Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

Legend has it that Noah drew his first breath in Manitoba, somewhere between Boissevain and Whitewater, near the railroad tracks, in a spot that, according to the road maps, is located at the exact geographic centre of Canada. The truth is that it was the exact centre of nothing at all: an immense forest of spruce stretched to the east, blackish peat bogs to the north. To the south, the Turtle Mountains, and to the west, a plain that appeared to end in China.

“The truth is that it was the exact centre of nothing at all” is true enough, on one level, but grossly misleading on another. If you make a big deal out of the fact that this guy was born in the center of a map, take pains to describe the geographical terrain, then shrug and say, “It's really no big deal,” you've more than doubled its significance. And so it goes throughout Nicolas Dickner's delightful first novel, Nikolski (A), which follows the migratory patterns of three characters and their social cohort. This is a book that makes pleasant mischief on reader expectations — not with po-mo smartypants “gotchas!” but with a sincere affection for characters, their response to time and place and their deepest yearnings.

Dickner employs a deceptively light tone to examine the ties that bind: family, passion, genetics, love, history, mystery, sex. “In my view,” says the nameless narrator, “fate is like intelligence, or beauty, or type z+ lymphocytes — some individuals have a greater supply than others. I, for one, suffer from a deficiency; I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own.” Again, his own story, which is so integral to the proceedings, gives lie to the sentiment he has just expressed. There is a near-truth to what he is saying, but the larger truth of his significance is embedded deeply within the book itself.

I think the "Nikolski Compass," which points to the titular town a few degrees removed from True North, suggests there is a pull to humanity that almost corresponds to explanation, scientific or otherwise, defying summary just enough to bring joy to our attempts at the same. With Nikolski, Dickner has cooked up a most scrumptious literary invitation for readers to delight in, which now properly belongs near the top of this list.

Post-script: a little scouting for responses to this book turns up the usual, "I liked/disliked it" trove. Patrick Ness's thoughts resonated with my own, here. On the other side of the spectrum, James Grainger pans it, here. Neither reader indulges in spoilers, but I think they're both best read after the fact.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Commentary Commentary: I Watch 'Em So You Don't Have To

“We had to fight to keep this scene” — this is the oft-repeated phrase in the DVD commentaries of both A Scanner Darkly and Crumb, which I sat up to watch last night. At the halfway mark of these movies I had to wonder just what the studio visions would have looked like. I can't imagine the force of will a director has to exert to keep movies like these intact, but directors Linklater and Zwigoff seem to have it in spades, and I'm grateful for it.

A Scanner Darkly: I don't consider myself a Dick-head — I've only read a handful of his many, many books, and A Scanner Darkly isn't one of them — so I was surprised by how little of note was revealed in the conversation. Dick's daughter Isa was the most welcome voice: she's gently frank about her father's social difficulties, but her enthusiasm for his work seems genuine. Linklater wryly notes “how much better the script got when Keanu [Reeves] came on board,” and later observes that everyone in the room is laughing harder as the story on the screen becomes more tragic. (This last point confirms a suspicion I've had that filmmakers can get so caught up in the joyous generation of the illusion that they lose touch with the emotional depth charges their images set off.) I was also startled to hear that the movie's most devastating scene was added by the filmmakers, and wasn't in the novel at all.

Is the commentary recommended? For A Scanner Darkly I'd have to say not particularly. Although eavesdropping isn't a complete waste of time, another viewing of the film without the chatter would have turned up many of the insights the commentary offers. Crumb, on the other hand, is fairly revelatory. Left on his own, Terry Zwigoff's commentary would have consisted chiefly of noting the film's (in his view) many imperfections. Thankfully, Roger Ebert brings his curiosity to bear in a dialog with Zwigoff, and pulls out volumes of back-story that would otherwise have remained obscure. So, for Crumb, yes: commentary recommended.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Short Clips: The Ghost

Actually, the film's marketers seemed to think North American audiences might revolt if they paid for a movie called The Ghost, only to discover a complete absence of paranormal hi jinx, so we get to see a movie re-named The Ghost Writer. Catchy, no? The original title was brilliant, because it worked on at least three different levels; the altered title only works on one, and not very well at that.

Marketing blunder aside, Roman Polanski's recent film is a finely-tuned thriller, so long as you're able to get your thrills watching an almost-charming, almost-innocent doofus sink deeper into a pit of snakes. That would be Ewan McGregor, who finds exactly the right note to play as the unnamed title character, wearing a slightly foggy “What's this really about?” look of perplexity as he persists in questioning his way into further peril. The snakes would be Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams, playing the roles of a recently retired couple from the British PMO who need someone to apply a little shine to the former Prime Minister's dodgy legacy.

I was perched on the edge of my seat, even though Polanski is scrupulously faithful to the book by Robert Harris. My wife, who hasn't read the book, said the ending didn't come as any surprise at all, but that that didn't matter because the energy of the narrative consisted entirely in watching this man admit himself into the claustrophobic existential Hell of modern politics. The climax might not be surprising (or plausible, really) but the larger conclusion remains deeply unsettling: we pretty much get the politicians we deserve. This film is terrifically depressing fun.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Musical Roundup

And he yells
And he roars
Loves the Stones
Hates the Doors
Thinks the Beatles sing for girls
He’s a moonshine guy in a six-pack world.

