Thursday, April 30, 2015

The ridiculous squalor that was everyday life

His real talent, what people went crazy for, was his knack for writing song lyrics. There was a song about a mechanic who builds a snowbmobile that can go faster than the speed of light. There was one about a grandpapa who had gas. There was song abut a tiger that escapes from le Zoo de Granby to go eat poutine. He had a song about a man who finds a magical cigarette that doesn't end, and he never has to come back from his cigarette break. He made the ridiculous squalor that was everyday life sublime. There was no subject that was beneath Etienne Tremblay.
— from The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill.

I've only just started reading this novel, and this is the first description of the famous Quebec folksinger character. I'm kind of wishing he were real (he's not, though "He’s in a tradition of Robert Charlebois and Paul Piché and those wonderful guys.") so I could really listen to him instead of making up songs based on the ideas of these songs in my head.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

End of story

In New York City last month, I treated myself to some shoes. We hadn't set foot in a single bookstore (gasp!), so it's the least I could come away with. But it's only this past week that the Montreal streets were finally entirely snow-free and I could wear them out. So I've been wearing them. They're my new editing shoes.

The brand is Poetic Licence, and this particular model of shoe is called "End of Story." Complete strangers have complimented me on my shoes. They're my best foot forward, my final word, my stamp of approval. My end of story.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The future of knowledge

I'm only on page 51 of Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, and I think it's extraordinary.
5.7 His most famous riff, perhaps, was about knowledge. Not knowledge of anything in particular; just knowledge in and of itself. Who was the last person, he would ask, to enjoy a full command of the intellectual activity of their day? The last individual, I mean? It was, he'd answer, Leibniz. He was on top of it all: physics and chemistry, geology, philosophy, maths, engineering, medicine, theology, aesthetics. Politics too. I mean, the guy was on it. Like some universal joint in the giant Rubik's Cube of culture, he could bring it all together, make the arts and sciences dance to the same tune. He died three hundred years ago. Since Leibniz's time (Peyman would go on), the discipline have separated out again. They're now on totally different pages: each in its own stall, shut off from all the others. Our own era, perhaps more than any other, seems to call out for a single intellect, a universal joint to bring them all together once again — seems to demand, in other words, a Leibniz. Yet there will be no Leibniz 2.0. What there will be is an endless set of migrations: the process. No one individual will conduct this operation; it will be performed collectively, with input from practitioners of a range of crafts, possessors of a range of expertise. Migration, mutation and what I (Peyman affirmed) call "supercession": the ability of each and every practice to surpass itself, break its own boundaries, even to the point of sacrificing its own terms and tenets in the breaching; and, in the no-man's-land between its territory and the next, the blank stretches of the map, those interstitial zones where light, bending and kinking round impossible topographies, produces mirages, fata morganas, apparitions, spectres, to combine in new, fantastic and explosive ways. That, he'd say is the future of knowledge.
I'm reading slowly, fully considering every paragraph, smiling over how these ideas dance. It's meditative, but in a cerebral way, not emotionally. It makes me feel smart.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The devastation of abandoment

The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, was an absolutely devastating book. It made me thoroughly miserable and I wallowed in it.

I recommend it for its honesty and its anguish. There is nothing beautiful about it, but it describes in unflinching detail the workings of the mind of an abandoned woman. I know because I am one.

The absurdity of his uttering, "Don't think it's easy for me"!

For thirty-eight-year-old Olga, her fifteen-year marriage dissolved one April afternoon, right after lunch. She spends the summer disintegrating, withering under the imagined gaze of others — the sense that everybody knows, and they judge you for it. She's turned the magnifying glass on herself, searing into her soul, as if to etch the pain there, to feel it more deeply, to make it mean something more than it is.

[On Christmas evening, our eighteenth together, I told him, "I love you," and was greeted with silence. I've spent these three months reading about all manner of marriage gone wrong. In this way I think I've stopped myself from being completely consumed by rage and from committing countless desperate and petty acts of spite.]

Olga has two small children to care for, and a dog. And she totally loses it.

It is an exhausting, unpleasant read.

