Friday, May 29, 2009


More about The City & the City.

Miéville on the nature of the cities and the sense of dislocation that accompanies detective stories, for their holes — not flaws — in logic:

"Deep inside the town open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious, and delusive streets."
— from The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz.

(I read The Street of Crocodiles a couple years ago. It's rather surreal. And it's not surprising that it be referenced by Miéville.)

I have a special fondness for writers who use this word (and Miéville does) — machicolation — because it's a word I encountered and that stumped me in the spelling bee in grade 11, when I was asked at the last minute (well, with about 10 minutes to spare) to represent the school in a regional contest, and I don't think we even had rules regarding definitions and etymology, but I surmised the reader was mispronouncing "matriculation," which was the only word I knew that sounded remotely close to what I was hearing. Of course, I know exactly what it is now.

Miéville does some interesting tricks with vocabulary. Besźel and Ul Qoma each have their own language; words are also borrowed from English. At some point I half-expected this book to have a Clockwork Orange–like glossary of terms (which novel I read through without having realized there was a glossary, relying on my own sense of Polish to understand the Slavic-based argot), but the neologisms, however clever, were also very natural in context — no glossary required.

Some reviews and comments are up at Library Thing. I'm a bit concerned now that my own comments may spoil the discovery of the grand conceit for readers. Even though the condition of the cities, their relationship, is suggested in the descriptions and through word choice early on, it is only gradually revealed. But it is for the most part laid out within the "beginning" section of the book (although even at book's end, not entirely clear).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Separate and interminable suburbs

If all experience is more than the sum of its parts, is it in any way possible to reconstruct a semblance thereof by analyzing its constituents?

Of course there is.

Around this time, Pelletier and Espinoza, worried about the current state of their mutual lover, had two long conversations on the phone.

Pelletier made the first call, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes. The second was made three days later by Espinoza and lasted two hours and fifteen minutes. After they'd been talking for an hour and half, Pelletier told Espinoza to hang up, the call would be expensive and he'd call right back, but Espinoza firmly refused.

The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier's call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton's name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.

— from 2666, by Roberto Bolaño.

Although I treated myself to a copy of 2666 at around Christmas, I'm only just now getting over the the Bolaño glut I experienced at that time and getting past the intimidation this book carries with it, and getting on with it. To this point, about 100 pages in, I'm loving it, and finding it a much smoother (more cohesive and coherent) read than The Savage Detectives.

I have the 3-volume paperback version, slipcased, chosen with commuting in mind. It's beautifully designed! The image is a detail from Gustave Moreau's Jupiter and Semele, dark, brooding, and apocalyptic; the book title is a bold counterpoint (reminiscent of Wild West posters — Blackoak font?) in vulgar red.

From certain angles (well, most), the only visible writing is 666 (as pictured above).

I've been reading in the métro, and this book has garnered far more inquisitive glances from my fellow passengers than most, struck by its beauty or afeard of my satanic presence.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Elementary urban arithmetic

"Stick us to crowds," I told him. "And to crosshatching." More people, and where the two cities are close up they make for interference patterns, harder to read or predict. They are more than a city and a city; that is elementary urban arithmetic.

China Miéville is cool. His new book, The City & the City, also very cool. It's billed as an existential thriller. The thriller part I get; it's a police procedural with overtones of a political conspiracy. So far, so cool (even if not cool or thrilling, or heart-pumpingly horrifying, on the same level as the Bas-Lag books).

The existential part I'm still grappling with (in a good way). The cities, you see, Besźel and Ul Qoma, share the same physical space, grosstopically speaking. They're kind of quantum-state city-states.

The best I can wrap my head around it, it's like when you don't have cable TV and the reception is just plain shitty, and you get two pictures coming in on near the same frequency, and you can actually watch one or the other of the programs if you focus your attention just right.

There are physical, spatial difficulties associated with this set-up, for the cities' citizens, as well as for my own understanding of the concept. There are borders, checkpoints. And there is an independent authority, Breach, to keep breach of the rules to a minimum.

