Friday, September 27, 2013

The Steve Machine by Mike Hoolboom

I was a bit wary of this book, because I am a somewhat boring person who is a big fan of linear narratives, and I tend to get overwhelmed by experimental fiction that wraps around itself. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about. Anyway, I thought by the synopsis that The Steve Machine would be the kind of thing I didn't like, the kind of novel you need a Masters in English Literature to begin to understand. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and compelling and even quite charming it was.

The story starts when Auden, our narrator, is diagnosed with HIV. He decides to pack up his life in Sudbury and move to Toronto, where he meets a few fairly strange people (as you do), including Steve. Steve is a video artist whose work is so innovative it teaches people things, like how to communicate with each other on a molecular level, and what's going to happen a few minutes into the future. Steve has Auden write things down as part of "the machine", which is the book. Yes, the book you're reading. So it's kind of trippy, but it is fun and weird and moving enough to be read on just one level, if that's all you're looking for.

After reading a few different books in which the AIDS epidemic among gay men featured prominently (most notably The Toronto You Are Leaving), it was fascinating to encounter this one which is set in the present day (ie the late 2000s) and still details a lot of the problems around stigma and prevention that were present when the virus first started to spread in the 1980s. The description of the clinic waiting room, the strange feelings, the mood whiplash, was extremely well done and terrifying. I liked the way the author dealt with Auden's job and how he tiptoed around the diagnosis with his boss, and yet they were both comfortable with explicit sexual stories and Auden booking sex workers for him.

The extra complicating factor of this novel is that Steve Reinke is an actual, real person. The afterword addresses some of the lines between fiction and life, and it seems that Reinke was a pretty good sport about being used as a character in the book. It's a funny thing to do, and I have to wonder what the author's intent was - why not just create a fictional character? Anyway it didn't make a lot of difference to my enjoyment of the novel but I'm sure if you know Steve this is something you want to check out.

Overall, I liked it. It was short and sweet, and definitely a quick read. There's a lot to think about but it's not too cerebral. One complaint: not enough Toronto. Otherwise, I would recommend it.

Four CN Towers out of five:

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Girl Like Sugar by Emily Pohl-Weary

Ok, I have now read enough books by Toronto authors that I can tell which ones influence each other. When I got to the end of this book I was not at all surprised to see Zoe Whittall's name in the acknowledgements. A Girl Like Sugar is like if Holding Still and Code White had a baby - a weird, hip, ironically detached early-twenties girl baby with relationship baggage and issues with her parents.

I would say read Whittall and you'll get a sense of the tone of Sugar, but I can't say I found this book as well-written or as compelling as Whittall's. The story is from the point of view of Sugar Jones, a young woman whose famous rock star boyfriend has just died. She suddenly discovers that without him she is completely directionless, and has to suddenly make something of her life, and so the novel follows her attempts to get a job, put time into relationships with her friends and family, and discover something that she likes to do besides mope around in her basement apartment and watch Parker Posey movies.

If you've been a woman in your early twenties, you might have an easier time with the book than most. Personally although I am not that far removed from that figuring-out-what-to-do time in my life, I was born about 50 years old, so I got a little tired of Sugar dragging her feet and being such a fucking baby. I mean sure, grieve, but it's not like she was doing anything before the boyfriend died either. And one glaring roadblock for me in relating to Sugar was that she never had any problems with money. This is explained by the money that Marco (the rock star boyfriend) was making and putting away for her, which makes sense, but her lack of struggle in that department takes away a bit of the urgency of her situation and makes her less relatable and, dare I say, less likable than she could be. It's hard to feel for someone who is living in a shit hole apartment by choice.

The writing is very hip and tries a little too hard, but overall it is certainly readable and definitely very funny at times. The characters surrounding Sugar really make it worth the read - her mother, her best friend, her new love interest and her two roommates are all much more interesting than her. The story takes place in the early 2000s which makes it in some ways a bit dated, but in others, endearingly frozen in time - a perfect time, when there was the internet but nobody had cell phones, and both pop and grunge music were amazing, and working at a CD store was still a viable job option.

I also wanted to delve a little bit harder into the politics that Sugar is starting to discover but - somewhat maddeningly - never seems to reflect upon. Her love interest, Thomas, is arrested at an anti-poverty protest, she accidentally starts a union at her job at the CD store, her roommate is a professional dominatrix - these are things that have the potential to make very interesting stories, but Sugar sort of just floats through them. Which in some ways I guess is the point - she's so numb that she can't even see the crazy shit happening around her - but it drove me nuts because I wanted more time in that world and less in Sugar's head.

The book is very Toronto but only really Toronto in that time - I got the sense that it would speak much more to people of Sugar's generation who grew up here than to latecomers like me. It is definitely more about the scene than the landmarks.

I guess I'm being a bit harsh but really I did enjoy the book, I just wasn't super captivated by it. But if you like Zoe Whittall or you're into that Degrassi/Buffy vibe (and are the right age to get both references), give it a try.

Three CN Towers out of five.