I was an unpleasant person for days while reading it, full of rage and frustration and confusion and despair. Yet I needed to read it. It was wholly cathartic. I think I'm done now, reading this kind of book, at least for a little while.

Jean Hanff Korelitz in the New York Times:
"Olga's close self-scrutiny and utter lack of resulting self-awareness is particularly striking."

James Woods in The New Yorker:
"It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual."

I have more Ferrante on deck, but I need to pause first. Readers will be discussing Ferrante's work over brunch at the 17th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Photography has no language

I was chatting with some colleagues about god knows what, when one fellow said, it's like those people who shop around for a doctor to amputate a perfectly good body part — people do that, you know; it's a condition. And I said, someone should write a novel about that, that would make for some great doctor and patient characters; maybe I should write that novel. And I proceeded to look it up and find that it's called "body integrity identity disorder." Several months later I would discover that David Cronenberg had in fact written that novel; it's called Consumed.

I should've recognized the Cronenbergian appeal of this theme straight away, and he does touch on the issue in Crash and in the short film The Nest, both of which I'd seen. While Consumed is not consumed by this theme, it does flesh it out.

Just how many senses of the word does the title capture?

transitive verb
1 : to do away with completely : destroy
2 a : to spend wastefully : squander ; b : use up
3 a : to eat or drink especially in great quantity ; b : to enjoy avidly : devour
4 : to engage fully : engross
5 : to utilize as a customer

intransitive verb
1 : to waste or burn away : perish
2 : to utilize economic goods

It starts off as an investigation into a murder. Photojournalist Naomi flies off to Paris to delve into the lives of the Arosteguys, famed philosopher couple. But Aristide appears to have fled the country, while Celestine's remains are scattered around their apartment. It appears that parts of her had been prepared, cooked, and eaten.

Naomi's partner Nathan meanwhile is in Eastern Europe photographing the work of a shady doctor who performs operations for the truly desperate. Nathan's dream is to be published in The New Yorker's Annals of Medicine section.

There's a lot of technogeekery in this novel, mostly cameras and lenses, but also hearing aids, 3D printers, and some run-of-the-mill gadgetry.

There's also a peculiarly warped penis. And the sense that everybody is sleeping with everybody else, although they don't; but I guess, you know, the French and the medically perverse, they cast that aura.

Nathan contracts a rare STD and heads to Toronto to talk to the elusive has-been of a doctor after whom the disease was named. Naomi meanwhile follows Aristide's trail to Japan.
"I only smoke Japanese now. I want to become Japanese. I'll never speak French again. Never. They say that Tolstoy learned classical Greek very quickly once he put his mind to it. I'm learning Japanese very quickly. Until then, I speak English or German. For philosophy, at least, you have to speak German. Perhaps I will make Japanese essential for contemporary Western philosophy. If I live long enough."

Naomi was groping. "Photography has no language. Is that why you're so interested in it?"
Cronenberg's expression of journalism puzzles me. Here are these photojournalists following these really complex stories — stories that, in my view, demand more (much more) than pictures to tell them — but for them, the words are an afterthought, easily dashed off, filled in later. It's the picture that makes the story. I can't tell if Cronenberg is saying this is how it is, or how it ought to be. Of all the perversities in this novel, this is the one I can't get past, the one that feels wrong. I guess it's natural for a filmmaker to fetishize the view through the lens; but why then is he writing a novel?

Believe it or not, Naomi's and Nathan's stories do intersect, quite satisfactorily. These characters' narratives are wholly intertwined, even though they barely share any screen time.

Oh, and there's also a North Korean conspiracy, that's involved even in the politicking at Cannes.

I hope Cronenberg writes another book.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Revisiting Ravenscrag

The other week I attended the launch of Alain Farah's Ravenscrag at Drawn & Quarterly (although the term "launch" seems to be used rather loosely by the store, as the book has been available since January).

The conversation with author Alain Farah (left) and his translator, Lazer Lederhendler (right), was moderated by Catherine Leclerc. Interestingly, it's Lederhendler who held the floor for most of the evening, probably because 1. his command of English is superior to that of the other parties, and 2. as translator, he's had to read and interpret the text particularly closely. He could've carried the evening on his own with his insight into the problems of translation.