To complicate matters, throw in a mythical third city, the grail of the murder victim, and investigated online by Inspector Borlú in the forums at (which URL redirects users to the publisher's site).

"Orciny's the third city. It's between the the other two. It's in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Besźel thinks are Ul Qoma's and Ul Qoma Besźel's. When the old commune split, it didn't split into two, it split into three. Orciny's the secret city. It runs things."

If split there was. That beginning was a shadow in history, an unknown — records effaced and vanished for a century either side. Anything could have happened. From that historically brief quite opaque moment came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants that delighted and horrified investigators. All we know is nomads on the steppes, then these black-box centuries of urban instigation — certain events, and there have been films and stories and games based on speculation (all making the sensor at least a little twitchy) about that dual birth — then history comes back and there are Besźel and Ul Qoma. Was it schism or conjoining?

As if that were not mystery enough and as if two crosshatched countries were insufficient, bards invented that third, the pretend-existing Orciny. On top floors, in ignorable Roman-style townhouses, in the first wattle-and-daub dwellings, taking up the intricately conjoined and disjointed spaces allotted it in the split or coagulation of the tribes, the tiny third city Orciny ensconced, secreted between the two brasher city-states. A community of imaginary overlords, exiles perhaps, in most stories machinating and making thins so, ruling with a subtle and absolute grip. Orciny was where the Illuminati lived. That sort of thing.

So. This idea of the double (or triple) city, this crosshatched interweaving — really cool.

It's implied that Besźel and Ul Qoma are divided along religious lines, Jewish and Muslim, though on rereading certain passages, I can't be certain that the example of the DöplirCaffé with its side-by-side kosher and halal counters wasn't thrown out as an example merely analogous of the kind of coexistence there once was or might be hoped for or is occasionally illicitly achieved.

Regardless, it's clear that the two cities have very distinct cultures and political differences: separate languages, modes of dress, trade agreements. They are peopled by nationalists and unificationists, though mostly just by regular people.

Inspector Borlú once attended a conference on policing split cities. Budapest, Jerusalem, Berlin. To include Besźel and Ul Qoma in this class was an insult. The boundary between them is not a physical one described by our known spatial dimensions. This is not a matter of East and West. Besźel buildings occupy the same physical space as Ul Qoma buildings, each with their own architectural features. The separation is a state of mind, a citizen living in their own culture and simply refusing to see the other.

I've been thinking a lot about this as I walk the streets of my own city. While there are sections of Montreal that are distinctly French and distinctly English, I live and work in an in-between, and I live in that mixed city in a different way than do my francophone colleagues. We are so bound by our habits, if not our prejudices, to see the streets as having different cultural textures and colours. I've never noticed this café or that shop because they are not part of my English world; they are mere dark doorways I pass quickly by and pay no attention to. On other stretches of street, these dark patches may loom ominously. How you see your space is a trick of your mind as much as it is a function of your visual cortex.

Despite having cleverly used the laws of the two cities to his own advantage in terms of jurisdiction and played the natural tendencies and prejudices of their citizens, the murderer is found out eventually. Inspector Borlú achieves a unique status upon closing the case, a kind of promotion to working for a rather different authority. And I'd love to read about his further travails in topolganger policing.

The wild boys of Tozeur

For some reason, likely sparked by a passage in 2666, I find myself, as I'm treading the familiar path from the métro to my office, thinking about Touficq and Brahim, and trying to recall how to spell his name, maybe it's Toufiq without the "c" — I still have his name written in his own hand on a scrap of paper in my photo album — I never did write to him, though I thought about it — although admittedly I haven't thought about it for years now. But today I find myself wondering who were they really.

Toufiq cut hair, he cut my sister's hair; I don't know if Brahim did anything other than hang out at the hair "salon" and zip around on his moped. Everyone knew them, but they were their own gang of two, although maybe it only seems this way, maybe it was because of us, that they dissociated for our benefit, to devote themselves to caring for the foreigners. It's Toufiq who found us at the bus station while waiting for his sister to arrive. She wasn't on our bus. There was another bus later that day that Toufiq went to meet, but she wasn't on that one either. I heard about her return a day or two later; I'm not sure if she's one of the sisters I met.

