcycle trip in '86, taken just as we've exited the northern perimeter of Yellowstone National Park. To my mind it almost perfectly encapsulates the trip as well as the pleasures and displeasures of riding a motorcycle.
If you meet the adventure on the road ... whatever.
That's my travelling buddy. We'd come from Salt Lake City that morning, and had a late lunch in the Old Faithful Dining Room. After lunch we moseyed over to the legendary geyser. While we waited we speculated what it might look like if you dumped a bunch of garbage into the hole. It spouted at roughly the appointed hour. Then we consulted the Yellowstone brochure.

"Any other geysers you want to see?"

Rhetorical question.

Back to Robert Pirsig, and Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. 
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
What a load.

Take a look at that picture again.

Motorcycles.

Nobody talks about what an annoyance it is to get in and out of your rain gear, or to clear bugs off your helmet visor, or how a helmet visor makes you feel like your head is trapped inside a really small car -- thus removing the "thrill" of being out in the elements, "in contact with it all." Even if you take the staggeringly-less-safe option and wear a mixing-bowl with goggles, you're still getting bugs smeared across your visual plane and you're still looking through a screen.

You're still sitting -- passively consuming.

You're just doing it on a slightly less-comfortable, and more vulnerable perch.

What a feeling.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Zen & The Art of Letting a $#@%ing PROFESSIONAL Do The Job

In 1986 I read Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It changed my life.
"Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption."

It's overstatement to say I wish I'd never read that passage -- but only just.

Replacing tires and rear sprocket, with the help of a friend
and a piece of firewood. Note next victim, just off to the right.

I was smart enough to know I hadn't the "gumption" to fix a motorcycle. But, c'mon -- everyone should be able to fix a bicycle. No?

No.

A short, and not-at-all-comprehensive, list of bicycle repair and maintenance jobs I have botched over the years:

  • Replacing brake cables
  • Replacing brake pads
  • Replacing derailleur cables
  • Replacing chain
  • Adjusting rear derailleur
  • Wheel truing

But the real pièce de résistance -- the King Of All Botched Repairs -- was disassembling and repacking of the bottom bracket.
How difficult could this be?
This was a personal "fail" on so many levels, I hardly know where to start. Perhaps most significantly, it was a job that didn't even need doing to begin with. Note to erstwhile bicycle mechanics -- George Mallory's motivation for climbing Everest does not apply to plumbing the bottom bracket mysteries of your $2,000 bicycle.

Long story short: for the next two decades the bottom bracket of my expensive bicycle was indeed a legitimate focus for the pros, because I had forced the bearing cups into the wrong mounts. "Huh. The bottom bracket is . . . well, it's not quite stripped, but it's pretty close," was a refrain I heard again and again.

Leave the bottom bracket alone, rookie -- I learned that lesson, alright. And beyond patching a flat and cleaning the chain, I pretty much left all the other adjustments to the pros. But then YouTube came along and made little jobs like adjusting the rear derailleur look so easy. Surely anyone can do that -- no?

No.

Alright, let's (gurgle) shift gears, shall we?
Bike, meet Mike.
I met Mike Gorman last Easter at choir practise. He has a bike shop just a few miles down the road from me. When I first visited it, the experience was . . . I'm tempted to say "a gentle rebuke," but that's not quite right. Let's go with: a gentle reassurance that it can all be done the way it ought to be done.

Yesterday I took my rear wheel to him. He trued it in less than a minute. Then he pointed out where it was falling apart. "It should stay true for another week. Bring it back then and I'll use the spokes on a new rim."

I try not to indulge in "If I could go back in time" thinking, but I do wish I'd known of Spokes For Folks back when I made this purchase. Or, if I'm going to be that fanciful anyway, back when I made this purchase and proceeded to Zen-it-up with one ruinous "repair" after the next. Gorman's shop -- and his version of customer service -- is as close the Platonic Ideal as it gets on this plain.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

One more thing about Walter Becker...

I'm afraid I've made him out to be the Godfather of Shoegaze, when nothing could be further from the truth. Dude was funny, for real -- often (nearly always?) about matter that, when discussed soberly, induces squirms of discomfort among both the hip and the square.