— Moonshine Guy/Releasing Celtic Prisoners, Halcyon Times

Although Jason & The Scorchers have been clean and sober for years, they retain a lot of fondness for the “moonshine guys” among us, as Halcyon Times makes very clear. The band is still making a rambunctious, snorting racket that doesn’t sound like any of the rock ‘n’ roll or country currently being played, but sneers like a punk at the current crop of manicured Nashville bozos and lets ‘em know just where they can park their “sexy tractors.” The boys are older, and burdened with a depth of perception that comes with age. They don't hesitate to let a little of that slip in from time to time, but make sure to wheel back to the celebratory platform. We're all older, but that's more reason than ever to make sure we rip into the day for all it's worth.

Will Halcyon Times win any new converts? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I love it because Jason and the boys put a lot of love into it, dressing up the entire album like a moonshine valentine to their fans, with just a few dregs of sober perspective. You can’t download it, and you shouldn’t download it: the package, fat with liner notes, rock ‘n’ roll pix and rumination, is meant to be enjoyed as a whole — you can get yours here. And if you’re lucky enough to have them perform in your town, grab your girl and go. You won’t regret it.

Correction: it looks like Americans can download it at Amazon, here. Again, not the recommended route, but the uninitiated and curious might try "Moonshine Guy," "Gettin' Nowhere Fast," "When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie To Me)" and "We've Got It Goin' On" for starters. Or go directly to my favorite JATS album, Thunder & Fire, which merits a post of its own (A, HMV).

Pavement had their moment in the spotlight, such as it was, pretty much when I temporarily lost all interest in rock music. But this recent bit by Chuck Klosterman piqued my interest, so I hit “download” and gave them a listen. What can I say, but, “Mikey likes it!” It’s infectious, with lashings of that unmistakable attitude that is a pre-requirement for memorable rock ‘n’ roll. For all the high-minded head-scratching that Klosterman does with Pavement frontman Steven Malkmus, the band still has an identifiable rock sound that nudges the id. If you’re new to these guys as well, this collection is almost certainly worth a spin.

It’s curious to read reactions to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I’ve only followed them from a distance, but I guess they’ve tested their listeners’ collective patience. I dunno: to me, no matter what musical direction they swung in, at the end of the day they always sounded like BRMC. On Beat The Devil's Tattoo (e) they still do, only more so. I like ‘em a lot, because they’re keenly aware of the guilt in the thrill, and vice versa. The music will get you on your feet, but when the dance (or workout) is over the echoes will haunt your brain cells. In this regard they have something in common with Jason & The Scorchers. Excelsior, dudes — and rock on!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Short Clips: A Scanner Darkly

I found A Scanner Darkly, the Richard Linklater/Philip K. Dick movie from 2006, in the 2-for-$5 DVD bin and took it home. Four years ago the film was covered by WIRED for its technological gim-crackery, but made nary a ripple among the critics. This weekend I gave it a spin, and loved it.

I thought it was trippy, paranoid, funny and deeply intuitively tragic -- the first film to be completely true to Dick, in other words. Not only was the movie worth my while, I also very much look forward to listening to the audio commentary* (A)

*with Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Jonathan Lethem and Dick's daughter Isa.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"Canada Reads" Has Got Me Reading

"Writing isn't a contest." So I was told by none other than Carol Shields, just before she encouraged me to enter a contest. This was a few years before The Stone Diaries (A) won her a heap of prizes, including the Pulitzer. My contact with her was brief, but the impression she left me with was of someone averse to contesting the value of one literary work over another. On the other hand, she never held back when it came to publicly encouraging, praising, lauding someone's work. "Contests" were a shifty platform for this, but weren't to be avoided because of it.

Still, paying attention to literary contests makes me a little batty. I often disagree with the announced winner and gnash my teeth to think of how the "losers" are faring the morning after. The really big prizes are especially political, presided as they are by people with really big egos. The Nobel windbag who recently dismissed all of American Literature is just one very public example of the sort of "conversation" that takes place behind closed doors. Feh. A pox on all contests.

When it first aired in 2002, CBC's "battle of the books" Canada Reads fell decidedly into the pox-worthy camp. The "vote it off the island" format dovetailed in an ungainly fashion with the Reality shows that had taken over television. And every one of the contested titles was already required reading in Canadian universities. Feh.

Canada Reads gradually changed -- the "advocates" and their book selections became more colorful. The wiki reveals some surprisingly off-beat choices and nearly unrecognizable names. And 2008 brought about the unprecedented feat of getting Paul Quarrington's King Leary back into print and onto the national best-seller list (wp). I started paying attention.