I don't remember anything about Brahim except for his Fremen-like eyes. But it's Toufiq who tried to kiss me in the inky night of the oasis. I was terrified. I'd never known after dark could be so dark. We could hear the murmur of the crowd at the restaurant, Le Petit Prince, metres away, but the electric lighting was soaked up by the night and did not reach us.

I don't know why I'm thinking about it now. I've skimmed back through the pages of 2666, and I can't see what the memory trigger might be. Something to do with the mysterious Swabian and the lady, or Archimboldi's planned trip to North Africa.

I'm the age now that Toufiq's mother was then. Still a remarkable beauty, Ethiopian, head high and scarved, but considered old. Mother to a brood of 8 or 9, she would not travel to distant lands, she rarely left home. But thank Bourguiba, the sister was getting a university education; she would be a doctor.

They rode us out on mopeds late that last afternoon, those wild boys, Toufiq and Brahim, to watch the sun set over the Tunisian desert. That's when my sister and I were separated; somehow we couldn't catch up with each other. Toufiq and I looked out over the desert before the setting of the sun — we saw a caravan sailing along — and he took me home for supper. So I didn't see a full and proper desert sunset. Later we drove into the oasis, and he switched to English to declare his love.

My sister and I didn't find each other till midnight, just in time, at the station; we boarded the bus to return north, to the sea.

For some reason today I wonder who they really were. They belonged there, but didn't. Their minds were bigger than that town. They had hearts of adventurers. They were plotting an escape. Maybe it was just pretend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Byatt, podcast

Eleanor Wachtel's interview with A.S. Byatt, recorded at the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, was broadcast yesterday on CBC's Writers and Company and is now available online (podcast page; MP3 file).

I haven't listened myself, but I trust it faithfully represents all I was witness to and includes the endlessly fascinating asides I neglected to write about.

My report of the interview.
My review of The Children's Book.
My early impressions.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What order actually looks like

When they were alone, Ironside said, "I never thought this would be easy."

"Sir, may I ask you a question?"

"I wish you would." He ran his hand along the schedule for today. The film of Trotsky next.

"What if that" — Pishkoff swept his scarred right hand to indicate everything outside the room — "what if that is what order actually looks like?"


"We're here to bring order. I know. But what if this mess is the natural state and what we're doing is ridiculous?"

"You can't believe that."

"I think people get tired of fighting, and for ten years, twenty years, they agree: let's stop. You have some silk, I have a cow, your daughter marries my nephew, we'll drink, it's good, happily ever after, the end. But it's not the end. It's always chaos and shouting and homicide in the end."

Ironside shook his head. "I don't think that's right."

"Why are we fighting now?" Pishkoff presented a well of intelligence behind eyes cobwebbed with despair.

"Honestly? For our lives," Ironside whispered. He missed Pishkoff.

Unexpectedly, Pishkoff snorted.

"There we are," Ironside said. "I was worried you'd lost your sense of humor."

"You know what the peasants believe? They think the devil gave man a sense of humor."

"Why would he do that?"

"So we laugh at our problems instead of solving them."

There's a hell of a lot going on in this book. It may be saying something profound about war, and America's involvement therein. As much about today's wars as yesterday's.

A very entertaining book, Sunnyside, a kind of comedy, but a tragedy too, but only if you think about it really hard. The novel starts on a day in 1916: Charlie Chaplin is sighted in 800 locations. Pretty absurd, really. But what do I know? Maybe it happened.

There's no way to sort out (for one as myself, ignorant of this time period) what bits of which characters and what events they face are based in fact. Doesn't matter.

We trudge through World War I, as seen from Hollywood, but also through France and Archangel (Archangel! My own family has connections to Archangel, during a later wartime.). I don't care much for war stories, or dogs, but there's a lot of both in this book and it turns out that they're very interesting.