"You're going to like this [music] in a year or so, so why don't you start now and save yourself some time?" -- Becker's college attitude toward the reluctant hep-cat. And if "Comedy is tragedy plus time"* Becker's (and Fagen's) impulse was to get the laughs in as early as possible.

Similarly, his musicianship -- Becker had his own guitar sound, and it suited his character. clean, precise, funny.

Yep: funny.

My friend says the first time he put Two Against Nature into the family CD player and gave it a spin, his six-year-old daughter burst out laughing when Becker ripped the guitar solo on "Gaslighting Abbie."**

Me too, kid.

*"Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy" -- Steve Allen, in 1957, apparently.

**"Gaslighting" -- in his reluctant pan of the albumNick Hornby rather grumpily cited this [to him, at that time] baffling, opaque term as an example of Fagen and Becker's gleeful willingness to court listener alienation. Who knew it would become a contemporary vernacular mainstay? Here is just the most current example.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Saying "Goodbye" to Walter

"And O, the heartache of the thief/strung out on the stash of his own grief..."

Greetings, D__ -

Apologies in advance, but I'm trying to wrap my head around why Walter's death is such a punch in the gut.

And I'm thinking you're the most direct route to my grief -- because the Dan, though they were certainly an element to my sonic interior, were not the inescapable harmonic presence they became until I visited you the summer of '87, when we drove to Port Elgin in your family's van, listening to the "best of" cassette your brother made.

When you turned up the volume for "My Old School," that was the first time I actually listened to what was going on and my thinking went from "Yeah, I like these guys" to "Oh man: these guys are something else entirely."
"Well you wouldn't even know a diamond if you held it in your hand/The things you think are precious I can't understand"
Surely that is the expression of a person who is sharp, observant and so far outside the swing of things it hurts, it physically hurts. He looks around his "class" (all definitions accepted), sees the entire pack enthusiastically barking in the exact opposite direction he's drawn to, and he knows: the problem isn't them, it's him. But maybe, if he gets the words right, and if he can somehow get everybody singing along, the problem won't be him. Maybe the problem will just . . . disappear.

But no.
"I did not think the girl could be so cruel/And I'm never going back to my old school"
Another part of the kicker is I think Walter's noggin was always the underrated of the two-headed beast that was the Dan. Certainly I underrated him -- up until quite recently, alas.

Look, somehow Donald possesses the bulk of the appeal. I've listened to his Nightfly Trilogy countless times -- only the canon (the Danon?) has received greater play in this house (though Kamakiriad never loses traction -- thoughts to be pursued another time, perhaps).

Donald put out three albums plus a fourth collection of seconds, of which many were arguably among his best work. Walter only put out two, and they didn't quite have the novelist's reach that Donald's did, the scope of concern was not quite so wide.

But I get ahead of myself. The truth is I was slow to listen to Walter.

"Slang of Ages" -- most-skipped song in the Danon?

Quite possibly.

And I know it's not "Walter's" -- he only sings it -- but c'mon, it's the only Dan song that put him out front. It's almost impossible for the listener not to make that song "Walter's." Regardless, nobody is going to the mat arguing it's on the same tier as "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."

And sure, back in the day I borrowed your copy of 11 Tracks of Whack. But I never put it to tape. Did I spin it a half-dozen times before returning it? Doubtful.

If the Dan's paucity of output hadn't pushed me to pursuit and deeper reflection, Walter would have remained neglected until his death -- until now. But he was still kicking when I finally shelled out for his tunes -- when I finally listened. And I was not ready for how deftly they cut through me.

Technical stuff: his voice is fine, better than okay. He has an ear for phrasing and he makes it work to his advantage -- a little like Donald, that way. But for whatever reason, the public ear prefers Donald's nasal tenor over Walter's sonorous baritone. So adjustments must be made.

11 Tracks has all the theory-execution pyrotechnics -- the bizarro bridges that outshine the chorus, the sudden key-changes. Tempo? Yeah, let's mess with that, too. It feels like a sobriety-splurge -- "Man, I've gotta quit fucking around and just get it down already!"

Contrast that with Circus Money, 14 years later. My first spin, I was trying to pin down the form, because wow it was familiar, but . . . wait: reggae? Dude, there's a reason why stoners listen to this stuff.