I listened to a few episodes of this year's contest. The process of opening the chamber doors was actually quite interesting. The advocates were mostly likable, doing what they could to acknowledge the strengths of their opponents. As for the works in question, I thought three of the titles were already too widely read to be of interest, two of them absurdly so. I hadn't yet read Marina Endicott's Good To A Fault (A), and had never even heard of Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (A). As the show progressed, I decided I was going to pick up a copy of the latter, regardless of who won.

I'm half-finished Nikolski, and show no signs of speeding up because I am savoring the experience. Dickner's story beguiles with a sense of restlessness, yearning and travel that is, I think, uniquely Canadian (if any non-Canuckle-head readers are game, I'd be curious to hear their reactions to the book). And while most of our writers sink into gloom when they explore the landscape, Dickner remains unapologetically jolly. I am, at the moment, completely smitten.

We'll see how it all pans out. If you're curious about Canada Reads, go here and stream or download the podcasts. The Canada Reads website (with insider blog) is here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Guitars I Dig: "This Machine KILLS Fascists"

"Funny thing 'bout these Minnesoty rain clouds. Evah cloud's a rain cloud!"

"Gonna rain hard on my guitar." I played a few notes without really noticing what I was doing. The air turned off cooler as we rolled along. A second later I looked up and saw two kids crawl from an open-top car just behind us: a tall skinny one about fifteen, and a little scrawny runt that couldn't be over ten or eleven. They had on Boy Scout looking clothes. The older one carried a pack on his back, and the little kid had a sweater with the sleeves tied together slung around his neck.

I'd seen a thousand kids just like them. They seem to come from homes somewhere that they've run away from. They seem to come to take the place of the old stiffs that slip on a wet board, miss a ladder, fall out a door, or just dry up and shrivel away riding the mean freights; the old souls that groan somewhere in the darkest corner of a boxcar, moan about a twisted life half lived and nine tenths wasted, cry as their souls hit the highball for heaven, die and pass out of this world like the echo of a foggy whistle.

"Kin ya really beat it out on dat jitter box dere, mister?"

"I make a rattlin' noise."

"Sing on toppa dat?"

"No. Not on top of it. I stand up and hold it with this leather strap around my shoulder, or else I set down and play it in my lap like this, see?"

"Make anyt'ing wid it?"

"I've come purty close ta starvin' a couple of times, boys, but never faded plumb out of th' picture yet so far."

I come down on some running notes and threw in a few sliding blues notes, and the kids stuck their ears almost down to the sound-hole, listening.

"Say, ya hit da boog on dere, don'tcha?"

"Better boog all yez wants, sarg," the older kid said. "I dunno how dat box'll sound fulla wadder, but we gon'ta be swimmin' on toppa dis train here in about a minnit."

"Will it wreck dat music box?"

The first three or four splats of rain hit me in the face . . . I said to the kids, "This water won't exactly do this guitar any good."

"Take dis ole sweater," the smallest kid yelled at me. "'S all I got! Wrap it aroun' yer music! Help a little!" I blinked the water out of my eyes and waited a jiffy for him to pull the sweater from around his neck. His face looked like a quick little picture, blackish tobacco brown colors, that somebody was wiping from a window glass with a dirty rag.

"Yeah," I told him, "much oblige! Keep out a few drops, won't it?" — Woody Guthrie,
Bound For Glory (A)

Guthrie evidently owned hundreds of guitars over the course of his, uh, career. As this scene illustrates, he was only marginally kinder to his "meal ticket" than he was to his own body. The ones that didn't fall apart were typically passed along to aspiring musicians. I'm not sure how many of his guitars survived to become museum pieces, but here is one such, minus the famous moniker.

Once again, Martin's luthiers rolled up their sleeves for a commemorative model. I'd be curious to strum one, just to hear the tone. My guess is Martin made a huge improvement on the cheap-o models that Guthrie favored. I'm also guessing the price tag is out of my range.

So it goes. There aren't nearly as many boys riding the rails, either — which, if you read the above scene in its entirety (and you should), is a very, very good thing. There are readers who think Guthrie romanticized the "hobo's" life, but they aren't reading closely. He occasionally idled toward the deceptively sweet in his portraiture, but consistently corrected himself and focused relentlessly on the terrible toll deprivation took on people.

Now here we are some seventy years later, collectively wondering what's next? In this the age of Fear Media there are more than a few ranting fascists I wish were silenced. But I don't have to go slumming with the mongers to realize I'm as prone as anyone to constructing a "fascist architecture of my own design."* A modest wish: the guitars might be behind glass, but here's hoping Guthrie's "machine" lives on to KILL the inner fascist, beginning with my own.

*Bruce Cockburn's phrase.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

One Day In Dallas

I really like the controversial Erykah Badu video for "Window Seat." You can see it here -- NSFW, I suppose, although her feminine particulars are generously pixel-blurred. I understand there are people in Dallas who aren't nearly so charmed, but I think it's a fab bit of performance art set to a very lovely song. These last few days I've been trying to give Gorillaz their due, but I have to say: Ms. Badu, musically and conceptually, has it all over the cartoon rappers.