This — this book — is what order looks like. Not that I'm any kind of expert. But the way the jokes are set up and the fact that they pay off are evidence of a fine bit of construction.

This is the dawn of celebrity culture. Some people don't see it happening at all, but those who do struggle with how to bend it to their advantage or for the American good, if they can be bothered to care. What you can get away with, and for how much money.

One of my favourite characters is Bill McAdoo, former Secretary of the Treasury, Chaplin's hero, the man who signs the dollar bills, who holds an almost perverse fascination with the Hollywood industry, at first it seems as a factory of potential propaganda, but overwhelmingly as the great experiment to help achieve and prove his grail of economic and social function: the pleasure equation.

It's about squirrels and pigeons.

It's about image versus reality, whether it be of war, of celebrities, or of how it all gets processed in our individual heads.

When they'd lived in Beaumont, there had been that day when Chaplin was seen everywhere. What if that happened all the time? What if people's images were suddenly all over the place, thousands at a time, and this had been going on for years? Maybe there were times a person was projected when there was no projector, and people we met on the street were just these strange modern ibburim invested with living souls, and that's why the movies were so compelling; it was part of our collective memory. Maybe that was why acting was so attractive: you got the chance to be everywhere at once, and you could pretend to be many different people, the way nature intended. No one would have known about these ibburim until now, because now certain people were famous. If, for instance, she, Rebecca, was everywhere, and there were thousands of Rebeccas in cities and villages and in the ocean an on mountaintops, who would know? No one except her, and only if she ran into herself.

See also my first impressions, with a little clarification.

Friday, May 15, 2009

L'horreur de la richesse

Yesterday I forsook the company 5 à 7 for a book launch.

The book is about a frog, and the launch was at my daughter's school. Robert Soulières unveiled Le prince des marais:

Un prince et une princesse vivent dans la richesse et l'opulence, ce qui rend le prince très malheureux. Il a horreur de la richesse, des banquets et des nombreux serviteurs qui l'entourent. Il ne désire qu'une chose : un baiser de sa princesse. Un jour, ne supportant plus ce chagrin, celle-ci cède à la prière du prince et redevient crapaud. La princesse, seule et triste comme jamais, est soudain frappée par une idée. Elle téléphone à sa vieille marraine, son amie, sa confidente. Elle seule peut comprendre et apaiser son tourment...

Helena's quite pleased to have her own copy and personally inscribed. She tells me she particularly likes this book for how the pictures lend themselves to her being able to tell her own stories, which speaks more to the value of the illustrations than the narrative, but... whatever.

The school annually has a semaine littéraire, celebrating books of all shapes and sizes. Helena led me by the hand and proudly showed off her own handiwork: four books (or was it even more?) of her own devising, design, and binding. The class together had produced a yoga instruction manual, which they distributed to all the school's students.

Book production: so simple, a 6-year-old can master it!

(Last year's open house.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lovely Rosie

Last weekend, as my Facebook friends already know, I went out for groceries. But I came home with a kitten.

I dragged the family out of the house on a drizzly afternoon on a vain quest for specialty cheeses. Yet, the first shop we stepped into was a pet store.

On the walk home, we start throwing names at her, to see what would stick. Helena tried Rose (and, with a chuckle, the names of other of the Doctor's companions: Martha, Donna, Sarah Jane). Luna feels right for about 20 minutes. J-F and I don't offer many counter-suggestions (we like "Luna," and it seems right that the naming should fall to the girl). Within the hour, however, "Rosie" seems to be settled. (Never mind the doll and the 2 or 3 stuffed animals who already bear that name.)

She is now known variously, by Helena, as Rosie Benigni and Rosie the Pony. I call her Rosie Gattaca, for her genetically superior cuteness. J-F calls her Stapler, for the way you can casually swipe her up off the table and pass her to whoever asks for her. Today Helena called her Lollipop.

It's hard to gauge her size from this photo, but that bundle of cuteness can just about squeeze herself into my size 8 sneaker. She has a shoe fetish to rival my own.