But it's not reggae, not really. And why should it be? Even reggae wasn't reggae, originally -- it was Soul, as embraced and expressed by Islanders. Walter's "reggae" has a polished concentration to its textures, a calculated interplay between musicians that beguiles. It's as if he said, "Let's not make this complicated, and it'll shine twice as bright -- trust me."

Listening to the music you might almost confuse him with a man who's made peace with the world. Listen to the words and you hear otherwise.

Walter's words run the gamut, from '71-'08. But they are finally a catalogue of the most heartfelt goodbyes a person can utter.

The byproduct of self-awareness at its most self-lacerating:
"Winter’s here 
And the day don’t last too long 
Barely thimbles full of sunshine to go on 
There’s an ocean full of midnight rolling right up to the door 
I guess Bob’s just not your uncle anymore"
You can't get away from that. You can disappear into a toxic fog -- temporarily. Or you can spend the rest of your life trying to learn how to say goodbye in the gentlest way possible.
Rest in peace, Walter.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Places with words and stuff

Here endeth Week One of the Truly Empty Nest. I'm having trouble finding words, so I'll suggest a few places where they reside.
  • Mourning Walter: "His death moved me in a way few musical deaths of my own generation have done." Creative partner Donald Fagen's commemorative post is touching and incisive -- as is critic Terry Teachout's, here. I hope to scratch out a commemoration of my own, but these will have to do for now.
  • Tangential to the musical fixations of Donald & Walter -- this is kinda cool: an original one-page adaptation by Leslie Cabarga of Al Dubin’s and Harry Warren’s classic Depression-era song, “With Plenty of Money & You,” recorded by Count Basie and Tony Bennet, from Lean Years, published by the Cartoonists Co-op Press, May 1974.
  • I'm a sucker for "ruin porn" -- here is a collection of GIFs contrasting the grandeur of Poconos resort promotional postcards with the abandoned ruins they've become.
  • "Even a bad movie becomes kind of good if you watch it over someone's shoulder" -- in an airplane, natch.
  • LEGO revenues are down. Speaking as one among (I am sure) a legion of disappointed dads, I have to wonder if this couldn't have been prevented had they produced enough Saturn V kits for Father's Day.
This guy is just pissing me off.
  • Ending on a musical note: Living Colour are still together, and still producing kick-ass music -- new kick-ass music, even. In a just world these guys would be bigger than . . . well, any number of wheezy acts coasting on the music they made when they were kids in the '90s.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Why the P.I.?

Speaking personally, Sam Wiebe's most remarkable literary accomplishment was persuading me the Private Investigator genre could be successfully pulled into the 21st Century -- never mind 21st Century Vancouver, British Columbia. I devour crime novels and consume the odd mystery, but tend to choke on the gumshoe-for-hire versions of both.

Hammett launched the gumshoe Galahad and Chandler spun the archetype into the stratosphere of the collective Western consciousness where its orbit continues to fascinate -- but after them it's been a long and wide history of "Look, I can do it too!" efforts remarkable for how badly they pale in contrast to the Masters.
Plus ça change
Humphrey Bogart is largely to blame. He became the voice, if not quite the physical embodiment, of the Private Eye. In the half-century following The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep viewers heading to the movies or just turning on their televisions heard wannabes taking a stab at embodying Bogie's world-weariness and guarded compassion, hopefully without sounding like Rich Little. The people who managed this feat -- Jack Webb and Robert Mitchum, for starters -- were truly exceptional. The rest, well . . .

That's the way the voice reads on the page, also. The words hit my eyes, my brain conjures Los Angeles circa 1941 as occupied by a very young Lauren Bacall, and I find myself reaching for a comic book instead.

Then there's the business -- the actual business -- of being a private investigator. Most real-life PIs devote their energies to uncovering fraudulence, often at the behest of insurance companies. If you know anybody who's fought for rightful claim to personal injury money, this line of work isn't the sort of "calling" most people hold in high regard.

Missing Persons is another, albeit lesser, line of work for these people -- it is a very rare PI who can run a business devoted to the matter.

Wiebe acknowledges this impediment and cuts past it with a particularly adroit move that got me onside very quickly. He places his protagonist Dave Wakeland within a security firm that permits him to take on the occasional lost cause so long as he commits to the larger business strategy. Midway through the novel a client sends him to Winnipeg to bodyguard/babysit the client's client. Wakeland complies, but turns the tables of the agreement so dramatically it becomes immediately clear why: a) his firm gives him such breadth of agency; b) he hates the job; c) he still sticks with the job.