Lededhendler notes that the novel may seem crazy — or better, "madcap" — but it's not insane. It holds to an internal logic.

The novel in French is titled Pourquoi Bologne, which I would think makes the thing as a whole something other than Montreal-centric, whereas the English takes for its title the name of a city landmark, grounding it very firmly. I can't help but think the title, and the impression it creates, affects the reception of the novel. Is it a different novel in English than it is in French? In fact, Farah occasionally refers to the translation as "Lazer's novel."

What I hadn't considered is how much the schizoid experience of the book is meant to reflect a francophone's experience in English Montreal — I can't tell if I didn't recognize this because I'm still so much an outsider to this city that I can't see some of its essential paradoxes, or that I'm so much of here already that the issues appear commonplace and don't strike me the way they would if I were reading about some foreign place.

The underground geography of the McTavish reservoir, its pipes and tubes, Farah says was inspired by Terry Gilliam.

This novel is not a linear narrative because that's not Farah's experience of the world.

[I had several issues with the event: it started late (about 30 minutes or so, though I'd stopped checking the time); the way chairs were set up severely restricted movement, particularly access to the author (for a subsequent event I attended, someone had the sense to stack chairs to clear floorspace once the formal portion of the event was through); in fact, the author appeared to be at a cocktail party rather than a book-signing (I had every intention of buying a copy of the book for a friend, but I didn't, because it was difficult to interrupt his small talk and more awkward to ask that he bestow the favour of his signature (at the subsequent event, the author sat at a table and there was a clear lineup for signings). Keeping it casual can be cool, but I'd bet it's detrimental to book sales.]

Things I would've liked to ask the author (but didn't, because the question period was cut short because it was weirdly silent and I'd already asked a question, and because I failed to schmooze my way into conversation with him):
  • What exactly is retro scifi? Is it a thing your marketing department came up with, just because you mention Philip K. Dick?
  • What is the relationship between insanity and time travel? You seem to be deeply influenced by Philip K. Dick; to what extent is the relationship between insanity and time travel in your novel inspired by or modeled after Dick's depictions?
  • Although he has a cult following, Dick has never really been accepted by the literary establishment (to the extent even that none of the reviews of your novel I've read appear to recognize his influence): Does that hold true among French readers? (To what extent is genre an English problem?) How do you feel about the genre-ification of literature, that Dick should be ghetto-ized? How would you feel if your book were shelved in SF?

Monday, April 06, 2015


Mad Men has returned, and it got literary again.

While only one novel was clearly in view, and shown to be actively read — The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos — there's another literary reference straining through Peggy Lee's rendition of "Is That All There Is?" which opens and closes last night's episode. The song's lyrics were inspired by Thomas Mann's short story "Disillusionment."
I zealously fed my magnificent expectations of life with the matter of a thousand books and the works of all the poets. Ah, how I have learned to hate them, those poets who chalked up their large words on all the walls of life — because they had no power to write them on the sky with pencils dipped in Vesuvius! I came to think of every large word as a lie or a mockery.

Ecstatic poets have said that speech is poor: "Ah, how poor are words," so they sing. But no, sir. Speech, it seems to me, is rich, is extravagantly rich compared with the poverty and limitations of life. Pain has its limits: physical pain in unconsciousness and mental in torpor; it is not different with joy. Our human need for communication has found itself a way to create sounds which lie beyond these limits.

Is the fault mine? Is it down my spine alone that certain words can run so as to awaken in me intuitions of sensations which do not exist?
You can read it in its entirety, or listen to it here.

It's not hard to imagine that the story was written with Don Draper in mind. Ennui in extremis.

Sunday, April 05, 2015


David Cronenberg's short film The Nest documents a medical consultation with a woman who wants her left breast removed because she believes it to be full of insects.

I love how it's set in a garage.

I was lucky enough to see The Nest during the Christmas holidays of 2013 at a TIFF exhibition exploring Cronenberg's work.

Cronenberg's novel, Consumed, explores the same subject matter further. It's just one of several weird and typically Cronenbegian narrative threads in the book, but having watched this film gave the novel another dimension — it's become a kind of multimedia experience.