She is the family cat. (Calvino, on the other hand, was my cat, long before I considered family.) And yet — naming aside, with whatever rights of ownership that go along with it — she feels like mine. I picked her, out of the dozen behind glass. She sleeps on my pillow. She jumps over my stacks of books, and stretches out across whatever novel I may have open in front of me. (Maybe I want her to be mine more than I care to admit; maybe I need her to be mine.)

She is adorable.

She chases her tail and plays with her shadow. She somersaults. She carries her toy mouse in her mouth, gingerly and proudly. We have yet to determine if she is the sort of cat who prefers toilet paper rolls over crumpled-up wads of paper (I think she is).

We are overdosing on cuteness. She is seriously, too, too cute. I mean, even her poo is cute. It's all just so disgustingly cute.

That first night, I feared that her purr was broken. But then suddenly it came, deep and constant. Rosie is here to stay.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Chicken soup

Today I was up at the crack of dawn making chicken soup from scratch.

The smell of it followed me all day. My fingers like boiled carrots. Like I'd bathed in broth this morning. I splashed this fragrance through every corridor I walked.

It smelled not like my mother or grandmother — like me, in a place. Not the home of my childhood. Not my grandmother's house (certainly not in her later years). I can't quite place it.

Good for the soul nonetheless.

Maybe the smell is the smell of my house. Maybe my daughter will someday try to place a smell in her childhood, to pin it to the day her mother made chicken soup from scratch.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

How it made her feel

"It's a secret."

Washington Irving's old Dutch-style house: Sunnyside.

She had spoken like a girl — it was impossible to keep Sunnyside secret; everyone knew they were going to Sunnyside, everyone knew Sunnyside was there. She wanted to keep secret how it made her feel.

— from Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

About intimacy, not spectacle

When it was back down to seven dogs, Chaplin took them everywhere he went on the lot. When the payroll girl came to approve the raise for Carlyle Robinson ("What raise?"). Chaplin interrupted her to tell each dog to sit.

They worshipped him, and he lectured them about how that would never do, this was America, there were no kings here, one had to find one's own way, this demonstration that he was their hero was entirely embarrassing, he wasn't a martinet, he wasn't D. W. Griffith, they weren't making Intolerance, after all, to be a part of his crew was to be about intimacy, not spectacle, and because all were so rapt, he fed them biscuits.


"This was a good day's work," Chaplin announced to his crew that afternoon. "Carry on," he said, and since it was four o'clock, his touring car arrived. The cry "He's leaving!" went up, and Kono, the chauffeur, opened the door for him, and the whole Chaplin Studios team — seamstresses, prop master, stagehands, carpenters, lighting crew, Rollie the cameraman, the payroll girl, the assistant director, the whole art department, the portrait painter, the several men whom Chaplin had rescued from disaster and whose jobs were now ill-defined except to be of good spirits all day long, and the entire company of actors, and Vincent Bryan and Maverick Terrell, men whom no one looked in the eye, men whose jobs were mysterious (they wrote ideas for factions on slips of paper and put them into a drawer in Chaplin's desk, where they were never seen again), and Edna — lined up on either side of the gate and waved goodbye to him, and waved back with excitement, and his car pulled out of the studio. The elderly woman in the floral-print dress who closed the gate behind him — once, she had sung in the dance halls with his father and mother — waved goodbye, sadly.

Only when the car was block down Sunset did he realize he had just spent two weeks playing with dogs. They had shot a few thousand feet of film, not really that much, but little of it relating to dogs. Instead, he had a faction of the Tramp trying to get a job at an employment office and being muscled out of the way by larger, rougher workers. He'd done it to a metronome. It was adequate.

— from Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold.

I loved Gold's first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and for years I've been checking to see if he might have something more in him.

Chaplin, of course, is at the heart of this story. He's a man I know very little about, apart from what I learned watching Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of him (and even that is kind of blurry).