In addition, unlike other practitioners of the genre, Wiebe brings in online search tools and other digital tech that are now the absolute mainstay of everyone on the planet. He's a rare writer in this regard -- another reason why I thoroughly enjoyed his book.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Invisible Dead by Sam Wiebe

Invisible Dead (Wakeland, #1)Invisible Dead by Sam Wiebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Some choice quotes from Sam Wiebe's PI narrator, Dave Wakeland:
"Whoever had called Vancouver a city of glass hadn’t been talking about my city"
"Far from being kind-hearted rustics, the islanders are real estate swindlers, corporate sleazes, tycoons, stock manipulators. And lawyers. Lots of lawyers. Bowen Island is a refuge for the undeserving"
"[The architect's] fondness for concrete and despair helped earn SFU the unflattering distinction of having the highest suicide rate among Canadian universities"
"And I know the idea of a person having a soul is laughable, obscene even, given this world of mass destruction, of epidemics, of fast food genocide. It is unprovable and it is silly and I hold on to it, clinging, with all my terrified strength."

The last is as metaphysical as Wakeland or Wiebe get, but it's enough to leaven what is an almost punishingly physical read.

Wakeland's pursuit of a woman -- a junkie and a prostitute -- who vanished a number of years ago is quixotic in the extreme: by now the number of women who have "disappeared" from the streets of Vancouver would be enough to populate a city all their own. The investigation nets him more than one beating, and leads him down unexpected paths that connect seemingly disparate social strata.

Wiebe seems heavily influenced by both Ross and John D. MacDonald, dragging their bruised and weary Galahads into a world where digital cameras and Google searches necessarily contribute to the intrigue. With this novel Wiebe's Vancouver is poised to join the MacDonalds' LA and Florida as a locale that mirrors the disparities and vagaries within the human heart.

This is accomplished contemporary pulp noir, in other words -- a terrific launch.



View all my reviews

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Was Opa a Nazi?"

Via Mary (who tells me a Cree connection sent it her way) -- another Menno prone to voicing squiffy ruminations wonders: "Was Opa a Nazi?"

Ms. Klassen concludes, "It’s more likely [Opa] had come to understand his own position in the world as neither German, Russian nor Canadian. In Russia, he had learned that he wasn’t a Russian; in Canada, he learned that he wasn’t Canadian. And sitting by his shortwave radio, he eventually decided that he wasn’t German either. And the only label left to him was that of Mennonite." A lonely spot to find oneself in, to be sure.
Fortunately, the sunsets are to die for.
I'm grateful to her for posting this -- the question has an unfortunate piquancy, given the past week's headlines and social media caterwauling.

Speaking of which, this video of Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the President is making the rounds.

I find his performance cogent and punchy -- and surprisingly moving, as well. It is perhaps worth remembering there was a time when the MSM and social media were not so gentle with Mr. Schwarzenegger. A right-wing upstart in the Land of the Left who almost certainly had designs on the White House, it was rumoured he had a script for a pro-Nazi film he was keen to see made. Then there was this ongoing business of sexual entitlement. And so on. Today, his is the voice of moral clarity.

I'm wondering who or what has changed, but perhaps that's a thread none of us is keen to follow.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Who is What? Miscellaneous thoughts re: Joseph Boyden, identity

We are having a controversy up here in Canada -- Joseph Boyden, one of our brightest literary lights, is in some hot water.

In his fiction and non-fiction Boyden has applied himself exclusively to a deep exploration and excavation of Indigenous Canadian identity. He has also claimed that identity for himself -- a claim that, no matter how you parse it, appears to have been made in haste without the rigor of consideration he applies to his work.

This past weekend the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada's self-proclaimed newspaper of note) published "The Making of Joseph Boyden" a lengthy investigative report by Eric Andrew-Gee. I thought the piece was impressively sourced and researched, yielding some unexpected insights into the affair. I also wondered what sort of piece might have been written had Andrew-Gee been given the time and space to meditate on why he was commissioned, and why he chose, to write this piece.

