Friday, August 29, 2014

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Lately I've been at my wit's end with novels wherein the protagonist/narrator is a writer. I think it's such a boring, unimaginative choice; I know they say write what you know, but surely you can take a small leap outside of your own person for a moment? Well this book is at the extreme end of that scale; it's catalogued as fiction, but not only is the protagonist a writer, she IS the writer. AND she spends all her time with her friends who are actual people, notably the painter Margaux Williamson. And I'm pretty sure some of the transcribed conversations are actual conversations.

Some have described the book as part memoir, but I would have to say this is a pretty weak memoir. When I was younger (around 17 or 18) I bought a cheap dictaphone and would record conversations at parties, or ask people specific weird questions and record their answers. I should have kept the tapes and used them to write a book, because it probably would have been more interesting - certainly less juvenile and narcissistic -  than this one.

I can't describe the plot to you because there isn't one. Ostensibly it is the story of Sheila trying to find out how a person should be, but if she finds an answer I must have missed it. She spends the book having pointless conversations with her friends about art; not writing a play she has been commissioned to write; moping about; and sleeping with the slimiest man I can imagine. Oh and jetting off to Miami and New York, which I guess she can afford on a part-time hairdresser's salary? On the plus side, there is a lot of Toronto, and a very specific Toronto culture is reflected here.

I'm sure this book would appeal to some people; perhaps members of the culture mentioned above. For me, it is much too twee, to artsy, too navel-gazing, too much forced stream-of-consciousness drivel. It is quintessentially hipster. It makes me want to run back to Where We Have to Go to remind myself that there are writers of this generation who are making substantial and meaningful work. I don't think a book has to be heavy to mean something (Kirshner is delightfully light, in fact), but it can't be made of fluff. Heti's writing is good but the book is air, it is completely fluffy and forgettable. All I got from it that was good was a sense that Heti has great potential to write something wonderful, if she can get her head out of her ass. Perhaps her plays are better.

Two CN Towers out of five

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seduction by Catherine Gildiner

The long-suffering people in my book club could tell you that there are a few things that I hate in fiction: time travel is the big one for me, but another one that comes up often is the use of real, historical people as characters in fiction. I feel it is unfair not only to the memory of the person in question (and certainly to any surviving relatives), but also more often than not it denotes lazy writing; a writer who could not invent a character of their own, or build a world populated with anyone other than the folks we've already heard of.

It was for this reason that I was wary going into this novel, which features a picture of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna on the cover, and hosts a preface by the author in which she describes her extensive study of Freud and Charles Darwin.

The premise of the book is that our hero, Kate Fitzgerald, is in prison for killing her husband (a crime to which she freely admits). She has been there for nine years when her psychiatrist, the thoroughly slimy and incompetent Dr. Gardonne, proposes a temporary absence for her to take on a paid job from him. Kate is an expert in Freud, and a man named Dr. Konzac has been making waves in the psychoanalytic community by announcing that he has some damaging information about Freud that he is soon to release. Gardonne wants Kate to find out what the information is.

Of course she is teamed up with an ex-con-cum-private-investigator named Jackie, and of course they are warned not to become romantically involved, and so of course there's buttloads of chemistry. For the first 100 pages it wasn't this that annoyed me so much as the info-dump style of conversation these two were having. Neither asked questions, they just said everything they knew about Freud in paragraphs-long monologues. It was necessary information for the reader to understand the plot, but regardless, it was distractingly shitty writing.

Things pick up around the middle of the book, and some murders happen, and Jackie and Kate have to turn their attention to solving the murders so as to prevent themselves from being assumed the guilty parties. This being a Freudian mystery, there is much introspection on mothers and fathers and the titular seduction theory. At first the author (and the protagonist) seems to be a big Freud fan, but throughout the course of the book Freudian theory takes a pretty solid beating.

Toronto has a pretty backseat presence in the novel, which is mostly set in various European cities, but there are a few scenes in Kate's lakefront condo.

The characters (outside of Kate) aren't super well drawn, but it is an exciting mystery in parts and I was willing to give this book a fair-to-middling grade, but then it turns out the murderer is [SORT OF SPOILER] an actual person who actually lived. Who then kills themself. WTF is this. Call me uptight, but I just don't feel like it's fair play as a writer to not only make a real historical person into a character in your book, but then to make them murder two people and commit suicide - WHEN THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE - is a really shitty thing to do. You may as well go take a piss on their grave, although this is maybe worse since the author is making money from it.

 On the off chance that there are folks not as offended by this as I am, I give this novel a reluctant two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Stunt by Claudia Dey

This is a weird one. I have a hard time with books that are just poetry disguised as novels, and this book at first seemed to fit into that category. Everything is weird and magical and strange, and the sentences are written as if the craziest shit is actually real stuff that happens. It is poetry, and it's quite beautiful, but it's not the sort of storytelling that most of us are used to.

That said, I liked it, because despite the weirdness, there is a linear story here - which is usually what I'm looking for, at least. It is the story of Eugenia, a young woman whose father, Sheb, leaves to "save the world" - leaving a note that mentions, by name, his wife Mink and daughter Immaculata, but not Eugenia. Eugenia takes this as a sign that Sheb is coming back for her, or expects her to follow him. Shortly after the family holds a mock funeral for Sheb, Mink takes off as well. The two girls age to 18 overnight (real? imagined? a metaphor?) and leave to, as the fairy tales would put it, seek their fortune.

Eugenia believes that the key to finding her father is finding her grandfather, a man named I. I. Finbar Me the Three, whom she has discovered in a book about his tightrope walking feats. Along the way she has some strange adventures, of course, and I guess it's a sort of coming of age story.

What I like about the book is that it does have the surrealist blur of childhood. I think we can look back sometimes and it does seem that we grew and aged from nine to eighteen overnight, or that other things happen that seem unrealistic when described like this, but make sense in that blurry recollection of a much younger mind. It's a bizarre, poetic approach to coming of age, but I like that it's a little different while still telling a follow-able story.

What I didn't like was that for a coming of age story, there really wasn't much to grab on to in terms of relatability. I don't know about you, but my experience growing up as a girl didn't hold many parallels to this story. I think the underlying theme of neglect/abandonment is poignant, certainly, but the rest is just too surreal to grab on to. The reason I wasn't so excited to get back to this book each day was the detachment I felt from the characters; they weren't human enough, they floated through the space of the book like dust bunnies and never really grabbed me. I also at times found it to be a bit TOO whimsical, even the darker parts. It's like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl's journal.

There is, surprisingly, a lot of Toronto in the book, including some weird local colour.

I think that, all in all the book wasn't really for me, but I would recommend it to folks who like poetry (or poetic writing) and are otherwise given to this type of story.

Three CN Towers out of five.