He's portrayed here as a man with a vast ego but incredibly insecure about it, obsessed with his public image, plotting his every social move, to the point of preparing notes for parties.

We follow another young man, whose path crosses Chaplin's. He's worked in a lighthouse all his life, but his ego is devastatingly larger than that. He knows himself to be handsome, believes himself to be talented, and aspires to Hollywood.

This novel may be about the "dawn of the modern age," but it is also (at least, from where I sit, at about half way) very much about the making of America: The War Machine.

(I don't yet know what the title means. )

This book is funny. The set-ups are subtle and intricate, and there are sometimes pages to go before the punchline, but it's worth every word. An intimate — and genuinely clever — spectacle of a book.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"From unexpiated sins poems are born"

Last week, this poem arrived in my inbox:

Written Late at Night

Almost all day I sat at the table
And, swapping two pens, wrote letters.
One of them, as a joke, was in gothic script.
I tried to be honest, avoid untruth
As far as the truth about myself and events
In their general contour was accessible to me.
Then a few longer phone conversations
And a short break to read eight poems by Cavafy.
How great! Superb! Who can write like that about desire and love,
Admitting that when they burn out
And the bitter tasting of the body is taken away,
They guide the poet's hand. In them and only in them
All future incantations.

The poem is by Janusz Szuber (translated by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough), a collection of whose poetry makes its first appearance in English later this month. They Carry a Promise.

And like that, I think I'm in love. It speaks to me! Why? I don't know!

A few of Szuber's poems are available online.

Books in Canada
Three Poems:
— Crowing of Roosters ("Beneath bluish cloud the bluish pith of plums/With ash-grey coating and sticky slit — /There the sweet crusts of dirty amber.")
— A Short Treatise On Analogies
— Six Forty-Five A.M.

Between Ice and Water
Everything Here ("That wet summer abounding in frogs")

Words without Borders
Tiresias's Lesson
Tiresias's Farewell (which opening I've borrowed)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Goldstein report

Last weekend, J-F and I crowded into the hotel space where Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Jonathan Goldstein as part of the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. The event drew an audience almost as large as A.S. Byatt had earlier that day in the same room.

I don't have anything earth-shatteringly insightful to say about the evening. I started taking notes but stopped before the interview started. The evening, certainly insofar as that it was a date, was meant for entertainment, not analysis.

Entertaining it was, and a little bit more besides.

Ghomeshi spent a lot of time emptying his pockets before taking a seat on stage. Wallet. Lots of loose cards and half-folded paper scraps. Looks like a phone, or ipod, or... Keys? There must've been keys. Pack of gum. He can't decide whether to hang on to the gum.

Goldstein looked nervous. There's foot-tapping and head-shaking. Earlobe-pulling.

Ghomeshi's introduction was long, rambling, and self-indulgent, but somehow just right. He promised to ask Goldstein only questions that he would ask Tom Petty.

I felt pretty connected to the two people on stage. We're all about the same age, with the same pop-cultural references. I guess that's a pretty lame explanation of why these public personalities are likable, but they are relatively smart and articulate to boot, and the situation is so very pleasant and Canadian.

Ghomeshi asked Goldstein about his writing process — the difference between writing a finite column or for radio and writing something like the stories that make up this book, something more open-ended and indeterminate (at least at the outset). The first is work, but sounds relatively routine, fueled with a cup of coffee. The latter, the uncertainty of how to grow these kernels of ideas as well as the uncertainty of their reception, is more likely to require a cup of whiskey.

They talked about Bible stories, God, sense of mortality, childhood, parents (Goldstein's were present), memory, the essence of comedy, the value of comedy, where in the hierarchy of traits being the funny one fits amid being the smart one, the pretty one, etc.

In addition to having read a few excerpts throughout the evening, Goldstein treated us to a slide presentation: an illustrated reading of a story about being Lois Lane's girlfriend after she'd broken up with Superman. Very poignant.

Goldstein: There's you in the moment and there's you outside of that moment (watching yourself in the moment). The gulf between is where comedy lies.