Newspapers run on deadlines, of course, and these days the deadlines are especially tight. If we disregard the fury and flurry of social media, this country still has established cross-platforms like Macleans, The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, etc., who without doubt have their own Boyden-related long-reads in the pipeline. "First to publish" means something in this environment, particularly when newspaper sales remain in a tailspin (our current elected leader doesn't conjure enough revulsion and horror to get us subscribing, it would seem).

Introspection was a luxury Andrew-Gee could ill-afford, in other words -- and I get that. So in that spirit here are a few non-mulled-over observations of my own on the matter.

First, the obvious: Boyden writes well. His characters are, in the main, explicable and empathetically rendered. He pays attention to the five senses and their effect on a person's thoughts, on the way a person is. His novels are immersive experiences that leave deep trails in the psyche -- people I've discussed his works with often tell me their dream-life is altered after reading him.

I do have some kvetches, mostly minor. Despite his years in Catholic school Boyden doesn't "get" Catholicism, and up until The Orenda I didn't see much effort applied to addressing that deficit. Consequently his portrait of the evil the Roman Catholic Church has inflicted on indigenous people occasionally slips into simplistic villainy -- a posture very much in tune with the current cultural temperament and certainly adequate for keeping the narrative engine chugging along, but less than satisfactory for readers holding out hope for the sort of insight that penetrates one's ideological bulwarks.

But his portrait of indigenous life prior to the colonial-religious assault is, for this pasty Protestant reader, a bit-torrent of continual discovery and awe.

As for this "pasty Protestant" business . . .

Mennonites have invested themselves in the quest for indigenous justice. It's not a "100% all-of-us, right across the board" deal, but it is significant enough to comment on (Google "mennonite indigenous" and you'll quickly get the gist). More pertinent to this conversation, it's an issue our literary aspirants take on board -- just about 100% all-of-us, in fact (including Yours Truly). If anybody has called-out Rudy Wiebe or David Bergen for appropriation of voice, I've yet to hear of it.

There is, of course, a difference of scale on these matters. So far as I know, neither Wiebe nor Bergen has claimed any indigenous connection deeper than acquaintance or possibly friendship. Boyden has claimed tribal affiliation, at times quite explicitly -- an understandably contentious issue.

So on that matter . . .

Tribes* don't produce novels, but they sure do produce novelists -- unintentionally, for the most part. If the novel is a métier you aspire to, be forewarned -- you cannot freaking win with your own people. There will be a bunch who will back you up -- the usual gentle agitators drawn, like you once were, to the losers and freaks among us -- and there will be a few who angrily call you out, but mostly you'll be shrugged out of town.

It's the shrugs that wound the deepest.They know the truth, these shruggers. You're not doing an honest day's work, for one thing. More to the point, you think you get us, but you really don't. You're of us, but you're not one of us. You're a pretender -- a fake, a fraud, and a phony.

The kicker is, this write-off is the truth, pretty much. In their zeal to capture the public imagination, fakery is a skill most young novelists are quick to adopt and hone as persuasively as they can. You're telling stories anyway, where exactly do you draw the line when called upon to make claims of earnest self-disclosure? If I think back to my lean and lonely SASE** days, had I been granted any sort of media spotlight at all there were precious few masks I would have had the inner fortitude to eschew. How else are you going to hit the jack-pot?

I am not suggesting Boyden's motivations are anywhere near as craven as, say, James Frey's.*** Boyden evidently identifies deeply with the fight to assert indigenous identity within an appropriated landscape. And if his claims of Anishinaabe identity are at best doubtful, the possibility he is from genuine Métis lineage is not at all out of the question.

But to my eyes this is the money-quote from Andrew-Gee's piece:
Lying at the heart of so much discomfort with the way Boyden has presented himself over the years, is a deep, basic gulf between the broad European and Indigenous notions of identity formation. The “Western” paradigm of self-actualization, of creating one’s identity through a process of lonely soulful questing, is to a certain extent incongruous with the North American Indigenous tradition of forging identity through community sanction and reciprocity.
For many Indigenous thinkers, the idea that someone would claim to feel Anishinaabe or Métis, and that others would put stock in that feeling, is nonsense.
Hm. More, please.
*"Tribes" -- a word I use in the Abrahamic sense, naturally.
** "Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope"
***Though Boyden's claims do strike me as somewhat akin to Michael Chabon's mischief.